Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has spoken to NME following the city’s inaugural Beyond the Music conference about how he hopes it will “galvanise” the music industry as issues affecting the industry fall on “deaf ears” at Westminster.
Last month’s Beyond the Music explored multiple crises the music industry is currently facing, such as the future of grassroots venues and the continuing impact of Brexit on UK musicians struggling to tour Europe.
On the latter, Burnham said “it’s just wrong” that the careers of young musicians are still suffering as they continue to face difficulties touring Europe post-Brexit.
At the conference in October, Burnham discussed the “ridiculous” Brexit rules for artists travelling around Europe. Back in 2021, the UK music industry spoke out on how they had essentially been handed a “No Deal Brexit” when the government failed to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits for musicians and crew.
Despite trying to raise these issues with ministers, Burnham told NME it’s still falling on “deaf ears” as the government continues to ignore the chaos Brexit has caused as artists struggle to navigate “all kinds of hidden obstacles” to performing in Europe.
“It’s so frustrating, particularly given that Europe offered a better arrangement and in the rhetoric of Brexit, it got turned down,” he explained, referring to Boris Johnson’s rejection of a deal for artists proposed by Europe. “It’s just wrong. This is an industry that is massive in terms of Britain’s value to ‘UK-plc’, but also to its diplomatic and cultural value and the ways people then connect with Britain in a positive way.”
Burnham said he frequently hears about “cancelled tours” due to “red tape” and “visa issues” for young bands in the north west. “It’s having a huge impact and there’s growing frustration about it,” Burnham continued. “The whole business of touring in Europe is much more complicated than it used to be…it runs counter to the way music works, to the spontaneity of it.
“Some people can’t tour now because it’s just too complex. I’ve certainly heard a lot of that, of cancelled shows, missed shows because of hold ups [at borders]. People are struggling to take up opportunities in Europe,” he added, echoing findings in a recent report that showed almost 50 per cent of UK musicians are working less in Europe since Brexit.
The Mayor said the government are continuing to ignore the issues. “I think there’s deaf ears right now in this current political situation that we’re in,” Burnham told NME.
“I was really keen that at Beyond the Music, we made this unifying call from all sides of the industry. It was important to find something that everyone in the music industry agrees on, which is easier said than done. But this is one area where everyone feels that the industry’s value is being missed and the industry is not being taken with the seriousness it deserves.
“The UK’s music never really gets talked about as an export industry. No one ever talks about it in those terms, but they should: it is huge for Britain,” he added, echoing in the findings of the 2023 Here, There and Everywhere report, which showed the value of live music to the UK economy.
Burnham used the example of this summer’s Eurovision (which was held in Liverpool) to illustrate the double-standards of the government around Brexit touring rules. At Beyond the Music, Liverpool mayor Steve Rotherham claimed that despite there being huge problems with artist visas, “blind eyes were turned” to enable the passage of artists to take place without hold-up when “the eyes of the world” were on the UK.
“It exposed the hypocrisy of the times that we’re in,” Burnham continued. “This whole thing about wanting to shut ourselves away from the rest of Europe, but then saying, ‘Actually, no, we’ll have Eurovision and everything it brings.’ If we want these benefits, we’ve got to understand what enables them and what changes might be needed to make it more likely that we have more positive engagement with [Europe] in the future.”
To solve things, Burnham said “visa free access is obviously needed,” adding that Eurovision proved how quickly things could be changed overnight if the government mirrored what happened in Liverpool.
He continued: “There’s this kind of frustration sometimes with the complacency about music, like it will always be there, but the government must not take this industry for granted. This is more important to us going forward even than it was before because it’s about how people see Britain, how people feel about Britain. And obviously then everything beneath that in terms of what it does for the economy and what it does for young talent.
“I think we’ve got to work from this year’s conference and start to build up the case for what exactly change looks like and then present it to the next government after the election.”
Burnham said that he was not optimistic that anything will change under the Conservatives anytime soon. “If we’re honest, I just don’t think it’s going to get very far at this moment in time. But as we go through a General Election and into a new parliament, I think there’s a real chance to open conversations with Europe about this.”
He said he’s had “encouraging” conversations with Labour about how things can be improved for artists in Europe should the opposition be elected at the next General Election.
“I’ve been in meetings with trade ministers and we mentioned [music] in a way that it never features ordinarily in the government’s considerations. We always bring it to those discussions and we bring it to internal Labour discussions too. This is important for us: it’s an industry that needs to be spoken of as such as an export industry, one of our most important.”
He added: “I’ve also been really encouraged that the Labour front bench is talking about resetting the relationship with Europe and in a far less gung-ho way. Just starting to talk in a practical, positive way with them again.”
Burnham explained that, along with other North West mayors Tracy Brabin and Steve Rotherham, he’s hoping to make ‘Beyond the Music’ a “game changer” for the industry – ensuring that Brexit and its effect on the music industry remains high on the agenda. “
The mayors are going to carry on doing this and I think it is having some sort of a galvanising effect on the music industry,” he said, based on the post-conference conversations and plans that are already taking place.
“I think the mayors bring a bit of a new voice to the Labour movement in that we all see how intrinsic the music industry is to our cities [in terms of] an inward tourism perspective, inward tourism numbers, but more actually from the brand of the place and the way in which people think about the place.
“In the post-Brexit era where there are negative vibes going around the country, music is a brilliant way of counteracting some of those negative vibes and giving people positive reasons to look at Britain again. We must remember that.”
A second key part of ‘Beyond the Music’s’ agenda was to ensure grassroots venues are fully supported at a time when, according to the Music Venues Trust, 127 grassroots venues have closed over the last year despite the fact the music industry had “the best year in history for live music receipts” in 2023, earning a staggering £765million.
Back in January, a report from the MVT indicated that grassroots venues in the UK were “going over a cliff” – shutting off the pipeline of future talent without urgent government action and investment from new large arenas. The MVT subsequently wrote an open letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, and spoke to NME about how the situation was “as dire as it can be” with the UK set to lose 10 per cent of its grassroots gig spaces in 2023. It came as calls grew for the “major leagues” of the music industry and larger venues to do more to pay into the ecosystem and save them.
Burnham said the music industry must re-invest some of this back into its ecosystem, ensuring grassroots venues survive and grow, echoing Mark Davyd from MVT who last month told NME that grassroots venues need “action not kind words” as venues head for “disaster” without investment.
“I think the [music industry] does need challenging at times. Football, in a roundabout way, has got to a point where it reinvests and recycles funds to keep the whole healthy,” he explained, using the example of how the Premiership reinvests in grassroots football clubs. “I don’t think music has ever been as good at that. Grassroots venues are critical to big labels and big venues. Because if people haven’t got those spaces and they’re not set up in the right way, then we can’t take it for granted that British talent keeps on finding its way and coming through.”
He continued: “We say it with such goodwill towards the industry: it’s not about beating up on the industry. But it is about saying we do need to look at how times have changed, how the way money circulates has changed. It can’t be complacent about talent and venues. The industry needs to do more to look after its whole and its health at every level.
“I think it’s harder now than it used to be. Britain can’t just take this view of, ‘Oh, leave the music industry to its own devices, everyone will always find a way.’ I don’t think that’s true, particularly in big working-class cities too. I think the music industry might develop its own class ceiling if we’re not careful.”
One way in which that is happening in Manchester is via the city’s AO Arena who are currently planning to become the first UK arena to add a “grassroots levy” onto its ticket prices – a small fee that will be reinvested into grassroots venues. Burnham is “incredibly proud” it’s happening in Manchester and thinks the arrival of the new Co-op live area in the city – a new venue that will become the UK’s biggest arena when it opens next year – could be another example where a larger venue supports smaller ones in the city.
“The opening of Co-op Live is maybe the biggest statement of that intent yet because to have the cooperative movement associated with a big venue is a first.”
Burnham explained they’ll be “local or smaller stages dotted around” the new arena too, to showcase grassroots talent at a large venue something he argued “shows how you can think innovatively about how the big look after the small and reinvest in the talent that’s coming through.”
“He continued: “Co-op Live symbolises something of our ambition around Beyond the Music and the way we need to change the debate. The more that the music industry works as one and looks after itself by reinvesting in itself in its grassroots, I think the more powerful then its voice to government saying, ‘We’ve done this much, but we need more from you.’ I think that is always a stronger way in which industries can lobby for government support if they can point to the fact that we are doing a lot ourselves, but we also need extra help.”
Burnham said Manchester is also planning to do a similar thing with talent, using its well-established heritage acts to help support up-and-coming acts in the industry. He uses the example earlier this year when New Order went out to SXSW with Burnham and the founder of Beyond the Music, Oli Wilson (son of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson), to help showcase new northern bands like The Orielles and Loose Articles.
“I’ll forever be grateful to New Order for coming out with us and being there with us, using their pulling power to get people to watch newer acts – using that kind of traction to really kind of move things forward for those who are coming through now. That for me is kind of the model really – that’s what we’ve got to.”
He said Tony Wilson’s memory is also running through Beyond the Music and their aims. “The thing that Tony Wilson created it was just a sense of one thing leads to another. You create a kind of critical mass of positive energy that spills over into everything. We’re trying to sort of replicate that in new circumstances, but the music will always be at the heart of all of that.”
Burnham added that he hopes Manchester’s Beyond the Music, which is expected to run annually, will eventually become “a very significant lobbying platform” to the government, “given its proximity to the mayors and other key voices.”
“I think it’s an opportunity for the music industry to build a voice to the government around recognising and supporting the industry,” he continued. “It is needed now more than ever.”