Someone you loved: how British pop could fade out in Europe

Brexit rule changes that make it tricky to tour the EU will hold back UK artists from a fast-growing market

Limiting UK artists from working and touring in the EU post-Brexit will destroy the development of British music, say European industry experts, amid thriving competition from German rap, Spanish pop and more.

British artists now face the need for visas, work permits and equipment carnets when working in the EU, with emerging acts most likely to feel the impact of this costly and time-consuming admin. Over the last month, the UK and the EU have blamed each other for the inability to strike a deal to help the creative industries.

It’s a squabble with major consequences. The sustainability of the European live music industry depends on the UK and EU coming to an agreement regarding freedom of movement for musicians, said Olivier Darbois, managing director of Corida, one of France’s largest independent music promotion companies.

Between 50% and 60% of Corida’s turnover comes from foreign artists, the majority from the UK, said Darbois: “For one French artist who tours in the UK, there are 20 artists from the UK who tour in France.” Those tours are now under threat. For French artists, meanwhile, the “administrative headache” of touring the UK could affect the economic feasibility of doing so, he said. “In some cases, it could even lead to waiving dates in the UK.”

If a solution isn’t found, there will be fewer opportunities for British artists to break the EU market and vice versa, while the growth of domestic European music in tandem with the global dominance of Latin pop – which has a natural audience in Spain and in countries that speak romance languages – could further erode British success. “It’s going to destroy most of the development of new music in England, which is very important,” said Emmanuel de Buretel, founder of French label Because Music, home to Christine and the Queens and Charlotte Gainsbourg. “US and UK music used to be pre-eminent in Europe. Right now, local hip-hop is taking its place.”

Guardian analysis of the annual top 50 biggest hits in Germany, France, Spain and Italy over the past five years showed that British artists had slipped across the board. No British acts featured among Spain’s most popular songs of 2020. In France last year, only two UK acts featured in the top 50: Dua Lipa, collaborating with Belgian singer Angèle, and Beabadoobee, sampled on a track by Canadian producer Powfu.

Covid-enforced restrictions on travel have already revealed the difficulty of building a UK artist’s profile in the absence of access to the EU. Signed to Because, London rapper Shygirl has 580,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and is considered a major new artist to watch, receiving praise from Rihanna. “She is a symbol of the future in England,” says de Buretel.

Best of British ... Shygirl.
Best of British ... Shygirl. Photograph: Eric Johnson

The Covid crisis meant Shygirl missed out on high demand to perform and promote her music in France, Germany and Italy, says de Buretel, a situation that will probably worsen. “When Brexit’s rules are enforced, she will not be able to travel in an economical way to each country,” de Buretel says. If restrictions on the amount of time an artist can work in the EU are enforced, “it’s going to slow down the coordination and optimisation of an artist in Europe”.

Nonetheless, de Buretel said the restrictions facing British musicians who wish to work in the EU would not prevent Because from investing in the country. The UK is, he said, “a source of repertoire that is really exciting, and there is a knowledge in writers, producers and artists that is very deep and should be harnessed to develop new generations”.

Germany, too, has recently become an important territory for breaking UK acts, with balladeers such as Lewis Capaldi and Tom Walker chiming with traditional sensibilities. Blackpool artist Tom Gregory has had little success in the UK but racked up Top 10 singles in Poland, Austria and Germany. The success of artists in Germany is often segregated between streaming, radio airplay and live, said Natascha Augustin, senior creative director at Warner Chappell Germany. Gregory’s prominence has come from radio: “If it’s harder for him to travel, how will that work if he constantly needs to give radio interviews?”

In 2019, the European music market grew 7.2% – a vast increase on the 0.2% growth of 2018. Streaming has taken over in countries where CD and vinyl sales had remained unusually strong. In 2019, it grew 27% in Germany to account for 55.1% of all revenues, placing the country narrowly behind the UK as the world’s fourth largest recorded music market.

Matthieu Tessier, managing director of Warner Chappell France, said European labels had always signed local artists, but that confidence from this recent flush of success has increased the value of the deals.

The flourishing is largely down to the vibrancy of local rap scenes, as young listeners stream music often made by second-generation kids: French rap taking influence from Moroccan and Algerian music, German from Turkey, eastern Europe and the Middle East. (The same is true in the UK, where African and Caribbean music informs rap and pop production.)

For years, young German rappers were ignored by major labels, said Augustin. She likened the musicians’ ethos to punk: “They started to run their own businesses, start their own labels, get very engaged on social media and develop this crazy fanbase.”

By the time big labels caught up, the rappers rejected traditional deals in favour of distribution agreements where they retained rights and creative control. Nonetheless, their success transformed the German music industry. “Now there’s a lot of money flowing because the major industry is buying into streaming,” said Augustin.

Aya Nakamura.
Aya Nakamura, the most streamed French singer in the world. Photograph: PR

European music, and particularly rap and Afrobeats, is travelling further than ever. Aya Nakamura is the most streamed French singer in the world, with 20m monthly Spotify streams and 1m global album sales – 50% of those outside mainland France. She has recently collaborated with US rapper Lil Pump, Swiss rapper of Kosovo-Albanian descent Loredana, Italian rapper Capo Plaza and Colombian singer Maluma.

“We weren’t expecting so much interest from outside French-speaking territories,” said Tessier. “A few years ago when we wanted to have international exposure, the advice was to sing in English, so it’s very new that we see international potential for French-speaking artists.”

Their music often spreads organically, he said. Stormzy made a guest appearance on Nakamura’s song Plus Jamais, from her recent, third album, Aya, after the British rapper told BBC Radio 1 that he was a fan. “We hadn’t sent Aya’s music to Stormzy. He discovered it by himself,” Tessier said.

Until 2019, a German act had never topped Germany’s annual list of the most streamed artists. Now, German-Ukrainian rapper Capital Bra has claimed that spot for two consecutive years. The personality-led star has 4m monthly Spotify listeners – and his pizza brand, Gangstarella, has sold 3m units.

Although there is so far no proof of considerable pop success in exporting German-language music, said Augustin, who signed Capital Bra, British and German rappers are testing the waters with collaborations. Luciano has collaborated with British stars Stormzy, AJ Tracey and Headie One and will soon release a track with Dutchavelli; his countryman Jamule is working with UK road rap MC Morrisson. (Shirin David, who has 5.4m followers on her Instagram, will soon work with US rapper Saweetie.) Were it not for the pandemic, four rappers on Augustin’s roster were due to play shows together in the UK early this year.

It’s all mutually beneficial. “International artists want to get into the success of the German streaming world,” she said.

Tessier said it would be hard for a UK act to break the French singles chart without collaborating with a French artist, and that limiting freedom of movement would restrict these increasingly crucial, fanbase-boosting partnerships. “The songs are made by physical collaborations.”

Albert Salinas, owner of Barcelona record label Lapsus and presenter of a weekly electronic music show on national Spanish station Radio 3, said the globalisation of music was evident in his shows’ playlisting. “Our first show seven years ago was 80 to 90% British music. The shows now go in a completely different direction, with music from the US, South and Central America and Africa.”

The Brexit situation would also have serious ramifications for the live sector. Robert Meijerink is head of programming at the influential Dutch new music festival Eurosonic – where Dua Lipa played her second ever gig, her first outside the UK. “If a venue can only book 300 gigs a year and it’s not affordable for a promoter to book a British artist, they might be more interested in booking an artist from the continent,” he said.

Dua Lipa performing in December 2020.
Dua Lipa performing in December 2020. Photograph: 2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images for Billboard

Playing Europe is key to an act’s economic growth and ambition, said Steven Thomassen of leading Belgian independent promoter Toutpartout. “There’s a big festival circuit so a lot of those smaller acts hope they will get on the festivals later on. The fees are better than in the UK, and the hospitality – the venue, the sound systems or the PA systems.”

With greater Covid support for freelance musicians and smaller arts organisations in the EU than in the UK, British musicians face another disadvantage, said Because’s de Buretel. “There is worldwide competition arriving that can swallow the industry in England tomorrow if they’re getting help.”

France expanded its standard provision for freelance arts workers. Germany earmarked €50bn (£44.4bn) to support freelance artists and cultural and creative small-to-medium businesses. The UK’s £1.57bn culture recovery fund is aimed at helping cultural institutions and practitioners who have suffered losses during the pandemic. But freelancers have found it hard to access – in September, a Musicians’ Union survey showed that 38% of musicians have fallen through the gaps of government support, leaving 34% of musicians considering whether to quit the music industry.

Some European music industry personnel had questioned why they should continue to support British bands post-Brexit, said Thomassen. “Their reaction was: why not build a European base and try to stick together?” he said. “But most of the musicians from the UK didn’t choose Brexit. And if the music is good, whether it comes from the UK or Bulgaria or wherever, they should have an opportunity to find an audience. Otherwise, you’re doing what the Brexiters are doing.”


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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