[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK musicians performing overseas.
Last Friday was a significant day for two UK music artists. Adele released her third album “25” and after only three days on sale it had sold an amazing 2.3 million copies in the USA. It has now achieved the feat of being the album with the greatest number of sales in its first week of release in America. In the UK, the album is likely to sell at least 800,000 copies in its first week of release. On the same day, Benjamin Clementine was awarded the 2015 Mercury prize for album of the year for “At Least For Now”. That critical acclaim in the UK for Benjamin follows commercial success across Europe earlier this year.
As a nation, we are fortunate to have such talented musicians who are enjoyed across the world and contribute to a sector that according to UK Music is worth £4.1 billion to the economy and provides exports of £2.1 billion. A look at this week’s international singles and albums charts shows that Adele is No. 1 in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. Her album is No. 1 in Australia, Austria, Belgium—I could go on. She is a worldwide British musical phenomenon.
The other thing those two artists have in common is that neither would have achieved their success without the opportunity to perfect their musical skills in front of audiences overseas, where they can grow fan bases and support. Adele’s debut concert tour of 2008-09 to support her first album “19” focused heavily on north America, which has no doubt contributed to her appeal there. Benjamin Clementine spent a number of years busking and playing bars and hotels in Paris before becoming popular in the French music scene, where he has been described as
“la révélation anglaise des Francos.”
That is easy for me to say!
The specific contribution of musicians, including songwriters and composers, to the UK economy is £1.9 billion, and they are responsible for export revenues of £926 million. To maintain those impressive figures, it is vital that the Government work with international partners and other countries to overcome specific barriers that act as a restraint on a musician’s trade. In this debate, I want to focus on specific difficulties for UK musicians performing in America and, in particular, the challenges of securing visas to perform there.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) recently tabled early-day motion 609, which I expect many Members in Westminster Hall have signed. I understand that almost all parliamentary parties have signed up to it, which demonstrates the fact that we are discussing a genuine cross-party issue, which should reassure the Government in their response and their dealings with their American counterparts.
The American market is key. According to the latest figures, north America is second only to Europe as the biggest music market in the world, generating revenues of $5.24 billion. For decades, breaking America has been a key measure of success for UK artists and such achievements significantly benefit our economy. Aspiring UK musicians relish the opportunity to perform in America. Annual showcases such as South by Southwest and Warped Tour are significant events in the development of a musician’s career.
The difficulties about four years ago that UK bands had in attempting to get visas to perform at South by Southwest led to a campaign, spearheaded by John Robb of punk band the Membranes and by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), to address problems with the system. The process whereby UK musicians apply for a US work visa is long, complex and prohibitively expensive. While musicians understand the reasons for requiring visas, particularly at a time such as this when we are experiencing heightened security issues, the administration of American visas can nevertheless act as a significant barrier to a musician’s trade. The application process requires face-to-face meetings in either Belfast or London, which may require expensive overnight stays for bands or musicians who live outside those cities. It is worth pointing out that more than half of musicians earn less than £20,000 a year.
While the campaign in 2011-12 did result in some successes, notably the US embassy in London engaging and designating an official to act as a liaison for the UK music industry when problems arise, in the past year the Musicians Union has received an increasing number of complaints from its members who, through no fault of their own, have had to cancel shows and rebook flights due to difficulties and delays at the US embassy in London. Bands have had to cancel 5,000-capacity shows in the US and I have been provided with case studies by UK Music, the Musicians Union and others I know that further illuminate the continuing problems in acquiring visas.
While I appreciate that we are referring specifically to the US, the problem is much wider than that. I am sure, Mr Howarth, that you are familiar with the metalcore genre, in which case you may be aware of the Australian band I Killed the Prom Queen. In the last week they had to endure three days in a Malaysian jail because of visa issues—I imagine that was their toughest gig. Also, as a result of changes to the US visa system, a guitarist who has spent more than 25 years performing in America, typically for two-month tours, now needs a new visa for each working period. Previously he was able to use a visa valid for two or three years each time he performed in the US. Now, however, to avoid paying $2,250 each time a visa is required, artists have to know all the dates of the gigs they are performing two or three years in advance. That is simply unrealistic and ignores the way in which musicians work.
Secondly, there is the case of a long-established UK punk band who I am sure you are absolutely familiar with, Mr Howarth: the Membranes. John Robb, a member of the band, wrote to me today and said:
“The situation is now ridiculous. I just got back from a US tour with my band…it cost £5,000 in visa fees and having to pay visa agents large amounts of money to process our forms and arrange meetings for us…US bands pay £30 to come to the UK—and of course we were given the visas late which meant we have to cancel the first 2 dates of the tour and rebook our flights meaning we lost several non-recoverable air fares. American promoters and agents are fed up with the situation and the feeling in the UK and Europe is that bands are giving up on touring the USA.”
Similarly, Welsh folk band Calan had to cancel an appearance at a festival in Cumberland in America and lost a considerable amount of money on flights as a result. That was due to delays in band members receiving returned passports after their application for visas was approved. Their problems were intensified by poor communication from the embassy in explaining the delays. Finally, and particularly troubling, is the experience of a folk artist who was sent back to the UK after suffering an anxiety attack following an aggressive interrogation by a border guard at immigration control. She was told that that episode may hinder any future applications she makes for American visas.
What is striking about the problems associated with UK musicians performing in the US is that American musicians, as Mr Robb said, find it comparatively easier to perform in the UK. Typically, the costs for a four-piece UK band to go through an American visa application process would be £2,500, whereas research shows that when a promoter brings a US musician who holds a US passport to the UK, they can enter without a visa but with a work permit issued by the promoter at a cost of £21. A tier 5 temporary visa for a creative or sporting person costs just £225.
Adele is not a new phenomenon, and the likes of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin are just a few of the UK acts that have had considerable success in the US. It was the creativity of our nation that inspired the creativity of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and enabled Jimi Hendrix, the great American artist, to establish himself here.
I am pleased to report that the music industry, ably led by the Musicians Union and involving UK Music, is attempting to form a taskforce to address problems caused by the American visa system. That is a welcome development, particularly in the run-up to next year’s South by Southwest, which is under four months away.
I would like to draw the House’s attention to a number of areas where the Government may be able to take forward work to alleviate problems with the system. The discussions between the European Union and the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership present an opportunity to eliminate barriers to trade. As part of TTIP, I understand that the EU is looking at overcoming certain visa-related issues that create difficulties for citizens of some EU member states who want to enter the USA. Those discussions should be expanded to address some of the problems for musicians that I have outlined today. I look to the Government to take that work forward with their EU counterparts.
Before such a solution is achieved, certain other interim measures could be put in place through direct liaison between the UK Government and American authorities. First, our Government could impress upon the American embassy the need to engage again with the UK music industry to monitor problems associated with the US visa system for our musicians. The US ambassador himself has kindly allowed the annual Rock the House finals to be hosted in his London residency. That competition is very close to this place, and it is a project I am now proud to be patron of, having taken over from the former Member for Hove and Portslade.
Ambassador Barzun also addressed the Music Publishers Association’s annual general meeting this year, and his enthusiasm for music should be considered an advantage to our officials in their engagement with the embassy on this issue. Either the embassy or Government could establish a special helpline for periods of high intensity in musician visa applications, such as in the run-up to South by Southwest, which could then be promoted by our industry among the community as a way to address any specific concerns.
Secondly, certain sensible steps could be taken so that America does not have to compromise its visa system entirely. That should include an ability to add dates to a tour once a visa application has been made and granted to a musician, without having to start all over again.
Thirdly, the Government could work with local councils to offer our public buildings—county council offices, registry offices and so on—as a place to hold embassy interviews, so that bands do not need to travel to Belfast or London at great cost. While there could be a fee for that facility, it is unlikely to be as expensive as having to travel and stay over in London or Belfast.
Finally, the Government’s work with the Creative Industries Council should be co-ordinated to consider issues associated with visas. I understand that the Creative Industries Council has a trade sector advisory group, for example, which brings in the work of UK Trade & Investment and others. VisitBritain, as a vehicle for promoting UK tourism overseas, should also be engaged.
We are very good at exporting music, but that relies on maximising the performing opportunities for our musicians so that they are discovered in new markets. Music tourism alone generates £3.1 billion for the UK economy, according to figures from UK Music. I thank UK Music for all its research and hard work in this area.
This issue affects not only musicians but crew members, some of whom I have talked to recently. I know a UK sound engineer who makes his living working for bands right across the world, in particular in the US. He has missed out on so much work due to US visa difficulties. One band he works for has been forced to spend many thousands of dollars just to organise his visa. He also told me about his experience of having to renew his passport in August. He had four days back in the UK, supposedly for down time. He spent one day in Liverpool at the passport office and two days in London, getting a visa; that is not a lot of down time. That is a ridiculous situation for a regular worker in the music industry to find himself in. He also told me that the problem is much wider, with the current system holding back a lot of great, talented people in our country who work in our music industry and could be working abroad but are not.
A few years ago, BBC 4 broadcast a three-part documentary entitled “How the Brits Rocked America”. The series described the unique relationship between American music fans and UK music, and their appetite for it. There are a huge variety of circumstances in which musicians seek to perform in the States. It may be a solo musician performing a one-off concert, or groups of musicians performing at showcases and tours in venues right across the country. There is a clear need for a cultural exchange that benefits all on fair, reciprocal terms and allows for an efficient flow of work opportunities for artists from both the USA and the UK.
Before concluding my speech, I want to say a final word about an issue not specifically related to American visas yet relevant to the debate. Like any right-minded person, I was shocked by the appalling events at the Bataclan in Paris and the massacre at the Eagles of Death Metal concert. That was an attack on our way of life, perpetrated by twisted, evil scum and, specifically and appallingly, an attack on largely young, innocent people who like nothing more than going to gigs. Despite those incidents, everyone who loves music—including me, my children and hon. Members present today—must remember that live music events should not be deemed dangerous activities, and are in fact life-enhancing experiences. I hope that other hon. Members will join me in welcoming the efforts of our Government and Governments around the world to protect our musicians and audiences at home and abroad at this challenging time for international security.
Order. Before I call the first speaker, I am sure everybody would want to associate themselves with the hon. Gentleman’s final comments. I should personally thank him for adding to my admittedly patchy knowledge of contemporary music, particularly given that the highlight of my own performing career was in St Aidan’s social club in 1968, for which we were paid £5—and we were probably overpaid at that.
I hope to enlighten you further about other types of music, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on bringing this important subject to the Chamber, and I echo his revulsion at the recent events in Paris.
Last week, I found myself in China on an overseas trip—my first one as an MP, and my first time in China. I noticed a building that looked very familiar, with Chairman Mao’s features adorning the side of it. I had never been there before, but I then had a memory jolt: I had originally seen the building in a copy of Smash Hits from 1985, when Wham! toured there. At the time, the fact that they had gone over there to play was hailed as a big cultural thawing process. They were an interesting early ’80s band. They not only lyricised about sleepless nights on an HP bed but were astute chroniclers of Thatcher’s Britain, chanting “DHSS” throughout some of their tunes. They also broke through cultural barriers to play on the Great Wall of China.
While our delegation leaders, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and Lord Mandelson, kept saying on every visit we did, “This is an all-time high for relations between China and Britain,” and, “We’re entering a golden era,” I wonder whether George Osborne’s success in China had been prefigured by George Michael’s success there 30 years earlier. Whenever we have these two-country international cultural exchanges between, for example, the UK and America or China, barriers are broken down, but visa issues can complicate that form of what we might call knowledge transfer.
Regarding China in the post-Wham! era, things seem to be mixed. The British Council had a UK-China season of cultural exchange earlier this year, launched by Prince William. Three newish bands did residencies in different cities, and all that apparently went very well. However, according to Nathaniel Davis, a Brit abroad and music promoter with an agency called Split Works, which does alternative music in China, there is something called “the process”, which is about lyric checks and live video reviews—the background checks that have to be gone through for the setlist of every band.
Nathaniel told me about the time frames involved: “the process” can take 30 days, which is prohibitive to British musicians playing overseas. In fact, the Communist party’s Ministry of Culture has prevented concerts by Kraftwerk, Bon Jovi, Maroon 5 and Björk by denying them visas because of various statements they have made about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. However, those people are German, American and Icelandic, and we are talking about British musicians today.
Nathaniel says that the issue is less about censorship than the difficulties that promoters face when trying to book bands, in getting the visas and then promoting the concerts and selling the tickets in a reasonable time frame after they have gone through all that. He described a Kafkaesque situation involving the band who won the Mercury prize last year, Young Fathers, because they needed original documents and until then it had been scans. In the end, however, that was all resolved happily and they played the Echo Park festival in Shanghai.
However, Nathaniel says that the situation in China is “relatively benign” compared with what is required in the US. Promoters constantly have stories about myriad difficulties for bands wanting to enter America to play. America is not a one-party state or a people’s republic; it is meant to be the land of the free. Conversely, when American bands come to Britain, there are virtually no costs when they apply for visas, so the situation is blatantly unbalanced. We are two countries with a special relationship, a common language and in some sense, common customs and culture, but we have wildly divergent policies on this issue.
The main issue that the British Council has pointed out to me appears to be a lack of reciprocity. We do not subject American musicians to interviews, but let them get in under this light-touch permitted paid engagement route. Even across the border in Canada, in order to perform, an artist apparently simply shows their letter of invitation or contract and the border officials will green-light them into the country.
By contrast, getting UK musicians into the US is expensive and labour-intensive. A few years ago, the Hallé orchestra in Manchester—the UK’s longest established symphony orchestra—had to cancel a US tour because of the time and money needed to secure visas for its players, which would have blown its finances. That case illustrates many of the problems.
Processing an entire orchestra through the application and embassy interviews would have meant 100 work permits and weighed in at a cost of £45,000. They can be obtained only from the US embassy in London, as the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty pointed out. Manchester is getting on for 200 miles away from London. Each member of staff would have had to be interviewed and fingerprinted, and the orchestra’s spokesperson said that it “simply couldn’t bear” the visa fees plus 100 trips to London. They said that the decision was “very frustrating and sad” for all those concerned, but that £45,000 was a substantial proportion of what the costs would be.
As a London MP, I am usually not the first to complain about things being London-centric—I quite like that sometimes—but that case demonstrates how lopsided things are. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if people are nowhere near London and Belfast, they are stuffed. It is not only about the expense and inconvenience, but the time. It could potentially involve two days out of a normal schedule for northern and Scottish bands.
The guidance recommends that preparation should start six months before the start of the engagement. However, as people who know bands and who have played in bands will know—you will remember this from your playing days, Mr Howarth—six months is an eternity. Getting people to plan that far in advance is often impossible. Delays can lead to flights, shows—and for the Hallé, full tours being cancelled. Pretty much any time a professional musician or band wants to perform in the US, even if they are performing for free or being paid outside the US, they need a work visa. That seems unduly harsh.
Figures from the Musicians Union say that over half of all musicians are paid less than £20,000 a year, so it is a precarious industry. There are also additional costs and hidden fees, such as legal fees. Some musicians have been penalised by airlines for carrying instruments on board; they have been made to pay for extra seats. There are those kinds of things. I found one blog, which said:
“Technically, hiring an immigration attorney is not required,”
but that they can help with the visa process, because it is
“counterintuitive and filled with traps for the unwary”
and that “a small inconsistency” or even a typo can result in denial.
The very few exceptions are as rare as spotting a unicorn. I think there are certain cultural programmes, although there are lots of hoops to jump through. If people did perform for free, there are some exemptions—where people would be called “visitors for pleasure”—but otherwise, a full work visa is needed, and woe betide anyone who mixes up their categories. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if someone uses a regular tourist visa and gets caught, that is unauthorised employment and there are dire consequences, such as removal from the country and a subsequent ban on re-entering the US. That will count against any future application for a work visa or a green card.
The hon. Gentleman pointed out some ways forward. Even with no instant slashing of fees, there are steps that could massively simplify and expedite the whole process of obtaining visas for overseas visiting musicians, and for artists, writers and academics—as a former academic, I ought to say something for them. A clause could be negotiated in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Perhaps we could negotiate the removal of these obstacles, because they are restrictive barriers to trade at the end of the day. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of alternative locations to London and Belfast. Interviews could be carried out at town halls.
I have slightly different figures from those cited by the hon. Gentleman. The House of Commons briefing says that the British music industry contributes £4.1 billion to the UK economy, which I think is about twice as much as what he said—I think he said £1.9 billion or something like that—but UK performers need to be able to tour key markets such as China and the US. Whether it is Wham! or the Hallé orchestra, both nations benefit culturally from inter-country musical exchange. The countries benefit as well as the coffers of the Exchequer. George and Andy, like Elton a decade before them, helped to demystify China, paving the way for our delegation visit.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the American embassy now needs to engage directly with musicians via bodies such as the Musicians Union, the British Council and others to devise a workable system for UK musicians to perform in the US. The tourability of everyone, from bubblegum pop bands, to our finest orchestras, to Adele, whom he mentioned, will be seriously jeopardised if things remain as they are.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Howarth. For once, I have very little to declare in terms of interests, as I am entirely tone deaf, but I appreciate other people’s musical acumen, which is why I am here to speak today.
Economic analysis data demonstrate that the UK’s music industry makes a vast contribution to the UK economy. Figures published by UK Music indicate that between 2014 and 2015, although other sectors have been struggling in these times of austerity, the music industry has continued to grow by 5% year on year. Last year, the music industry contributed £4.1 billion to the UK economy, £2.1 billion of which came from musical exports. It provides a large number of jobs—approximately 117,000 full-time jobs—and generates additional revenue from the thousands of musical tourists who visit the UK each year to attend music gigs and festivals or to revel in our rich music history. That also has a knock-on effect for local businesses and communities, creating vibrant local cultures, generating wealth and encouraging economic growth.
Given the obvious value of our music industry, it is important for artists to be able to promote their music abroad, to build fan bases, boost exports and attract more musical tourists. However, it seems that, as described, performing overseas can be problematic and expensive, particularly for musicians in the early stages of their career.
I understand that at present a number of sources can provide assistance to musicians to help them to work abroad. It is mainly financial, but does not reach many artists. Through this scheme, funding is available to UK-registered independent music companies and can help artists to progress from being established UK musicians to being commercially successful international acts, but it does reach the vast number of acts and not everyone can receive funding.
It seems that when performing overseas, many of the issues encountered by musicians relate to cumbersome policies and procedures. I supported a recent early-day motion recognising the specific difficulties for UK musicians in obtaining work visas to perform in the US. In this regard, I note that guidance issued by the Musicians Union, highlights that, except in very specific circumstances, all performances in the US require a visa regardless of whether the artist is being paid. It is a two-step process, and to perform abroad, a petition must be filed by a company in the US before an application can be lodged in the UK. Thereafter, all UK visa applicants must attend an interview at the US embassy in London or Belfast. That can be a long process, and for anyone who does not live locally, it may be difficult to attend the interview.
The visa process is expensive and may cost thousands of pounds, with fees for processing being incurred in both the US and the UK. If an act has backing musicians or crew, more than one petition is required and each petition in the US is charged separately. Also, if the act is not represented by a US company, it will have to employ immigration professionals to act as the petitioner on its behalf. It seems that the cost for the services of such companies can range from approximately $800 to over $8,000. If the visa is required within three months, additional fees are incurred for an expedited service, with the US charging $1,000 to process an application within 10 to 15 days.
It has been highlighted that many artists find the application process complicated, confusing and unpredictable, which can lead to mistakes by the applicant and the officials processing the application with long delays and increased costs and losses. When applications are delayed, acts that are keen to ensure that they can meet planned dates may have to pay additional costs to try to have their applications expedited, or they may hold off booking travel arrangements until the last moment, which can impact on the cost of flights. That can sometimes result in whole tours being cancelled or postponed, so in addition to losing money on the US tour, artists may also lose money by having to forfeit booked travel and accommodation and by missing out on other bookings that they had refused on the assumption that they would not be available.
Those up-front and hidden costs make it very difficult for musicians who earn under £20,000 a year to meet visa requirements, particularly if they are travelling to perform at free shows aimed at raising their profile. In some circumstances, it may be possible to be exempted from visa requirements on discussion with the US embassy, but that occurs only in very specific showcasing situations, which stipulate that the artist should not yet be a full professional musician.
As a result of these issues, some desperate musicians may risk entering the US to perform without the correct documentation. Surely, the system should be workable, so that people are not placed in this situation and do not go to these extreme lengths. The early-day motion that I signed called for the US and the UK to devise a more workable system for UK musicians to perform in the US, and I reiterate that request to the Minister today. Given the music industry’s value to our economy, surely that would be advantageous for both sides of the Atlantic.
I commend the recent success of my local band, Single by Sunday, which won a competition at the weekend for its musical ability. I very much hope the Minister will make strides with such applications, so that Single by Sunday can soon be touring the US.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), chair of the all-party group on music, on securing the debate and on his opening remarks. He covered much of the ground in his speech very well and I associate myself with his remarks about the Bataclan attack in Paris. People getting together to enjoy one another’s company, whether at a football match or music gig, represents the best of humanity, and people killing others while they enjoy themselves for the sake of a twisted ideology represents the worst of humanity. We are here to celebrate the best of humanity in our wonderful musicians and to try to help them a little, with the assistance of the Minister, to pursue their profession, career, trade and art with a bit more freedom and more opportunities to travel and play abroad.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and I thank the other hon. Members who have contributed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) whose Wikipedia entry describes her occupation as writer, columnist, politician, senior lecturer and music DJ. She did not mention that in her contribution, but I am sure we all look forward to witnessing that talent during this Parliament. She pondered on what would be the contribution to Chinese history of the famous tour by Wham! of the People’s Republic of China. The answer may be the same as that given by Zhou Enlai when asked about the French revolution’s influence on history: it is too early to tell. No doubt we will eventually find out what contribution Wham! made to Chinese history.
Is it any wonder that from time to time we are condemned for western imperialism by those in the far east?
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on her contribution. She said she was tone deaf, but I thought she hit exactly the right note with her contribution. She has colleagues who are very musically talented, including the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who plays in the legendary parliamentary rock band, MP4, with me and colleagues from other parts of the House.
Moving on to our discussion today, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty and other hon. Members outlined the contribution that the music industry makes to our economy, particularly to our export revenue. When our balance of payments is in significant deficit the industry makes a positive contribution. There is always a danger of double-counting, but the figure for UK music of around £2 billion is credible, and nearly £1 billion of that comes from the work of musicians, composers, songwriters and lyricists in foreign currency revenue from overseas. A significant amount, estimated at £42 million, comes from foreign currency through live performances of UK music. Music is a significant part of our economic strength and our cultural strength, and the soft power of the industry’s contribution to promoting democracy, freedom and our cultural values across the world is highly significant and should not be underestimated.
There have been some welcome developments in recent years, including the music export growth scheme, which the Government introduced in the last Parliament to support musicians through grants enabling them to develop, to tour and to play overseas. That scheme is very welcome, but what is not welcome is the fact that musicians who are supported by it, or by Arts Council and other schemes, are sometimes denied the opportunity to tour overseas and subject to excessive costs if they do. Recently, there has been a particular focus on musicians touring in the USA, because of a number of cases that have been highlighted.
Let me say that I am extremely pro-USA and a big fan of American music. I have an American wife. I first went to America with my guitar—I was not stopped at customs—when I was 19 years old.
It was a lot longer ago than that—it was a long, long time ago.
The cultural exchange between the United Kingdom and the United States, particularly in relation to music, is one of the world’s great cultural jewels. The tremendous cross-fertilisation we have seen over many decades between music in the United Kingdom and America is a wonderful thing, and the Government should cherish, develop and support it.
I want, however, to highlight a couple of cases, in the hope that that will lead to better procedures in future, because there have been some worrying cases recently. One, which the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty referred to, was that of Kizzy Crawford, a young singer from Wales. Kizzy has in fact played at the House of Commons—in one of my other roles, I chair the all-party group on folk arts, and Kizzy played earlier this year at one of the little showcases we have from time to time in the Jubilee Room, just next door to this Chamber. She is a wonderful young talent, with a bright future in the music industry, and she has the potential to become quite a big star.
Kizzy visited the US earlier this year, having been invited to participate in a showcase in Kansas City. She travelled first to Canada to do some gigs there before moving on to the United States. All was going well, and she even cleared US customs, going through pre-clearance at Toronto. Unfortunately, her flight was cancelled, and she had to spend the night at her hotel with her manager and musicians. They returned for the flight the next day, but as they were going through US customs, Kizzy was pulled aside into what I believe is called secondary, where she was questioned.
We should bear in mind that this young girl was—I think I am right in saying—18 years old at the time. She was a young girl from Wales embarking on her musical career, and she was not well equipped to deal with being heavily questioned in such circumstances. She was pulled away from her support mechanism—her manager—on her first visit to America as a musician. It was quite a traumatic experience for her, and it is understandable—I say this as the father of a 21-year-old daughter—that she was frightened. She had a bit of a panic attack, as a result of which she was detained in a locked room for several hours.
Kizzy was eventually refused entry into the United States, where she was supposed to play a showcase in Kansas City, despite having funding from the Arts Council of Wales for the visit, and despite having the correct paperwork, visa and so on. She was also told that being refused entry at the border could have a major influence on her ability to visit the United States again as a musician and would automatically mean that she would have to obtain a visa for every visit to the United States.
At this point, I want to praise UK Music and its chief executive, Jo Dipple, for the work it does in this area. I also want to praise the Musicians Union—I declare an interest as a member—under its general secretary, John Smith, and its assistant general secretary, Horace Trubridge, for the tremendous work that it does in this area.
As a result of Kizzy’s case, there was a degree of lobbying, and I, among others, got in contact with the US embassy. In terms of what then happened, it is fair to say that the same might have happened in the UK. As MPs, we know that those who write to the Home Office about particular cases of refusal of entry do not always get a full and helpful response. In this case, however, there seemed to be a difference between the attitudes of the State Department and the Department for Homeland Security.
Through the embassy, the State Department had issued Kizzy with all the right documents, allowing her to go to the USA and play in this showcase, and there should not have been a problem. However, that process was separate from the process of the Department for Homeland Security, which, understandably, has to protect the USA’s borders and do its job. None the less, one wonders why Kizzy was pulled aside in the way she was and whether there was any racial profiling in this case. I do not know, but it seems that Kizzy was singled out for pretty harsh treatment for a young musician simply travelling to the USA. It is concerning that there seems to be this disparity between the attitudes of the State Department and the Department for Homeland Security.
I do not think that that was deliberate, but this is not an isolated incident. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned another case, involving the band Calan, who are also from Wales. They also encountered great difficulty when they sought to enter the United States. At first, there was a bureaucratic problem involving the computers at the US embassy, which, in fairness, affected everybody, although it was a bit of a nuisance. Subsequently, however, the band did everything they could to get the right clearance, paperwork and visas so that they could fulfil their engagements in the United States.
Initially, Calan did not tour as a whole band, because two of their members could not gain entry. Subsequently, the band ran into problems again, even though they thought they had the right paperwork. In an email to me, their manager said:
“our issue might not be with the embassy but rather homeland security. Calan travelled in what they thought was the correct way…But my main issue is the way they were treated and although there might not have been the right stamp in their passport they had paid for a visa and had a copy of the approval notice…Not letting them into the country was a little over zealous I feel.
They sat around for about 7 hours then had their laces removed along with belts and were put into a cell with other people with a toilet with no door. Then the next day they were escorted to a caged van and taken to the plane. The atmosphere in the holding room was extremely unpleasant with guards being incredibly rude and impatient.
I understand that they have to treat everyone in the same way but to treat them in the same way as criminals was uncalled for. If this was a one off incident then it might be unfortunate but other musicians have travelled to the USA for perfectly valid reasons and been turned away and treated badly.”
I hope that today’s debate will open up a dialogue between the Government and the US embassy. We have heard today of the support the US ambassador gives to music, and he is a tremendous music fan—I attended the Rock the House event at his residence earlier this year, and it was incredibly generous of him to give that facility over to allow young people the opportunity to play music. Unfortunately, the very positive example he is setting is being let down a little because of what happens when people get over to the other side of the Atlantic.
As well as opening up a positive dialogue, it would be helpful—there are moves to do this—to have more pre-clearance in the UK for people travelling to the United States. It is possible for people travelling to the United States to pre-clear immigration in Ireland, and there are plans for more of that to happen in the UK. I do not know whether the Minister knows anything about that, but does he think it would be a positive contribution to solving the problem?
UK Music has raised the issue of A1 national insurance forms for employees who go overseas for two years or less. Musicians have apparently been having difficulty in getting those forms from HMRC, and UK Music would like the Government to consider what could be done at HMRC to speed up the process. Also, musicians have problems when flying musical equipment to the United States, when the band needs an approved US company with a business premises, a federal tax ID and a previous shipment history, which restricts options to fly equipment as cargo within the USA; equipment can be moved only by cargo plane, and they operate between a minimum number of cities, and are less frequent and much more expensive. That is an additional problem.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that he will say something positive about the steps he is taking. As the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty said, the debate is a cross-party initiative. We are all here for the same reason, because we love British music and want the rest of the world to love it too. The only way that can happen is if our musicians can travel freely. I hope that today’s debate can contribute to that.
I declare an interest as a former professional musician. I graduated from what was the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. My studies there were the most fantastic start in life—an immersion in the world of music, studying the technical elements and history, and of course working on, living, sleeping and breathing that interest along with people who shared it.
I remember with pride the day I graduated. I strode down Buchanan Street in Glasgow wearing my gown and an old gentleman came up to me and said, “Now, you think you’re fair Airchie today, don’t you, doll?” I said, “Well, yeah, of course I do, because I’ve just graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.” He said, “Oh, and what did you play?” and I said very proudly that I played the piano concerto by Mozart, K.488; and he said, “Oh, you played the piano. Aye, but doll, can you play ‘Spanish Eyes’?” I had to fess up “No,” but I could play Mozart K.488.
Why do I tell that story? I suppose it is to illustrate how much when someone is truly immersed in music they eat, sleep and breathe it. It is a passion and a calling. I have always described myself as doing various things, and I am currently the MP for Edinburgh West, but music is part of my passion. I think I probably speak for many musicians who feel that way.
Something else that I did not know at the time I have been talking about, having studied the classical range of musical styles, was marketing myself in the world of music. That is still a common problem, although courses in all the conservatoires and fantastic UK institutions focus on marketing much more. They tell people how to understand what their product, brand and unique selling points are, to look at their cash-flow modelling and contingency, and so on. I have learned those things through the course of my life, but they do not come naturally—and why should they? It is not unreasonable for us to recognise that the unique skills that enable musicians to express themselves and drive them to give of themselves are special and different. We do not want musicians to take on so many business skills, including visa application processes, that they lose the essence of what gives so much joy.
I agree with all the comments made about how precarious a musician’s life is. It is not just about the net profit or, frequently, the losses; it is about how difficult it is to make a living in the world of music. Imagine someone getting to the point where they are doing the right things and they want to go to other climes, such as the United States, and do something marvellous, giving and also taking—because we all learn from each other. It is a struggle for young musicians even to get to that stage of looking abroad, to foreign climes. In Scotland we have many fantastic musicians. Those are not only classical musicians such as the National Youth Choir of Scotland, which plans to go on tour to Los Angeles next April, but also folk musicians. There is a strong bond between the United States and Scots who have gone there.
What I am asking today is that we step back from the specifics of process and cost and reflect on why music, creativity and the arts are so important: they take us out of ourselves and give us something special and different. In this uncertain world, with events such as the recent ones in Paris, we should surely look outwards more, which means reaching out to artists and creatives who have something to give.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing the debate. He has a long-standing interest, and valuable experience, in the area in question. I associate myself and the Scottish National party with his concluding remarks about the atrocities in Paris, and particularly what happened at the Bataclan. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who signed my early-day motion on the subject of US visas for performing musicians, and I welcome the speeches by Members with experience of such areas, which demonstrated the cross-party concern and consensus on the issue.
I tabled my EDM after learning more about the challenges that musicians in Scotland and the UK face in securing visas for the United States, at an event at the University of Glasgow, in my constituency, during the October recess. The event was organised by UK Music and designed to encourage students, and others starting out in the music industry, in their careers as artists or in backstage and support roles.
The location was very appropriate, because the University of Glasgow plays an important role in nurturing talent, and in teaching skills for music careers; but also because the west end of Glasgow—the part that I represent—and the city as a whole are home to one of the most vibrant music scenes in the UK and probably the world. Glasgow is recognised as one of nine UNESCO cities of music. My constituency is home to a number of well-known and successful musicians and, indeed, venues such as the Oran Mor and Cottiers theatre, which are renowned for the gigs and performances that they have hosted over the years. I declare something of a personal interest as well, because I have a number of good friends who have made their career in Scotland’s thriving folk scene. I may reflect on some of their experience.
We have heard various statistics on the importance of the music industry to the UK economy, and specifically the statistic about the export revenue from UK music. In 2014 that was some £2.1 billion, £42 million of which came from live performances. Yet we have also heard that more than half of musicians, and especially those early in their careers, will earn less than £20,000 a year. There is something of a tension between the overall value of the industry and the individual experience of a highly competitive market. I know from the experience of good friends what dedication and hard work are needed to make a success of such a career. That no doubt makes artificial barriers such as those that we have heard about all the more frustrating.
Several interesting case studies have come up in the debate, and the issue is not limited to the United States. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) outlined the challenges in what historians will from now on clearly refer to as the “post-Wham! period” of China’s history. She also mentioned Canada where the story is perhaps slightly more positive. Canada, and Nova Scotia especially, plays an important role in nurturing young Scots artists. I have many friends and acquaintances who have been over there for the feis and folk scene, and that has nurtured their talent and given them exposure to different cultural influences. The ease of entry that the hon. Lady described must help with that.
One of my friends, Adam Sutherland, is a highly talented fiddle player and composer. Over the weekend, when I was speaking to him about the debate, he put out a call on the social media for any case studies—within hours, if not minutes, dozens of people were saying, “This is an issue. I’ve been affected by it.” A few of them have provided me with stories not dissimilar to those that we have heard. I think that it used to be an issue with the US embassy that interviews were conducted at 8 o’clock in the morning, so it was almost impossible to go for a visa interview without travelling and staying overnight—at huge cost, as those of us who are getting used to staying in London are discovering. I understand that that issue has been resolved, which is welcome. Perhaps that demonstrates that there is some openness to change and a willingness to introduce some flexibility, but I have heard stories similar to the ones that we have heard today.
I heard from a US-based promoter who works with several UK bands that despite having the support of her local US Senator, she has been unable to make progress with certain visa applications. She spoke of visa officers adhering strictly to the letter rather than the spirit of the rules and having little or no understanding of folk or traditional music. There does seem to be a particular challenge for folk and traditional musicians. The configuration of bands is often different and a bit more fluid than might be the case for a mainstream four-piece rock band. As we have heard, the instruments can also be more complex and varied, and likewise the technical support and management required.
The friend I mentioned is a member of a 12-piece band—the Treacherous orchestra. We can only begin to imagine the costs and logistics facing a band of that size and the complexity of organising a tour anywhere, let alone having to overcome the visa challenges that we have heard about. But I have no doubt that that band, like so many others in Scotland’s thriving music scene, would, if they tried to organise a tour to the States and did have the opportunity to crack that market, go on to major international success.
At this point, it is worth reflecting, as others have, on the intrinsic value of a live music performance. Very little music is composed to be heard as a recording. It is to be live, lived in, a living thing in its own right—unique and memorable every time it is performed and heard. Live performances are also important as ticket and merchandise sales often provide valuable income streams to artists, especially when the cost of recorded music is being pushed down by online retailers and streaming services.
We have heard that UK Music and the Musicians Union have suggested a number of solutions to the current difficulties facing musicians who wish to perform overseas, especially in the United States. I hope that the Government, and any representatives of the US embassy who are listening, will take those suggestions in the constructive and helpful spirit in which they are offered.
The US has a valuable network of consulates across the United Kingdom, including a valued and respected presence in Edinburgh. Allowing visa processing or interviews to take place there would be warmly welcomed —not only by Scottish artists but, I suspect, by those from the north of England. The UK Government are proud of their special relationship with the US Government, so I hope that they will bring some of their diplomatic influence to bear on this issue.
The Scottish Government and Creative Scotland are taking what steps they can to promote and support artists who wish to perform overseas. I want to highlight some industry initiatives, such as the FolkWaves project, which promotes Scottish music to all kinds of radio stations across the world by allowing musicians to upload their singles to the website and global broadcasters to download the latest releases. That avoids a lot of logistical challenges in terms of posting CDs or demo tapes or other things that had to be done in the past.
In January, venues in my constituency and across Glasgow will play host to the 22nd annual Celtic Connections festival, a celebration of folk and world music that brings together the best of Scottish and global talent and that is worth millions of pounds to the city economy. I say to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that perhaps MP4 should apply to give a performance, which I have no doubt would be a sell-out. I will say the same to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when I see him.
I am looking forward to seeing one of my favourite American bands, which, as anyone who was in the main Chamber for the EVEL—English votes for English laws— debate will know, is They Might Be Giants, performing as part of the festival. If you want to continue expanding your musical horizons, Mr Howarth, you should know that they are also playing the Shepherd’s Bush Empire here in London on 4 February—an unrivalled night of musical entertainment guaranteed.
As Scotland and the UK get ready to welcome artists from all around the world, not just to perform but to learn and to share experience and creative energy, let us hope that some reciprocity can arise from this debate. As other hon. Members have said, in troubled times in particular, music should be a force for bringing peoples together, for cultural exchange and the promotion of harmony—in all its forms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing this important debate. I associate myself with the remarks that he made regarding the atrocities in Paris. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) put it, music represents the best of humanity. It is in some ways an unfortunate—indeed, horrific—tribute to the power of music in our culture that the Daesh terrorists chose to target it and those who enjoy it.
I do not have much of an interest to declare. I should perhaps say that I am taking piano lessons. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) could no doubt teach me much, but I have no intention of performing in the US or anywhere else. Despite that, or indeed because of it, I understand very well the contribution that music and its performers make to all our lives and how they make our lives better. That is why I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate.
There have been many thoughtful and powerful speeches on the power and value of UK music, whether it is adding £4.1 billion to our economy or contributing in other ways. The creative industries have been growing three times as fast as the national economy in recent years—if only the whole economy could follow the example that musicians are showing us.
In addition, of course, there is the cultural value. Music bridges divides, bringing us together. It creates bonds between people. Few things can jog a memory more quickly than hearing an old song. In my part of the world—Newcastle and Gateshead—music has been playing a role in regenerating the city. Sage Gateshead is a great example of how culture can act as an anchor for, as well as a symbol of, a stronger economy. The UK does music well, and we have for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West entered the US with a guitar, I think he said, and was not turned back, but also, as part of the cultural contribution, the Animals, from Newcastle upon Tyne, were part of the British invasion of the American charts, accompanied by a significant presence on American soil, as the iconic photograph of the Beatles landing in the US shows. “The House of the Rising Sun” is a brilliant example of cultural fusion between the US and the UK and particularly the north-east.
Live music employs 25,000 people in the UK. We have many world-beating venues, although some of them are disappearing, and, as we have heard, world-beating festivals, which were attended by 9.5 million people last year. As we have also heard, just this week, Adele has broken the US record for first-week album sales.
Like other hon. Members here, I am a good socialist—if not a Maoist—and I am keen to share our music with the world. In fact, in many ways, we already do that. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) about what I think we should call the Wham! intervention in China’s cultural evolution. Our recorded music exports are booming; they were up 17% last year. UK artists account for one in seven of all albums sold worldwide. That is a phenomenal statistic, which shows our contribution to world music culture.
We are one of three net exporters of music, and UK artists accounted for four of the five top-selling albums in the US in 2012. Those included One Direction, which became the first British group to have two albums debut at No. 1 in the Billboard top 200. I doubt whether One Direction ever had much of a problem organising a US tour, at least not from a visa point of view, but, as we have heard today, many artists are having problems with the US embassy visa procedure, and it seems to be getting worse.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West and the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty contributed some depressing examples. The well-established exchange of culture and ideas—whether written declarations such as that of Thomas Paine, or musical contributions such as those of One Direction—has been a foundation of the long-standing friendship between the US and the UK. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow has described the increasingly complex and costly processes for getting a visa, including being forced to go to London or Belfast to attend a face-to-face meeting, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, and facing costs of £2,500 or more. Given the low earnings of many musicians, those costs, combined with the potential travel and accommodation costs, prevent many acts from taking their music abroad.
Although the Minister is not directly responsible for that, I hope that today’s debate will provide him with the opportunity to tell the House how he has been supporting our young musicians by tackling those barriers, and I would like to offer him the Labour party’s support—it is nice to be able to say that—in his endeavours. What have the Government been doing about the matter? It is not new, although the situation has become increasingly difficult. Are his officials aware of the issues, and how long have they been monitoring them? Perhaps he could say how we got here. Has there always been such an enormous disparity between the costs and difficulties faced by UK musicians going to the US and those faced by US musicians coming to the UK?
What meetings and discussions have the Minister and his officials had with the US embassy regarding its engagement with the music industry? Has the Minister discussed that with representatives of the UK music industry, particularly those such as the Musicians Union that represent smaller or less-established acts? Is he aware of the great work that is, as has been mentioned, being done in that area by UK Music? Have he, his Department or its agencies had any discussion about simplifying the visa system for musicians? I am sure that he shares the enthusiasm of those in this room for UK live music. He is in the best position to bang the drum for the industry and UK art with the United States, so can he tell the House how his Department and the various agencies that have an interest in this area—UK Trade & Investment, the British Council, the Arts Council and so on—are working together to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction?
I agree with the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty that we should also work with European partners. I merely observe that I hope that we continue to be at the heart of Europe after the European referendum. Will the Minister commit to keeping the House updated reasonably regularly on the progress he is making?
One of the biggest barriers, as we have heard, is the requirement for visa applicants to attend an interview in London or Belfast. I hope that the Minister will recognise that, despite the fact that most arts and culture funding is focused in London, there is a huge wealth of artists and musicians in towns and cities across the country—particularly, I would say, in my own area of Newcastle—and for many of them, the burden of travelling to London for a visa interview seems to be an unnecessary barrier. Can he commit to finding a solution to that problem? I realise that the answer ultimately rests with the US embassy, but I hope that he can turn his famed charm on the ambassador and his officials.
Ambassador Barzun was recently in Newcastle to launch the cultural festival that we will have there in 2017 to commemorate 50 years since Martin Luther King was given an honorary doctorate by Newcastle University, and at which many American musicians will certainly be playing. The ambassador is a strong supporter of cultural exchange, and his cultural attaché has been a great support to us in planning the festival.
Finally, although we have focused today on problems with the US visa system, what are the Minister and his Department doing to monitor the situation in other high-value export music markets? I look forward to his response.
I am grateful for the chance to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and to take account of the contributions made by many other hon. Members. May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth? It is an impactful point that in 1968 as I was being born, you were thrashing out tunes in a club. I think that that links us in some strange way.
I thank my hon. Friend for proposing this important debate. He is extremely knowledgeable about the music industry, and he is a vigorous supporter of that industry in the House. I echo his and many other hon. Friends’ comments about the horrific attacks we saw in Paris a week ago on Friday, particularly the attack on the Bataclan. Everyone has acknowledged and understood that that summed up why the events of that day were an attack on our way of life, because the opportunity to gather and listen to music is one of the manifestations of a free society. That is yet another reason why that day filled us with such horror.
I was lucky enough to meet the French digital Minister the day before the attacks, and the meeting reminded me of the strong links that exist between the UK and France across all our creative industries: not only music but film, video games and many others. I want to forge and strengthen such links, and even more so in the light of what happened on that horrific Friday, which will live in our minds forever.
My hon. Friend made a number of important recommendations, and I will pick those up as soon as possible. As this is the day of the spending review, I want to acknowledge the very good settlement that the Chancellor has given to the arts, because that supports investment in music. In the lonely hour I spent before the Chancellor got to his feet, I did not anticipate how good the settlement would be. As I make my remarks, I will make clear some of the support that the Government are giving to the music industry in general.
My hon. Friend made specific points about engagement with the US embassy, the ability to add tour dates should there be any delay, the possibility for the US authorities to use public buildings in the UK to make access to visa services easier for musicians, and the role of the Creative Industries Council. We also had important contributions from other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), who talked about her experiences in China. Her experiences in a left-wing environment reminded me of my early engagement with music, because I was a west Londoner too, and I well remember going to see the Redskins perform at the Hammersmith Odeon. The message,
“Neither Washington Nor Moscow”—
the title of their best-selling album—
“but international socialism”
never quite got through, but I was pleased to see that the shadow Chancellor, who brandished Mao’s “Little Red Book” when he responded to the spending review today, has clearly taken that message on board.
I want to pick up on a point in the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton about how airlines treat musicians. I hope that the message goes out from this debate at least to our own domestic airlines about some of the representations I have received from musicians. I hope they will treat musicians fairly when they travel abroad and that, for example, musicians who want to carry their violin or trumpet case on board will be allowed to take those instruments on board as carry-on baggage. I will obviously not suggest that for a double bass or a set of drums, but I hope some common sense can be used.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) mentioned the upfront and hidden costs that can have an impact on musicians, such as visa delays, which not only cause frustration, but can increase the cost of a tour. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is a well-known supporter of the music industry, and also plays in the legendary band, MP4. He talked about the US-UK relationship and rightly praised the work of Jo Dipple and UK Music, which is fantastic across the piece on music policy, as well as the Musicians Union.
I was humbled by the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) considering she is a highly qualified musician. I was interested to hear about her experiences, and I think that she will speak with some authority on music issues in the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on tabling the early-day motion calling attention to the issue that has now been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty.
Many hon. Members have talked in great detail about the strong link between America and the UK. That relationship is unequivocally a good thing. From Acker Bilk to Adele is not a great leap alphabetically but, from 1962 to November 2015, they bookend almost 100 British singers and groups who have reached No.1 in the Billboard charts, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Queen, David Bowie, Bananarama, Kim Wilde, Def Leppard, Leona Lewis, Coldplay, Taio Cruz and a host of others. I could take the rest of my time just listing British musicians who have had an impact on the American charts.
Rightly, many hon. Members wanted to use this opportunity to praise the whole UK music industry. It is a salient and telling fact that five of the top 10 global recording artists last year were British, and one in seven albums sold worldwide was by a British artist. In fact, a British artist, Mary-Jess Leaverland, won the Chinese equivalent of “The X Factor” last year. Sam Smith has had No.1s from Canada to New Zealand, as has Ed Sheeran. Music is one of the things that makes our country great.
It is important to say—and hon. Members pointed this out—that we are talking not just about artists, but about sound engineers, producers, promoters, roadies and many others. Those speaking in the debate have been well informed by UK Music. Some people gloomily forecast that the writing is on the wall for live music and the music industry, but I disagree. I see the vital contribution of the live music scene not only to the worldwide scene, but to the UK’s economy. All around the world, people of all ages arrange their diaries around music festivals, which in many cases provide life support to their local communities. We will continue to support and promote the environment for UK music.
As I have money on my mind, I want to note that between 2012 and 2016, the Government have invested £460 million in a range of music and cultural education programmes. We are introducing tax relief for orchestras, which comes in next April. We recognise that music tourism generated more than £3 billion of spending, and 500,000 people came here just because of our music. I also mention, as it is very relevant to the debate, the music export scheme that we started a couple of years ago, which has helped so many musicians to go abroad. We do not just export our music; we welcome music from around the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty will know that the Taiwanese king of pop, Jay Chou, was so taken with the UK that he got married in Selby Abbey earlier this year, promoting a rush of Taiwanese tourists.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) asked what the Government are doing about the issue. I will need to check the records but I am certain that when the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) raised this issue in the House, I wrote to the American ambassador. She is quite right. We have to be careful as this is a visa system operated by another sovereign country but it is right for Ministers and, indeed, other Members of this House, to raise representations and make suggestions. I am not the only one who can do this: other Members can as well. Everyone who has come across the new US ambassador—I do not know whether we can call him new now—will know that he is a passionate supporter of the music industry, and I am sure that he would hear and take on board hon. Members’ concerns.
Does the Minister agree that the restoration of a dedicated person within the embassy would make a big difference? I have been involved with making phone calls to people I know who work at the embassy over the weekend—these problems often happen then. It would be such a big help if there was a dedicated line for people to call—
I will stop my hon. Friend there because he will get a chance to respond in a couple of minutes. On that point, I will make that representation to the ambassador. It is an interesting point that the Arts Council has a dedicated official who helps artists coming into this country and works closely with the Home Office. I want to ask him about the point about adding tour dates and, potentially, to make the offer of public buildings. I certainly think that we could make representations about an office in Edinburgh. It is not my job, by any stretch of the imagination, to tell the US embassy or Government how to run their affairs, but I could make that suggestion.
Finally, on the Creative Industries Council, we have a sector advisory group for the creative industries, which brings together UK Trade & Investment, the British Council and others. I will ensure that that is on the agenda of the sector advisory group at its next meeting, which is co-chaired by me and the head of BBC Worldwide, Tim Davie. Now it is time for me to “lay me down” my notes, and I will sit down and allow my hon. Friend to respond.
I will be very brief. I am actually quite heartened by what I have heard this afternoon. I am particularly encouraged by the words of colleagues from both sides of the House. This is clearly a huge issue that is stifling creative talents from the UK and affecting their ability to expand their careers abroad. I do not think we have heard any dissenting voices this afternoon, and I am particularly encouraged that the Labour party seems to be on board. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) had three very good stabs at my constituency name but, if she does not mind me saying, it is Selby and Ainsty, and I think the ambassador is Ambassador Barzun.
I just want to correct something on the record. I do not think that I wrote to the American ambassador, and I do not want to mislead the House. I think we took it up with officials. This issue came across my desk about three years ago. I just wanted to make that clear so that Hansard do not report me misleading hon. Members—[Interruption.]
Absolutely. It would be very encouraging if the Minister was able to write to the ambassador now. It is good news that the Minister and the Government take this issue seriously. These people’s careers have a lot to offer our country. We must remember that many musicians are on relatively low wages of £20,000 or less, and the cost is simply prohibitive for them to be able to get to the United States to perform their work. I am encouraged by what the Minister said regarding the possibility of liaising with the embassy regarding public buildings so that people do not have to travel to Belfast and London. I conclude my remarks by thanking everyone else for contributing. Hopefully, in the next few months, we will have an update to report.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK musicians performing overseas.