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Brexit Strikes a Bum Note for U.K. Artists as EU Gigs Dry Up

Brexit Strikes a Bum Note for U.K. Artists as EU Gigs Dry Up

LONDON—For the U.K.’s legions of musicians, from jobbing French horn players to stars of opera and the indie scene, a no-deal Brexit hits a bum note.

An abrupt and messy break between the U.K. and the European Union is back on the cards now that hard-core Brexit fans are jostling to succeed Theresa May as prime minister. Such a split, where Britain leaves without settling legal ties to the bloc, would create new obstacles for British artists wishing to perform in the EU.

The uncertainty is playing havoc with scheduling gigs that are usually booked months in advance, since promoters can’t be sure British acts will be able to turn up.

Already, touring musicians are encountering problems they fret will get only worse if the U.K. exits the EU without a deal Oct. 31, the latest deadline for the U.K. to ratify a negotiated withdrawal settlement. Without Parliament’s approval, Britain must either seek more time to solder together an agreement or plunge out of the EU immediately.

Lute player Lynda Sayce used to perform once or twice a week in the EU with two U.K.-based ensembles. Now, almost three years after Britons voted to leave the EU in a referendum, she has just three such bookings for the whole of 2019.

“There’s been a noticeable dropping off in the number of dates that the British groups are offered on the continent,” Ms. Sayce said.

She isn’t alone. Almost two-thirds of respondents to a May survey by the U.K.’s Incorporated Society of Musicians said they have had difficulties securing European bookings since the Brexit referendum in 2016, with organizers citing Brexit uncertainty as the reason. One in 10 said they have had bookings canceled.

Exiting the EU without a withdrawal settlement would leave the U.K. outside the bloc’s single market, its zone of common regulation and its customs union, which eliminates tariffs and border inspections on goods moving within the EU’s boundaries. It would mean the U.K. was no longer subject to EU rules that permit the free movement of EU citizens between member states.

Ditching these rules is exactly what advocates of Brexit want. They say the U.K. would be free to set its own regulations and sign trade deals with other countries. Ending freedom of movement would give London greater control of immigration.

Yet, splitting from the bloc overnight would likely cause severe disruptions, according to multiple economic analyses, gumming up ports and preventing services companies from working with their EU clients. U.K. citizens would lose the automatic right to work in the EU.

Prime ministerial candidates including Boris Johnson, the front-runner, and Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary, nonetheless say they would consider such a departure if the EU won’t rewrite the withdrawal treaty agreed upon with Mrs. May, which they argue keeps the U.K. too closely tied to the bloc.

A no-deal split would create a unique mix of problems for Britain’s professional musicians, who feel they are being overlooked in the swirling Brexit debate. Their concerns range from visas and health care to moving equipment and instruments through customs. Some instruments are made with materials that would after a no-deal Brexit be subject to onerous import controls, such as ivory and rosewood.

“It has put an elephant into every room, every recording studio and every festival program,” said Sam Duckworth, an indie artist who performs with his band as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

J. Willgoose, the linchpin of British art rock group Public Service Broadcasting, said he worries that in a no-deal Brexit, moving band members, instruments and equipment would become prohibitively expensive. He is already familiar with the extra time and cost associated with hourslong border checks from touring in Switzerland, which isn’t in the EU.