'We are trying to dance on our feet and juggle greasy elephants, all at the ​same time...' - singer Fish on Brexit shambles

Brexit has hit Fish hard, and we’re not talking the Scottish seafood industry here, rather East Lothian musician and former Marillion frontman Derek Dick, better known to the world as Fish.

By Liam Rudden
Wednesday, 27th January 2021, 12:30 pm

On the landing page of his website is a quote, ‘I am a grey bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim. My words are my weapons that I proffer with disdain. My melancholy aspect is something you can't disregard. My motives you cannot question nor my strong sense of right and wrong.’ Currently, that strong sense of right or wrong is firmly focused on the devastation Brexit is visiting on the UK’s music industry.

It’s something 110 high profile UK musicians reportedly shone a spotlight on recently when they signed an open letter to the country’s leaders addressing post-Brexit touring woes.

When we talk, the singer is candid. "With all respect, when you have Elton John, Roger Daltrey, Sting and everyone coming out in support of the industry, it's all very well them bringing attention to it, but the impact on acts like that is in some ways negligible. ​At the level I work at, and the level below and slightly above, it has a huge impact.​

"Right now, I'm not earning any money from live performances so my only source of income, apart from royalties which have dropped significantly in recent years, is my mail order operation and ​that has been highly impacted by Brexit."

The singer describes the business model he uses to make his living as "the twin pillars of the independent musician​". He explains, "You have live income intertwined with mail order income, it is now the way so many people in the business work."

I​f Fish found his live income already devastated by lockdown, things only deteriorated after December 31, when Brexit threw the mail order aspect of his business into turmoil, at one point forcing him to suspend the operation for four weeks.”

​"​I am finding it incredibly difficult to get answers from people about what is required now​," he reveals​. ​"​It took me a week to get a response from my Royal Mail account supervisor​. I asked ​the basic question, 'What happens to a package when it leaves the UK now?' He said, 'We don't know. Can you ask your fans to let you know what happens at their end and then tell me.'​ ​That's ridiculous.​ ​If Royal Mail are​ ​n​o​​t prepared​ for ​Brexit, how can a small business like ours be.​"

The main area of ​contention is the collection of taxes, before December 31 anyone in Europe buying the standard double CD version of Fish’s new album Weltsc​h​merz, paid £16.99 plus vat​ and postage when ordering.

“So ​a​​ German ​customer ​would pay £16.99,​ ​£4 ​VAT​ and £8 postage,” says the 63-year-old, “​Now they pay £16.99 plus the postage​. Then, when it arrives at their side they have to pay the ​VAT​ and a processing​ charge​, which in Germany is about seven quid, which means a £16.99 album is costing them about £36.​"​

A​s well as the cost, confusion over customs’ paperwork also played a part in the decision to suspend operations.

​"We are a small business and have a ​relationship​ ​we have built​ with fans over the years, we ​are very transparent. We try and keep the​m informed but at the moment we can​'​t do that because we don't yet know what the changes are​. We had to shut the shop ​even though we had prepared; we started preparing for the post Brexit situation 18 month before it happened​, researching which custom stickers would be needed. We even switched​ to the newly required electronic​ ​declaration​s​ at the beg​inning of 2020​. We ​reopened ​the shop ​two weeks ago​ but ​are still holding our​ breath​ as there​'s​ ​a ​chance people in the EU will go ​into their post office and say​, '​I'm not paying that extra £7​,​ it​'​s too expensive​'." ​

It’s a worrying thought for the singer who reveals that 40 per cent of ​his sales come from the EU.

"It's a huge chunk," he agrees.​

​Of course, it's not just the mail order side of his business that has been affected, a planned ​32-​date ​European ​tour over ​43 days this Autumn​ is also under threat, Brexit making some gigs no longer viable.

​He elaborates, ​"Wel​t​schmerz came out ​last​ October and I deliberately tried to keep the bulk of my touring pre​-Brexit but all those dates​ had to be​ shifted to the end of ​September this year due to Covid.

​"​Now, on the 2018 tour we flew in and out of Brussels Airport so we put ​on ​our last gig, the only one in Belguim. It was in​ a 2000 capacity club in​ Verv​iers​. We c​a​n​'​t do that gig now​. Paris is the same. ​France is a difficult territory,​ ​even back in​ ​the 80s Maril​l​ion never really cooked up ​F​rance, so ​in Paris we pl​a​y Le Divan du Monde​, ​a ​700/​800 capacity ​venue, again ​as a one off​. N​ow​, the permits we would need to do both of these gigs would make them no longer viable."

The cost of those permits is not insignificant, at around £250 per person, per country on the tour.

"​I​f the rest of the EU follows Dutch model, ​it will cost ​£2,500 for ​permits for ​the 10 people​ I have on tour​. Now, I would expect my guarantee on that ​French gig, for example, to be about 6,000 euros, so the permits alone would cost 50 per cent of the guarantee​ and that's​ before​ the cost of wages, bus, crew​..​. That kills that date.

“T​he other issue is the limitation to the number of days we can work in the EU now -​ 90 out of 180 days​,” he continues.

​"​At every border ​you ​cross,​ you now have to get your passport stamped to show how long you have been in that country. Many of my crew do five weeks on the road with me before jumping off to to go out with another band​. It's the ​same for session musicians. So when I’m employing guys I now have to ask how much time they’ve spent working in ​Europe over the last six months, a question I never thought I’d be asking​.

“And as we have to apply for those visas two or three months ahead of time I’m looking at advancing £15,000 on a tour that could be blown apart by further lockdowns and social distancing and remember, there’s no insurance against Covid for any touring band, on any level.”

He concludes, “It's only now that people are realising what the Brexit deal really is and that's the problem, we are trying to dance on our feet and juggle greasy elephants, all at the ​same time.​ ​We are a small island with a music business worth around £5.4 billion a year, it's a lot bigger in Europe, about £70 billion. British musicians need to be able to go there to thrive. ​The government has to become​ ​more flexible. I know they’re playing to the Brexit gallery, but they ha​v​e t​o​ awaken to reality and find a way forward through some sort of 'passport' that enables us to play in Europe.”

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