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UK folk touring from outside the EU

By Jacey Bedford

I started out my agency in 1998 by specialising in bringing Canadian, American and Australian acts to tour in the UK, i.e. English speaking acts. As a performer I've toured in the opposite drection, so I do know a little about the folk scenes in these countries and the differences artists will find.

Sometimes I have a quiet week, but most weeks I have a steady stream of artists from the USA, Canada and Australia (plus all sorts of places I don't specialise in...) asking if I will arrange a tour for them in the UK. I have very rarely - if ever - heard of any of them. Not too long ago I had my record week - eight serious hopefuls sent away disappointed by Tuesday morning.

It's not that I'm such a wonderful agent that people flock to my door, but the simple fact that I'm any kind of agent is enough. People see the UK as the folk-promised-land, a good addition to their regular home-income; a place they will be welcomed because they have rarity value. Well folks, it isn't. It's no easier to make a living here than it is in your own country. Being foreign is no guarantee that our folk audiences will find you exotic and therefore attractive. We have lots of great foreign artists touring here. It's already a crowded market. You need to be a cut above (actually you need to be three cuts above) and you need to be sufficiently different from the crowd.

Especially since the recession hit.

Sorry if that's hard news to take.

Even if you've achieved any kind of status in your own country don't assume you can transfer that status here. Oh yeah, sure, if you have a big record company behind you and can afford a publicity campaign and major advertising to soften up the market for a big-push high-profile album release... maybe...

For the rest of you, trying to slog it out the hard way with self-managed tours and no recording deals or with only small Indie deals that come without a touring budget attached... you need to know that first tours over here invariably don't make money. If you're lucky they cover their costs. Second tours (if you get that far) hopefully do cover their costs and by the fourth tour you might be actually coming out ahead on the deal. And this is presuming that you've done everything right and made a commitment to winning over UK fans the hard way - with talent, hard work and diligence in building up your mailing list.

Agents:

We're a fickle bunch. For some reason we have an aversion to taking on new acts that are going to be very hard work to break into the market. Go figure! When we do take on an unknown act they have to have someting really special going for them. Are you really that special? See my article on why you don't need an agent.

Lead time:

Folk clubs are booking further and further ahead. You need a minimum of 18 months lead time to prepare the ground. As I update this it's January 2015 and I know a lot of folk clubs have already booked up the whole of 2015 and a few have booked for the whole of 2016, while only a few others are still finishing up booking the spring sesason. Arts centres tend to book a season ahead (but sometimes more). Festivals mostly start booking in September for the following summer (but some book their headliners more than a year in advance). Touring schemes book January to March for September the same year to June the following.

I've lost count of the number of emails that arrive in February or March from bands wanting to tour in the summer of the same year. TOO LATE!

Venues:

Festivals: absolutely the best introduction to the British folk audience. A great shopwindow for your talents and you (probably) get paid for it as well... but... please be aware our festivals differ from North American and (many) Australian ones. Out festivals do NOT feed performers. You'll be expected to fend for yourselves. While they provide accommodation it's not likely to be all in one hotel with organised artists' get togethers in the wee small hours. Some festivals are town-based with many small venues, so you're not always playing to big audiences. Unlike many North American festivals the whole event doesn't close down to one main stage at night so you may be playing a concert opposite popular artists in other venues. UK workshops are teaching sessions, not multiple-musicians-sharing-a-stage-to-see-what-happens. BUT - a caveat - festivals seem to be spending megabucks on big names that sell tickets and are reluctant to pay high fees for unproven acts. They'll likely only offer you peanuts on your first visit unless you sell yourself well or come complete with a pre-formed reputation that is already known in the UK.

Folk clubs: are mostly small (sometimes only thirty people in the audience, though occasionally up to sixty or seventy) and ticket prices are low (£5 to £8, maybe with £9 or £10 for high-end performers) so work out what they might be able to pay you after expenses. Yeah, right! You should remember to negotiate accommodation as part of the deal. It will often be with the organisers so remember to tell them if you're allergic to cats etc.

Arts centres: have a little more leeway because they sometimes have an arts subsidy to take new and emerging acts, but they often don't get huge audiences (though ticket prices may be a little higher). It's only a small proportion of arts centres that take folk acts and disappointlingly some of those don't seem to know how to promote them. Most arts centres don't provide accommodation. Remember to book your own.

Theatres: are a much harder market to break in to and will often only book unproven acts on a box-office split with no basic minimum guarantee. I've had some acts earn as little as under a hundred pounds from a theatre gig which was badly promoted by a theatre that understood little about reaching the folk community. On the other hand, for artists with an established following, small theatres can be a good move.

Village halls: Nice work if you can get it. Many village hall gigs are administered by one of the rural touring schemes spread across the country. They provide a subsisdy for community venues, but the downside is that they are the gatekeepers. They choose which acts go on their menue for promoters to choose from (usually in the early spring for the coming year Autumn to Spring) and then they reserve maybe four or five consecutive dates for their area at an agreed fee. At this point you are usually rubbing your hands together with glee at the idea of five gigs in a row. But as the deadline for their confirmation approaches and you haven't heard you begin to get twitchy. Sometimes it's OK, all the dates are 'sold'. Other times two out of the five might be sold. In a few cases none are sold and you are left with an embarrassing gap in your tour which it's too late to fill.

Pubs: It's up to you, but I prefer a listening audience. Some music pubs have this, especially music pubs like the excellent 'Musician' in Leicester or 'Greys Pub' in Brighton. Others are just bar gigs where you are musical wallpaper for a very low fee. Run away.

Acoustic Music (and Americana) venues: There's no real national network of these, it's just a question of finding them one by one and adding them to your database while trying to decide if they are presenting your type of music to a listening audience. Some are music pubs, others are music cafes. They tend to pay low or zero guarantees, but some have a good reputation and have developed an audience. They are more suited to singer-songwriter or contemporary acts rather than trad folk and often your fee is entirely dependent on your pulling power.

 

Work Permits

THE RULES CHANGED IN NOVEMBER 2008

See here for more details. Yes you need authorisation to enter the country if you are playing gigs in the UK, even if it's only one gig and you're not being paid. (Yes, even if you're coming to play open mic nights, as one young lady found to her cost when she was deported somewhat harshly). It's no longer called a work permit, but think of it as that if it helps. It's now called a Certificate of Sponsorship. Only a licensed sponsor can apply on your behalf, so even if you arrange your own tour you will need to pay someone with a sponsor's licence (like me) to apply for your certificate.

For the record, I will apply for Certificates of Sponsorship for genuine pro-touring musicians who are not on my agency books, so feel free to contact me for details.

Foreign Entertainers' Taxation

If your tour revenue is likely to be more than £9,000 you may have a tax liability, so you should cointact the Foreign Entertainers Unit for advice. They are easy to speak to and will answer your phone calls. It used to be that any gigs that paid more than £1,000 were obliged to withhold UK tax unless the artist had applied for an exemption to the Foreign Entertainers Unit of the Inland Revenue, but the rules have changed and it's a little more complex. As I say contact the FEU for advice if you're unsure of your tax obligations

Foreign Entertainers Unit, Inland Revenue,
St John's House Unit 401
Merton Road
Bootle
L69 9BB
+ 44 151 472 6488

 

Words of caution about UK touring logistics

So you manage to book yourselves a tour or find an agent to book one for you... what do you need to be aware of?

Public Transport. Don't expect to be able to get a train to every tiny town and village on the map. Always do your research. Long distance buses go between major cities and towns, but not always directly without changing at a hub. Trains are expensive, especially if you don't buy your ticket in advance. You may also need to make several changes on a journey with connections which may be so tight that you easily miss them or may leave you hanging about on a station platform for hours. Sometimes, especially in London, you may have to connect at different stations - which involves a trip across the city by tube, bus or taxi. If you intend to travel by public transport DO YOUR RESEARCH IN ADVANCE. Don't expect to be able to fly except between major population centres (Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton, Exeter, Leeds, Newcastle, Doncaster, Manchester, London and Glasgow all have airports), but don't forget that the airports are a distance from the city centre. Also some routes may connect via London.

Vehicle rental. You can get decent deals on small cars by booking from outside the country and renting at the airport, but if you want to rent a vehicle big enough to carry a band plus instruments be prepared to pay through the nose. Also be prepared for companies to refuse you if you are a musician as it doubles their insurance costs (or invalidates their insurance altogether). You might consider renting a commercial van. Note this is a vehicle that's likely to have been on hire to a builder or a delivery company the previous week, so don't think 'van' in USian terms, We call those 7- seater big-car things 'people carriers' in the UK. By van I mean something with three seats across the front and load carrying (windowless) space at the back, notably a Ford Transit type of vehicle.

Yes the UK is small but the nature of the folk club circuit means you'll have to zig-zag back and forth a fair bit if you want to do a decent number of gigs and that means high mileage. If you think US and Canadian gas prices are high, you'll have a heart attack at UK prices. I'm not going to tell you what they are because they change too often to quote, but google and be amazed.

Accommodation is a lot more expensive here than the average American Super-8 etc. and you only get one (double) bed and possibly a couch-bed in most roadside motel rooms. For cheap deals look (well in advance) at trevelodge.co.uk.

Food is also a lot more expensive here. Expect pound for dollar on a roadside diner menu, so maybe more than £7.00 or £9.00 for an American Breakfast in a Little Chef and by the time you've added a drink to that you have no change from £10.00 - £12.00 per person - for a skimpy plateful that you'd send back as inadequate if it was served up in the States.

CDs are more expensive. This is about the only thing that works in your favour, which is a good job because you have to make up for the cost of shipping. Sell your CDs here for £12. Sell them for much less and people wonder what's wrong with them.

If you ship CDs ahead note that your recipient will be charged customs duty equivalent to an administrative charge plus 20% VAT on the declared value of the goods plus the value of the shipping but only if the consignment is declared at £18 or over. If you declare the retail value of your CDs your recipient will have to pay a fortune or refuse the package and let it find its way back to you over a period of weeks by slow-boat. The trick is to send smaller packages and to declare the cost of CDs at the factory prices, i.e. no more than a dollar apiece or less.

Am I trying to put you off?

Damn right I am.

Because I want you to really think about this. Can you make it pay? Have you got what it takes? Are you sufficiently different? What's your unique selling point? Are you willing to stick with it beyond the first few loss-leader tours? Can you afford this new venture if it loses money? Do you want it badly enough to work for it?

If the answer to all of the above - after suitable soul searching - is still a genuine yes, then good luck to you.

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