Musicians’ Visas and the Weaponisation of Policy Announcements

On 19th February 2020 the Home Office announced their points-based immigration policy, and it’s been cause for considerable concern. Not only do the proposals naively limit successful applicants to an idealised human-as-employee constituted of a STEM education, an established career and a secured job offer in the UK, it came barbed with an unpleasant rebuff to touring musicians both here and abroad. Under the proposed plans, both EU and non-EU artists will need Tier 5 visas in order to perform and work in the UK, although it was later clarified by the Home Office that, “Unpaid performers from EU countries wanting to come for up to six months and those staying less than a month would still be able to come ‘without the need for formal sponsorship or a work visa.’” Regardless, the threat of all non-UK musicians having to pay up to £244 for a visa and engage in the associated bureaucratic nightmare has cast a pall over the UK underground metal scene. Without the free movement granted by our association with the EU, the independent music scene in the UK is in danger of being cut off at the legs.

This is certainly a worrying prospect – and I would argue that’s exactly what was intended, given how the right (especially ideologues like Farage) have taken so much issue with arts and culture funding in the past. When faced with this historical moment of post-truth (outright lying) and constant, dizzying media spectacle, we shouldn’t take our government’s policy statements at face value. Consider how many U-turns and reversals the May cabinet went through. During just a few short years, each time policy was announced as if it were guaranteed only to be swiftly cancelled or rolled back, with rebukes coming from a variety of powerful lobbies (and occasionally, even public pressure). Eventually, it became clear that nothing could be trusted. The contradictions of neoliberal politics have now been exposed, but rather than British news media exposing this fully, they have been complicit in pulling us further into an unending, 24-hour spectacle. Adam Curtis describes in his 2016 film HyperNormalisation what the function of post-truth actually is; a ceaseless, confusing shapeshifting of politicking as it appears in the media. It renders us unable to identify how power is actually being wielded, amongst a mass of half-truths and deceptions.

So, rather than viewing this policy announcement on immigration as a piece of substantive policy, let’s consider how the announcement functions as an image, a part of the spectacle, with a range of audiences and intents. For the Tory voter base, the new restrictions on immigration are a rousing assertion of British “sovereignty” (i.e. the tattered remains of imperial power), so this announcement serves as a way for the government to keep its supporters enthused. In geopolitical terms, this fits in with the protectionist, nationalist impulse that has come to the fore in right-wing foreign policy over the past few years, so this acts as a way for the UK to continue on this merry dance of idiotic defiance we call Brexit. But for most of us, particularly those with migrant backgrounds, these measures are designed to cause fear and uncertainty, whilst clearly identifying demographics that this government finds to be problematic. And it’s interesting to note that while the main targets are “low-skilled” migrants (read: anyone underneath the professional middle class), with a nasty touch of xenophobia implied by including a requirement to speak English, the independent entertainment industry is also threatened by the immigration proposals.

To understand why this is the case, that musicians and artists would be undermined in the same announcement that attempts to completely stifle free movement to the UK, we must go behind the practicalities of policy and examine modern Conservative ideology. In amongst the jingoistic posturing and neoliberal economics, we’re also faced with a tide of animosity aimed at the academic humanities and creative disciplines. BoJo’s favoured bald creep Dominic Cummings has been continually pushing for the precedence of STEM across Conservative policy, and this isn’t just because the tech industry is now vital to the British economy, or as a rightward shift to secure UKIP voters. William Davies argues that not only does a fine art graduate have lower chances of economic success than a chemistry graduate (the neoliberal analysis), but the topics themselves are also problematic; the Tories would rather fewer people read history, literature or (worse yet) philosophy because these subjects enable us to articulate critiques of the ruling class and ideology. It’s the old “cultural Marxist” trope that Jordan Peterson et al are so fond of invoking, the notion that universities are ridden with “loony left” professors who indoctrinate impressionable youths into becoming SJWs. What this really represents is a return to the culture war that had been dulled through the ‘00s and early ‘10s – the Tories are taking the fight to elements they consider subversive. And that’s where metal comes into the picture.

No matter whether you lean right or left, in heavy metal it’s hard to find anyone who’s happy with the world as it has been over the past 50 years – in fact, it could be argued that neoliberal economic policy as a whole drives the disaffection that leads people to metal and alternative culture in the first place, by creating conditions that are oppressive, unsettling and (predominantly) confusing, creating a desire for escape and respite. Accordingly, many metal musicians and works are scathing in their critiques of modern society and make this clear in direct, brutal terms. We might look to the apocalyptic screeds of Cattle Decapitation, the insurgent rhetoric of Dawn Ray’d or the bilious sludge of Beggar for easy examples, and these are just a few obvious and recent examples; nearly every metal band positions themselves as counterposed to normative culture (albeit arbitrarily in some cases), the traditional hierarchies of which the Conservatives wish to protect and uphold. We should thus read this policy announcement as a veiled attack on the independent music industry at large.

After all, it’s not like the policy as stated will actually get passed into law. Influential lobbies like the CBI and the NFU will pressure the government to roll back its more punitive proposals, primarily to ensure that there is a continual flow of cheap, low-skilled labour – you know, for the jobs that most British people think themselves above doing. Musicians may well end up paying an additional visa, but there’s a significant likelihood it’ll be lower than the eye-watering £244 figure currently standing once industry groups like the BPI have weighed in, and the bill has been debated in the Commons. It’s also beneficial for the Conservatives to begin with policies that are egregiously constrictive, then wind them down to everyone’s relief – and they know this just as well as they know that announcing such proposals will sow tension amongst their opposition.

For the independent music community, our solutions are currently limited. Knowing is half the battle, and recognising the media circus for what it is is crucial, but so many of us are already there – this article is just tying some threads together. The other half of the conflict is doing, which most people in the scene are unprepared for, what with jobs, relationships and miseries aplenty to contend with; any time left for proactive community organisation is good fortune. When the legislation (whatever it ends up as) is actually passed and enacted, we’ll have to take stock again, but for now the Coronavirus is causing both the government and the independent music scene enough grief. So in these bizarre days we must raise our voices, hail newcomers and redouble our efforts, such that it becomes clear that encroaching on alternative cultures will be met with fierce resistance.

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Words: David Burke

Flaming BoJo design: Oli Hulett