How U.K. Touring Is Struggling to Keep On Truckin’

how u.k. touring is struggling to keep on truckin’

LONDON — In April 2022, when Ed Sheeran begins his + – = ÷ x shows — which he’s calling the Mathematics Tour — dozens of trucks from the U.K. hauler KB Event will transport his production and crew to 15 or so European countries. But while KB’s trucks used to set out from the company’s base in Pinxton in central England for Sheeran’s tours, this time they will depart from its new depot in Dublin — some seven hours away by road and ferry.

This has nothing to do with routing or convenience, but rather with complex new European Union regulations that will have far-reaching repercussions for every act looking to tour Europe next year.

Since Jan. 1, when the post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the United Kingdom took provisional effect, truckers in both regions have been subject to new “cabotage” rules that require haulers to return to the EU or the United Kingdom, wherever their business is based, after making three stops in the other market. This means U.K. trucking firms, which have historically handled 80% to 85% of the annual European concert business, according to live-industry executives, cannot effectively service tours outside of their home country.

The same goes for European haulers, which now can only handle the European legs of tours. (Sheeran’s trek, for example, will confront logistical challenges when it begins April 23 at Dublin’s Croke Park, travels to the United Kingdom for 19 dates and then returns to continental Europe in the summer.)

“For our industry, [the new regulations] are an absolute disaster,” says KB Event managing director Stuart McPherson, who notes that more than 80% of the hauler’s work in 2019 took place in the EU. “And there’s no easy solution.”

Robert Hewett, founder/director of Stagetruck, whose 2022 tours include Coldplay and Billie Eilish, believes the U.K. and EU governments “did not consider entertainment transport” when drafting the regulations. “They didn’t even know it existed,” he says.

Before the pandemic struck, around 40 trucking companies specializing in music were based in the U.K. and about 15 in Europe. In 2019, some 850 U.K. trucks were on the road, haulage execs say.

The new reality has left trucking companies with only one option to keep working both sides of a European tour: split the fleet in two and set up a sister company on EU soil. But that’s expensive. McPherson spent six months setting up KB’s Dublin depot, exporting trucks across the Irish sea and reregistering them as EU vehicles. Around 60 of his drivers had to retake their qualifications to gain an EU operator’s license, he says, and all of the vehicles required new insurance.

McPherson says he has spent over £500,000 ($687,000) “to open a new business that simply allows us to continue doing what we’ve always done.”

Other U.K. haulers that have started European businesses because of Brexit include Transam Trucking, which has opened subsidiary operations in the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, and whose European tours include for Elton John and Iron Maiden, and Stagetruck, which has opened a 4 million euros ($4.6 million) depot in the Netherlands. Not every trucking company can afford a secondary EU base, however, and haulage executives say that means far fewer U.K. trucks will be available for European concerts in 2022 than in previous years. The pandemic has exacerbated the fall in supply, as many U.K. haulage firms have reduced their fleet size to lower costs. So far, at least two companies are no longer operating.

Although some European haulers can handle major music tours — notably Netherlands-headquartered Pieter Smit — most EU firms don’t have large-enough fleets to make up for the reduction in U.K. trucks. “If strictly enforced, these cabotage regulations mean that shows will be lost,” says Craig Stanley, a promoter at London-based agency Marshall Arts and chair of the touring group at U.K. concert-business association LIVE. Marshall Arts has 2022 European tours scheduled for Lionel Richie, Elton John, Herbie Hancock and Céline Dion. “COVID-19 has masked the full costs of Brexit,” he says.

With a scramble for trucks, big tours are putting down deposits earlier than usual to secure supply, says Stanley, plus cutting back on productions. “If you can’t get the trucks and the buses, then everything has to scale down to what you can get,” says artist manager Paul Crockford, whose clients include Mark Knopfler and The Australian Pink Floyd Show, which has had to downsize from three trucks to two for its upcoming European run. “Everybody loses out of that,” he says.

U.K. haulage companies are also ¬facing an estimated shortage of 100,000 qualified drivers, as large numbers have left an already stretched workforce over the past 18 months. They include thousands of drivers from EU member states who returned to their home countries after Brexit. U.K. driver wages have increased 30% since 2019, according to the Road Haulage Association.

KB Events is paying drivers around £59,000 ($81,000) a year — more than double what they paid five years ago, but still £10,000 ($13,700) less than what some of the biggest non-music fleet operators now pay, says McPherson. “People are fighting for what resources are out there with money,” he says. “It’s painful at the moment.”

Many music specialist drivers took better paid and more regular driving jobs with companies like Amazon during the pandemic and have not been tempted to return, says McPherson. That has led to fierce competition for drivers, causing wages to soar.

Live-industry executives warn that higher wages, coupled with U.K. fuel prices that hit an eight-year high in September and a new requirement for U.K. touring productions to purchase annual carnets — essentially passports for goods that cost £360 ($494) — will be passed onto tours and, ultimately, ticket buyers.

Those fears are echoed throughout the music community. In June, WME and more than 50 of its clients, including Duran Duran and Fatboy Slim, sent a public letter to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calling for the government to urgently tackle the live touring crisis brought about by the Brexit trade deal.

Stanley and other live-music executives are also pressuring the U.K. government and European Commission to remove the cabotage restrictions for touring productions. So far, the governments haven’t shown a willingness to renegotiate the trade agreement.

“That’s going to see a lot of damage done, a lot of companies fail and a lot of very disappointed ticket buyers not able to see shows,” says McPherson. “It’s a sad fact, but I think that’s what it’s going to take to see the two parties come back to the negotiating table.”

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