UK Music Chief Tom Kiehl Talks Coronavirus, Brexit & Why The BBC’s Future Must Be Protected

Billboard spoke with Kiehl about the immediate challenges he faces and what UK Music is doing to help the world’s third biggest recorded music market continue to thrive.

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15.3.2020: Billboard spoke with Kiehl about the immediate challenges he faces and what UK Music is doing to help the world’s third biggest recorded music market continue to thrive.

Tom Kiehl took over as acting CEO of umbrella organization UK Music Jan. 31, replacing Michael Dugher, but less than two months into the job he already finds his in-tray overflowing. Chief among his immediate priorities are helping co-ordinate the British music industry’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and ensuring the sector’s interests are represented in Brexit trade negotiations.

Billboard: How is UK Music supporting the British industry during the coronavirus outbreak?

Tom Kiehl: The global outbreak of coronavirus has caused real concern amongst our members, particularly those in the live industry. Cancelling SXSW is a huge blow for the artists, managers and industry professionals who have been planning their trip to Austin for months. We’re in constant contact with our members over what is a fast-changing situation. We have spoken to Government ministers and officials and would encourage anyone planning to attend music events in the U.K. or abroad to check the regularly-updated information on government websites. We hope that any economic impact on the music industry will be temporary, [but] there needs to be consideration of financial support to ensure festivals, concerts and music businesses can get through the potentially challenging months ahead.

UK Music was a leading campaigner for the Copyright Directive, which was passed by the European Union in March 2019 and holds online platforms like YouTube liable for unlicensed content. How big a blow was it when the British government announced in January that it has “no plans” to implement the legislation now the country has left the EU?

It was very disappointing to see it in black and white. There is hope in that the government is still publicly supportive of the intention behind the key aspects of the directive. What we need now is for them to explain to us how they intend to turn that support into action through the legislative process. Certainly from talking to ministers and officials there is an intention to do that. I think it ultimately boils down to timing and where that fits within the lists of [priorities]. The point of UK Music is to keep the Copyright Directive on the agenda and make sure that the industry’s support for those key principles is clear to government and remains in place.

At the time of the government’s announcement, IMPALA chief executive Helen Smith told Billboard that failure to implement the directive runs the risk of the U.K. “becoming the copyright dustbin of Europe.” Do you agree?

Not being aligned to our biggest music market, which is the European Union, doesn’t make any sense at all. So there’s certainly a strong impetus to get on with it and make sure that the U.K. music industry flourishes. Copyright protection, in particular, is an area where we can develop things in a post-Brexit world and ensure that we have the best copyright regime in the world. Therefore implementing things like the directive’s key aspects and other copyright protections around the edges will be very important to achieving that goal.

There was also strong criticism from the music industry over the U.K. government’s post-Brexit immigration plans, published in February. What impact do you fear these proposals will have?

One of the biggest concerns about Brexit for the music industry is the loss of freedom of movement for people. The immigration system [proposed] essentially means that EU musicians coming to the U.K. for concerts and festivals will be treated in the same way as those from the rest of the world. The concern there is that by creating new levels of barriers for EU artists, there is now a very real possibility that reciprocal action will be taken by EU member states. The government’s immigration policy raises the stakes and makes it a possibility that we will now face restrictions too. We do fear that there could be delays at borders to do with customs checks… What we’re trying to do is overcome that by talking to the government about a touring passport to ensure that we don’t have a situation where 26 forms of visas or permits will be required when touring around the European Union.

Brexit also carries the potential risk of trade tariffs around the transportation of goods and services across EU borders. How important for the music industry is it that the U.K. government secures a strong trade deal with the EU?

Crucial. The biggest problem we’ve been dealing with so far has been a lack of clarity from the government in terms of which way Brexit was heading. The [December] general election has given us more certainty. We now have this [year-long] transition period that gives us an opportunity to work with the government to ensure that we don’t have that cliff-edge situation. But that cliff-edge situation will come up at the end of the year if there is no trade agreement in place. And if we don’t have solutions on areas like freedom of movement then there is a real risk that we could drop off the cliff. We’re talking to the government on an almost daily basis in terms of potential solutions.

UK Music has been a vocal campaigner for grassroots music venues and recently helped win some important victories, including a 50% reduction in business taxes for small and medium-sized U.K. venues. How important are those gains and what more needs to be done?

We’ve had some really good successes in the last couple of years around agent of change [legislation] and planning law reforms. The business [tax] relief has been very welcome too. Venues do also have to make some changes themselves though. Any business that wants to survive has to be proactive and adapt to changing market conditions. That is key. We do see some innovative venues doing some really good work in the way that they are programming and using their spaces as rehearsal studios. I think the future for venues is being dynamic and taking advantage of those opportunities.

Since December, there’s been an escalation in hostilities between the U.K. government and the BBC over the way that the broadcaster is funded. In 2015, UK Music led a successful pro-BBC campaign. With its future once again under threat are you looking to ramp up your support for the organization?

There is definitely a relationship of mutual dependency between the music industry and the BBC. We benefit greatly from that relationship and the BBC does as well. We’ll continue to support it and advocate for the very good role the BBC plays for music. Radio 1 and Radio 2 provide a very diverse music offering compared to commercial competitors. Radio 3 is one of the biggest commissioners of new classical music. And BBC 6 Music plays a broad and very innovative agenda too. It’s hugely important that the BBC radio music services and initiatives like BBC Introducing are maintained, so we’re certainly going to be supporting it in the year ahead. The BBC is and always has been a political football. So it is a challenge, but it’s one that were prepared to work on and ensure that music’s role within the BBC is maintained.

Looking to the future, what would you like the U.K. music business to look like in five years’ time?

I want it to continue to grow. I want us to have the best copyright regime in the world. I want to ensure that the U.K. is the most popular and most important place to create music in the world. And that we’re attracting talent from around the world, as well as creating our own. My vision of the music industry in 2025 is one where we have overcome the immediate challenges that we now face and one that continues to flourish.

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