By Matt Jones
September 2, 2013
Last week, it was brought to the world’s attention that Canada has introduced new laws affecting small clubs and live venues across the country. According to The Calgary Herald, “the new rules, which quietly came into effect July 31, will double, triple or even quadruple the cost of bringing in international artists to perform in bars, restaurants or coffee shops” across the country, affecting “any venue with a primary business other than music but which also books bands or performers”. The Canadian government insist that the rules are designed to ensure that the affected establishments look to hire Canadians first before hiring temporary foreign workers, thus making best use of taxpayer’s money. Nonetheless, the announcement caused outrage both domestically and internationally, with an online petition started on change.org within hours of the article’s publication, arguing that the laws target the little guy. But as a British ‘little guy’ who has felt the impact of foreign musicians entering this country, I have to say that I fully support the new laws.
As Principal Cornet of the East Scunthorpe Colliery Band, I know more than anyone what it means to have your greatness overshadowed by exotic bands from abroad. Formed in 1918, the colliery band rose to fame and stayed there for the best part of the twentieth century, even in the face of the closure of our pit in the 1980s (as famously depicted in the 1998 film Brassed Off 2: The Streets). After Thatcher’s reign had ended, we thought the worst was over. But little did we know that an even greater tyrant was about to take hold of our country – Polka.
Throughout the 1990s, Britain experienced a huge wave of immigration from Eastern Europe following the fall of communism – and with this also came a huge influx of Polka bands. Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Algerian – all sorts of Eastern European bands suddenly started flooding into Britain, well-known for its laissez-faire immigration policy for musicians. Music promoters carelessly supported them, absurdly suggesting that touring in new countries was integral to the creative development of fledgling bands. But the Polkas took over. The pubs, bars and restaurants in which we had once made our livings as Scunthorpe’s second-best brass band now began to fill up with drums, guitars, zithers and accordions. Using all manner of such exotic instruments to charm the locals, the Polkas not only took our jobs, but seduced our wives, married our children and all but did away with traditional, Scunthorpe culture. And all this without even bothering to learn the basics of embouchure.
Many said at the time that it was our own fault – that us British simply weren’t prepared to play some gigs, leaving booking agents with no choice but to import Polkas. But this is simply not true. In fact, several times did I have to resort to the injustice of making the band play Lust Factory, the local strip club. And let me tell you – not only is it extremely difficult to fit a 30-man band on a small round stage with a pole in the middle, but substantial unpaid overtime is needed to thoroughly clean the brass instruments after playing such a venue.
And that is why I look to our Commonwealth cousins with envy. Over twenty years on from the start of the ‘Polka Invasion’, British musicians have all but faded into obscurity, whilst bands like Kapusniak and the Gang continue to shoot to international stardom in their place. Home-grown artists need protecting from vicious forces from outside. It is too late for the East Scunthorpe Colliery Band, but Canada’s musicians may have been saved just in time.
Sign the online petition here.