While the British media has been obsessed by the tittle tattle of Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Porkgate’ revelations, a much more serious issue has emerged in the USA, and it’s one which might affect musicians quite heavily in the longer term, especially musicians who travel plenty for their living.
We’ve all seen the internet meme regarding the state of the music industry and transport:
Let’s be frank here – most internet memes are largely rubbish thought up by people with either nothing better to do or an axe to grind. This one though, does have the benefit of some truth to back it up. We don’t expect to get rich playing music, and transport is one of those great handicaps which over the years has contributed to that lack of wealth.
But there’s more to the recent story than meets the eye, and it concerns a subject that many musicians are deeply involved in at a personal or political level (as I see on my facebook feed every morning) – the Green Movement.
Now I’m quite happy to confess that I am as concerned with environment and conservation as the next man – I’m certainly not in favour of wrecking the air, water or countryside – and being a rural dweller these days I’m more aware of the complexities that throws up.
One such complexity has been thrown up by the way that the European nations and the UK in particular has looked at the subject of ‘Climate Change’ and the way it has used both the tax system and environmental protection law (such as the Climate Change Act 2008), to shape peoples actions .
But let’s look at the tax system first:
In the early part of the century, the way that UK cars were taxed moved to a system purely based on CO2 emissions with the added boost of the ‘Fuel Duty Escalator’ (I know the Chancellor has just changed VED but it only effects new cars, and musicians won’t see a change for some time I suspect!). CO2 is a harmless, odourless gas. It’s plant food. Humans emit this as a part of respiration, and breathe it in with no detrimental effects. So why did government incentivise it’s eradication?
Now I don’t want to enter a debate on global warming per se here – it may or may not be the case that CO2 is contributing to climate change. However – what is not at issue is that climate change is not killing people in the UK.
The jury is not similarly out on Diesel fumes though. The pollution caused by diesel fumes is definitely responsible for accelerating the deaths of many people in the UK from respiratory disease. Mainly this occurs in urban areas where the levels of pollution are incredibly high. But look around the western world at which cities are most affected by this kind of pollution and you might be surprised at the results. None of the big issues are in the USA, where gas guzzlers have long been thought by Europeans to be killing the urban population.
No, we’re talking about Paris and London, Birmingham and Manchester. Much of this is caused by public transport (which is almost entirely diesel fuelled above ground) and by goods vehicles. These have to conform to strict criteria in London now, a project that seems set to move to other UK cities soon. But the private car has been so far largely unaffected (Well apart from Catalytic converters which burn PM10 soot particles down to PM2s – so you can’t see the smog in the air, but small enough to pass through the lung wall, a spectacular own goal by the motoring regulation authorities).
That is until now. Let’s talk about Environmental Protection Law.
Volkswagon in the USA have been caught out bending the EPA rules on engine emissions, the fine is likely to cost them $18 BILLION – and that’s before they have to recall most of the diesel cars they sold since about 2007! What’s more, they have put their hands up publicly and admitted what they were doing. They lost about a third of their share price yesterday.
But how will the British government react?
The Americans got their Environmental laws right in many ways, they looked at all the pollutants that industry emits and attacked all of them in a comprehensive bill – the Clean Air Act of 1970 – (yes, it was Nixon’s administration – and it was updated by Carter in ’77 & Bush senior in ’90). It also set tests for all automobile emissions (which the EPA update and enforce). At the same time, our British government did little, probably because they owned most of the motor industry, transport and power generation – they would be attacking themselves.
British government now will probably react how they always react – they will incentivise us to change direction by hammering us with huge taxes. It’s a law of government, taxes always on the whole tend to rise. For example, they won’t incentivise us to dump our diesels by reducing the duty on petrol significantly!
Many musicians, myself included, drive diesel vehicles. And with good cause. If you’re lugging about lots of weight over long distances you need a vehicle that will last the mileage, give fair economy, and won’t feel like an asthmatic ant with a heavy bag of shopping every time it encounters a hill. And many of us run vans too. They are an essential part of our trade.
But our profit margins are small, if not non existent at times. If the price of diesel goes up, how will we cope with that change? If they fine private diesel vehicles for entering cities, will players be able to afford to travel in knowing that they might make a loss on a gig?
I suspect that the price of diesel will rise dramatically over the next few years. There is also a lack of supply issue – we don’t produce enough in western Europe to meet demand.
But added to this is what the EU (and more importantly UNECE) will do. Certainly now, they must go ahead and pass a new directive over the next couple of years which more closely mirrors the US EPA’s motor regulations, and that would be very sensible. But the difference between the EU and the USA is the level of tax placed upon both the sale, maintenance and running of vehicles. Petrol is very expensive here – most of that is tax. There is VAT at 20% on repairs to vehicles, fuel, parts and purchases, roadside and recovery membership schemes. There’s Vehicle excise duty, Insurance Tax – and the scandal that is the insurance industry in the UK goes unchallenged by government who have failed to deal with the mess left by changes to the legal system and the rules on third party claims companies.
And the headline cost is the simplest one to measure:
USA – 35p per litre for Unleaded Petrol
UK – 110p per litre.
That’s a massive difference – and has led to smaller engine petrol cars becoming more common in the UK, and let’s face it – if you’re buying an older petrol car the chances are it’s not going to be a small engine one if you’re a musician. Try hauling around your PA in an 1000cc Ford Fiesta. It will return about 25 miles to the Gallon and drive like Trabant. Larger engined petrol cars are already under attack due to our old friend the ‘Climate Change Act 2008’ (CO2 targets) – so going there for us won’t in the long term be an easy or cheap option. And there will be fewer good examples on the second hand market as the 2008 Act’s effects filter through to the ‘Ten year old banger’ market that that supplies the back bone of the music industry’s transport needs!
Lastly, people on lower incomes (like most musicians) also tend to put off repairs, don’t service regularly, and run older less efficient and more polluting vehicles.
But for us, the big changes won’t come too quickly – we will still be able to buy older larger cars for a while and drive them into town (our vans are already regulated in London). But it will in the end change the way that we choose our musical gear. And European suppliers will have to wake up and fill this market with high quality, affordable, compact and light gear. PA will inevitably get smaller and more powerful, no-one will want to haul around two 4×12 cabs in a decade or so, and if like me you are a piano or Hammond organ player, well it’s all digital from here on in!
I’ve been looking at a couple of A100 Hammond splits over the last week – and an estate car to move one if I could find a good organ at the right price. After this morning’s headlines, I might just reconsider sticking with my compact digital organ after all….and the wife’s old Ford Focus.
If you own a Volkswagon, it’s possible the authorities in the EU/UK will order a recall for a new engine map that will adhere to the standards advertised by Volkwagon when they sold the vehicles. You will see a noticeable drop in performance. Other diesel owners might well eventually get caught up as other car firms are investigated, the practice will not be confined to VW I suspect.
And if you’re a motor racing fan – the secret plan for Volkwagon to enter the Formula 1 engine supply market just got put back a few years………..
$18 Billion!! Ouch.