More Gigs, Less Bureaucracy: Imminent Changes To The Music Licensing Laws:

At the moment, if you go into a bar, pub or restaurant almost anywhere in the UK which claims to provide “live music”, what do you get? In many cases, you’ll probably find a single vocalist playing the guitar accompanied by pre-recorded backing tracks. There are practical, financial reasons for this: A single performer takes up a smaller space and costs far less than a three or four-piece band – an important consideration for the catering trade in these difficult economic times. There is, though, an additional deterrent factor: Under the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003, pubs that want to employ more than one performer to entertain their customers have to obtain authorization to do so from their local authority. Such restrictions have come under increasing criticism – and not just from within the music sector. In an article published on 7th September, “Guardian”  journalist Dan Sabbagh reported that the  Government  “aims to stimulate grassroots music by allowing bars to host gigs without a licence”. He also pointed out that MPs on the House of Commons select committee for culture, media and sports have already recommended that places with a capacity of 200 persons or fewer shouldn’t be compelled to seek permission for the performance of live music. They were particularly concerned that many of the current limitations (described by committee Chairman, John Whittingdale, as “unnecessarily draconian” or “simply absurd”) are holding back young musicians “who often get their first break through performing live at small venues such as pubs”. Furthermore, as noted by both Sabbagh and “The Drum” website , the bureaucratic obstacles introduced by the Licensing Act 2003 have resulted in a significant reduction in the playing of music in pubs and clubs.

This decline could be promptly reversed if the proposal to liberalise the music licensing system (initiated by the Liberal-Democrat Lord Clement-Jones) now passing through Parliament becomes law early in 2012. The Minister for Tourism & Heritage, John Penrose, has acknowledged in his “Impact Assessment (IA) that some of the existing entertainment regulations are “a mess”: “For example, you need a licence if you want to put on an opera, but not if you want to organise a stock car race. A folk duo performing in the corner of a village pub needs permission, but the big-screen broadcast of an England football match to a packed city-centre pub does not. The distinctions are inconsistent, illogical and capricious”. The IA document (published by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport: DCMS) emphasises that the objective of the Government’s intervention is to get rid of “the unduly restrictive and burdensome requirements”  imposed by the 2003 Act and to  “stimulate activity by community groups and other parts of the Big Society”  by removing barriers which dissuade them from laying on local events such as theatre, live music and indoor sports – as well as relieving them of the time, energy and considerable costs involved in preparing and submitting an application for a licence. The Foreword to the IA document also refers to evidence that pubs which have diversified by including “activities other than drinking” have proved to be in a stronger position to survive the recession: “Making it easier for struggling businesses to put on entertainment may provide them with an important source of new income”.

The DCMS, however, also makes it clear that the Government intends to retain the prevailing licensing laws for boxing, wrestling, striptease, pole dancing and any entertainment event at which the audience consists of 5,000 people or more. The consultation process, whereby interested organisations were invited to submit their comments, ended on December 3rd.  During this process, sample templates were made available on the “UK Music” website for musicians and owners or managers of pubs, bars, coffee shops and restaurants who wanted to write direct to John Penrose to express their approval of his plan to abolish the “more harmful” elements of the 2003 Act. The suggested wording for the musicians’  letter pointed out that the implications inherent in the existing licensing legislation – namely that music “somehow provides a platform for crime and disorder, encourages public nuisance and threatens public safety” –  totally misrepresent (and in effect, malign) performers, their audiences and their fans. Furthermore, that the “stigma, bureaucracy and uncertainty” created by the 2003 Act, combined with the impact of the recession, has made it even harder for them to earn a living from their trade: “It’s difficult to know where I can or can’t play and venues seem equally confused”.

Wandsworth Council also encouraged local people to send in their opinions – but for the opposite reason: Namely, to  “voice their objections to the changes”. The borough’s authorities are completely against the relaxation of the licensing laws on the grounds that the roughly 500  bars and pubs in the area would be permitted to put on late-night concerts, dancing and karaoke competitions whenever they wanted, that they  “would not be subject to proper safety checks” and that there would be no control over noise levels or the hours of operation. This stance received vociferous support from one resident in Battersea who – in a reference to the “August Riots”- predicted that “without strict laws”, the capital would “collapse into anarchy” and feared that there would be nothing to prevent the public at large from  “drinking, singing, partying and bawling Karoake throughout the night”.  Meanwhile, the 14th November edition of the “London Evening Standard” reported that Kensington & Chelsea Council’s Deputy Leader, Nick Paget-Brown, had expressed his unease to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt about the potential “adverse impact” the proposals would have on densely populated inner-city neighbourhoods. Entertainment licences, he contended, “are actually how we ensure that noise is controlled, that events close down at a reasonable time and that landlords act responsibly”.

The “Live Music Forum” has responded by describing such reactions as “hysterical, misleading nonsense and scare-mongering of the worst kind”. This is a view that appears to be shared by the DCMS, albeit expressed in a somewhat more temperate manner: Its IA document emphasises that  “the necessary protection will continue”  because there is  “a range of robust protection already in place” – including Health & Safety at Work, Fire Order, Noise Nuisance and Environmental Protection – a consideration that “UK Music” also incorporated into its draft template for the managers of catering outlets and premises who it hoped would  participate in the  “licence liberalization” campaign by sending letters of support to the Tourism and Heritage Minister, John Penrose.

It appears, however, that it is mainly the “secondary music”  locations (for whom staging live performances is not their “core business”) which have been most severely affected by the provisions of the 2003 Act.  Both “The Guardian” newspaper (7th September) and the Paramount Investment & Development Brokerage website (9th September) noted in identical words that  “there has been an explosion in music festivals over the last decade – mirrored in sell-out audiences at large, modern venues such as the 02 in east London”. This has been confirmed by statistics available on the “UK Music’” website and based on a “Destination Music” survey conducted by Bournemouth University’s International Centre for Hospitality & Tourism Research – whose Director, Professor Adam Blake, has stressed that their analysis did not include  “the vast numbers of non-ticketed or smaller capacity events.  Subsequently, the true value of music to UK tourism will be much higher”.  This factor apart, the results of their investigations have indicated that  “the major concerts and music festivals that take place in every corner of the UK”  attract more than 7.7 million visits from those defined as  “a music tourist, overseas and domestic combined”  and who spend a total of £1.4 billion during the course of their trip. Although just 5% of all music tourists come from overseas, they “contribute 18% of total music attendance spending”.  The conclusion UK Music / Bournemouth University have drawn from these figures is that  “this great music migration” is boosting the UK’s economy “to the tune of at least £864 million”  and sustaining the equivalent of at least 19,700 full-time jobs. Whether this can be maintained (or even improved on) if the economic situation in the UK and continental Europe takes a turn for the worse has been the focus of considerable debate within the music industry. Prior to the 2011 Glastonbury Festival, its founder, Michael Eavis, told “The Times” that  “we’ve only got another three to four years of shoddy tents, sloppy fields and squashed arenas”.  On the “Drowned in Sound” website, however, Simon Jay Catling – though acknowledging that “the bearded agriculturist (Eavis) was speaking a grain of truth, mega-buck festivals may be on the way out and there will always be smaller competitors who will fall by the wayside” – expressed his confidence that  “we’ll be clambering up a muddy field with a pint of warm cider in hand for a while yet”.  He backed this up with an assertion by “End Of the Road” organiser Simon Taffe that festivals are part of being British – that it’s now ingrained in our culture: “If you stick to what you believe in and know what your audience want, then you’ll be fine”.  This could apply just as well to the myriad small music venues across the UK looking ahead to the licence-free era which they hope awaits them in 2012.



Filed under: Music & Dance, Society | Posted on December 19th, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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