Thursday, 31 December 2009

Live music - how UK government can *really* help musicians

Never mind the wrong-headedness of certain bits of the Digital Economy Bill. If the UK government truly wanted to help the creative industries and live music in the UK - which, leaving aside studio bands for now, is how intending musicians really develop their craft and hone their skills, even in this digital age - then they'd support Lord Clement-Jones's private members' bill to amend the Licensing Act 2003.

Dry as that may sound, it would make a difference. Since the Licensing Act 2003 came in towards the end of 2005, a licence has been needed for the performing of any live music in any UK venue. That involves time, red tape and money. As a result, it's been much more difficult for musicians to get gigs and for owners to have live music performed in their venues - and that includes colleges and hospitals as well as pubs and clubs, classical music as well as pop, rock, RnB.

Many pro musicians I know tried to campaign against that Act, to no avail (campaigners included the Musicians’ Union, Equity, British Music Rights, the Arts Council, even the English Folk Dance and Song Society, just to indicate the breadth of musical interests affected - morris dancing got a special exemption!).

Again, it's musicians at the start of their careers and smaller business owners who have been hit disproportionately the hardest - see Wikipedia note. Circus acts and comedians are allowed - so why discriminate against live music? "Temporary event notices" can be used for occasional events, but of course again they cost time and money (fees) and admin to deal with.

In his letter to the Guardian, Lord Clement-Jones pointed out:

"A case in 1899 (Brearley v Morley) established that a pub landlord could let customers use a piano on his premises without an entertainment licence. Today, such a landlord could face criminal prosecution where the maximum penalty is a £20,000 fine and six months in prison."

And now Lord Clement-Jones has brought forward a Live Music Bill (PDF) as a private member's bill (i.e. without government support, and only a small chance of becoming law).

His Bill, which received its first reading in November 2009 (a formality with no debate), would change the Licensing Act to exempt live music from the licensing requirements in the case of:

  • small venues - premises that take no more than 200 people (including shows for an audience of up to 200 performed at schools, colleges & hospitals during which alcohol isn't sold), or
  • two in a bar rule - where unamplified / minimally amplified music is performed by 1 or 2 people only.

The exemption would be conditional so that a licence for live music in premises that sell alcohol can be reviewed and if local residents complain there can be a proper hearing.

For more background on this Bill, see the Lib Dem news release, Live Music Forum note from June 2009, and Lord Clement-Jones's full June 2009 speech about his intentions and the background.

It seems not to be a coincidence that, perhaps prodded by the introduction of the Live Music Bill, yesterday the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or DCMS came out with a consultation on a proposal to exempt small live music events from the requirements of the Licensing Act 2003 (the full text PDF - "Proposal to exempt small live music events for audiences of not more than 100 people from the requirements of the Licensing Act 2003" - includes the text of a draft Legislative Reform Order in Appendix C). See also the DCMS news release.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government's proposals are much narrower than Lord Clement-Jones's - allowing for an audience of 100 rather than 200, not providing for small unamplified performances at all, cutting perfomance times off at 11 pm instead of midnight, and making the exemption revocable rather than permanent. It also requires performances to take place wholly inside a building, which seems fair enough although if the building's in the middle of a field with no within earshot that shouldn't be necessary.

The DCMS do acknowledge (see 1.6 of the consultation paper) that there would be costs savings and benefits (see 1.7) for licensed premises such as clubs and pubs, unlicensed premises such as cafes, restaurants, scout huts, record shops, etc. and individuals that wish to stage small, live music events; musicians – particularly those starting out in the business - who will benefit from the greater availability of venues; and the wider public and communities who will benefit from the increased opportunity to hear live music. See also the impact assessment.

I say the government should forget the consultation and just support the Live Music Bill. The only improvement I'd make to the Bill would be to extend the definition of hospitals to include old folks' homes too. And, if necessary, concede on 11pm rather than midnight and widen the ability for residents to complain about noise.

The Bill gets its second reading on 15 Jan 2010. If you have views on the consultation do contact your MP or Lords about the Bill, or perhaps respond to the DCMS - email licensingconsultation@culture.gsi.gov.uk. The deadline for responses is 26 March 2010.

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