The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin


Wednesday 12th November 2008 - Police use entertainment licensing to tackle terrorism

The Metropolitan Police are asking London councils to use the Licensing Act to demand the name, address and date of birth of all performers two weeks in advance of performances, claimed Feargal Sharkey at yesterday's Culture Committee hearing.

Both Sharkey and John Smith of the MU warned again that the Act was harming small venues. Sharkey cited an example of the lunacy of the new law: a choir in the south west that now asks the local vicar to bless the harbourside where they perform so that it becomes a place of religious worship, and thereby exempt from the need for a licence under the Act.

Listen to these and other excerpts from Culture Committee evidence on the BBC Radio 4 Today broadcast of this morning, Wed 12 November 2008, 6.46am:
[click on the Listen Again link - the item commences 46 minutes and 24 seconds into the programme]

... or read my transcript below:

Jim Naughtie: MPs have been told that new licensing laws are causing a decline in the number of small venues playing live music. You remember there were threats that that would be the outcome. Feargal Sharkey, who's the former lead singer of the Undertones, Chief Executive of British Music Rights, told the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee at the Commons that the bureaucracy and the cost of getting a licence to play live was deterring many from, many smaller venues from booking musicians. Here's our Parliamentary correspondent Susan Hume.

Hume: The pulp band the Undertones became a huge chart success, but, like every struggling group, they didn't start out that way. Back in 1976 the Undertones were playing venues like St Mary's Scout Hall and Masons pub. Today the former lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, is still grateful to those clubs and pubs.

Sharkey: From my own personal experience it is the first and only opportunity that young musicians, performers, singers, have to begin to appear in public and develop their talent, their craft and their ability. And without those little rooms there would be fundamentally no six billion pound a year industry.

Hume: Thirty years on and Feargal Sharkey has moved on from those teenage gigs. Now a man in a suit, he's chief executive of UK Music, which represents the whole of the British music industry, and he was appearing before MPs on the Culture Committeee to talk about the effect of the 2003 Licensing Act on live music in England and Wales. The Act, he said, was squeezing music at its grass roots because small venues couldn't face the bureaucracy and the cost of getting a licence. Sitting beside him, John Smith from the Musicians' Union described why pubs and restaurants often just gave up.

Smith: They had to say what kind, what genre of music it would be. They had to talk about the number of performers they wanted, and this was very restrictive if you're running a wine bar or a restaurant. And I think a lot of them said 'Well I can't be bothered'.

Hume: But the Act didn't just catch out dangerous young men with guitars. Feargal Sharkey told the story of a choir down in south west England made up of, as he put it, singers 'in the autumn of their lives'. They regularly sang down at the village harbour to raise money for charity.

Sharkey: They were told by the local authority that they were not in a position to do that any longer as they would require a licence. Now I did speak to the chairman of that choir at great length and the ruse that they had found to circumnavigate the interpretation of the local authority is that this summer on a Sunday afternoon they would take the local vicar with them to the harbourside and the local vicar would then bless the harbour, instantly transforming it into a place of religious worship which, [MP laughter] which of course is exempt from the legislation, and they could then sing a few songs and collect some money for the local charity.

Hume: The police had wanted all venues to get licences because of concern that live music could attract rowdiness and crime. But Feargal Sharkey insisted there was no evidence of that. The Committee chairman wasn't so sure, though. Today John Whittingdale is a Tory MP with a sensible haircut and a dark suit. But underneath, Johnnie is a punk rocker, or at least he was.

Whittingdale: Going back into my distant youth, I used to attend concerts by bands like Sham 69 and The Angelic Upstarts which certainly were focuses for public disorder. Erm, the last Sham 69 concert I went to was stopped half-way through since a rather substantial fight broke out in the middle of the Round House...

Sharkey: ... which I hope you weren't involved in chair ...

Whittingdale: ...[a few words inaudible] well, but you would accept that there are certain bands that do attract that kind of...

Sharkey: Erm I think it perhaps very important to remember chairman it was, with as much humility and respect as I can possibly muster, erm without, er, possibly passing any indication as to your age and mine at this point, but that was indeed 30 years ago.

Hume: Nowadays he said there was no trouble at concerts. But Feargal Sharkey was worried that the Metropolitan Police had decided to use the Licensing Act not to help them prevent anarchy in the UK, but terrorism. He said the Met had asked councils in London to demand some pretty difficult conditions from anyone planning a live event, including a risk assessment form.

Sharkey: First is a question on the front page which asks for the musical style to be played or performed. Example: basement, r&b or garage. Quite why the Metropolitan Police think they need this information I have no idea, but it may be nothing more than a happy, passing coincidence that those three kinds of music are all three genres of music that would be appealing to a large audience of young black or asian people.

Hume: He said the form also demanded to know the name, address and date of birth of all performers two weeks in advance of the performance. Any departure from these rules might mean a venue was never granted the go-ahead for another concert. Even a recent performance by himself and, wait for it, the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, could be caught out.

Sharkey: Should the Secretary of State and I choose to repeat that performance, I suppose that we will be providing our name, address, date of birth and contact numbers to the Met Police at least in 14 days [in advance] of the event taking place to ensure that we are not in any way a threat to the prevention of terrorism.

Hume: So, the gig made a useful political point, but it probably wasn't the high water mark of the Feargal Sharkey's musical career, which is why it was one of his old Undertones albums that the Committee secretary sidled up to him with afterwards to get autographed.


Hamish Birchall