The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin

Wednesday 16th September 2009 - Equity demo against Licensing Act

Equity, the actors and entertainers union, is organising a demonstration outside Parliament at noon on 22 October 'to convince the government to undo the damage being done to live entertainment by the current licensing regime.'

All performers are invited, and full details are available on their website:

See also this report in The Stage:

Equity also calls on members to lobby their MPs and to sign the online petition asking the Prime Minister to rethink his government's opposition to new exemptions for small gigs recommended earlier this year by the Culture Committee. The petition is nearing the 12,000 signature mark:

The union's very public campaign is in marked contrast to the Musicians' Union which now seems to be in a state of virtual paralysis on this vital issue.

Indeed, the MU's latest move tends to undermine the case for new exemptions. Last week they announced that there would be a live band at their AGM on Monday, 28th September:

They claim that Lambeth council, the licensing authority, gave the performance a green light as 'incidental music' and it was therefore exempt from the licensing requirement. The MU aim is to encourage pubs and restaurants to make more use of the incidental music exemption.

But the gig was exempt in any case, without recourse to the incidental music exemption, because it was private and not for profit. This is not comparable to a typical pub or restaurant gig, even if the music is not the main reason for people being there. As Feargal Sharkey has said, local authorities have had four years to get the incidental exemption right, and they have failed.

The MU press release seems to be part of their collaboration with the Local Government Association's live music working group, set up in the summer. The LGA is opposed to new live music exemptions, and wants the working group to promote the 'incidental exemption' as an alternative, along with the much criticised £89 'minor variations' process.

So why has the MU lost its way? One reason may be that the MU is politically affiliated and makes regular large donations to the Labour party. Another is that many orchestral members jobs, and large-scale jazz events, depend on government funding. Even though this is meant to be at 'arms length', through the Arts Council, the government nonetheless could make things difficult if the union were to rock the boat too much.

Equity, by contrast, is not politically affiliated, and makes no political donations. This fundamental constitutional difference may explain the widening gulf between the two unions on this campaign.

Consider the MU statement from 14 July on the government's rejection of the Culture Committee recommendations. There is no call for action from members, and no indication that the union intends to do anything significant at all:

Contrast that with Equity's position:

In 2007 the MU issued a public response to the Licensing Act, signed by general secretary John Smith. It included this recommendation:

'... we strongly believe that there is a clear case for such an exemption to be introduced for venues with a capacity of 100 or less.'

Smith concluded: 'We urge the government to seriously consider the above recommendations from the MU. The Act is unlikely to deliver the government's promised improvements to the live music scene in England and Wales unless they are acted upon.'
['Musicians Union - Licensing Act 2003 Statement of Union Policy', para 15(vi) 'Recommendations - Exemption for micro venues']

Members might reasonably ask John Smith whether the MU has now abandoned that goal.


Hamish Birchall