The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin

Tuesday 13th October 2009 - MU joins licensing demo but shrinks from Number 10 petition

The Musicians Union is to join the Licensing Act demonstration outside Parliament on 22nd October. The demo was first announced by Equity on 30 September. But the MU is not promoting the Number 10 licensing petition which now has nearly 12,500 signatures:

Readers of the two unions' demonstration press releases, issued 10 days apart, might reasonably have concluded that this was not a joint project. Neither union cited the other as a participant. However, on 9th October the MU finally declared on their website that it is a joint demonstration, and that they continue to lobby for an exemption for small gigs:

'We are continuing to lobby the Government for a small venues exemption to the Licensing Act for gigs with 200 people or less. To this end, we are running a joint demonstration with Equity in Parliament Square on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 11.30am. The lobby is set to coincide with a debate later that afternoon in Parliament on licensing and live entertainment. A bulk email invitation has been sent out to all London, Gig, Jazz and Folk Section members.'

The MU goes on to justify their promotion of the existing exemption for 'incidental music'. However, their London office performance cited as an example is not comparable to a public gig in a bar, and in any case would have been exempt as a private not-for-profit event without recourse to the incidental music exemption. After four years of the new regime many local authorities continue to interpret the incidental music exemption restrictively, not allowing a duo in a restaurant, for example, if the gig is publicly advertised.

Significantly, the MU and Equity appear to differ over the possible reintroduction of the old 'two in a bar rule' - an entertainment licensing exemption for one or two live performers. Equity's publicity explicitly includes this as a desired outcome of lobbying. The MU publicity does not. An exemption for one or two unamplified live performers was one of the key recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, along with an exemption for venues up to 200 capacity, and the scrapping of Form 696. All were rejected by the government.

However, the two unions are most clearly divided over the Number 10 licensing petition. Equity continues to encourage members to sign: but the MU confirmed last week that it is not promoting the petition on the grounds that 'it is factually incorrect in that the Licensing Act does not criminalise live music'.

This is very strange, because even licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe seems to accept that the Act criminalises live music. In a recent letter to Labour MP Roger Berry he implicitly accepted the description:

'Although live music campaigners often talk of the criminalisation of theoretically innocuous activities, such as putting a piano in a pub, it should be remembered that some premises are very close or even adjacent to private residences and even such supposedly harmless activities can cause noise nuisance. The Licensing Act 2003 does not prevent live music taking place, but it does ensure that some consideration is given to how local residences and businesses might be affected by it.'

It is also unlikely that the Number 10 petition website team would have allowed the petition if it were misleading. Their petition terms and conditions state:

'... where a petition is accepted which contains misleading information we reserve the right to post an interim response to highlight this point to anyone visiting to sign the petition.'

Strictly speaking, the Act criminalises the unlicensed provision of live music, where a licence is required, not the music-making. But this is really hair-splitting. In any case, the legislation is sweeping in the range of events that it captures, defining a premises as 'any place', and with only limited exemptions explicitly set out in the Act. Musicians are among those who may face prosecution for illegal gigs. Although venue managers and gig promoters are those most likely to be prosecuted, musicians would be in the firing line too if they were concerned in the organisation or management of the event.

So, for practical purposes the Act does criminalise live music. Lawyers active in the campaign endorse this position. Richard Bridge, solicitor and folk musician, said:

'Providing live music for an audience is a crime, and so is providing a piano for anyone to play to amuse themselves, whether there is an audience or not, unless it is licensed. There are other relaxations but they do not affect the central thrust. It seems to me that "criminalising live music" is a very fair description.

'That leaves the question of what the Musicians' Union thinks it is up to.'


Hamish Birchall