The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin


Wednesday 7th June 2006 - Licensing: 'a level playing field for all musicians' claim DCMS

With the 2006 World Cup about to start, it is perhaps a good time to consider that overworked metaphor 'level playing field' and the implications for live music.

Only this week the press office for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, told me that licensing reform creates a level playing field for all musicians.

This is nonsense, of course. I tried to explain to them that a) during last year's transition period the new Act automatically allowed bars and restaurants converting their old alcohol licence to keep the right to play recorded music (using DJs) while removing the exemption for one or two live musicians - at a stroke that tilted the playing field steeply against live music; b) the broadcast entertainment exemption obviously discriminates against live performers.

DCMS press office would have none of it. They claimed that they had merely set out 'government policy', adding:

'... as Richard Caborn told Parliament on July 8 2003: "Let me deal with the two-in-a-bar argument from the Musicians Union. Before we published the White Paper, the union told us that it needed a level playing field for live music, with permission to hold music events that involved any number in pubs and restaurants at low cost. We have delivered what the Musicians Union requested."'

But this is just more tosh.

Firstly, what the Musicians' Union may or may not have requested years ago is irrelevant to the question about whether or not the new Licensing Act actually creates a level playing field for all musicians.

Secondly, Richard Caborn was being disingenuous. The licensing White Paper was published on 10 April 2000. Whatever the MU position had been prior to that date, by August 2000 a new position was being set out publicly by former general secretary Dennis Scard.

'Dennis Scard, general secretary of the Musicians' Union, is lobbying the government to rule that the new licences will automatically allow live music.' [Time Out, 'The late late-licensing show', Ruth Bloomfield, August 16-23, 2000, p14]

If live music were automatically allowed, that means not 'low cost' but no cost. As we now know, the 'cost nothing extra' claims of ministers have been proved false for many licensees.

In his statement of 8 July 2003, Caborn also forgot to mention that only three months before, the MU, Arts Council and music industry had backed a Conservative amendment to the then Licensing Bill which would have exempted small venues from licensing for live music. That was shot down by the government using a quote from a senior police officer that live music 'brings people from outside that community and having no connection locally behave in a way that is inappropriate, criminal and disorderly'.

Throughout the Licensing Bill's passage through Parliament, November 2002 to July 2003, Culture ministers issued dire warnings about the need to licence live music on public safety, crime and disorder grounds. Panic tactics, in short, intended in part at least to stiffen the spine of wavering Labour backbenchers. And now these deceitful reasons for abolishing the two musician exemption have been quietly dropped. Even the remaining noise justification is rubbish: local authorities and the police have plenty of legislation to regulate noisy premises.

What does this year's World Cup have in store for licensing ministers? Reliable sources suggest that DMCS press office has conducted a 'war cabinet' by way of preparation.

Hamish Birchall