The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin


Friday 16th June 2006 - Licensing: 'marked drop in live music in smaller venues' claim Musicians' Union

Writing about the Licensing Act on page 9 of the latest issue of Musician, the in-house journal for Musicians' Union members, General Secretary John Smith says:

'We do believe there is a marked drop in live music in smaller venues, especially the ones that previously benefited from the "two or fewer performers' exemption under the old PEL system...'

This important and worrying finding is rather incongruously located beneath a large photograph of the General Secretary beaming congenially at the reader. He  adds, however, that 'intense discussions with DCMS are taking place over these issues' and responds to an apparently 'small minority of members' who believe the union kow-towed to the government and lack a coherent policy on the Licensing Act. According to Mr Smith, the policy recently 're-considered' by the Executive Committee is clear, and includes:

'A pragmatic acceptance of the position we are now in - the Act is the law and we have to operate within its confines.' 'Adopting a "wait and see' position until the full impact of the Act is clear'.

The union will also commission more research of its own 'to complement the DCMS research'.

On key points this policy will fail the majority of members whose employment opportunities will diminish as a result of the Act.  Firstly, the 'confines' of the new law for live music are unclear and open to legal challenge; secondly, if the union already knows there has been a 'marked drop' in gigs, what is it waiting for? 

Where local authorities adopt interpretations that unnecessarily restrict members' employment surely the union has a responsibility to its members to do what it can to challenge such interpretations? What about licence conditions that deter venues from hosting live music? One common condition is the requirement to install and set up a noise limiter, which can cost around £2k. Unless the venue implements the condition, having live music is illegal. But the local authority could have issued a pre-emptive noise abatement notice under s.80 of the Environmental Protection Act, which allows the venue to propose its own measures to limit the noise. In most cases that would suffice, and would be a more proportionate process than an all-or-nothing £2k licence condition. The union could and should consider challenging such conditions in the courts on the basis that they are disproportionately restricting members' exercising their right to freedom of expression. The law requires that, where possible, all legislation must be interpreted compatibly with this right. Setting a precedent in favour of live music would have national significance.

Elsewhere in the magazine, under the headline 'State of the Nation' (p6), Assistant General Secretary Horace Trubridge is quoted:

'... This area [i.e. the Licensing Act] will continue to be a key priority for the Union until we are satisfied that our members' work opportunities, along with their health and safety, are at least being maintained and, ideally, improved by last year's changes.'

The implication that licensing and musicians' safety are inseparable is mistaken and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. It also suggests a shift from the Union's position when the Act was a Bill back in 2003. The safety risks associated with live music in bars or any other workplace are addressed by separate legislation irrespective of licensing. The MU and Arts Council employed an expert in safety and licensing law to brief members of the House of Lords explicitly on this point back in 2003.

And the implication that licensing might cease to be a key priority for the Union if the existing gig level is maintained is, frankly, ludicrous. The live music campaign drew its strength from the widespread view among musicians that existing performance opportunities were woefully inadequate.

Hamish Birchall