Opinion: Let live music flourish in small venues

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to see the Brit Awards 2010 at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. When people say that UK live music is doing well, this is what they mean – an enormous venue, world class talent, and an ecstatic crowd. I was particularly impressed with Florence Welch and Dizzee Rascal’s performance, which combined both of their distinct musical outlooks with great success.

Now that Labour has been booed offstage, the coalition partners have got up for a similarly ambitious duet. For such established solo performers, trying to make our different styles gel will be a challenge. But for the Liberal Democrats, it also represents an opportunity to bring about many aims for which we have long campaigned.

One of these is to resuscitate live music in small venues. Large premises such as Earls Court or the O2 Arena have had great success. But new artists need a place to hone their craft and gig goers want a diverse music culture. Meanwhile, small venues such as pubs, clubs and cafés have suffered in the recession. They need the freedom to stage music events and get punters through their doors.

What they have instead is the Licensing Act 2003, which is nothing short of a bureaucratic minefield. The Act removed previous exemptions for smaller performances and requires most live music to have a licence. For too many organisers and venue owners, it simply isn’t worth the effort. Even when music isn’t the main focus – when a restaurant only wants a pianist in the corner – the owners have to fill out the same amount of paperwork as they would for a much larger venue. Instead, they don’t bother, and a musician is out of a job.

The House of Commons DCMS Select Committee concluded that the Act hampered live music performances, especially ones by young musicians. The previous government had promised an ‘explosion’ in live music; instead, they are impeding the next generation of performers. A DCMS report claimed that live music was ‘thriving’, but could provide no evidence that this was true in small venues.

Making it easier for smaller venues to put on live music would not open the floodgates for anti-social behaviour, as some fear. There’s no evidence that staging live music leads to crime or disorder any more than other kinds of public gathering. Excessively noisy premises can already be served noise abatement orders under the Environmental Protection Act, or fined under the Clean Neighbourhood and Environment Act. And the exemptions we have been calling for would still be subject to review should residents complain.

The last government dithered endlessly in the face of our fears, offering no fewer than nine consultations and no improvements. Our Live Music Bill, championed by Lord Clement-Jones, made impressive headway but didn’t receive the government support it needed to get onto the statute books.

‘Styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions’, said Plato, and we are finally starting to see a ripple of effect in Parliament. The Coalition Agreement specifically states that the new government will “cut red tape to encourage the performance of more live music”. I questioned ministers about this commitment only last week, and their aim remains to bring about changes as quickly as possible. That’s why I am confident that, very soon, British musical talent will be flourishing in small venues once more.

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5 Comments

  • I couldn’t agree more.

    Also we need to implement some policy to stop people moving in to an area with an already well established music venue, and then complaining about it to get it’s license removed/the place shut down.

    This happens far too often, and there should be more safe guarding for venues that have a long tradition of providing valued entertainment. People should be expected to check these kinds of things before moving in to an area. Don’t like that there’s live music next door? Well why did you move in to a house next to a pub known for putting on live music?

  • The Licensing Act extended the scope of music licensing to such a draconian degree that Local Authorities have licensed a clown playing one note on a comedy trumpet, carol singing Brownies, a piano in a hospital, school musicals and so on.

    Sadly the most vociferous opposition to Lord Clement-Jones Live Music Bill came not from the Labour Party, but from the LGA and LACORS who have not only resisted any reform to the Licensing Act but are actively lobbying for more restrictions, including bizarrely a recommendation for the provision of bag-pipes to be licensed.

  • Well you know I agree Don…

    Of course what we must guarantee is that a further ‘broad and radical’ review, as suggested by the minister during Culture, Media and Sport questions, does not delay the immediate progress of the Order or Live Music Bill. This way, musicians and pubs struggling in the recession can benefit immediately, whilst the greater changes needed can take place as well.

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