As a magazine, SOS deals primarily with recorded music; but few readers can have failed to hear about some worrying proposed changes to the UK's live music licensing laws. Currently, up to two musicians can play in a pub, restaurant or other suitable venue without restriction (as long as they're not causing a nuisance), but bands of three or more must be covered by the appropriate entertainments licence. This situation clearly favours karaoke, duos and players who use backing tracks, while making life more difficult for bands. Because of this, it's been suggested on more than one occasion that the government might do something to improve the situation — note that the more sensible Scots have no such entertainment licensing laws and wisely use existing nuisance regulations to curb excessively noisy events.
As with most government documents, extracting any coherent meaning from what's being proposed is quite difficult, but it seems that their idea of an improvement is to require all live music that's open to the public and performed for gain in any venue, indoors or out, to be licensed. Pubs will be able to get the necessary entertainment licence along with their drinks licence, and it will, we're told, "automatically be granted providing there are no objections from the police, the fire services, or members of the public". Restrictions might also be placed on the times performances are allowed, rather than leaving this to the more logical mechanisms of the current nuisance laws — so you may have to stop playing a 10pm regardless of whether you're a 20kW rock band or a solo classical guitarist.
Any venue that isn't a licensed hostelry will still have to pay for an entertainments licence and jump through whatever hoops are required to get one if they want any live music at all, even a solo violinist serenading diners in a restaurant. Discos and other forms of canned music are also caught by the bill, but broadcast radio or TV music, televised football matches and so on are exempt. Any pleas to the effect that acoustic music should also be exempt on the grounds that it's generally quieter than discos have been dismissed, possibly on the off-chance that you might book the Dagenham Girl Pipers to play! Furthermore, it appears that the onus is on the musicians — not the venue owner — to establish whether or not the venue has the appropriate licence before performing, and failure to do so could lead to a £20,000 fine or six months in prison.
While churches are exempt from this bill (unless hosting non-church-related events such as concerts), carol singing or Morris dancing are included as they're classed as entertainment. Outdoor charity events, local music festivals and even busking must also be covered by a temporary site licence or the same penalties apply. Not only that, but if you stick to the letter of the proposed law, rehearsal rooms and music recording studios will also need licences as their services are available to members of the paying public.
With all of this in mind, I suggest we all scrutinise this bill, and, if we think it unreasonable, oppose it in every possible way, which includes signing the various on-line petitions and contacting your local MP. Unfortunately, my own MP sent back a standard letter in support of the bill with no additional comment, despite the fact that he's a Tory! In my letter, I'd suggested that having a penalty system where the sentence for 20 illegally sung Christmas carols being roughly equivalent to that for murdering a small child was somewhat unjust.
Only a good lawyer would know where to look for the loopholes, and I can only hope the Musicians' Union is looking into such things. A current estimate suggests that up to 100,000 venues in the UK could be affected, and if we don't make our voices heard, this silliness could be passed during March 2003. So please check out this Bill and oppose any elements that you feel are unjust — otherwise, live entertainment may become just a fond memory in many areas.
Paul White Editor In Chief