Live music being killed by 'cocktail of legislation'

Music venues and ancient pubs are being forced to close as new neighbours complain, reports Kevin Rawlinson
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The Independent Culture

Generations of Geordies have danced, drank and sung there. Bands, the famous and not-so, have graced its stage. The listed Quayside building with a whitewashed facade has welcomed thousands of people to gigs, club nights and salsa-dancing lessons over 40 years. That came to an end last month, as the Cooperage became the latest victim of a "cocktail of legislation" which lawyers and musicians warn is poisoning British music venues.

In the past year, dozens of live music venues shut, unable to afford expensive sound-proofing to satisfy noise-abatement orders. Many had been around for generations but fell foul of legislation brought in at the same time as extended opening hours. This meant that residents could, for the first time, complain about noise levels in pubs and clubs at any time, and not just after 11pm.

Figures from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health show that at least 19,000 complaints about noise from commercial premises were received by local authorities in 2007-08, the last year for which figures are available.

"It used to be that the issue of noise was handled simply by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but now the whole thing is such a mess that the Home Office is giving seminars on how to stay on the right side of the law," said Clare Eames, who specialises in licensing law. "Landlords can be taken to task under so many different pieces of legislation at present that they often don't know how to stay within the law."

She added: "This cocktail of legislation is making it too difficult for pubs to put live music on safely, so many simply turn off the amps and pack away the drum kits."

If neighbours complain about noise, landlords now face fixed-penalty notices under the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act and Noise Abatement Notices, or a fine of up to £20,000 under the Environmental Protection Act 1980.

They can also be issued with 24-hour closure orders under the 2003 Antisocial Behaviour Act. The police have a similar power under the Licensing Act 2003.

A succession of bars renowned for their live music have been forced to turn down the volume. The Rainbow in Birmingham and the Point in Cardiff have found themselves in trouble after residents complained.

For the Cooperage, like others before, problems began after flats were built next door. Residents' complaints forced Newcastle City Council to issue a noise abatement order requiring the brewery, Enterprise Inns, to upgrade the bar's sound-proofing. The brewer, instead, closed the pub, giving staff four days' notice.

Ms Eames said: "A lot of the time, flats are being built next to a pub, which, in some cases has been there for hundreds of years. Then complaints result in its closure."

Musicians have also attacked the laws. Brian Travers, the UB40 saxophonist, told The Independent: "There would have been no UB40 without bars such as the Rainbow and the Cooperage. In any city, you could play live in almost any bar in the mid- and late-1970s. We could only make our way because we could get gigs in places like that.

"Pubs like these are a very important part of British culture. The Prodigy and La Roux have played at the Rainbow. These are Mercury Award-nominated artists."

He added: "Almost every band starts trying to emulate their favourite bands and some carry on and make a career out of it; that's how it works. Where are tomorrow's bands, DJs, artists going to go? The closure of bars like this is killing live music in this country."

More than 11,000 people have joined the Cooperage's "Save the Coop" Facebook group. Donations have rolled in to try to help buy the bar and keep it running in its present form.

"We want to show the brewery that we are serious and that the support is there," said Callum Costello, the former barman who set up the group. "This is about saving an institution in this city. Just about everyone in Newcastle who has picked up a guitar has played there; it's the kind of place people play their first gigs at."

Mr Costello suggested that the law should be changed so it would not apply to residents who bought a property knowing there was a live music venue nearby.

Ms Eames said that some powers are being used with increased regularity to tackle not only loud music but also the noise of customers in beer gardens. "The array of powers can be confusing not only for the operators but also those using them," she added.

The costs involved in complying with orders can be enough to force a bar's closure. Ms Eames explained: "We have seen a marked increase in both residential and business neighbours making complaints to the councils triggering use of the powers."

The Point in Cardiff Bay filed for insolvency in February after noise complaints drove it to spend large sums on sound-proofing. In a statement, its owners said: "The burden of the debt that we took on ... as well as the loss of revenue while the refurbishment works were undertaken, has meant we have been left with no option but to seek voluntary liquidation. Many people have put their heart and soul in turning the Point into the magical venue that it is and we have received huge and loyal support over the years from fans and bands alike."