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The day live music died

A new layer of government bureaucracy is threatening to pull the plug on pub rock. Andy McSmith reports

You are in a pub, having a good time, and someone walks in with a guitar, drink flows, and the crowd starts singing some old number like, say, "I Fought the Law (And the Law Won)". Before the evening is out, the poor publican could be fighting the law, and the law will win again.

Live music is fast disappearing from pubs, clubs, wine bars, restaurants and other small venues, musicians claim, because of a law passed in 2003, when the Government was trying to eliminate teenage violence that they associated with badly organised music events.

Hopes were raised recently when the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport ended a lengthy investigation into the 2003 Licensing Act by recommending that venues with a capacity of fewer than 200 people should be exempt.

But this week, the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, gave the Government's reply: it does not matter how small a venue is, it can still attract trouble. Mr Burnham has agreed to revisit the issue, but not for "at least a year", by which time there could be a different government.

The law says that a publican can show football on a large-screen television, or have piped music blaring out, but if there is a folk singer or rapper in the pub, there has to be a special licence called a Temporary Event Notice (TEN). According to the Musicians' Union, small venues have stopped putting on live music because managements do not want the hassle of filling out lengthy forms.

In London, which has perhaps the most vibrant live music scene of all, there is the additional hazard of form 696, compiled by Scotland Yard, which some people suspect is a deliberate device for suppressing the forms of music that black and Asian teenagers enjoy – dubstep, hip hop, ragga, and the rest.

"It's in the interest of the powers-that-be to shut these people up," Jon McClure, lead singer of Reverend and the Makers, claims. "It's not about knife crime, it's about stopping certain forms of music that they don't want to be there."

Lowkey, a British-Iraqi rapper, added: "I've seen it doing the clubs. On a night when they are expecting the white audience, there will be one bouncer on the door. On the next night, when there is a black audience, there will be bouncers everywhere, metal detectors, you have to show your passport and give your address. that kind of thing. They just assume that where there is a lot of brown people, there is going to be violence."

"These issues exist, but it's quite patronising to put so much emphasis on music as a catalyst. What they should address before that is the booze culture and the culture in the record industry of exploitation that glamorises violence."

But Mr Bradshaw said that his department "has considered exemptions for small venues, but has not been able to reach agreement on exemptions that will deliver an increase in live music whilst still retaining essential protections for local residents".

"There is no direct link between size of audience or number of performers and potential for noise nuisance or disorder," he claimed.

His decision provoked a furious reaction from musicians. Feargal Sharkey, chief executive of the charity UK Music, and former lead singer of the punk rock group the Undertones, said: "After six years of legislation, eight consultations, two government research projects, two national review processes and a parliamentary select committee report, all of which have highlighted the harmful impact these regulations are having on the British music industry, the Government's only reaction is yet another review."

Some of Mr Sharkey's examples of how the law works in practice are almost comical. The organisers of a "mummer", under which a troupe of performers travel from pub to pub to perform seasonal folk dramas, were told they must have a TEN for each pub on their route. They cut their schedule from 26 pubs to eight, but getting the licences still cost more than they raised for charity.

Form 696, which applies in London, gained particular notoriety because it demanded the ethnic background and personal details of every performer. One councillor who organised an event in aid of a cancer trust, at which no alcohol was to be sold, was banned from holding it after he refused to fill in form 696.

Jon McClure added: "The sad thing is that the music press, with very, very few exceptions, has been completely quiet on this issue. Where are our John Lennons or Joe Strummers to stand up and say 'this is terrible'? The vanguard of British music now has been these rappers. What has made Britain great is its really varied cultures. If we could mix them, we would have some stunning music."

Detective Chief Superintendent Richard Martin, of the Metropolitan Police pubs and vice squad, stressed that the question about performers' ethnic background was removed from form 696 eight months ago. A new, simplified version is being prepared, and he insisted its purpose is not to stamp out any musical genre.

"The important thing to remember is that even though we may ask someone to fill in one of these forms, and even if their venue is assessed as high risk, we very, very, seldom close them down. There were eight venues closed last year, out of thousands."

Bad form: The bureaucracy that has silenced the music

*Form 696 is a risk assessment form which, the Metropolitan Police says, gives it a clear idea of whether a planned musical event is likely to be a threat to law and order or a nuisance to people living nearby.

Although the police drew up the form, which is now being amended, it is up to local councils and to magistrates to complete it as a condition of granting a music licence. Currently, there are 70 venues in London, out of about 28,000, where no event can be held unless form 696 has been filled in.

The original version of form 696, since amended, asked after the ethnic background of all performers, and for their mobile phone numbers. It also singled out "Bashment [ sic], R'n'B, Garage" as musical genres in which the police apparently took a particular interest. Some saw this as racist.

The Met says that the form is simply a tool for protecting the public, including the young people at these gigs, and that, even when there is a high risk of trouble, it is very unlikely that police will close the venue. It happened eight times last year.

But on the Downing Street website there is a petition, organised by the singer Jon McClure, to "scrap the unnecessary and draconian usage of the 696 form from London music events". It has attracted 17,405 signatures. Gordon Brown has not yet responded.