Feargal Sharkey: The act killing live music

For most musicians it is vital they can graduate from their bedroom to a live audience
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The Independent Online

Last week, an entire edition of BBC Two's The Review Show was dedicated to "the future of music". As is often the case, the ensuing debate was interesting and infuriating in equal measure, but I'll admit to feeling slightly perplexed when presenter Kirsty Wark portrayed an entire business on the verge of extinction. Journalist David Quantick went even further: claiming the music industry "hates people" and "deserves to die". Really? All of us?

Actually, UK music has had a pretty good year: another hugely successful festival season, stretching from May to September; a growing and diversifying digital business; and, most importantly of all, great artists, great innovation and great tunes – all encapsulated by one of the strongest Mercury Prize shortlists in years. It could be better, of course. We can do more and we must do more.

However, outdated stereotypes about "the industry" do raise some pertinent questions: for one, if the rest of the world perceives the UK as a musical powerhouse, why are we apparently unable to recognise what's in our own backyard? And why aren't we doing more to harness what is undoubtedly a growth sector? Especially in times of economic uncertainty. The current Licensing Act offers a case in point. Back in 2003, it was anticipated that this legislation – aimed primarily at relaxing drinking regulations – would lead to an "explosion" in live music.

The Act brought in a number of changes. The "two in a bar" rule was discontinued, while any venue wanting to put on live music events now had to receive authorisation from their local authority. That such red tape has stifled the provision of live music in small venues is irrefutable.

Under the previous government, this was a conclusion reached by eight separate consultations, two government research projects, two national review processes and a Parliamentary Select Committee report. All recommended that small venues were exempt from the licensing regime. With exquisite timing, Government announced yet another consultation on New Year's Eve 2009, and – as predicted – it was timed out with the announcement of a General Election.

The issue also united opposition parties. Liberal Democrat peer Tim Clement-Jones passed a Private Member's Bill through the House of Lords in February. Alas, it too fell, because of the General Election. In May, it became an official Coalition commitment to "cut red tape to encourage the performance of live music". Licensing minister John Penrose stated he would move as fast and as positively as he could towards improving the situation of live music and musicians. For the moment, Lord Clement-Jones has reintroduced his Live Music Bill to Parliament – a second reading is expected in October – but Government could clearly accelerate this process.

Technology has enabled new ways for artists to be creative, to collaborate and to share their work; but for the vast majority of those wishing to make music their career, it is vital they can graduate from their bedroom to a live audience.

The current Licensing Act is a barrier to that progress. It places unnecessary, unreasonable and disproportionate pressure on a fragile network of pubs, club, bars and restaurants where fledgling musicians can announce themselves to the world. These are the places where tomorrow's festival headliners are born.

But more than that, I also believe music should be a cause for celebration. We have an unrivalled heritage and a dazzling future. Let's embrace it. The benefits to our culture and society will be huge. And when it comes to growing our economy, creativity represents one of the UK's most untapped and vital assets.

Music is not dead, not by a long chalk. It just needs a little liberating.



The author is chief executive of UK Music. He will be in discussion with The Independent's Steve Richards at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool, tomorrow at 1pm

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