It's fun and spontaneous - so it must be banned

It is bewildering to see politicians push through a law that will undermine musical expression
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The Independent Online

As if it were big news, we have now been officially informed that the music a person plays is an indicator of character. Researchers from the University of Texas have announced that, if you like Bob Dylan, you are probably cheerful but not very sporty, while fans of the sex machine Barry White will generally have a dislike of conservatism. Fans of Jennifer Lopez, poor devils, tend to think of themselves as being physically attractive.

There is, of course, a more profound and interesting way in which music reveals personality, and that is the manner in which someone responds to a musical performance when it is played live. When the first chords of a piece are played from the corner of a restaurant, some of the diners will smile. Others will sag slightly, aware that live music requires a small responsive effort on the part of the audience, but will soon enter the spirit of things.

Then there will be one or two people who will frown and mutter. Before long they will be making those pained turn-it-down gestures that live musicians know so well. Sometimes, grim-faced, they will even walk out in search of a place where something taped and acceptable is playing.

In my experience - and I should confess that I have played the guitar in quite a few bars and restaurants in my time - there is something miserable, suppressed and generally uptight about anyone with a general dislike of live music unless he or she is sitting in a row and listening to it in silence. They tend to be control freaks - sad, bossy types who disguise some intimate dysfunction in their nature as a sense of social responsibility. A crude but accurate summary would be that those who hate live, free music are afraid of life itself, or at least want it to conform to certain rules that they have drawn up in advance.

These ghastly, fun-hating people, with their reasonable, bullying smiles, now control our lives from the heart of government. When they first came to power, they had seemed to be all right, as normal as politicians can get, but these days it is clear that they are as alienated from the mainstream of human experience as the dreary suburbanites who littered public life in the dying days of the Major government.

New Labour has found many ways to test the patience of those of us who once voted for them with hope and enthusiasm: the bewildering immorality of the invasion of Iraq; the cowardliness of their dealings with the government of Zimbabwe; the creepy obsession with big business; the doltish indifference towards rural issues. Yet, strangely, it is the apparently minor matter of the Government's Licensing Bill, currently passing through Parliament, which has definitively alienated me.

The essence of this idiotic and pernicious piece of legislation is that the owner of any public location where live music is played will be required to apply and pay for a public entertainment licence from the local authority. The sensible existing arrangement known as "the two in a bar rule", which allows single musicians or duos to play in public, will be abolished.

So, if the Licensing Bill becomes law, it will be illegal for someone to sing "Wichita Lineman" to piano accompaniment in a club. A group of folkies gathering for a regular singalong in a pub, as they do all over the country, will lay the publican open to a six-month prison sentence or a £20,000 fine. By mystifying contrast, a venue that plays taped music or has a large television screen blaring from the wall can do so without a licence.

This week, the Musicians Union has handed in a petition signed by over 110,000 people protesting about the Bill. But the Government has made clear that, in spite of a sensible amendment proposed by the House of Lords which would see pubs and clubs exempt, it plans to press ahead. Crushing the menace of someone strumming a guitar and singing is, they say, "a central plank of the Government's drive to tackle antisocial behaviour".

What on earth is going on here? I have seen some relatively antisocial behaviour from behind a guitar (shouting, food fights, vomiting, drug deals, various acts of intimate congress) but that was a particularly busy evening and I am almost certain that little, if any, of what happened was caused by my strumming "Lay Lady Lay" in the background.

It is genuinely bewildering to see politicians pushing through a law that will undermine musical expression and deprive millions of innocent enjoyment. Presumably, taped music is acceptable to the Government because it is a taxed, revenue-producing part of a capitalist society, while someone playing an instrument, singing, and encouraging others to sing, produces no profit for the Government and is therefore deemed to be a menace to all civilised society. Put another way, live music represents fun, spontaneity, individuality and freedom. So, of course, it must be suppressed.