Live music is too seditious for the English

By midnight the place was bedlam, with sing-songs, dancing on tables and acts of sexual intimacy
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The Independent Online

By a happy accident of timing, a campaign by the Musicians' Union to reform the mad and punitive laws covering live music has been launched in the very week that the Government announced its own noise-pollution initiative – a plan to turn large parts of the South-east of England into the world's busiest airport. While three people singing together in a pub is, according to the law, an offence against civilised living, the creation of a sky full of droning, whining, screaming machinery is deemed to be a price worth paying for greater profits for industry.

By a happy accident of timing, a campaign by the Musicians' Union to reform the mad and punitive laws covering live music has been launched in the very week that the Government announced its own noise-pollution initiative – a plan to turn large parts of the South-east of England into the world's busiest airport. While three people singing together in a pub is, according to the law, an offence against civilised living, the creation of a sky full of droning, whining, screaming machinery is deemed to be a price worth paying for greater profits for industry.

The MU, with the help of the saintly activist Billy Bragg – the Bard of Barking – is making a relatively simple point. Legislation in England forbids more than two people singing or playing an instrument in a pub or a club unless its owner has been granted a public entertainment licence, which can cost up to £20,000 a year. The same law does not apply to taped music or the sound of a large-screen TV, so that, while any establishment can deafen its customers with the dance anthem of the moment or a screaming football commentary from Jonathan Pearce, it must ban unlicensed three-part harmonies played to an acoustic guitar.

Unsurprisingly, 95 per cent of pubs avoid the cost and hassle of getting an entertainment licence. The effect is to make it incomparably more difficult to earn a living as a musician and to stifle music where it most needs to grow – at its roots.

Over the past few days there has been quite a fuss about all this. Deploying his impressive publicity skills, Bragg has been photographed outside a pub near Downing Street, playing "I Fought the Law and the Law Won", supported by a group of non-singing MPs. The campaign against the tax on music has been supported by Equity, the Arts Council and, rather dashingly, the Church of England. An early-day motion, signed by 200 MPs, has been put down in the Commons and, in response, the culture minster Kim Howells has agreed that the current situation is "idiotic". His department is working on revising the law but, typically, it seems to involve more nannying, not less. Under the proposed new rules, pubs would require a permit to hire even a single musician.

It is convenient to dismiss the two-in-a-bar law as a freak of legislation, but, as any musician who has performed in a pub will know, there is a reason for it.

Instinctively, the English do not like live music; or, rather, they believe that its proper place is in the concert hall or theatre. When confronted by someone singing or playing an instrument at a place where they were planning to eat or drink, their first reaction is one of mild irritation. A performance requires some kind of response. Unlike a tape or TV, it cannot easily be ignored. Unlike their Celtic neighbours – significantly, this legislation does not apply in Scotland – the English are emotionally lazy. They resist the small personal demands that live music makes on them.

Yet, oddly, they are also rather embarrassed by their own reticence. They even recognise that, after a couple of drinks, they could actually enjoy live music. I used to play and sing at a dive where there was not only music until two in the morning, but regular appearances from strippagrams, grannygrams, vicargrams and even – a particular horror – rolly-polygrams.

When customers first sat down to eat, they would look disapprovingly in the direction of the band, but by midnight the place would be bedlam, with sing-songs, dancing on tables and, on the better nights, acts of sexual intimacy taking place in the darker corners.

The heroes who busk for a living on the London Underground know all about the English apathy to live music. A stubborn, glazed look settles on the face of many commuters as they approach someone who is daring to impose on their little private world by playing music. Not long ago, the Underground authorities, as part of a ruthless campaign to rid themselves of buskers, attempted to drown out the pockets of real music by playing loud muzak. There were remarkably few objections to this policy, although only someone with severely defective hearing could argue that the disgusting canned music was more acceptable, less intrusive than the work of even the most talentless performer.

For all the pious words emanating from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the two-in-a-bar law may be "idiotic", but it also reflects the real, if shamefaced, attitude of the English towards live music when it is part of everyday life.

It may well be that the Bard of Barking, and all the great quangos, unions and churches that support him, will manage to break through this resistance to the dangerous fun and life of unscheduled music, but personally I would not be surprised if on this occasion when Billy fought the law, the law won.

terblacker@aol.com

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