Terence Blacker: Live music must be allowed to thrive

The meddlesome Licensing Act dealt a grievous blow to live performance

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It has already been a year of surprises, not all of them unpleasant. A world leader has dared to tell his people that it is time for them to grow up. Bankers have suddenly developed an interest in socialism. The BBC has refused to be bullied by the media. Best of all, the one sector to resist the general economic decline has not been the new media but a business which is just about as traditional as anything could be – live entertainment.

It seems that more people are becoming resistant to the flattened-out alternative reality that is available to them through computer screens. Online social networking may be fine in its way, but the community it offers is thin beside the flesh and blood reality of a live performance.

West End theatres, it has just been announced, enjoyed a record-breaking 2008, with takings three per cent up on the previous year. The entertainment group HMV, responding to a catastrophic decline in CD sales, is investing in 11 live music venues, including the Apollo in Hammersmith. Last year, revenue earned by live music overtook that generated by recordings.

Something more important than the enrichment of West End producers and promoters is likely to emerge from all this. There is a great renaissance of all kinds of live musical performance, and it seems directly connected to the harsh times through which we are beginning to live. As BBC4's excellent Folk America season is reminding us, the last Great Depression produced a great burgeoning of musical talent, from a variety of genres, much of which we still enjoy today.

Our politicians, always a step or two behind the beat, have been slow to recognise what is going on. A government which, not so long ago, boasted of Britain's "creative industries", introduced in 2003 the meddlesome, bureaucratic Licensing Act, which dealt a grievous blow to grass roots live performance by requiring any venue putting on music involving more than two musicians to apply for, and pay for, a license from the local authority.

In spite of widespread criticism, the Act continues to be enforced. In recent months, the Metropolitan Police have insisted that some venues putting on live music fill out, 14 days before any gig, a detailed four-page document known as Form 696. Elsewhere, the plods have turned music critic. Explaining why Pete Doherty's Babyshambles had been banned under the Act from appearing at a festival in Wiltshire, Superintendent Paul Williams explained that the band's tendency to "speed up and slow down the music" would create "a whirlpool effect" in the crowd.

This kind of madness brings back memories of the 1960s. Then, too, authorities feared the power of live music to express dangerously radical feelings and hopes, and tried to control it. Music, of course, won the day.

Significantly, the inauguration of Barack Obama became, after the formalities, a joyous musical event, in which that good old lefty Bruce Springsteen was to the fore. It is difficult to imagine similar scenes here – Alastair Darling and Jacqui Smith getting on down to Franz Ferdinand – but then the times require a bit of dash and bravery.

The Government should recognise live music as a great and positive force in difficult times, and remove the increasingly absurd restrictions that have been placed upon its performance.


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