It is not often that a pop musician, doing a bit of high-profile moonlighting in public life, comes out with remarks which resound with sober good sense, but Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of the Undertones, managed it this week. As chairman of the Live Music Forum (LMF), a committee set up by the department of Culture, Media and Sport to look into the effects of the 2003 Licensing Act, Sharkey was reporting on their findings.
The law, which required a venue putting on any kind of live music to be licensed, has been subject to “overzealous or incorrect interpretation” by local councils, the LMF reported. These days an acoustic folk duo playing in the corner of a country pub would risk a fine as would a male voice choir singing in a town square for charity, a folk society or a school brass band. Musicians and their audiences have lost out. “It is these little rooms at the back of little pubs that sustain the £6bn business called the music industry,” Sharkey said in an interview.
He might have gone further. Music is not just a business. Often, particularly at this time of the year, it feels like the beat of life itself. It brings people together, offering hope and cheerfulness in gloomy, difficult times. In the months of summer, the benign effects of different kinds of live music are to be seen from Glyndebourne to Glastonbury, from Wembley stadium to a marquee on a village green.
The reason why Sharkey’s warnings about the Licensing Act caught me at a peculiarly receptive moment was that I had just enjoyed three days of memorably varied music. It had started with the premiere at the Manchester International Festival of Damon Albarn’s mind-blowing production of Monkey: Journey to the West, a spectacular cultural fusion of opera, animation, circus and variety show, and had ended at a local village concert where the stars were an accomplished teenage duo called Sam and Daisy, who harmonised to their own compositions, supported by a band of rock veterans called the Moonrakers, formed in 1959.
The music of Damon, Sam, Daisy and the Moonrakers was as different as live music can be, but the joy of those playing and those listening had a lot in common. As the world grows more impersonal and virtual, people have increasingly been reminded that nothing provides a more potent and joyful sense of community than shared music. Its effect is visible on a grand scale with global events such as last weekend’s musical Dianafest and the forthcoming Live Earth concerts, but it is also in evidence – and this is Sharkey’s point – in small local venues.
Recorded music is in serious decline. Now that virtually anyone can record themselves and, thanks to a computer programme, make the lamest noise sound good, the medium has become as unreliable as computer dating. By contrast, performance has never been more popular. Live music makes people feel alive. It ignores the barriers and divisions of the non-musical world. Albarn’s Monkey brings together the East and the West, a classical form and a rock sensibility, traditional instruments and contemporary rhythms, a 15th-century tale and a form that is utterly of the moment. On a humbler level, a village festival that presents musicians decades apart in age is also a subtle uniting force. Often the beginning of all this, as Sharkey says, is the back room of a pub.
Even by the impressive standards of New Labour, the idea that two old boys singing to an accordion caused more potential disruption in a pub than a large plasma TV screen showing football was bizarre, and the effect of licensing legislation has already been disastrous. A large number of pubs and restaurants which used to have music failed to fill in the forms required for a license application for reasons of money or, more frequently, time. Musicians have reported a significant reduction of gigs available to them.
The Live Music Forum has been remarkably modest in its proposals. Music that is “incidental”, in that it is not the reason why people attend a venue, should be exempt, as should anything played acoustically. If fewer than 100 people are in the audience, a licence should not be required.
Our newish government would do well to reflect on what the Blair years have done for public entertainment: the enthusiastic introduction of casinos, the liberalisation of drink laws – and a harsh crackdown on musicians and their audiences. It was not so long ago that Gordon Brown talked about Britain’s “reinvigorated sense of community” and referred mistily to a sense of belonging and local pride that he remembered from his past. Those things are celebrated best of all in, and by, music. It is time for the Licensing Act to be amended.