Live Music Exchange Blog

Licensing to kill? – Adam Behr


More bad weather for the Edinburgh live music ecology, with chilly conditions across Scotland, and for other activities.

The situation for local live music is already problematic given Edinburgh’s disappearing venue situation. Now, changes in the law to come into effect, appropriately enough, on April Fools’ Day threaten to put more tacks in the road for artists and enthusiast promoters alike. They stem from the 2010 Criminal Justice Act (Scotland), which itself amended the 1982 Act. To cut a legal and technical story to the chase, the provisions of the new act pertain to which events and premises require a public entertainment license from the council to go ahead. The 2010 Act removes the exemption that applied to free entertainments.

It remains up to councils to decide which types of event go on the list of those requiring public entertainment licenses. Pressure in Glasgow has resulted in a decision to exclude free and temporary events for six months while they consult on the regulation of public entertainment. A respite, then, although it leaves open the question of what lies further ahead. Edinburgh council is due to meet on March 8th to make a decision.

This opens up a catering sized can of worms of regarding a number of issues, which straddle practical and theoretical concerns, and provide a stark illustration of the overlap between them.

To start with, there is the dynamic between levels of government. At a public meeting in Edinburgh’s Out of the Blue (which has problems of its own at the moment) a beleaguered looking Councillor Rob Munn had to contend with the understandable concerns of the city’s grassroots organisers and practitioners. This grenade has landed in local government’s lap due to a change in Scottish law, but since the ultimate discretion about applying the limits of that law lie at local level, the onus is on councils as to how to nurture or restrict ground level activity. It does seem slightly contradictory that as the U.K government passes the  Live Music Bill to make it easier to put on shows, the Scottish government is taking this action. As ever, from whatever level of government the law originates, events take place in a locality of some sort and it’s on the ground that the impact is felt. In this case the practical considerations go beyond the possibility of a license fee, however nominal this may or may not turn out to be.

Shop and café owners, artists and musicians, community organisers– all are concerned about the logistical impact of having to apply for licenses to host small-scale acoustic events or exhibitions. Notwithstanding the stock image of ‘arty types’ not being very good at bureaucracy, many of the small businesspeople supporting them put in long hours beyond a standard working week in the normal run of things. They don’t have the staff, time or infrastructure to deal with Mr. Munn’s “little bit of form filling” while the council seeks a more permanent solution which may lift something like an acoustic set at a bookshop out of the licensing requirements.

Secondly, there’s the matter of the relationship between the grassroots and the bigger businesses. The interdependence of small and large-scale operations also applies to commercial and non-commercial operations. Music, as Ruth Finnegan has pointed out, is one of the ‘pathways’ through which people negotiate their social and cultural lives. There isn’t a binary opposition between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ but rather a trajectory for the career oriented and a spectrum for everyone. Amateur dramatics, operatics and choirs share, and employ, personnel from within the professional world. And in alot of popular music, amateur playing forms the very foundation of the whole shooting match. The free gig in a café is the bottom rung of the same ladder where a stadium gig is the top. It takes years for artists to put their creativity to work on a paying basis, if they ever do. Matthew Young of Song By Toad records cited  Withered Hand and Meursault as artists who emerged from this type of  grassroots activity to move on to bigger venues and wider attention. His impassioned plea at Edinburgh’s meeting received the loudest applause of the night.

“Every band that I’ve known that has gone from playing someone’s living room to playing somewhere like the Queen’s Hall… They’ve all started out playing gigs that have been put on by amateurs. People who’ve got kids, people who’ve got jobs, people who can barely be organised enough to even put posters up for the gigs sometimes…Without this melting pot at the bottom, these amateurs who feel the need to do it, they do it for a few years before they find it too wearing… the commercial side will seriously suffer as well.”

And this is before we even consider things like the definition of ‘entertainment’ or the limits of a public event. When does a spontaneous open jam in a back garden bleed over into a free gig? And to barstardise Reith’s dictum about the BBC’s mission, surely we’d agree that there are overlaps between entertainment, information and education?

Thirdly, there’s the matter of the role of the state in our cultural lives at all. Publisher and activist Kevin Williamson applied a ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument. It’s one thing to have to apply for a license here and now, but what if someone wants to put on a sensitive or politically controversial piece with a different regime at the helm. There’s a potential bureaucratic barrier to spontaneous responses to events lurking in this legislation if it’s applied to its widest extent. Are there also longer-term implications for free expression?

“Art and the state should be kept 100% separate”, said Williamson.

Well there are complications there too. I wonder if it’s even possible to keep art and the state so completely apart. It’s easy to be chary about the potential for state involvement in the arts if it threatens censorship, and quite right too. But fewer people would reject all state involvement if that included grants and financial support, although even that requires some consideration of the context. As John Street has noted, state support for the arts offers quandaries of its own regarding opportunity cost. Funding something inevitably means money that isn’t spent elsewhere. If we fund those things that aren’t self-sustaining, are we supporting minority tastes? How many of us attend state subsidised opera? On the other hand, do we really want to leave our cultural lives to the not so tender mercies of the market? Seems that a local council vote means more than an X Factor vote after all although I’d be interested to see a comparison of how many of each are cast.

Art and commerce, local and national, the state and culture– big deals from a section 176 of prosaic legislation about the definition of ‘public entertainment licenses’. But we need to have these conversations. MSP Malcolm Chisolm suggested the problem was a lack of clarity. Perhaps this is so. Maybe ambiguity has allowed for a power tool designed for major events where health and safety is a genuine concern to skid over the grassroots. Party politics aside, at the root of this is a lack of thought about the practical effects of what might seem abstract. As Frank Zappa once observed, “bad facts make bad laws”. The same is true today. It’s doubtful whether Edinburgh council will be able to consider all these things when it meets. What’s not in doubt is that its decision could have a considerable chilling effect, creating some rather dreary facts on the ground for local culture.

Adam Behr

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


2 thoughts on “Licensing to kill? – Adam Behr

This site is a space for comment and discussion. Please refrain from promotional activities such as advertising gigs or releases, offers of free downloads or similar. Any spam activity will be removed from the site.

  1. Pingback: The Cultural Value of Live Music: An introduction to the project – Adam Behr |

  2. Pingback: Live Music 101 #6 – What makes for a ‘healthy’ musical city? – Emma Webster and Adam Behr | Dr Emma Webster

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *