Live Music Exchange Blog

Curfews askew: Some thoughts on gigs and the games – Adam Behr


Now that The Games are almost afoot, naysaying is an increasingly unfashionable position. They’re here now – enjoy. Not the most consistent of arguments – it’s like saying, “I’ve been threatening to crash your house and hold a party for weeks, but now that it’s in full drunken flow, you’re as well grabbing a beer and getting into the swing of things”.

Still, Lord (Coe) forbid I break the consensus. I’ll lean instead towards the slightly more fashionable pastime of knocking Snow Patrol. Sort of. It’s not the band, or any of the others in the Olympic Hyde Park gig line-up, that I’m wondering about here.  I greeted the news that Snow Patrol will go onstage at 11.10pm, and with a 1am curfew a little quizzically, with a dash of dismay. This isn’t, you understand, because I reside within the borders of Westminster Council. It just struck me as a bit out of kilter with the recent welter of complaints and counter complaints surrounding other gigs in the park. The closing show for the Olympics, featuring Blur, will of course also have a 1am curfew.

The plug was pulled on Bruce Springsteen’s show when he ran slightly past his rather less munificent curfew of 10.30pm leading to many a grumble from the crowd and ill-tempered tweets from his guitarist Steve Van Zandt. A related raft of complaints followed Paul Simon’s show the next night, and Madonna’s the following week, this time that the volume was too low.

As is often the case, the difference here opens up a number of concerns that aren’t properly accounted for in official explanations. I’ll leave aside the whole Lockean issue of rights surrounding noise and whether one group’s right to enjoyment can or should trump another’s to peace and quiet. (This could as easily be applied to whether your right to listen to your i-pod on the bus extends to mine not to have to hear the tinny remnants of what comes out of the back of your earphones). On a more prosaic note, however, it brings to the fore questions that arise again and again about the ‘overspill’ from gigs. Live Nation cited the “very strict noise restrictions, traffic plans and curfews” in their agreement with the Local Licensing Authority for the decision to silence Springsteen. European Chief Operating Officer Paul Latham added that their hopes to put on further gigs there were also a factor.

“I’m afraid the power had to come off on music history in the hope that we will be allowed to create more in the future.”

What I’m curious about here isn’t the 10:30 curfew for Springsteen or Simon but how the problems associated with big gigs like this are automatically ‘null and void’ when an Olympic branding is attached. The chair of licensing for Westminster council, Audrey Lewis, said:

“The opening night of the Olympics is clearly an exceptional evening and the Hyde Park show on Friday is timed to run around the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It is not a case of a straightforward concert night at Hyde Park. We took that into consideration when granting the application. It is clearly different from commercial shows that run throughout other parts of the year.”

I suppose one way of looking at it is as a rare victory for the public sector. Notwithstanding the dispute over derisory to non-existent payment for musicians involved in the Olympic jamboree, the taxpayer is, after all, footing the bill for all of this and I suppose a certain relaxation of restrictions might be expected if the promoter represents Her Majesty’s Government. (Or at least ‘BT London Live’ a partnership  between the Mayor, Royal Parks and the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Tickets, in any case, are still £60). But the way in which the delicate sentiments of the great and good residents of Westminster automatically outweigh musicians and fans in their tens of thousands unless there’s an Olympic (or Royal) imprimatur in place, whereupon they’re shunted off the podium, reminds me of the way in which gigs are consistently subject to ‘public order’ or ‘health and safety’ concerns that authorities put up with more easily in other contexts.

The impact of a large gig is treated as a problem (and something for the act and/or promoter to deal with) in the way that similar, or worse, disruption that occurs at, say, football matches is routinely absorbed. (The recent court victory of Leeds United FC against West Yorkshire police over the cost of policing the areas surrounding the grounds bears testament to this.) And it’s not as if football clubs are any less ‘commercial’ entities than promoters or bands. Likewise, the use of Form 696 by the Metropolitan Police, requiring demographic information about acts and audiences, suggests that this exceptionalism applies to smaller gigs as well. The persistent problems, and costs, encountered by smaller promoters in dealing with issues of noise alongside an almost automatic assumption of fault or responsibility on their part are another aspect of this. As musician and campaigner Hamish Birchall mentioned at our Leeds event, the portrayal of live music as intrinsically problematic on the part of councils and police was a factor in governmental resistance to licensing exemptions for small gigs. Hopefully the Live Music Act will go some way towards redressing this.

So I suppose my main complaint isn’t that Snow Patrol get to play on where Springsteen looks at his crowd in confused silence (although I know who I’d prefer to hear, even from a nearby flat). Rather, it relates to what this says about Local Authorities’ regard for the place of live music in our cultural life. It would be nice if artists and promoters didn’t have to play in a five-ring circus to cross the finishing line of their gigs.

Adam Behr

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