Singing and making music is a universal part of human existence, found in all known societies. What could be more absurd than having to have the permission of the state to participate in it - but such is the position in England and Wales. As explained by Hamish Birchall at Live Music Forum:
'We campaign against the Licensing Act 2003, which came into effect on 24 November 2005. This legislation regulates not only the sale of alcohol in England and Wales but also the provision of entertainment, including live music. It claims to regulate live music on the grounds of public safety, prevention of crime, disorder and public nuisance, and the protection of children from harm. But this legislation is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It effectively criminalises most live performances without state authorisation. In doing so it devalues music-making, encourages petty and harmful enforcement by local authorities which in turn discourages local participation in this overwhelmingly beneficial activity.
Under the Act the mere provision of live music, even by one unamplified musician, may be a criminal offence for which the maximum penalty is a £20,000 fine and six months in prison. Even providing a piano in a bar for the public to play is a potential criminal offence - no-one need play a note. The Act favoured canned entertainment over live music: in 2005 all bars were granted automatic permission to have recorded music, which allows DJs, but the long-standing exemption for one or two live musicians was abolished. The Act kept an exemption for broadcast entertainment. This means anyone can provide MTV or Sky football broadcasts anywhere on giant screens without an authorisation under this legislation. But even putting on a small, private concert without a licence under the Act would be a criminal offence if money was being raised for good causes. Obtaining the 'necessary authorisation' may be an expensive and time-consuming process.
The Act applies to 'any place', which includes your home, garden, public streets and parks, although there are exemptions including places of public religious worship, military bases, royal palaces, and - bizarrely - moving vehicles.The government used to defend this absurd and unjust regime on the grounds that it was necessary to control public safety, noise, crime and disorder at live music events. But separate legislation addresses all these risks, and for most small-scale performances is perfectly adequate.
The government now appears to accept this argument in principle, and has promised a public consultation this spring on further exemptions for what they call 'low risk' events. But campaigning must continue if the government is to honour this promise, and amend the Act so that small, low risk gigs are exempt, and live music is accorded the respect it deserves'.
Is this absurd act actually being applied? The answer is yes, though different local authorities seem to be applying it in different ways. In St Albans, Hertfordshire, for instance the Council is taking a particularly draconian line:.
'If facilities for entertainment are provided a licence is required. Facilities for entertainment include dance floor, pub piano, karaoke machine and other musical instrument.'[St Albans Statement of Licensing Policy, revised 7th January 2008, p6, para 2.2.1]
Other councils seem to be allowing pianos without a licence as 'incidental music'.
I am glad to say that I have personally performed in, and indeed organised, a number of musical events without any kind of licence since this law came in. Let's all get out there and make some noise!