u2018Entertaining Notes' from an Enfettered Isle

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by Alexander Moseley by Alexander Moseley

“If music be the food of love, play on,” wrote the bard in Twelfth Night, but don’t think you can do it freely in England. Everywhere we turn, a licence is required, a form to be filled in, a planning department to be called, a government official to be consulted and music is no exception.

An esoteric habit of mine is to enjoy the letters pages in the Incorporated Society of Musicians monthly magazine, which my partner receives, for news and views on how politics affects and perpetually disables the playing and understanding of music in our land. The circulation is small (5,100) but, as far as I understand, the ISM readership is capable musically, pedagogically, and literarily. In comparison, she dropped her subscription to the left-wing leaning Musicians' Union a year back after it had requested assistance from the Labour government to repeal some very arcane legislation, a move which predictably and completely back-fired, and also because the MU sought to provide membership for DJs alongside classically trained musicians — the great equalisation of talents continues apace!

The MU had knocked on the government's doors (there are many of them) asking for the repeal of an arcane, ludicrous, and illiberal piece of legislation that limited the number of performers in any unlicensed establishment to two. Two. The so-called u2018two-in-a-bar' rule meant that if two people got up and sang a song or played instruments no offence would be committed — but if a third person joined in, or one of the two sat down, and another took his or her place, it was a case for the local magistrates! Seriously. Grave, as musicians say.

From the ISM's letters page this month we read of a case being brought before North Devon Magistrates over alleged breaches of the licensing regulations. At a fund-raising concert last summer (fund-raising — mental emphasis, for that becomes important again), the District Council alleged that a hotel owner breached the licensing rules. Two members of the u2018(Bonzo Dog) Doo-Dah Band' were performing to an audience — so far, so good. But, get this, two members of the audience then joined in!!! One playing a washboard and one with a box and string. Well, word had got out that the Doo-Dah Band were raising funds at the hotel, so the local u2018Principal Environmental Health Officer' was suspicious — as well he might! Two people making music — who knows where it could lead? Revolt? Right on, man! So this guardian of the public morals sent an Environmental Health Officer (PEHO sends EHO to Doo-Dah the night away) to spy. The EHO reported that the two members of the audience who joined in “played the songs quite well and seemed to know them.” Ah! Bless them for their abilities, at least they know what they do. But — amazing saving graces: the concert was held in the hotel's court yard and therefore was exempt from the Local Government Act 1982 (Thatcher's Britain even!), so the case was thrown out.

However, next November (2005), the new all-encompassing Licensing Act becomes law — and rather than getting the repeal that the MU wanted, the Blairegime has removed the u2018two-in-a-bar' rule to a u2018none-in-a-bar' rule (jokes abounding). If one person dares to drum zoppa on a washboard, pulls out a didgeridoo to blow sostenuto, or raps fingers ostinato on a table, or hums dolente the national anthem for money (tips, drinks) in an unlicensed premise, the fine (I think — I'm still wading through this) is 20,000 (~$50,000 and rising) and six months in jail. I'm drawing an analogy here from something an ISM letter writer pointed out last month: if you lend an instrument out that is subsequently used in a concert, that's the penalty, if you've got no licence to lend out instruments.

What has happened, cried the MU? What about all those dues we paid to the Labour Party, you know, being good union members and all that red-flag flying solidarity with acoustic guitars, what has happened to musicians' freedom you were supposed to believe in, man? What about Our Beloved Blair entering 10 Downing Street with his Mean Axe Guitar?

Well, I'm sure he'll need a licence too if he decides to entertain any guests who may have paid to attend his house. (Royal palaces are exempt, I see, so too are trains, wharfs, and airplanes.)

The new Act requires any public performance to be licensed. Some last minute compromises were arranged however — religious ceremonies were exempt (but they've not mentioned bell-ringing, which I foresee will become an issue as we have many urbanites moving to the countryside and finding their peace shattered with the village church bells ringing or hounds howling or cows mooing or sheep grazing — and it's full of smells too); singing u2018Happy Birthday' spontaneously is fine (but which version? and what if we all sang it in three part harmonies?); Morris Dancing got an exemption; and so too did music teaching (after all — a pupil performs to his or her teacher and possibly other people in the room and pays money for the privilege) and, and, oh, LewRockwell readers will love this one, any performance that is not likely to make a profit. Read that again. Hence fund-raising will be exempt — as long as there is no intention of profit making. How dare they deign to make money, those money-grabbing musicians?

Here's the official site summary of why profit is dirty. “The profit motive can lead people to take chances or cut corners about things like public safety or the protection of children in order to maximise the profit involved.” Hello? What century are we in? Is this the land that spawned David Ricardo and Adam Smith and the Free Trade Movement, the Manchester School, the Repeal Movement? Seventeen times the word u2018profit' or u2018with a view to a profit' is deployed in the summary. For public safety: compare Madonna offering a free concert in a local village hall (she lives over here on a country shooting estate I gather) or charging 20 (~$50 and rising) a head. Which, ECON101, is more likely to lead to excess demand?

What happens if I accidentally make a profit? The highly useful FAQ (quickly and phonetically pronounced, I presume) informs me (and there will be plenty of informers in this country — I'm often amazed we stood our ground against Nazi Germany in WWII and that the enemy was not let in by the wannabee regulators, snits, and grassers wringing their hands in pleasure over the plethora of regulations Hitler would have introduced) that if there was no intention to make a profit then I do not need a licence, as long as the musician (or puppeteer — ah, need to licence those satirical b*stards) plays for the entertainment and enjoyment of the audience and not for profit, that's fine. Or rather no fine.

Well, we have an excellent pianist on board our team — and we'd like to entertain our pupils and parents with some performances to educate and entertain. But should she work for free? Should we get no return for organising such events? That is the implication of the Act; or perhaps, they mean we may work u2018for cost'. Now, pianists can be very very expensive, your honour. We are looking at a decade plus of intensive training, 4–6 hours a day, all those scales, fingering exercises, …

What is the morality of demanding musicians work for the entertainment and pleasure of the audience with no intention of profitable gain? Does the government think that musicians are saints? No – slaves.

The all-encompassing bill, with its usual quaint English (and Welsh — they're affected too, I should note) compromises will do nothing for music in our land. Except maybe drive those folk musicians underground … behind closed doors, long after the snits have gone to bed, listen-easies will open up, pianos will tinkle and guitars will strum, songs will be chanted in the depths of forests, money will exchange hands furtively with a nod and a wink, and we will sing our anthems to freedom.

The ISM is a little less naïve in reflecting on hug-all government initiatives — its latest editorial describes the Blairspeak u2018Music Manifesto' with words that can be easily applied to the Licensing Act — “as a policy, it is vacuous. Yet its basic emptiness will be revealed only in years to come, when its progenitors will be far, far away …” True — and they'll all be musically illiterate.

Saucy sources:

The three of us at Classical Foundations are providing a solid musical education (and academic education — my speciality, but I chip in with web site design and historical research for the music side) precisely because we are independento e privato. How long we can remain so depends on many factors of course, but the day will come when the regime seeks to hug us in its regulatory death-embrace — or at least take a greater cut from our efforts. Then furioso we may take our bows and pesante close our shop.

Alexander Moseley [send him mail] has lectured and tutored in American, Canadian and British Universities. He spent the last two years sampling the State-run comprehensive system in the UK and now teaches privately. He and his fiancée have formed a partnership, Classical Foundations, to teach music and other subjects privately one-to-one in their area. Dr. Moseley is an avid exponent of the ideals Rothbard outlines in his Education: Free & Compulsory. He is the author of A Philosophy of War and the novel Wither This Land.

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