The last decade has been a pretty duff time for live music. With the easy availability of a multitude of new formats, and ever more draconian restrictions being placed on music venues and purveyors by both their own industry and the government, live music appeared to be an experience many new bands were happy to forgo. But what brought on this change from live music being a ‘grassroots’ experience, to being considered a waste of money? And more importantly, why in the last three years has there been a massive resurgence in the popularity of live shows?

In 2008 the revenue from live music went up 16% on the previous year to £1.39 billion, compared to a fall in record sales to £1.31 billion. Bands and record companies can no longer consider touring a profitless exercise, especially with the increased demand for merchandise and live recordings. Live revenue is an important part in a band’s paycheck which the record company has very little claim to, although many new contracts are attempting to see a piece of this very lucrative action (see I Want My mp3). There is also a heavy emphasis on a return to a ‘traditional’ formation of bands - those who have ‘paid their dues’ on the live circuit.

What has made this very difficult in recent years are the restrictions placed on venues that can host live music. Not just large venues, but smaller pubs and clubs often feel the pinch from very expensive licensing to host live events. An infamous restriction is the ‘two in a bar rule’, which makes it illegal to have more than two performers on stage in a pub without an expensive local authority license. Ever wondered why pubs are full of acoustic guitarists with pre-recorded tapes? That’s why. Although the reasons for this rule are unfathomable: it restricts live music appreciation, risks venue closure, and makes no effect on noise levels as (correct licence permitted) there is usually a jukebox or radio playing anyway. The Performing Rights Society (PRS) has recently been involved in another licensing scandal, this time wanting to charge businesses more for a licence to broadcast recorded music, such as the radio. Not only does this eat into a business’ profits, but encourages more businesses to stop playing live or recorded music on the premises.

Noise abatement orders are another restriction placed on all kinds of venues playing music. It is having a particularly destructive effect on small venues, who suffer most from fines, closure, or losing their music licenses. The argument between the Noise Abatement Society and venues is an old one: nearby residents complain about increasing noise levels, but the venue relies on the music as part of its revenue. Nobody likes being kept awake by unwanted thudding, lets face it. But placing restrictions on the venues restricts their profits, audience enjoyment, and the availability of venues for bands to play. It is unlikely a compromise will be reached any time soon, but noise abatement orders have threatened even the most established music venues outside residential areas, and is a constant threat to the availability of live music in the UK. The increase in the popularity of clubs with thudding dance music and DJs using pre-recorded music is equally baffling. There seem to be very few of these venues facing the same restrictions for noise and licensing as those hosting live bands do. Whether this is coincidence or just a matter of location is something to ponder on.

One of my favourite venues for large gigs is the former NEC in Birmingham. Being out of town and near Birmingham International, you would assume that noise abatement wouldn’t apply. And yet every time I’ve been the entire audience faces a dilemma, the same as with other large venues. There is a very strict limit, usually of 11pm, on the times bands can play, which seriously cuts into the encores a band can do, as well as the vibe of a performance. I’ve been to outdoor performances where the pyrotechnics have fallen flat because of the need to start in daylight to allow the bands enough time to play. The other dilemma is that of transport, as councils now expect everything to close down at that time, it’s often very difficult to get a bus or train afterwards. Think of all the other businesses that benefit from this - hotels, takeaway food dispensers… On the other hand, I’m always out of pocket because I travel considerable distances to find live music venues that can host the kind of bands I enjoy. Similarly, these strict cut-off times have caused their own problems. Imagine everyone being forced out of a venue at the same time, all trying to cram onto the same train or bus because there’s no chance of hanging around for one last drink. It’s the least fun part of the night.

Now that we are starting to regain a viable live music circuit, and the popularity of events from a pub’s ‘battle of the bands’ to a town festival is increasing, it would be ridiculous to allow the government and the industry to restrict what is one of the country’s largest and most consistent revenue makers with petty restrictions. Provided that the laws around live music become simpler and easier on small businesses, we should be able to not only keep a fine tradition of live music, but also to make small venues more profitable, so we’re not all relying on large corporate venues and chain pubs.

Over this series of five articles we have looked at some of the key issues facing our music industry today. If things don’t change, the future looks increasingly bleak for bands, audiences, and businesses. Most of the changes, such as music licensing, artist signing and development, changes in the chain of distribution, and the hiring and firing of radio personalities need to come from inside the music industry itself. But as punters we can vote with our money - after all, we fund and preserve the industry, and shape our music landscape according to fashion and taste.

Long live rock and roll!