Performing music is fairly simple – a matter of arranging player, instrument and venue. Until, that is, you get to the small print. What could be more basic than a rousing public chorus of Happy Birthday? Apart from the fact that doing so is a breach of copyright law (which is why films hardly ever show it). What could be simpler than defining incidental music? Even addled revellers know what it is, music which is not the central focus: a restaurant featuring a piano accompanist, say, or a fete with a band providing impromptu entertainment. Yet as the government’s live music forum reported yesterday, harmless, possibly even pleasurable, performances are not going ahead because of heavy-handed application of vague licensing law.
A West Country male choir has been condemned to silence because some local-authority jobsworth deemed entertaining pedestrians (and fundraising for charity) to count as a fully fledged concert. The choristers are not alone: didgeridoo players, brass bands and folk societies across the UK have all been stifled because local officials were not satisfied they were only providing small-scale, incidental entertainment. This is surely not what the government intended when it streamlined the licensing law in 2003. The new culture secretary (and music fan) James Purnell can easily right the situation with an amendment defining incidental music. He should do so. There may be reasons to silence didgeridoos, but poorly framed regulation should not be one of them.