Live music is burgeoning, but under the Licensing Act (2003), grassroots performers claim they are losing their foothold on the live circuit.
By Photini Philippidou
BBC News, London
Pubs used to be able to hold live performers without a licence
Under the act, which came into force in November 2005, pubs and bars lost their previous entitlement to host a maximum of two musicians without a licence, known as the "two-in-a-bar" rule.
Under the act, the maximum penalty for the unlicensed provision of even one musician is a £20,000 fine and a six month prison sentence.
Critics claim fringe musicians such as jazz and folk artists, who were the main beneficiaries under the rule, are losing gigs because small venues are abandoning informal live music events to avoid the trouble and expense of getting a licence.
A protest to the prime minister accusing the act of being "burdensome" to music has become one of the most popular Downing Street petitions with over 72,000 signatures.
"The act is being objected to because of the number of criminal law sanctions against live music," said lobbyist and jazz drummer Hamish Birchall.
Jonathan Moberly, of The Foundry bar in Shoreditch, east London, said the act "criminalises music" and "makes no distinction between a piano player and an orchestra or a sound system".
Mr Moberly used to host experimental live performances under the two-in-a-bar-provision but withheld his application for a new licence, saying: "I would have had to satisfy nine different regulatory bodies just to host an informal gig - it wasn't worth it."
Ministers claimed in 2003 the act would be simpler and cost nothing extra. But it was criticised in a report last year by the Better Regulation Commission.
It said: "The actual experience of licensees going through the new process was often far from the streamlined, simplified, efficient and less costly process that the act led them to expect."
'Laborious and costly'
Jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther last year lost a season of gigs at the Garden Cafe in Regents Park because under the new act, the Royal Parks are no longer exempt from having entertainment licensing.
Mr Lowther, who performed at Woodstock, described the act as "hugely damaging to musicians offering anything that isn't commercially viable".
The act permits broadcast entertainment, including sport and music, no matter how powerfully amplified.
"This is hypocrisy in favour of big business," said Mr Lowther.
In March Hugo Swire, Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, tabled an Early Day Motion urging the government to "acknowledge the errors in the legislation".
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: "We never claimed that the licensing act would change things overnight.
"However, it has brought many benefits such as more venues being able to put on more than two musicians."
The Foundry said the act "criminalises music"
According to the latest government-backed survey last December, 40% of venues lost their automatic entitlement to play live or recorded music.
But the survey also suggests percentages of venues hosting live music before and after the act are similar, at about 61%.
The DCMS spokesman added: "The evidence so far does not suggest a widespread negative impact on live music."
The Musicians' Union, previously opposed to music licensing, switched its support in favour of the act in 2005.
"We lobbied long and hard and then we made a conscious decision that we've got to co-operate with the DCMS so we can actually measure what's going on," said general secretary, John Smith.
"There have been winners and losers, overall the act's effect on live music has been neutral."
This June, the MU and the Live Music Forum, an independent body set up by the DCMS in 2004, will announce their latest research on the act's impact on live music overall.