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Music industry expresses concern about live music ban in Northern Ireland

By | Published on Wednesday 30 September 2020


The Musicians’ Union and UK Music have expressed concern after it was confirmed that new COVID-19 rules for pubs and other venues where alcohol is served in Northern Ireland include a ban on live music.

While the music community has an assortment of issues with the UK government’s current COVID policies – both those that apply UK-wide and those that are England-only – some other specific issues have also been raised in Northern Ireland and Scotland in those areas where combating the coronavirus is devolved to said country’s own executives.

“The MU is deeply concerned about the effective ban on live music in Northern Ireland which was announced in the last few days”, says the MU’s Regional Organiser for Northern Ireland, Caroline Sewell. “Musicians have suffered acutely throughout this crisis with their livelihoods completely disappearing in the vast majority of cases. We are keen to hear from the [Northern Irish] Executive and to gain an understanding of the evidence that has driven this decision”.

New restrictions in Northern Ireland were announced last week, but the full rules, which include the ban on live music and also dancing, have only recently been confirmed. Venue owners and promoters have hit out at politicians, saying that no scientific evidence supporting the ban has been presented and that the industry was not consulted before a decision was made about the new restrictions.

“Six months ago, our members’ diaries were wiped clear of work for the remainder of 2020 and beyond”, Sewell continues. “As the work disappeared, so did the income of thousands of musicians, and it quickly was clear that very little support would be coming as 33% of our members have not been eligible for government support in the form of the [UK-wide] Job Retention Scheme or the Self Employment Income Support Scheme”.

“The sheer quality and vibrancy of the world-renowned Northern Irish music scene consistently punches well above its weight and is intrinsically linked to the cultural identity of Northern Ireland”, she continues. “This is hugely important culturally and economically, but also socially as those positive effects reverberate through our communities and in our mental health and wellbeing. This is now all in jeopardy and we are calling on musicians locally to write to their local representatives to be sure their voice is heard”.

Acting CEO of UK Music, Tom Kiehl, adds: “Music forms a hugely crucial part of the creative economy in Northern Ireland. As an industry, it contributes almost £70 million in annual gross value added to the local economy, with a further £8 million generated through music-related tourism. One gig has the ability to create a positive ripple effect through the live music ecology which reaches venues, bar staff, lighting engineers, sound engineers and the wider night-time economy in restaurants, bars and hotels”.

“The MU’s survey of its members in September reported that 37% of musicians are considering abandoning the industry completely due to the acute financial hardship they continue to face as a result of the pandemic”, he goes on. “Nearly half of the union’s members have been forced to seek work outside of the industry and 70% have been unable to undertake more than a quarter of their usual work”.

Meanwhile, pubs and restaurants in Scotland have complained that their efforts to continue operating while COVID-related social distancing rules are still in place are being further hampered by a ban on all background music that has been in place in the country since mid-August.

In a statement earlier this week, Chair of the Night Time Industries Association Scotland, Michael Grieve, said: “The total ban on background music is having a severe effect on many hospitality businesses leading to completely sterile environments which some have likened to visiting a library”.

“It seems completely disproportionate relative to other settings”, he went on, “and whilst our industry is totally committed to the serious public health imperatives which the Scottish government is focused on, our already damaged sector is in serious danger of being permanently wiped out unless this ban is removed”.

Live music venues in Scotland are still not permitted to open in any form, with only socially distanced outdoor shows and drive-in events allowed to take place.

In England, indoor live music events have been allowed again since last month, albeit with social distancing rules in place. Music venues are also not subject to the 10pm curfew that has been imposed on other hospitality businesses in England (and Scotland and Wales for that matter), so long as the show has already started and no alcohol is served after that time.