One of the many casualties of the smoking ban has been the live music scene. This is something about which I have little personal experience. So when I got chatting online with Rick S a few days back, and it became clear that he knew much more about it than I did, I was quick to ask him if he’d like to write a guest piece about it. And he readily agreed. So I’d like to thank him for this guest contribution:
Smoking and Live Music
I suppose I should have known, really. After all, Victoria Saunters, landlady of the Plough Inn in East Sussex, was interviewed on the Richard and Judy Show shortly after the smoking ban came in and said: “We had a band last Friday playing to a more or less empty pub because everyone was standing outside in the pouring rain under an umbrella”.
On a straightforward personal level, I loathe the ban and effect it’s had on me. Going to the pub simply isn’t the pleasure it used to be apart from that brief spell in summer when it’s possible to sit outside with a pint and a cigarette and pretend that things haven’t changed. What took some time to realise, though, was that the baleful effects of the ban would also affect me materially and financially.
To explain: I’m a rock/pop/blues musician – not a great one (or perhaps I’d be in a different situation altogether) but an experienced and reliable guitarist and bass player who had a brief professional spell many years ago and who has made a fair bit of pocket money from playing pub gigs since then. If any band needs someone to stand in for an absent musician, I’m your man. I learn songs quickly, I’m conscientious and I make very few mistakes (all musicians hit the occasional bum note!).
I was made redundant from my reasonably well paid day job some months ago (I blame the smoking ban at least partly for that too, but it’s a long story) and have been struggling, in the current climate, to get another one – but I did think that I could at least play as many gigs as possible to bring in enough cash to tide me over in the meantime. Unfortunately this has proved to be impossible.
We all know how many pubs have closed since the ban came in, and we also know how empty the remaining ones tend to be. The knock-on effect of that, of course, is that virtually no pub can afford to pay for live music these days (particularly when there’s no guarantee that anybody is going to be there to witness it) and a once-reliable source of gigs and money has virtually dried up. The only money to be made by semi-pro musicians these days comes from either forming a “tribute band” or else playing at private functions. The first one of those presupposes that you can think of a band that you like so much that you’re happy to play nothing but their material, and that nobody else has thought of covering yet, while the second depends almost entirely on personal contacts (and of course you can’t get your friends along to support you). Yes, there is still some music being played in pubs, but it’s generally in the context of an unpaid “open mic” or jam night where various musicians waiting for the chance to strut their stuff create the illusion of an audience, but where virtually nobody else is present.
The situation for live music in pubs, and therefore for musicians like me, is currently dismal, and the smoking ban has played a huge part in bringing it about. Quite apart from the economic aspects, it has destroyed the bohemian, relaxed atmosphere that used to exist in a music pub, where you could watch a band while enjoying a few beers and fags. The present-day sterile pub doesn’t go with rock, blues, jazz or any other type of music associated with smoky bars and clubs. These things are purely about enjoyment and not about “healthy living” or doing what the State tells you (which is why the totalitarian governments of the twentieth century hated jazz and blues so much). Art, even the lowly form with which I’m involved, has nothing to do with being a healthy and productive citizen – it is quite useless, as Oscar Wilde said. But that’s precisely why we love it.
Or, to put it another way: would the British blues boom of the Sixties have happened if the Crawdaddy had been a “smokefree” combination of eatery and creche? Can live music possibly thrive in the current environment? At the moment, you’d have to say: not a chance in hell.