Nae mare tunes: what the music ban means for Scottish bars

You have heard it before and you will hear it again. We do currently live in unprecedented times. The coronavirus pandemic has rocked the world, and even as we return to Edinburgh for the new university year, things don’t look like they did six months ago.

If you’ve walked into a pub or bar in the past month, you’ll notice a glaring difference: there’s no music, only the chatter of customers as backdrop to your conversations and, according to the Scottish Government, this constitutes an effort to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

The mandate from the government, detailing that bars and pubs must not play any music and that TVs should be put on mute, came into effect on August 14. At first glance, the policy may seem reasonable: it’s based on the logic that if music or TVs are on too loud, people are more inclined to lean in for conversations, or try to speak over the background noise. With people closer together and speaking louder, the chance for transmission through aerosol particles is higher.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has since defended the policy, warning that she didn’t want the virus to “run riot” again, but has also reassured the sector claiming that the mandate is “not set in stone” and that the government will “continue to discuss and adapt and try to introduce as much normality as possible.” Even so, this is only after major pushback from influential organisations such as the Scottish Bar and Pubs Association, as well as the efforts of local nightlife operators, such as Nick Stewart, director of the popular Edinburgh spot Sneaky Pete’s.

Even before this mandate was put into motion, the pandemic hit the creative and nightlife sector extremely hard. A particular frustration was how little the government has helped the sector. While a £2.2 million fund to support grassroots music venues was announced in July, the financial support has yet to be distributed to its intended beneficiaries, with applications only opened a month after.

Furthermore, according to many venue operators, this fund was allocated through calculating the exact fixed costs for the 40 grassroots venues to get through three months. While this would include paying for rent, insurance, and non-furloughable staff wages, this fund would ignore the debts to be paid off from earlier in the year, and any increased measures owners would need to implement to make sure their venues can be best equipped to welcome customers again. Further frustration stems from the fact that owners believe that their fund is not only not extensive enough, but also that the fund expires at the end of October.

Stewart stressed that “this funding is short-term, only designed to get venues through to the end of October”. The government has yet to announce what the further plans for supporting these venues will be. “There needs to be more around the corner or else we will see the permanent closure of many venues.” he says.

So, with the creative sector reeling from an unexpected global event, and with a lacklustre support scheme in place, the ban on music at these venues will seem like a punch in the gut to some. The Scottish Bar and Pubs Association reported that takings from bars and pubs have dropped 20 per cent since the ban was introduced. SBPA CEO Emma McClarkin further argues that the blanket ban on background music is illogical, and could maybe have the opposite effect. “Customers seeking privacy in their conversations are more likely to lean in and whisper.”

This psychoacoustic effect is well documented by Stewart and the group of leading Scottish acousticians he has been working with. “It’s done unconsciously by people, and it’s known as the Lombard Effect” he says.

Muting TVs also cuts out the commentary of football games, which can make it harder to control customers watching the game. All this means that people are going elsewhere to have a good time. “Our customers are increasingly going to house parties instead of bars,” Stewart confides, “and house parties don’t have control measures in place like bars do.”

Most importantly, many venue operators emphasise that a bar or pub without music loses much of its character and ambience, which can discourage customers from coming in, only further damaging the recovery of venues. Many venues now play ambient noise, such as sounds from the New York subway, or jungle ambience, just to fill the silence.

So where does this now leave bars and pubs? Nick Stewart and the SBPA are in agreement: there has to be a middle ground, and they both think that capping music volume at 70dB(A) would be the best option. “It’s definitely quiet, but enough for an atmosphere, and crucially it’s safer than not having music,” Stewart says. Also acting as the Scottish Coordinator for the Music Venue Trust’s Music Venues Alliance, he has managed to organise a group of experts, along with trade bodies such as the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, to present their case to Scottish officials, and are in discussions to overturn this mandate.

Last year’s Scottish Album of the Year winner Auntie Flo has also started a public petition, which has gained traction. In the pressing times we’re in now, music and art are more important than ever. It’s vitally important that Edinburgh as a community, and especially us students, support the businesses and people that gave us so many great memories.

This music ban is just another hit against an already struggling sector that has received little support. “It’s not fair to blame young people for wanting to have a good time,” Stewart asserts, “we only ask that we’re allowed to give people a safe environment to have a good time in.”

Image: Nick Stewart

By Yu An Su

Music Editor