Edinburgh's live music scene is alive and kicking

Simple Minds at The Castle
Simple Minds at The Castle
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EDINBURGH’S live music scene is thriving according to the city’s most experienced concert promoter, Mark Mackie, director of Regular Music. Mackie, who has brought everyone from Blondie to Pink, Pet Shop Boys to Simple Minds and Bob Dylan to Shirley Manson and Garbage to the city, has for the past 30 years been behind some of the biggest gigs in Scotland, let alone the Capital.

With the demise of some of Edinburgh’s live music venues making the headlines recently, Mackie, known for his plain speaking, is adamant there is nothing to worry about.

“There are ten times the number of people attending live music in Edinburgh now than 30 years ago when I started booking bands here,” he reveals, believing that the perception that the city’s live music scene is dying misrepresents what is actually happening.

“I guess it comes from the odd venue or two that has closed due to their inability to evolve and bring an audience with them, and so they are shouting about it from the rooftops.

“But there are so many other venues, all very successful, that put on hundreds of concerts a year.”

Those venues include the Queen’s Hall, Playhouse, Usher Hall, Bannermans, Opium, Cabaret Voltaire, La Belle Angele, and the Mash House to name but a few.

“And, of course, the Liquid Room, another fantastic facility that has been doing a great job for 20 years,” he adds.

“We always look at the things we don’t have, rather than what we do. From the ground up there are plenty of venues in Edinburgh and we should be celebrating them instead of moaning about the others.”

The man behind the Castle Concerts, a highlight of the city’s live music scene for more than two decades, Mackie says variety is the key to running a successful live music venue.

“At the Queen’s Hall, for example, you have Mogwai one day, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the next, a country music show the day after, and it is all good quality music.

“Variety is the key. Venues that go too far into a niche market exclude others from coming in and need to broaden out a wee bit.

“You also have to provide a good service, and that means being met at the door with a smiling steward rather than a grumpy one, decent toilet facilities, decent air-conditioning, decent bar prices, and comfort to view the acts. If you provide that, people come back, otherwise they vote with their feet.”

And he cautions, thriving as the scene is, “there are tons of music venues in Edinburgh that should maybe have a wee look to expand what they offer.”

For many, however, the council remains at the heart of the perceived ‘live music crisis’ due to its licensing approach. Mackie begs to differ.

“It’s unfortunate the council get the blame. If they were to blame, I would be first to put my hand up and point the finger. However, the council have adopted a sensible approach to the licensing of live music venues.

“It’s known as agent of change, which basically means, if I have a pub on Broughton Street say, and I’m doing live music and somebody buys the flat above me and doesn’t like my live music, they are the agent of change.

“I’ve not changed anything, I’ve been here for 15 years doing my live music and my regulars all love it, so why, for one person, who knew the pub was there when they bought their flat, should I lose my business?

“The council are not giving in to one complaint anymore. They are listening to the live music committee, which seems to me to be doing very well.

“People who buy a flat in the centre of town and expect the solitude of the countryside are kidding themselves and I would suggest they move to the countryside and leave us all alone.”

He also addresses another frequent cry of the live music lobby, that it’s grass roots venues, where young bands gain experience, that are closing.

“There are lots of venues still serving the up-and-coming bands,” says Mackie. “Sneaky Pete’s for one, and Cabaret Voltaire – you can hire that and get all your mates along – but to say Edinburgh doesn’t have the venues is just the craziest thing in the world.

“In August we have 1000 venues. Where do they go for the rest of the year? Do they go into hiding? No they don’t. They are here. People need to use them, refurbish them, and get them up and running.”

The real problem for young bands is the lack of a musical hub where they can rehearse and meet like-minded people, says Mackie.

“If someone wanted to invest money into young bands, I would look at the shocking state of rehearsal rooms. They have been the guilty party for the last 30 years.

“If there was an economical way for five kids from school to meet up at 6pm and rehearse for a couple of hours without having to hire a van that would be great.

“A place where they could lock their stuff away in a safe cage and have a caretaker to let them in. There might five bands in a complex and they might all meet in the communal cafe bit and swap band members, that is how music history is made.

“If Creative Scotland or the council could fund a project like that, we would see the benefits straight away.”

Another improvement that could further enhance the city’s live music scene is a change in its interaction with the nightclub circuit, adds Mackie.

“I understand venues have to make money but if the 10pm curfew for bands was slightly later mid-week, that would make things better.

“It’s part of a formula that has gradually kicked in over the last 15 years; Thursday, Friday, Saturday are your best nights so you want a band on and a club after to maximise income.

“On a wet Monday you could afford to let the band play on but they tend not to; it’s doors at 7pm, off by 10pm and then a club that only pulls 100 people. Why inconvenience the majority for the minority?”

Ultimately though, it’s good programming that is keeping the Capital’s live music venues thriving.

“Good programming is what makes a venue stick out. It is an investment, but fortune favours the brave.”

Tomorrow: Mark Mackie on... the past, present, and future of Edinburgh's live music scene