Empty council building could become music venues

The Canadian band Hands & Teeth plays in Austin, Texas. Picture: Getty
The Canadian band Hands & Teeth plays in Austin, Texas. Picture: Getty
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EMPTY council buildings could be rented out as music venues and rehearsal spaces under ambitious plans to revamp live music in the city.

Changes to licensing laws which would make it easier to lay on gigs and loans to support noise reduction are also to be looked at.

The new strategy will see a live music taskforce formed by city councillors featuring experts, bands, promoters and venue owners – all tasked with agreeing a single five-year vision for the city’s music scene.

And for guidance the Capital is looking towards global gigging hotspots such as Austin, Texas, New York and Sydney which have all enjoyed unparalleled success putting on live music events.

Initiatives which have been implemented in these cities and which are now up for consideration by city councillors include the hiring out of council properties for low-cost rehearsal space, noise reduction improvement loans to help reduce the number of noise complaints from residents and an innovative ‘busker app’ which allows users to record buskers and tag their locations.

Industry experts have long lamented the city’s live music scene when compared to the success and vibrancy enjoyed by comedy and theatre during the Festival.

The problem has only been made worse following the closure of the 1000-capacity Picturehouse on Lothian Road and the news last month that ambitious plans to build a world-class concert arena had been shelved amid fears the project would face a funding shortfall of up to £100 million.

It is understood to have been these setbacks which have spurred the new approach to live music in the city.

City chiefs have already identified short or long-term issues they feel they can address.

Short-term options centre on planning and licensing and the possibility of renting out disused council property as low-cost rehearsal or venue space like in Sydney and Austin.

More long-term issues concentrate on forming a coherent five-year vision to foster and encourage live music.

A city council spokeswoman said: “The council is committed to encouraging all forms of art and culture across Edinburgh, and as part of this we are eager to secure the future of live music in the city.

“There will be issues that we can deal with quickly and others that may take longer to realise but by working with key stakeholders in the sector to form a dedicated taskforce, and drawing on examples from other successful cities, we hope to build on these strong foundations and ensure that live music can continue to thrive and grow across the whole of Edinburgh in future.”

Sydney’s own taskforce and vision, launched in 2012, concentrated on providing affordable space in city-owned properties for start-ups including instrument makers, costume designers and independent record sellers.

The Australian city also lobbied the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and concert promoters to make it easier for touring artists to play more “secret” shows and to collaborate with local musicians in small venues without breaching contract or visa arrangements. A “gig buddies” pilot program that pairs people living with a disability with local music enthusiasts to make it easier for them to attend live music performances was also set up.

One well-known figure in the Edinburgh music scene who would hope to benefit from a more collaborative council approach to music is Kevin Buckle, of cult Grassmarket record store Avalanche Records. Kevin’s shop had been operating in the city centre for nearly 30 years. However, in February he was forced to close due to the pressures of rents and rates.

He now has a semi-permanent home at popular alternative club Cabaret Voltaire, in the Old Town’s Blair Street and mans a record stall for the first time at the Platform 2 Market in Waverley Station on Friday, June 27.

He welcomed the council doing more to support live music in the city by opening up old disused properties.

Kevin said: “We would be very interested in such a thing if it was offered to us. There are all these properties just lying empty all year round.

“Music needs a focal point and that can be offered by a record shop. We often put on gigs by bands such as Frightened Rabbit and Withered Hand but where do these type of young bands go now?”

Fellow grassroots music lover, Douglas Robertson, has fought a long-running battle with council chiefs over the staging of underground concerts in his home. The 60-year-old’s “house concerts”, have drawn praise from music fans and the ire of council officers in equal measure.

He said: “The longstanding problem with live music in Edinburgh is that council officers are too stringent when enforcing the law. The smallest squeak of a fiddle from my home or even out a pub door and they swoop in. This isn’t at all the case in Glasgow where they have a much more vibrant music scene.

“I would hope that the setting up of this taskforce signals a more lenient approach to noise levels. People have as much right to hear live music as they do to not hear it.”

Douglas is currently searching for a home for his vision of a live music centre in the city and is hopeful this new council stance of fostering live music could see him secure a council-owned property.

Hew said: “We’re looking to set up a 300-capacity venue with a small bar and cafe. I’ve asked the council on numerous occasions about using an empty property but have never heard anything back. Hopefully as they now look to encourage live music I might hear something.”

Singer Jamie Keir, 24, of city-based indie rock outfit, Jamie and Shoony, is another who believes that such a clear strategy is long overdue. He said: “This sounds like a great idea. There are loads of great wee things going on in the city but there’s no joined-up thinking. Austin is just like the Edinburgh of the new music scene in terms of doing for bands what Edinburgh does for comedians. It wouldn’t be a bad model to follow.”


Cities’ festivals raise the roof and revenue

Austin’s SXSW Festival is a vital destination for new music fans. The festival which began in 1987 with the aim of fostering new ideas and offering a place to bring creative types together now features more than 2000 acts including headliners such as Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z.

During the festival, official performances take place in various venues in downtown, concentrated on the Sixth Street area while impromptu unofficial performances occur on makeshift stages on the city streets.

It is the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $190.3 million in 2012 increasing to $218 million in 2013.

Meanwhile in Sydney, more than 30,000 music fans flock to the annual Big Day Out festival, pictured, which debuted in 1992 and has since expanded to Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. To build on the success of this festival and encourage live music, city leaders set up their own taskforce in 2012 – the four major barriers identified being noise, regulatory codes, alcohol licensing, audience and sector development. The taskforce has now produced an action plan called Live Music Matters which includes around 80 specific actions that could be taken to address the major barriers.

In Toronto, the city council adopted a new economic strategy in 2013 which recognises the music industry’s significant contribution to the city.

Through this it identified the “fragmented voice” as a barrier to success and set up the Toronto Music Advisory Council which provides a forum for ideas and ways to develop the industry.

Toronto has also set up its own music festival modelled on SXSW, which runs seven days and nights, drawing crowds of more than 330,000 annually.