Promoters claim stringent laws ‘suffocating’ city music scene

Foo Fighters Tribute play Electric Circus.
Foo Fighters Tribute play Electric Circus.
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IT’S like a roll call of the Capital’s alternative music scene.

Calton Road’s Studio 24 where Nirvana once played being shut down after being sold to a property developer. Electric Circus on Market Street making way for an art gallery extension.

Electric Cirus was a recent Edinburgh venue to close its doors. Picture; Jon Savage

Electric Cirus was a recent Edinburgh venue to close its doors. Picture; Jon Savage

The Citrus Club on Grindlay Street falling silent too, at least temporarily.

The Picture House on Lothian Road – where David Bowie once performed – is now a Wetherspoons pub. Even the young pretender, the newly opened Leith Depot, is facing evection after its home on Leith Walk was also sold for development.

It has all led to dire warnings about the future of the Capital’s music scene with complaints that the city’s stifling late-night noise and licensing rules are a noose around the neck of grassroots live music venues.

With new development moving fast in the city right now, Bongo Club venue manager Ally Hill says the Scottish Government needs to step in to protect more of the city’s music venues from being silenced by developers.

Nick Stewart, Sneaky Pete's manager

Nick Stewart, Sneaky Pete's manager

He wants to see planning rules changed to enshrine in law the Agent of Change policy – which states that any person or business responsible for changes to a neighbourhood should be made responsible for managing any knock-on effects from the change.

That would mean a developer building flats or offices near an established music venue would have to pay for soundproofing, while a venue opening in a residential area would be responsible for the costs.

“New developments would no longer exert the kind of power over local businesses that local residents of the developments around Studio 24 did over them,” Mr Hill explained. “This change in the law is essential to protect further closures.

“Further support from the licensing board would also make a huge difference. Late-night licences, past 1am, are routinely given to non-entertainment-lead establishments – previously the reserve of entertainment venues – which has had a huge impact.”

Studio 24 announced it was to close last week

Studio 24 announced it was to close last week

The music scene has an economic and cultural value, says Mr Hill, which he says is ignored by city planning officials who instead favour the interests of property developers.

“Grassroots venues need to be factored in at city planning level. And if changes don’t happen we are very concerned about the future,” he says.

“City centre development shouldn’t happen at the expense of local culture.”

“The message being sent out is that Edinburgh doesn’t support its music culture at grassroots level. Whilst this isn’t entirely true and there are exceptions to that, unfortunately that’s the message it sends out.”

And Olaf Furniss, founder of music business events company Born To Be Wide, believes in the wake of the recent closures, more background support needs to be provided to help sustain and lift the music community.

“It should be easier for under 18s to go to gigs, rates for cultural spaces should be reduced and a strategy should be formulated which incorporates music as a driver of tourism.

“What should be kept in mind is that the grassroots music scene does not benefit from public money and so often the best thing an administration can do is to to look at how it can avoid harming a business.”

Thriving Cowgate live music venue Sneaky Pete’s has attracted big name acts including Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard and Two Door Cinema Club as well as breakthrough Edinburgh acts like Honeyblood and Young Fathers.

Trade remains good at the long-standing venue and owner Nick Stewart is hopeful the incoming council will focus further on supporting live music in the city.

“It’s been more of an area of interest for them than at any time I can remember in the past, I think they would support an organisation representing music in Edinburgh if one is formed.”

Summerhall promoter Jamie Sutherland says the future is far from bleak though.

“The Edinburgh music community is cyclical. We can focus on engagement, enthusing young people about the merits of live music and build on that.”

And he believes bands can help by returning to the bread and butter of building and bolstering an audience. “There is a feeling that because a band has 5000 followers on social media they don’t need to promote their nights. Bands have their own fan base but the venues don’t – so if the band doesn’t promote the show, then people don’t know about it.

“We also need to look at venues and promoters engaging with the 600,000-strong student body.

“Maybe the flaw is that we are not appealing to what an 18-year-old wants to listen to and we need to look more closely at how we engage with young people.”

But despite the hard work ahead of promoters and venue owners, Mr Sutherland is convinced the picture is not a bleak one. “If we can provide a platform then there is no reason why it can’t be successful.”