Music Is Audible

This is perhaps a duller post than I’d like to put up but I’ll see if I can find a cheery picture to put in the middle as a distraction. I’ll explain the post’s title nearer the end. Anyway, I just attended a meeting organised by Edinburgh Council to discuss live music in Edinburgh with the title Live Music Matters. For those of you on twitter #livemusicmatters. Around 100 people attended and all of the available tickets were all snapped up within 2 days. –For a Monday afternoon meeting this was a great turn out. It was in an upstairs meeting room and there was free coffee. It lasted for 2 and a half hours but the time flew in and it still seems there is a lot more to discuss.

I really went as an observer as there were plenty of venue owners/managers, musicians and promoters there to put forward their case. I was able to pitch in a wee bit though.
I think the Young Fathers’ interview in the Guardian following their Mercury Music Prize win has struck a nerve with Edinburgh City Council. Synopsis: “Edinburgh Council are really fucking bad”. And in hip hop bad doesn’t mean good anymore. Well, the main Council representative certainly coyly alluded to it. Young Fathers do make some helpful suggestions in another interview with the Evening News.

The focus of the meeting was to be how the Council can help to improve the pop/rock music scene as there have previously been discussions with classical music representatives and I suppose there were 2 main groups present. The mid-sized venues like The Queen’s Hall and large promoters like Regular Music; and the grass roots comprising smaller venues such as Sneaky Pete’s and Henry’s Cellar Bar, labels, managers, bloggers and bands too. It was the latter that made up the bulk of those who attended. Young Fathers are in Berlin working on a new album.

After some short initial speeches we were split into 4 groups of 20-25 and then split into sub-groups of 5 or so. We’d then discuss what problems there were, what was being done well and then were asked to suggest improvements. We then fed back to our larger group before all 4 large groups feeding back summaries to all present. There were Council representatives in all of the larger groups.

I wasn’t taking notes at the time but this is what I picked up, in no particular order:

A major concern of the venues was with noise complaints leading to the threat of closure. Specifically the hypocrisy that during the Edinburgh Festival pop-up venues are able to create plenty of noise late into the night for an entire month without fuss whereas one complainant in February can cause a venue to be monitored and threatened with closure. Some have already spent a fortune on soundproofing but still get complaints. It was asked if the Council could provide grants to help with this or work more closely to ensure the correct things are done. Oh and there was a mention that Edinburgh is the only city in Europe that operates a “zero audibility clause”. I don’t know if it’s true about other cities, but the clause certainly exists.

The Queen’s Hall recently had one complaint about its external signage that led to them having to remove it all. -Some of which had been present for the last 15 years. Much of it had been present over the past 5 years. That this had actually been enforced by Edinburgh Council shows why this meeting has been so important. The Council also provides some funding to subsidise The Queen’s Hall so it seems odd that they’d choose to work against them. There needs to be some leeway in the law or some common sense applied.

Restrictions needn't be so stifling.

Restrictions needn’t be so stifling.

There was some disagreement as to whether we have too few small venues and rehearsal spaces. I was in the camp saying that there are probably enough small venues and that they are not used to their maximum potential. Some will argue against that. The owners of small venues that are currently doing a great job probably wouldn’t welcome too much extra competition. There was consensus that we should be supporting the ones we already have.I suppose there is not a directory of useful music related places and so unless you have decent contacts everyone has to work out simple things for themselves.*

There was discussion of the difficulty getting people out to gigs. That there are tens of thousands of students in the city but getting them out to local bands is incredibly difficult unless it’s for The VengaBoys and cheap beer.

Another point was that some large promoters don’t put gigs on big gigs in Edinburgh anymore. Not even during the festival. For example, the Murrayfield/Meadowbank Stadium gigs that Tennent’s Lager’s “ T on the Fringe” sponsorship helped to happen. The lack of big money sponsorship was noted but no suggestion came as to how this could be attracted in the future. Changing attitude to alcohol etc.

We discussed the value of live music to the city economy; That if we could get some figures together to actually value it, it would highlight the importance of supporting the live music sector. We also touched on how to get information about live music to tourists without coming to any conclusion. A point was made that a city with a reputation for it’s music will become a draw for tourists.

The creation of a hub of live music focusing on one area of the city was touted without a definite answer given. However there was appetite for the Cowgate with the hope that it could be tidied up a bit too.

The council have been looking to create an arts space off King’s Stables Road. It’s not clear how that would help with live music though. Possible cheap rehearsal space maybe.

A lack of larger venues. No-one was asking for an out of town arena to be built though. People of Edinburgh do want to see big bands. There aren’t enough spaces that can accommodate them. (eg With the Picture House closed there are instantly 52 fewer Saturday gigs in Edinburgh for 1000 people at a time. And, they would have gigs all week too.) An interesting finding was that it’s standard for bands to tour the biggest venues 1st then mop up the remaining fans in smaller places with a second sweep.

Something that wasn’t mentioned was that big touring bands will often get local bands in as support. The pay is rubbish (The Picture House would pay about £100) but the exposure is very handy.

Olaf Wide gave a good wee speech. I’d almost suggest that his organisation, Wide Days/Born To Be Wide be made Edinburgh’s official music focal point but wouldn’t want to load him with extra work. He’s been doing it for 10 years already and Olaf won an award from Creative Edinburgh last week. The “Anchor Award”. I suppose that is what is needed. Some stability, a solid base.

Olaf gets the Creative Edinburgh Anchor Award

Olaf gets the Creative Edinburgh Anchor Award

How do Edinburgh’s record shops fit in with all of this. Erm, I forgot to make a case. I wasn’t there with an agenda. Maybe next time. But the music scene is a little disjointed in that there are several scenes that don’t talk to one another (indie/rock/hiphop etc ) and within that several venues, promoters, bands and so on. I suppose as a shop that sells indie, rock, local releases, jazz and classical to a varied customer base across all ages and backgrounds, I have a decent overview of certain things without being expert in live music as such. But it’s the music industry and we’re all connected. I have to say that this initial meeting was really useful if only as a focal point for getting a disparate bunch of passionate musos together that can add different perspectives to the debate.

There were more issues discussed than eventual solutions but as a sounding board it was very welcome and the initial pledges from the council were encouraging. These aren’t the official minutes by the way, so I hope I’ve picked everything up ok to avoid any confusion.

1. The council pledge to take the issues raised seriously and to help where they can. She’ll be titling the project “Music Is Audible” (a tongue in cheek suggestion by, presumably, a venue owner with noise complaints).
2. Specifically, they hope to create a “one stop shop” to help advise venues, promoters and musicians. This already exist apparently but is more for larger acts/promoters/venues.
3. Look into creating formal arbitration between venues and noise complainants. A longer term plan to look at new residents in an area next to a venue having less rights over noise complaints. (I think this hits a grey area in Human Rights Law).
4. The recent Picture House closure was noted and the Council will look into how to protect venues from being sold and converted to different businesses as happened to The (fabulous) Venue a few years ago and The Picture House last year. This could involve the creation of a “Live Venue Trust”.
5. The council will liase with their counterparts in other cities in order to better emulate good practise for creating a music city. They are already in contact and Austin, Texas (who have the annual and massive South by South-West [SXSW] music festival) and they have agreed to help.
6. A plan to meet again in 4 months.
7. Other. I’m sure I’ve missed something.

It was nice to see the Council acknowledge that Edinburgh’s music scene hasn’t yet been held up as something to be proud of and that it needs formal support. That the scene exists at all, despite the lack of formal support so far is a good sign. Although this is very early in the process, I’m quietly optimistic.

In the meantime get out to a gig or two. Some artists are on reasonably big labels (eg Sub Pop) and come a long way to play here (eg from Vermont in the USA) often in smaller venues that consistently punch above their weight. The least we can do is make the effort, right? May I suggest King Tuff tonight at Sneaky Pete’s?

Um, I believe you can pick up the new King Tuff album from all good record shops.

* PS I almost forgot… Edinburgh musicians, Bart from eagleowl and Rob St John (eagleowl/Meursault/Water of Life) have compiled a handy guide for those wishing to put on gigs in Edinburgh/in general. It’s written by numerous people and is full of handy hints for those starting out. It’s called Don’t Make a Scene. I suppose it’s also the kind of thing that the Council could help support as I feel a series could be in the pipeline if this one is a success. You can read more about it here: Also available from good record shops (hopefully fairly soon).

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