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16 January 2020

From the largest theatre in the UK to a stunning castle, local and UK-wide promoters have access to a wide range of venues, and plans for an indoor arena likely to elevate Edinburgh to another musical level. Allan Glen reports

It has always been a curious anomaly that Edinburgh, home to an internationally-renowned festival and ever-expanding music scene, is one of the only European capital cities without an indoor arena.

That, of course, may be about to change with the announcement that Birmingham-based NEC Group, which operates that city’s Resorts World Arena (cap. 15,590) and Arena Birmingham (15,890), is partnering with leisure and sports consultancy Lothian Leisure Development to build an 8,000-capacity arena in Straiton, five miles outside the city centre (see LIVE UK issue 239).

It is a move that has been welcomed by local promoters and the wider industry.

“We’re very encouraged by this development,” says Edinburgh-based Regular Music’s John Stout. “The arena could do really well. There is a desperate need for one in a city the size of Edinburgh, given its catchment area in central Scotland.

“The SSE Hydro in Glasgow [13,000] is one of the busiest arenas in the world, so it’s not always going to be possible to get the date you  want there, and although the proposed arena in Edinburgh is smaller in scale, it could be useful for a lot of shows.”

Stout says he looks forward to seeing more detail about the arena, particularly around the proposals for public transport to and from Edinburgh, a view that is shared by promoter Duncan Gray of Triple G Music, whose shows include Mark Lanegan at The Liquid Room (650).

“We’ll have to wait and see how it develops,” he says. “There are not a lot of arena acts to go around just now, and the public transport links out to Straiton could be an issue, but the Hydro is often booked so having another arena would be a good option.”

Overall, Edinburgh remains a popular destination for artistes, adds Stout, with Regular promoting approximately 80 shows a year, as well as the ever-popular Castle Concerts (8,450). This year’s season featured Paul Weller with tickets at £47.50, two shows with Kylie (at £50) and two nights with The Proclaimers (£40) – all sold-out.

“It’s a generalisation of course, but, as you’d expect in a largely affluent and multicultural city, the Edinburgh audience is interested in music of all forms, has time and disposable income available and is keen to experience the best of UK and international artistes,” he says. “They will also party like there is no tomorrow if Kylie is in town.”

Other Regular shows include Bat For Lashes, Saint Etienne, Lloyd Cole, Cowboy Junkies and Van Der Graaf Generator at the Queen’s Hall (900), with Kelly Jones and The Flaming Lips each at the Usher Hall (2,900), Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Joe Bonamassa at the Playhouse (3,047), John Grant at the Festival Theatre (1,900) and Goodbye Mr Mackenzie at The Liquid Room.

From club shows to concert halls, sales are strong in Edinburgh, he says, but what might become an issue in the future in the city is the availability of dates as venue diaries get booked further and further in advance, particularly at concert hall level.

“Although very well served for smaller capacity standing venues – Voodoo Rooms, Mash House [200], The Caves [350], Sneaky Pete’s [100], as soon as you have outgrown The Liquid Room or Queen’s Hall you have a problem.

“The next available option is the standing floor format at Usher Hall.

“I think everyone in Edinburgh is hoping that Leith Theatre [1,400] will soon be able to fill that gap and with a bit of investment it could be a great asset to the city’s live music scene.”

At the top end is Edinburgh Playhouse, which, at a capacity of 3,035, is the largest seated theatre in the UK, hosting approximately 10 shows a year, and once described by Regular Music boss Mark Mackie as “one of my favourite venues in the world”.

From the Rolling Stones and Queen, to Diana Ross and AC/DC, it is often seen as a rite of passage for top end acts. Acts currently playing the venue include Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Bon Iver, Pet Shop Boys, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Joe Bonamassa (all promoted by Regular), Ben Howard, Gary Barlow, Brian Wilson (all DF Concerts), Steve Hackett (Kilimanjaro Live), and Tim Minchin (Phil McIntyre Presents).

“The first four months of the year are taken up by a record-breaking 21-week run of Disney’s The Lion King, which is a challenge for programming live music,” says theatre director Colin Marr. “But we have deliberately held slots in our programme during August’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, November and December, which are great months for live music in Edinburgh – my door is open.”

Also operating at the upper end is the family-owned Corn Exchange (3,000), which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, having opened with a show from Blur on 7 December  1999.

“Since then we have become known as Edinburgh’s home of live music by music fans across the city and beyond, having hosted 280 concerts and we are fully focused on reaching our next milestone of 300 gigs,” says the venue’s sales and marketing manager Neil Rudram.

At present, the venue hosts approximately 10 concerts a year. Other acts to have played over the years include Oasis, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters and Florence + the Machine, while currently it’s acts such as The Chainsmokers, All Time Low, Hot Dub Time Machine, Tom Walker and Bear’s Den (all DF promotions).

International party

With an eclectic line-up that included Mark Ronson, Marc Almond and the Ninth Wave, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Event, produced by Underbelly, is as much street party as festival, with stages across the city. These include the 10,000-capacity Hogmanay in the Gardens, nestled in West Princes Street, and three stages for the official Street Party, the latter taking up the whole of Edinburgh’s City Centre stretching from Rose Street in the north to Parliament Square outside St Giles on the Royal Mile, in the south.

Tickets for Hogmanay were £70, which included access to all events, while tickets for the Street Party cost £30.

“We very actively try to programme younger Edinburgh and Scottish bands as well as bringing in internationally recognised artistes throughout the event – no stages or events are without Scottish artistes – so it’s a great way to showcase the strength of talent in the city and the central belt in an international context,” says the event’s music programmer Stuart Nesbit.

“Concert in the Gardens itself has become the model for other summertime events in the same space, West Princes St Gardens, so to a certain extent Hogmanay has kicked open the doors of this iconic site in a city which lacks a major purpose-built arena.”

One venue that is reaping the benefit of the rise in the UK of electronic and dance music is the Royal Highland Centre (RHC), whose West Arena can hold up to 20,000 people standing. Located in neighbouring Ingliston, it held five music shows last year, including Terminal V – The Rising, promoted by TV17, Elrow Town Edinburgh Music Festival (Elrow UK Tickets Ltd) and Rezerection and EH1 (both We Are Ready).

As well as outdoor areas, the venue is home to the Highland Hall (8,000) and the Lowland Hall (6,000). It also launched the outdoor South Arena in 2017 with a Little Mix concert, promoted by LCC Live.

Forthcoming shows include Terminal V – Electronic Music Festival (TV17) and Ultimate 90s Rave (We Are Ready), featuring 50 DJs and 20 live acts.

According to RHC commercial director Lorne Scott, the venue has become the home of electronic and dance music in Scotland, and expects to host more such events this year.

He adds that what makes the RHC attractive to music organisers is the diversity of facilities on offer.

“Be it indoor or outdoor, large or small, the RHC can cater for all,” he adds. “The team that is now established at RHC works in partnership with music organisers, as if the event was its own.”

For Scott, the local live music scene is slowly beginning to rival its biggest neighbour and competitor.

“The music scene in Edinburgh has for many years now lived in the shadows of Glasgow in terms of scale,” he says. “But the city has been experiencing renewed interest from worldwide acts through concerts at Edinburgh Castle to Princess Street Gardens. Smaller concerts are gathering momentum in venues as bands take more to the road.”

At mid-market level, many of those aforementioned venues used by Regular Music and other promoters remain active, with the Queen’s Hall currently reporting a rise in ticket sales.

“We have around 200 shows a year,” says chief executive Evan Henderson. “The venue has great acoustics, while excellent marketing facilities support an intimate auditorium even though we have a decent capacity.”

Henderson says the local scene has always been good but he believes it needs more investment in grassroots venues.

Acts playing the Queen’s Hall include Echo and the Bunnymen, The Pictish Trail (both Regular), Ute Lemper, Decoy with Joe Mcphee, Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita,The Dodge Brothers (all in-house), Agnes Obel (PCL Presents), Tindersticks (432), Fish (The Gig Cartel) and Ward Thomas (DF).

Club culture

At club level, venues such as Sneaky Pete’s (100) and The Liquid Room are integral to the infrastructure, the latter hosting up to 100 shows a year, with ticket prices ranging from £10-30.

“As a medium sized venue we are accessible for a lot of bands and with our very high-tech spec we are very appealing to the touring acts,” says events manager Jon McWilliams.

Acts playing the venue include We Were Promised Jetpacks, Myles Kane, Keifer Sutherland, Easy Life, Julian Cope (all DF), Hayseed Dixie, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie (both Regular), Pete & Diesel (Beyond Presents) and Roy Ayers (AGMP).

With updates to the lighting rig and front-of-house desks, the venue has never looked or sounded better, says McWilliams, adding there has been an increase in the number of shows at The Liquid Room, and across the city.

“The Edinburgh scene is booming again and has seen a massive jump in live gigs,” he says.

He points out one area for potential improvement.

“I think support from local press and media would really help as all the local radio stations and press have been nationalised and pay very little attention to local events.”

According to Sneaky Pete’s manager Nick Stewart, assistance from the industry and government agencies would also help.

“The scene is great right now,” he says. “I think we’d benefit from more support from Creative Scotland, which has not been able to support grassroots music venues in the same way Arts Council England has. We also look forward to more commitments from the music industry in the form of a Pipeline Investment Fund that Music Venue Trust is arguing for.”

Acts playing the venue include Vetiver, Childcare, Free Love, Imperial Wax, Giant Drag, Public Practice, Bambara (all in-house), Larkins, BILK and Vistas (all DF).

“We’ll have hosted nearly 300 shows by the end of last year, plus a club night every night except Christmas Day and Christmas Eve,” he adds. “Attendance is really good across the board. Musicians love the vibe at Sneaky Pete’s. It’s warm and friendly, the audience is up close, and the sound and lights are excellent.”

One relatively new promoter in Edinburgh is Jim Byers, a former music journalist-turned PR who recently returned to the city to launch Edinburgh Music Lovers, which he describes as “a boutique music promoter focusing on special one-off shows”.

The company’s current events include Colin Stetson at Summerhall (400), Kojey Radical at The Caves and Erland Cooper at Queen’s Hall.

“My aim is to continue on a small boutique level and promote half a dozen shows in 2020,” says Byers. “I think Edinburgh is on the verge of a hugely exciting and positive period for music.”

With an expanding number of shows, buzzing emerging acts and a new arena on the horizon, few would argue with that.

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