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Edinburgh

City Limits
6 March 2018
Edinburgh Castle
Whether it’s in the castle, concert halls, theatres, pubs or makeshift venues during the annual summer festival, Edinburgh moves to the sound of live music every day of the year, despite lacking an arena and venues in the large club sector.   Allan Glen reports

 

John Stout

“Edinburgh promoters – putting the spectacle into spectacular.”

If ever a line summed up those working in the city’s live music scene it’s that one.

While the lack of an arena could be seen by some as at best unfortunate, Edinburgh’s use of alternatives is inspired.

From the visually stunning run of concerts held each year at Edinburgh Castle (cap. 8,450) to the annual 75,000-capacity Hogmanay event in the city centre – not forgetting, of course, the world-renowned Edinburgh International Festival, Fringe and Book Festival – this is a city that buzzes with live music from January to December.

“Ticket sales in Edinburgh are very solid year-round, but there are some idiosyncrasies that it’s essential to keep in mind,” says John Stout of Regular Music, the city’s most prominent promoter, hosting up to 70 shows a year including the Castle Concerts.

“For example, August can be an interesting month when the city doubles in population as tourists pour in for the Edinburgh festival.

“It also means there are over 2,300 different shows per day that you could be competing against. You have to be sure your artiste is going to get noticed.”

Acts Regular is promoting include Echo and the Bunnymen, Public Service Broadcasting and Alison Moyet at the Usher Hall (2,900), Jeff Tweedy at the Queen’s Hall (900), The Waterboys, The Proclaimers and Bon Iver at Edinburgh Playhouse (3,047).

This year’s Castle Concerts feature Il Divo, with tickets from £55, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (£45), Bananarama (£42.50) and Del Amitri (£42.50).

As that list no doubt testifies, when it comes to styles of music, Edinburgh remains as eclectic as ever, adds Stout.

“There isn’t a genre of music that does particularly well in the city, as country does in Glasgow for instance, but tastes are broad and the audience really knows their stuff. It’s certainly not the full range every night of the week, but you can find gigs of most genres fairly regularly, whether that’s indie, rock, pop, acoustic, blues, jazz or folk.”

As one of Scotland’s most active promoters, Regular welcomes the announcement that the Agent of Change principle is to be introduced into planning law north of the border [see LIVE UK news], offering some protection to music venues facing nearby residential building developments.

“We are fully behind the Agent of Change principle,” adds Stout.

Another significant agent of change is City of Edinburgh Council’s decision last year to award the contract for the Hogmanay event to Underbelly, which programmes The Fringe and produces the city’s Christmas celebrations, signifying the end of an era for one company.

Up until last year, it had been produced by Unique Events, whose founder, Pete Irvine, was also a co-founder of Regular Music, and has been putting on shows in the city for the past 40 years.

Edinburgh Playhouse

In a statement released at the time of the announcement, Unique said it was “deeply disappointed” by the council’s decision not to continue with their services.

Continuity at the event is provided by Stuart Nisbet, who previously worked with Unique to programme the Hogmanay events and is now musical director of the event, which, in its first year produced by Underbelly, featured headliners Nina Nesbitt, Declan McKenna and Rag‘n’Bone Man in the Concert In The Gardens. Tickets cost from £55.

From starting as a rep with Regular Music in the ‘80s, Nisbet has travelled the world as a musician and was creative director of music for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in 2014.

“I learned a huge amount on that gig which is heavily influencing the way I work with the Underbelly team’s new approach to Hogmanay,” he says. “I’m not a promotor, I’m a music director – things have to happen for a reason, so we’re always really interested in the relationship between the artistes and the theme of the event.

“It’s not solely about tickets or even status. There needs to be a connection.”

In addition to last year’s headliners, there were also three stages for the Street Party, featuring acts such as Sacred Paws and Human League, with tickets costing £26.

As Underbelly co-founder Charlie Wood notes, the event is popular not only with locals but with the thousands of tourists who visit the capital on Hogmanay.

“It’s a great platform for bands to play, and a lot of fun being at the biggest New Year party in the world,” he says. “We’re taking stock of our first Edinburgh Hogmanay and look forward to announcing details of Hogmanay 2019 over the coming months.”

Upgrading history

As befits a historical city such as Edinburgh, its venues are constantly being updated, with work recently taking place at Edinburgh Playhouse.

This has included replacing all the circle and stalls, seating and carpets. In addition to this, the interior has undergone a contemporary colour scheme change, drawing inspiration from the original theatre’s 1920s design.

Acts playing the venue include Regina Spektor, Frankie Valli (both promoted by DF Concerts), Sheridan Smith (Cuffe & Taylor) and Gary Barlow (SJM Concerts/DF).

There is, says Edinburgh Playhouse head of sales and marketing Pam Aldred, a general trend in later booking patterns.

“There will, however, always be a demand for those high profile artistes and bands, with some selling out within minutes.”

The Queen’s Hall

Stepping stone

At the Queen’s Hall, the 900-capacity venue is undergoing a £1 million refurbishment with management planning to raise a further £3m to modernise the public areas and street frontage.

The venue due to celebrate in 2019 its 40th anniversary as a concert hall, having been converted from its original use as a church.

“We will be looking for artiste agents to help us celebrate the year with some special gigs,” says chief executive Evan Henderson. “Our immediate future is pretty bright and secure.”

According to Henderson, the venue provides a much-needed stepping stone for emerging musical talent. “The Queen’s Hall has always had a rich stream of artistes coming through and is the place I would expect to see acts transition from emerging to becoming

Acts playing the venue include Sparks (AEG Live), Nils Lofgren (CMP Entertainment), King King (The Gig Cartel), Jake Bugg, The Cribs, Lisa Stansfield and Barenaked Ladies (all DF).

With some of the best acoustics in the business, the Usher Hall (2,400), which opened in 1914, is popular with a wide range of acts and has been the main venue for the Edinburgh International Festival since 1947.

Regularly using the venue is Duncan Gray of Triple G, which hosted Queens of the Stone Age’s only Scottish date there.

Evan Henderson

Duncan Gray

“We only did the one night, but we could easily have sold out three dates,” he says. “It was quite an incredible show, though we got a lot of stick from the fans because a lot of people couldn’t get in.”

The obvious question, of course is: why would the band play such a relatively small venue rather than a Glasgow arena, for example, particularly since they were on a world tour of arenas.

“Josh [Homme] is very much his own man and, I guess, no-one tells him what to do,” says Gray. “He’d played The SSE Hydro [13,000] on a previous tour and didn’t really like the vibe of the place. This time round he still wanted to come to Scotland, but do something a bit more special, something a bit more intimate.”

Having the Usher Hall is one of the major benefits to promoting in Edinburgh says Gray, who adds the city still misses out on a lot of shows at mid-range following the closure of the MAMA & Company-owned Picture House (1,500) in 2013.

“The Usher Hall is a really great venue and, to be honest, we could be doing with having something like that, at that capacity, in Glasgow.”

Triple G shows include Deaf Havana and Fun Lovin’ Criminals in the Queen’s Hall, Wayward Sons and Bury Tomorrow in The Mash House (250), and Sleaford Mods and Dead Daisies in The Liquid Room (650), which hosts up to 90 shows a

“Most of those shows are 80 per cent to 100 per cent capacity,” says Liquid Room events manager Jon Spaczynski, adding others playing the venue include Jorja Smith, The Sherlocks, Gerry Cinnamon, The Breeders, Teenage Fanclub, Frank Turner, Liam Fray, (all DF), From The Jam (Synergy Concerts) and Hue & Cry (Regular).

Other Triple G shows include Kid Brother, Cold Black and Deadly Circus Fire in the recently renovated Opium (150).

Usher Hall

Vibrant marketplace

Located next door to Opium is Sneaky Pete’s (100), whose manager, Nick Stewart, also welcomes the recent announcement that the Scottish government is to introduce the Agent of Change into planning policy.

“It’s great news for music venues in Scotland,” says Stewart, who was also involved with the city’s Live Music Matters forum and its associated working group, Music Is Audible (MIA). “The Scottish government has shown that they value live music.

“The live music industry and community need to know that they can’t sit on the sidelines moaning about how tough things are, they need to demand more. This change would not have been possible without the efforts and expertise of the Music Venue Trust whom we are very grateful to.”

Acts playing the venue include King Creosote, WHITE, Sextile, Amp Fiddler, Trembling Bells (all in-house promotions), Calva Louise (This Feeling), Avalanche Party, Banfi (both PCL Presents), Nieves (Beyond Presents), Pronto Mama and We Were Promised Jetpacks (both DF) and Bully (Synergy).

In general terms, Stewart believes the market is in good shape.

“There are certainly a lot of shows,” he says. “I think the standard of homegrown acts is great right now, and there’s always a good amount of weirdness.”

Nick Stewart

Over at the RHC (60,000), located in Ingliston in the west of Edinburgh, the biggest change in the past 12 months has been the introduction of the South Arena (35,000), an outside area, which recently hosted Little Mix, promoted by LCC Live, while this year’s ScotFest, at the same site, will feature headliners The Jacksons, Boyzone and Liberty X.

With five spaces at the centre, starting at 5,000-capacity, and close to the city centre and local airport, commercial director Lorne Scott says the venue’s location makes it ideal for a wide range of shows.

“We offer a blank canvas for every act that plays here,” says Scott. “Transport links are second to none for artistes and visitors.”

Helping fresh talent

Another promoter who believes live music is bouncing back from a couple of difficult years is Matt Justice, manager of La Belle Angele (600), which hosts up to 80 shows a year.

“A couple of years ago, the live music scene in Edinburgh hit a bit of a quiet spell with many venues closing in the centre of town,” he says. “There were various council enforced measures on zero tolerance to audible noise, which put a lot of pressure on venues, as licences could easily be lost.

“This seems to have calmed down recently with changes in legislation, alongside a lot of venues around town really picking-up their game, helping the live music scene to flourish, giving local and touring musicians somewhere to perform.”

As such, adds Justice, the market for emerging and established acts is growing exponentially.

“There also seem to be a lot of new promoters emerging, who are helping young bands play to well-attended shows, alongside a lot of the more established promoters who are using Edinburgh a lot more than they are putting on shows in Glasgow, which always used to be the more popular city to book.”

In summing up, Stewart also believes growth in the market is coming from various sectors within the business, while the average Edinburgh promoter’s inventiveness for utilising what the city has to offer remains undimmed.

“Some of the best shows are at non-rock events,” he adds. “[Multi-venue event] Hidden Door, which is essentially a visual arts festival, has hosted some brilliant live music.

“That kind of change in context has a profound effect on the listening experience, and since Edinburgh hosts The Fringe, there’s no shortage of quirky venues to use if you’re willing to bring some production yourself.

“Mixing live music into other settings isn’t new for the city. It has a long and esteemed tradition.”

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