Enchanting and dramatic landscapes, enthusiastic audiences, especially warm hospitality – the Highlands and Islands have them all. The only potential obstacle is their location. But there are rewards for those artistes who make the effort to venture there, as Allan Glen reports.
Operating in an area covering the size of a small European country and up to 800 miles from London, one would think promoters and venue operators in the Highlands and Islands have their work cut out attracting artistes.
In practice, however, what awaits those acts who continue northwards from a date in the central locations of Glasgow or Edinburgh, can often be the highlight of any UK tour, with some of the most breathtaking scenery in Europe and beyond – and a welcome to match.
But that’s not all it has to offer, local promoters can shift tickets.
Inverness-based independent promoter LCC Live has sold nearly 50,000 tickets for live music shows in the Highlands and Islands alone in the past year.
“We’re just getting ready for next year’s shows, and getting things announced,” says LCC Live’s Les Kidger. “Our year runs from November to November, so we’re now looking at what we’re going to do for 2020.
“The past 12 months was really busy in Inverness, with Noel Gallagher at outdoor venue Bught Park [cap.13,000] and Kaiser Chiefs and Madness at the Northern Meeting Park [5,000].
“We have also brought something new to the area with The Big Top [5,500], also in Bught Park, which featured Celtic rock band Skipinnish on the Friday, and The Proclaimers on Saturday.”
As a green space owned by the Highland Council, Bught Park is the biggest outdoor venue in the Highlands, with Kidger and his team having already promoted acts such as Olly Murs and Bryan Adams there.
“The market up here is really good at the moment,” he says. “With all the different shows and events we did in Inverness and the Highlands this year, we did just shy of 50,000 tickets. So when you think that Inverness itself has a population of 60,000, I think that shows it’s quite buoyant.
“As such we’re finding quite a lot of other promoters coming in, but as it’s our home patch, we know the market, we know how to sell tickets further afield. It’s not just about the people who live in Inverness, it’s about the people who live in the vast area of the Highlands and Islands, and it’s about bringing those people down to Inverness.
“For next year we’ve already got another Skipinnish gig coming up in The Big Top, and we’ve just announced a McFly show in The Big Top as well at Bught Park in July 2020.”
As well as the major outdoor events, LCC Live promotes at the Inverness Leisure Centre (1,850), the largest indoor venue in the Highlands and Islands, and another council-owned venue. As Kidger explains, LCC Live has a contract to allow them to promote a certain number of shows throughout the year.
“We’ve just announced Deacon Blue there for next October,” he says, adding other artistes to have performed there include The Beach Boys, Texas, The Proclaimers and Peter Andre.
“It’s a matter of converting it from a leisure centre into an indoor venue, and in that respect it works very well. It’s ideal for artistes who want to come into Inverness on a touring schedule, so artistes such as Deacon Blue, Wet Wet Wet. The nearest venue in the area is about 1,000 capacity, so it’s a big jump up.
Also working as an independent promoter is Robert Hicks of Beyond Presents, which has forthcoming shows by Scouting for Girls in the Ironworks (1,000) in Inverness and Tom Walker in Strathpeffer Pavilion (200).
“It’s really vibrant up here just now,” says Hicks. “The music scene is constantly evolving and not only are there many tours in the region, but also a large number of one-off events throughout the year.”
As a dedicated live music venue, the Ironworks is facing an uncertain future (see news story on page 6), but for now it’s business as usual, as Ironworks owner Caroline Campbell explains, “Inverness and the wider Highlands and Islands has a year round demand for live music and entertainment, from local bands through to national touring acts and we are delighted to be part of the entertainment infrastructure 365 days a year,” she says.
Acts playing the venue include Lewis Capaldi, Lucy Spraggan, Tide Lines (all Beyond promotions), Feeder, Airbourne, Idlewild, Enter Shikari (all DF Concerts), Ocean Colour Scene, Primal Scream (both Regular Music), Daniel Sloss (Live Nation Entertaiment), Edwyn Collins (PCL Presents), 2manydjs, Mall Grab, Ho-Ro, Ben Nicky, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Calum MacKenzie Jones and Rhythmnreel (all in-house).
As for one-off events, one of the most successful is the Hebridean Celtic Festival (4,000), known locally as HebCelt.
“There are some great events placed across the islands and an increasing live scene in Inverness with new festivals and big outdoor events through the summer,” says HebCelt director Caroline MacLennan. Recent headliners have included The Proclaimers, The Waterboys, Van Morrison, Deacon Blue, The Fratellis and Imelda May.
With more than 40 live artistes performing at the festival each year, HebCelt will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year and remains a key date in the region’s live music calendar. Shows are held across three stages in Castle Green in front of Lews Castle.
“Our event has a unique reputation within the industry and we all appreciate that those incredibly hard-working individuals who make this festival happen are volunteers,” she adds. “Couple that with a beautiful island setting, a fantastic, warm welcome and a refreshing can-do attitude which truly makes this an event that artistes love and love to come back to.
“The main festivals in the region do very well, but I’ve got to say it’s a challenge maintaining an island event with the increased costs we inevitably incur. Public funding is very important to the mix in the overall budget for our event and the cuts to this inevitably put increased pressure on the Trust which manages HebCelt.”
Three venues that offer a location unlike any other are An Tobar (60) on the Isle of Mull, Mareel (600) on the Shetland Islands, and An Lanntair (250) on Stornoway.
Artistes visiting to the latter include Luke Jackson, The Tumbling Souls, John Goldie and the High Plains, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, and Kris Dever.
“There are so many factors that affect how a gig sells on an island, with good weather being one of the factors that can affect us the most, as people tend to take advantage of the opportunities to get sailing, surfing or just visiting the beach,” says Alex MacDonald, head of performing arts and cultural projects at the venue. “I also think our environment has a massive influence on acts both coming to the islands and wanting to return.”
While Mareel’s programme manager Tim Matthew points out that ticket sales are lower than in previous years, he goes on to say that, as the UK’s most northerly arts centre, the venue continues to attract artistes from across the world.
Artistes playing the venue include Aly Bain, Ale Moller, Bruce Molsky, John Goldie, Little Mix Magic Missy Malone, Timberlina, Amber Topaz and Odessa (all in-house promotions).
“In Mareel we have approximately 100 live shows a year, including music, dance and theatre, plus a full cinema programme, a film festival, literature festival, traditional music summer school and festival,” says Matthew. “In addition to this, we have approximately 200 classes/workshops.”
As for the market in the Highlands and Islands in general, Matthew says there are signs of growth.
“It seems very healthy up here, there are constantly acts on tour,” he adds. “The website tourbook.live seems to be a helpful conduit for assisting touring acts. Whereas some years ago there might have been a lack of touring acts, now the audience is spoilt for choice.”
With up to 50 live gigs a year, An Tobar in Tobermory works across a range of genres, including jazz, folk, indie and classical, and was nominated as Venue of the Year for the fourth time at the Scots Trad Awards, also known as the Folk Oscars.
Recent visitors to the venue include The Local Honeys, Broken Chanter, Mull Historical Society, Sian, Burt MacDonald, Cat Loud, Lizabbet Russo, John Goldie, Jack Badcock and Aidan O’Rourke (all in-house).
The venue’s Gordon MacLean is another who says the market in the area remains robust, although he does issue a caveat.
“The Highlands and islands music scene is incredibly healthy these days with great new artistes appearing every year,” he says. “Maybe I could wish for a few more quality venues, but it’s always difficult outside the cities to maintain an audience.”
One independent promoter who is looking to increase the number of shows he promotes, following a quieter period, is Rypeco’s Ryan Cook, who owns the Blackstairs Lounge (100) in Wick, and also promotes at The Assembly Rooms (650) in the town.
Standout gigs for Cook, who promotes around 10 shows a year, have been The Cuban Brothers and KT Tunstall in Blackstairs.
“We only sold around half the tickets for The Cuban Brothers, an act that plays to thousands on a regular basis, which was majorly disappointing, but they gave us an amazing show and were true professionals. A seriously underrated act,” he says.
“Another one was a little over two years ago, but it was the KT Tunstall incident with the stolen tambourine. There was a big furore about it going missing as KT had it since day one. I put the Facebook feelers out and received a phone call at 8am the following morning, from an extremely hung-over female to say she had it. We arranged a taxi and it was dropped off to KT at her hotel.”
Also adding to the buzz is the recent success of several local artistes.
“At the moment we have a few local acts doing well, from Neon Waltz, who have nationwide success these days, to Open Plan and Forgetting The Future.”
Other acts playing the Blackstairs include Miracle Glass Company, Liimo, Tamzene, Carousel (all co-promotions with Robert Harper, tenant of the venue), Declan Welsh and the Decadent West, Calum Beattie (co-promotions with Beyond), Open Plan, Forgetting The Future and Colin Macleod (co-promotions with DF Concerts), while Cook is also promoting shows by Abbamania and Neon Waltz in The Assembly Rooms.
Ticket sales remain good, he adds, bringing us back to those big LLC shows mentioned earlier.
“Sales recently have been very buoyant – not totally sure why,” muses LCC Live’s Les Kidger. “But there have been so many large shows on around Scotland these past few years, I think it has opened-up the idea of going to a gig to a lot more people in the region.”