From one local promoter working with new venues in rural locations such as Wick and Findhorn, to another trying to encourage audiences from Orkney, Shetland and Stornoway to travel to Inverness for major shows, live music in the Highlands and Islands is, like the landscapes, a challenging environment.
Veteran Highlands & Islands promoter Robert Hicks of Beyond Presents is in expansion mode through building new audiences in local settings, Inverness-based LCC Live is growing audiences for bigger shows by marketing heavily in the outlying areas, and persuading people to travel to Inverness for special
“We know you have to market the big shows just as hard in places like Thurso, Orkney, Shetland and Stornoway, because we’re relying on these people travelling down to Inverness to sell those extra tickets,” says LCC Live’s Les Kidger.
“It’s not just about the people who live 20 miles away. You have to work hard at it, but as long as you know where your market is, and you can find the right artiste to fit that market, then you can sell tickets.”
Both Kidger and Hicks report an uptake in business last year, with Kidger bringing acts such as Bryan Adams, Texas and The Beach Boys to Inverness, more of which later.
Hicks, one of the region’s longest-serving promoters, is responsible for recent tours in the Highlands and Islands by Scouting For Girls, Jake Bugg, Newton Faulkner and Lucy Spraggan.
“This has been our busiest year ever,” says Hicks, who promoted a series of open-air concerts for Mumford & Sons in Aviemore a few years back. “There’s a renewed vigour of people in the Highlands wanting to go out and see live music, so we’ve started to explore more remote areas, places like Wick, which we’ve never done before.”
It is an approach that seems to be proving consistently successful.
“In the past 12 months we’ve had about four shows in Wick, all of which have performed really well,” he says. “There are two venues we use there. As well as Mackays Hotel , we also put acts into the Assembly Rooms .
“Places such as those have really come on stream, as well as smaller venues such as The Barn  in Banchory, on the edge of the Cairngorms, and the Universal Hall  in Findhorn.”
Bringing Scouting for Girls back to the region was a particular highlight for Hicks.
“The last time they were in the Highlands, except for festival dates, was about 10 years ago,” he adds. “We did a lot of shows with them up here then but they’ve just never had the opportunity to come back. So we were really pleased to have them tour in the area again.”
Venues included Mareel (600) in Shetland, The Sound Archive (250) in Orkney, The Loft (500) in Forres, An Lanntair (250) on Stornoway and The Ironworks (1,000) in Inverness. There was even time for a show at the Birnam Arts Centre , on the banks of the River Tay.
Other notable Beyond tours include a series of low-key acoustic concerts by Jake Bugg and dates for The Pigeon Detectives and Lucy Spraggan.
“We’ve done a stack of shows with Lucy over the last 12 months, about 15, including dates at The Never Centre  in Fort William and Mackays Hotel in Wick – and a string of dates with Newton Faulkner across the Highlands, too. He played the same venues as Scouting For Girls, with two additional dates, one at the Universal Hall in Findhorn, and another at Aros Hall  in Tobermory.
“As a company, we’re increasingly covering the whole of Scotland now and a lot of these dates are part of a Scottish tour across the central belt.”
While Beyond Presents concentrates on tours, the other side of the company, Beyond Events Presents, looks after outdoor shows such as two-day festival Loopallu in Ullapool, which last year included performances from Glasvegas, The Pigeon Detectives, Tide Lines, The View and The Rezillos.
“We had to move homes last year so it’s non-camping now and based near the pier in the centre of Ullapool,” says Hicks. “It’s a stunning location but it meant we had to drop the capacity slightly to 1,500.”
Also reporting a busy 12 months is the aforementioned Les Kidger of LCC Live, where being realistic about the market and, perhaps more importantly, knowing what sells and what doesn’t, has resulted in growth.
“We’ve seen some outside promoters bring acts up here, thinking it’s this metropolis, but as local promoters we know the market,” he says. “I’ve seen some shows come up here and just not sell tickets because the promoter thinks it’s a mass market – and it isn’t. We’re not a Glasgow or Edinburgh.”
All together, LLC Live sold 30,000 tickets for its five sell-out shows under the banner of Live In the City in Inverness last year.
Bryan Adams and Olly Murs performed at Bught Park, while The Beach Boys, Status Quo and Texas played Inverness Leisure Centre (1,900).
“The leisure centre is the biggest indoor capacity in the Highlands and it takes a lot for us to make it musically possible but it works well,” he says.
Last summer also saw LCC stage two outdoor events at Bught Park (12,000), the main green space in the city, located next to the river. First to appear was Bryan Adams, who sold to capacity, followed a week later by Olly Murs.
“We’ve been working with the Highland Council for a while to see if we could make Bught Park work as a music site and the Bryan Adams show was the first time it was ever used for an event like that, and was a fantastic success,” says Kidger, who adds that, across the UK – “from Exeter to Inverness and everywhere else in between” – LCC sold 150,000 tickets in 2017. “We kept the infrastructure in place and the following week we had Olly Murs there, and we had 10,000 people there for that one.”
“Last year was exceptionally good for us and we’ve found that when artistes come up here to play the Inverness Leisure Centre they really like it as a venue. It’s a bit like a mini-style [Glasgow-based] SECC venue [8,200]. Obviously it’s a lot smaller but people always come out to support it. We haven’t yet put on a show there that hasn’t sold out.
“We’ve had people like Deacon Blue and Peter Andre there. We also had Wet Wet Wet a few years ago – they came straight out of the SSE Hydro [13,000] to us – so it definitely works, if you can bring the right people to the right market.”
Also in expansion mode is the Ironworks (1,000), the largest purpose-built live music venue in the region, which, this month is adding staging and draping to allow for a more intimate, 300-capacity performance area.
“This means that acts who previously may have had to miss a gig in Inverness due to feasibility now have the platform to engage with their Highlands and Islands audience,” says venue director Caroline Campbell. “This will be a major change for the venue and a great opportunity for emerging talent to perform here, which we’re all very excited about.”
Those currently playing the venue include The Libertines, Shed Seven, Twin Atlantic, The Stranglers, Amy Macdonald (all DF Concerts), Happy Mondays (Regular Music), Tom Findley, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Paul Oakenfold, Tide Lines, Stiff Little Fingers, Wishbone Ash (all in-house), Future Islands (PCL Presents) and Stewart Francis (Live Nation Entertainment).
Ticket sales remain steady, adds Campbell, while the number of performances taking place at the venue is on the increase, currently running at approximately 150 per year.
Elsewhere in the region, ticket receipts vary. For example, at An Lanntair over on Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, attendances can vary from show to show and season to season, according to head of performing arts and cinema Alex MacDonald.
“Ticket sales have been variable in the past year with people perhaps less willing to take a chance on new bands but the bigger shows continue to sell out quickly, in minutes in some cases,” she adds. “Islanders are, however, generally slow in buying tickets for some gigs, and usually the bulk go in the last couple of days – which is always a bit of a worry for the promoter.
As with other venues in the region, An Lanntair remains a popular choice due to its remote location. Acts currently playing the venue include Blue Rose Code, Willie Campbell, Horo, Session A9, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, Julie Fowlis, Martin Taylor (all in-house), Hunter and The Bear, Tide Lines, Outyla and King Creosote (Beyond).
It is also one of the venues used during the annual Hebridean Celtic Festival (HebCelt), also located on Stornoway. With three stages sited in Castle Green (4,500) in front of Lews Castle, these include a recently added stage for acoustic singer-songwriters, while accompanying shows also take place in Lewis and Harris.
Its remote location does, however, bring with it its own set of requirements, as festival director Caroline MacLennan explains.
“Our location is pretty unique, but it comes with its own set of challenges, travel and the huge costs in making the event happen in the islands being paramount,” she says.
This year’s headliner is Deacon Blue, making their first visit to the islands, while other confirmed acts include Skipinnish, Blazin’ Fiddles, Tide Lines, Trail West, Kinnaris Quintet, Tumbling Souls, Yves Lambert Trio, Vishten and Habadekuk. Weekend ticket prices are £98 and £30 for children aged seven to 14.
According to MacLennan, the festival is a catalyst for live music in the islands, particularly for the traditional music scene, while there are other positive effects, too. “The economic benefits are enormous, with the most recent impact assessment estimating HebCelt’s worth at over £2m to the local economy.”
Also investing and playing an important role in the live music market is the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). While not an arts agency, and therefore not able to provide a subsidy for venue operators, the agency can help with funding for developments. In the past this has included support for several venues, including Mareel (600) in Lerwick, Shetland, regularly used by Beyond Presents.
“Our patch runs from Shetland in the north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south, and we work with a high percentage of venues and events that happen in the region,” says Iain Hamilton, head of creative industries at HIE.
One of the UK’s most northern venues, Mareel hosts up to 60 shows a year. Those currently playing the venue include Martha Wainwright, String Sisters (in-house) and The Furrow Collective (all in-house).
“Shetland has always held an attraction for performers rooted in traditional and folk music and so has had strong links to musicians throughout the Highlands and Islands, as well as Scandinavia, Canada and beyond,” says programme manager Floortje Matthew.
Back on the mainland, the Assembly Rooms in Wick is the largest space north of Inverness, and attracts acts who want to travel into the heart of the Highlands or who pass through on the way to Orkney. Current shows include Neon Waltz, Baby Strange and Tijuana Bibles, all booked in-house by Ryan Cook, who promotes under the Rypeco Promotions banner.
“Ticket sales recently have been pretty decent,” says Cook. “Due to the population, 400 sales is good, and we hit that number quite regularly.”
Over on the Isle of Mull is An Tobar (60), which hosts up to 50 shows a year, the majority booked and promoted in-house. Acts currently playing include The Mae Trio, Me For Queen, Andrew Wasylyk, Adam Homes and The Embers, The Poozies, John Goldie, John Doyle, The Alyn Cosker Quartet, Iain Morrison (all in-house) and Tide Lines (Beyond Presents).
As music director Gordon Maclean points out, homegrown acts such as Manran and Tide Lines pull in good crowds but it can be a bit of a struggle to sell tickets for unknown acts.
“It’s still difficult to get audiences to go to up-and-coming bands,” he says.
There are, however, major benefits for any act who makes the journey to An Tobar, whose terrace overlooks Tobermory Bay.
“Our selling point is the beautiful road trip and ferry trip you have to make to get here,” adds Maclean.
And that – as many an artiste who has played in the region will no doubt testify – is often reason enough to route a tour here.