From the bagpipes to the buskers that enervate every street corner, music is the life blood of Edinburgh. Every artery of this historic stronghold of the Scots emanates a different tune. Although Edinburgh might not be as prominent a primordial soup of chart toppers as cities like Manchester and Liverpool, ‘the Athens of the North’ is no less a music capital of the world.
Unfortunately, recent socioeconomic changes have caused Edinburgh’s once flourishing music scene to shrivel.
“Edinburgh has not produced many iconic music legends, but does have a wealth of bands that come from here,” elaborates Sean Mclelland of local band Shotgun City Sunshine. “The Exploited, The Rezillos and Idlewild all come from Edinburgh.”
Would you walk 500 miles to watch talented musicians? People from all around the UK (and the world) have flocked to Edinburgh, time and again, to catch homegrown acts such as The Proclaimers and The Waterboys. Edinburgh is renowned too for its traditional music festivals, such as the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, which draws droves of tourists every year.
While “Auld Reekie” is also the city that bred Shirley Manson of Garbage fame, it continues to produce new bands like Young Fathers and The Birthday Suit, who cut their teeth in Edinburgh’s pubs and clubs, before garnering acclaim both on the UK charts and abroad. However, Edinburgh has become much less hospitable for its upstart talents, as its music venues have been dropping like flies.
A music lover who has been long-time friends with the managers of Edinburgh’s many music venues, Mclelland reckons that visitors of Edinburgh today only see a shell of the local music scene’s former self.
“Political chaos mate,” Mclelland summarises of the current local climate. “The elections have gotten every local constituency up in arms. People are really holding the (City of Edinburgh) Council and the local politicians accountable for a lot more these days.”
Political uncertainty and knee-jerk reactions by the local government to increase revenues, exacerbated by the UK opting to leave the EU nest despite the majority of Scotland thinking it is a bad idea, have dealt a felling blow to local music.
“There’re a whole string of music venues being closed down in Edinburgh due to increasing taxes and the Council’s desire for more tourist spots. Edinburgh’s music scene is dying on its arse,” he bemoans of this imminent issue, which has yielded much outcry in recent times.
Mclelland used to perform at teeming venues like Studio 24, which international acts such as Nirvana have played at too. The notable local establishment recently closed because the City of Edinburgh Council green-lit the building of luxury flats next door to Studio 24. The old musical venue was not adequately soundproof, so when push came to shove, the council voted in favour of the real estate developers. “Studio 24 shelled out thousands and faced financial ruin that it could not bounce back from,” Mclelland recounts.
“We are gutted that we have had to come to this decision, but with years of investing thousands upon thousands in soundproofing (and) legal fees in order to stay open, alongside complaining neighbours (and) harsh council-enforced sound restrictions, we feel that these problems will not leave us,” the statement from Studio 24 read. “We feel that it’s better to jump than be pushed, and perhaps us leaving the entertainment circuit in Edinburgh might make the powers that be realise that a shake-up of how a capital city’s music scene should be supported (is needed).” Studio 24 bid its following a bittersweet farewell in June 2017, but was not the first stronghold to fall.
“Electric Circus wasn’t forced to close because of a direct effect of the decline in ‘live’ music in Edinburgh, although it would be silly of me to assume it wasn’t a factor,” shares Lauren Glass, who was General Manager of the once-popular Electric Circus until its demise in early 2017. “The owner had decided after nearly 40 years running the property that it was time to sell up.”
The historic music venue was close to the hearts of many Scottish musicians and gig-goers, but succumbed to this unusual turn of tides in March 2017. Electric Circus was closed in favour of the expansion of the Fruitmarket Gallery, a new contemporary art space that ironically proclaims to “show the work of some of the world’s most important Scottish and international artists and help people engage with it in a way that is meaningful to them.”
“I do think that the council has a very warped idea of what are valued arts within the city,” Lauren discloses. “And they need to reevaluate their stance on small grass roots venues.”
After 25 years, The Citrus Club closed its doors for the last time in May 2017. However, its new owner Gavin Miller vowed that his new incarnation of this iconic venue would do Edinburgh’s music lovers justice. “There’s so much music talent in Edinburgh and Smash (the revamped venue) is going to demonstrate that,” he opined in a public statement. “We are going to have a range of music genres performing and then afterwards it will turn into a club. We are also planning on having an unsigned night to allow upcoming bands to showcase what they can do.”
“The infrastructure of Edinburgh has never changed, however, the tourist volume has grown and the Edinburgh Festival has gotten bigger and bigger, so Edinburgh Council prefers to charge higher prices to the tourist trade, rather than the lower prices that the locals are willing to pay,” Mclelland divulges. “For Edinburgh, the tourist trade is so highly relied upon and the rest is hidden. With rising taxes closing the venues and pushing local residents away, the rest of town faces becoming empty for three-quarters of the year.”
Glass feels that the music scene can only be revived by the support of local audiences, commenting, “I think the lack of support from the council definitely plays a part, but I also think it’s the city’s gig-goers as a whole who make it tough. Speaking from my own experience as a gig booker and attendee, Glasgow always has a more engaged crowd. I find Edinburgh gigs quite flat a lot of the time and think that a lot of the reason why the music scene isn’t where it should be is because that is all I hear people say.”
Mclelland shares this opinion, elaborating, “the support has to come from everyone from bands to promoters. There’s no real push from record labels because promoters book dreadful bands. Glasgow has much more on offer, and with the art school there, they expect different variety in Edinburgh, but it’s either indie or screamo here – there’s nothing in between.”
“The government really hasn’t done anything to hold musicians in New Orleans back,” shares John Neely, a long-time musician who moved from Los Angeles to the musical capital of New Orleans to further his musical career. Neely observes that in many music scenes, the inability to push past difficulties and work smart around challenges can present the biggest stumbling blocks. “The deterrent of success for musicians in New Orleans usually has most to do with drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex, and just a plain bad attitude. The city and government do just about all they can to help poor artists. There are many poor musicians and artists because there are many of them, and people who choose the life know what they’re in for, especially when they find out that they are nowhere near as good as others.”
Mclelland too emphasises the need for musicians who are assailing the government to simultaneously take a step back and ask if they are shooting themselves in the feet. Mclelland cites the example of how one particular pub had booked a Foo Fighters tribute band recently, on the same weekend when the actual Foo Fighters were touring Scotland. “Musicians are creatives – they need to be able to think outside the box, or else it’s one nail in the coffin,” he suggests. “The authorities’ desire to fleece tourists who visit Edinburgh is the final nail.”
What happens when a city’s policies, venues and access become so inhospitable that they cause locals to shunt the very thought of making their own music, let alone embrace their personal musical potential? A piece of the city dies, especially if music is its lifeblood.
Unlike the consumption of music, the production of music is inseparable from heritage and identity. Used to pass down traditions and pearls of wisdom before the invention of written language, the fine arts serve as the yardstick of a society’s advancement. In a way, supporting local arts is patriotism. It’d be cool if full-time and hobbyist musicians can be given a chance to indulge their musical sides: The novelty that we create in the present becomes our lasting legacy in the future.