IN SCOTLAND'S CAPITAL, BUSINESSES are collapsing, jobs are being lost and building projects are being abandoned. And yet, in the midst of all this, the city's music scene has never felt so alive and full of possibility. If you're looking for exciting new bands, Edinburgh is now the place to be in Scotland.
• Listen to 'Let Fidelity Break' by FOUND by clicking the green Audio button
How on earth did that happen, especially now? Glasgow, surely, is the beating heart of the country's music scene? With a few honourable exceptions, when it comes to pop music all of Scotland's biggest success stories over the past couple of decades have come from the west, from Texas to Franz Ferdinand. Each band's success inspired a new generation of musicians, many of them moving to Glasgow specifically to form bands, and keeping the city's grassroots music scene alive.
Recently, though, the centre of Scottish pop music's gravity has conspicuously moved east. "The Edinburgh scene has grown rapidly over the past five years or so," observes DJ and promoter Dave Cumings, whose weekly live music night, Limbo, can claim a little of the credit for this. "You can't go out in Edinburgh without tripping over several very well run live music nights; east coast labels such as SL and Fence have come of age; Scottish music journalism is pretty much based over here, and the most important bloggers are based here.
"We're now at a point where the new dynamic about live music in Edinburgh has a huge influence on what happens in Glasgow. It used to be the other way round."
Before we go any further, I should acknowledge that this is, inevitably, a flawed argument. Even Olaf Furniss, whose Born To Be Wide club nights and seminars are a key meeting place for Edinburgh bands, promoters, DJs and other scenesters, says he thinks any Edinburgh vs Glasgow comparison is "unhelpful". "There is great music throughout Scotland and a handful of dedicated people can make a scene in the smallest of places," he says. "Just look at how The Fence Collective has put Anstruther on the map." Fans of The View will, no doubt, want to speak up for Dundee too.
But Furniss agrees that the capital, in particular, is buzzing. "I think there have always been quality bands in Edinburgh, but in recent years a handful of people have emerged to create a platform for the talent – radio stations such as Fresh Air and Leith FM; publications such as The Skinny and Song By Toad; labels such as Alextronic and Benbecula; venues and bookers with an interest in supporting local acts, such as Cabaret Voltaire, The Ark, Henry's, GRV, Sneaky Pete's, Voodoo Rooms and even the Picture House, who are willing to support local talent. There's a strong sense of unity – people seem to be hanging out in the same places, and the lack of competition or greed in the scene is what's making it healthy. Everyone's working together."
Tommy Perman of leading Edinburgh band Found backs this up. "This city has had a reputation in the past for being quite insular, with bands keeping themselves holed up in practice spaces and rarely interacting," he says. "I think this has changed in recent years – there's now both a collaborative and competitive atmosphere. I think Edinburgh bands are striving for the kind of success that Glasgow bands have been achieving, and raising their game."
There is plenty of evidence to support this. Found and fellow Edinburgh band Come On Gang! are about to head to Texas for the South by Southwest festival, the industry event that has launched many a career in the US, and the profile of Edinburgh bands like Young Fathers and Broken Records has soared in the past year. At the grassroots, meanwhile, a new band seems to emerge every week, and it is hard to keep track of the city's various musical collectives. There's Bear Scotland, consisting of Withered Hand, Enfant Bastard, the Foundling Wheel, Dead Boy Robotics and Meursault, who can also be found under the umbrella of Song By Toad, Matthew James Young's blog, podcast and now record label which also champions Uhersky Brod, Nightjar, The Savings and Loan and Eagleowl, who are also part of the Fife Kills collective, along with ... and so on. Put together, it all amounts to a buzz not seen in Edinburgh since the days of Postcard Records, almost 30 years ago.
What Edinburgh lacks is a breakthrough band like Franz Ferdinand, whose success would shine an international spotlight on the city's other bright young things. KT Tunstall cut her teeth on Edinburgh's acoustic scene, but only found success after relocating to London. For a while Aberfeldy looked like being the capital's answer to Belle and Sebastian, but didn't quite break through. "If one act makes it big, the city will become the focus of A&Rs and the media," says Furniss. "There is a buzz around Young Fathers at the moment, and I think Broken Records have reached the next level, thanks to their deal with 4AD. Eagleowl could break through and I hope the X Vectors finally get the recognition they deserve."
But this might not happen, Furniss argues, without more support. "It is infuriating that more local acts don't get the opportunity to play during the Fringe, and the last time I was invited to an Edinburgh City Council meeting it seemed the only arts sector not receiving support was the contemporary music sector. At government level there should be a recognition of the role the music scene plays in the city. Engaging with those involved would be a good start, as would supporting initiatives to create close links with foreign music scenes."
That said, Furniss also believes Edinburgh bands need to be more ambitious. "Unfortunately, it tends to be the case that in contrast to many Glasgow acts, Edinburgh musicians ignore opportunities and expect the world to come to them. Those who are putting in the work and getting themselves noticed will tend to do better. While I appreciate the need to rehearse, it is a mystery to me that some bands can't reschedule when I've a top A&R person or national radio figure at Born To Be Wide. People pay a lot of money to meet these kinds of people at industry conventions, and too many bands can't be arsed finding an hour to meet them for free."
That certainly isn't true of the talented and motivated Found, potentially the breakthrough band the city needs. Now signed to Fife label Fence Records, the band have high hopes for next month's trip to the US, which will include two dates in New York as well as three showcase gigs in Texas. "In the past I've felt it's a bit of a steeper climb in Edinburgh," says frontman Ziggy Campbell. "A lot of people who made a big impact in the past 20 years are based in Glasgow and are still actively contributing to the music scene. They bring with them experience, contacts and a profile. I don't feel Edinburgh has that yet but with the right venues, musicians, journalists, promoters etc, there's no reason why it can't, right?"
• Found play the Bowery, Edinburgh, tonight.
Ten essential Edinburgh bands
What are Found, exactly? Sometimes they're a pop band, whose winning blend of electronica, space rock and samples recalls the Beta Band with a dash of Bowie and Brian Eno. Sometimes they make art projects – they met at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen – and are as likely to be making sound installations at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden, or inventing a robot band (their next project, to be unveiled later this year) as they are playing at T in the Park. Sometimes they combine the two, staging visually striking live events. It's a rare combination, and has won them a diverse and growing audience. AE
• FOUND are currently trying to raise money for their trip to SXSW by selling a download album – details here
2 The Aliens
Rising from the ashes of Edinburgh totems the Beta Band, The Aliens are a psychedelic sunshine Krautrock jam band rocking a more brazenly retro sound than their forebears but distinguishing themselves from the pack with a strain of pop oddness and the chaotic stage presence of frontman Gordon "Lone Pigeon" Anderson. FS
3 Come On Gang!
A Scots art school band from Edinburgh rather than Glasgow is rare enough, but this punk-pop power-trio are unforgettable for many reasons, mainly the magnetic Sarah Tanat-Jones, their drummer and also their gorgeously folk-voiced lead singer. Hopefully, a performance at next month's South By South West festival in Austin, Texas, will see them recognised as one of Scotland's most promising musical hopes. DP
4 Young Fathers
The Scottish hip-hop scene has languished underground for long enough. Young Fathers – a colourful, humorous, spring-loaded trio of 21-year-old MCs – have great potential to cross over with the old school beats, soulful samples and pop-infused approach of their forthcoming debut album Inconceivable Child … Conceived. Recent single Straight Back On It is a blast. FS
A loose collective of Edinburgh musicians, Meursault's lynchpin is singer-songwriter Neil Pennycook, whose music's combination of passion and melancholy, and his on-stage mix of awkwardness and charisma, recall a young Thom Yorke (or, if that seems too optimistic, career-wise, a young Mark Eitzel). Meursault are very much at the centre of the burgeoning Edinburgh scene, having formed a collective of like-minded bands around them, Bear Scotland, before joining forces with another collective, music blog turned mini-label Song By Toad. AE
6 Broken Records
Among the many fine new bands helping strengthen Edinburgh's live scene, it's Broken Records who stand out as a beacon of wider success. Championed by the NME in their early days, the seven-piece folk-rock orchestra are now signed to 4AD. "The Scottish Arcade Fire" remains the most effective shorthand description of their sound. DP
Two terrific albums into their career, Edinburgh's answer to Belle and Sebastian have stumbled a little in recent times, after the loss both of two key band members and a deal with Rough Trade. But they are still in business, recently releasing a new single, Claire/Talk Me Round, and shouldn't be written off yet. AE
It's now ten years since ballboy released their debut EP, Silver Suits for Astronauts, on the Edinburgh independent label SL. While neither band nor label has ever really crossed over into the mainstream, both are such an essential part of the city's music scene that this list wouldn't be complete without a mention of them. Ballboy's frontman Gordon McIntyre recently worked with playwright David Greig on Midsummer, a hit stage comedy at the Traverse theatre. AE
9 Wounded Knee
Experimental musician Drew Wright has gone from making ear-splitting noise music to his current hobby – hypnotic, a capella mantras built from repeating live loops, resulting in something akin to psalm singing. It's unlikely to bring daytime radio play, but he's in this list as a reminder that Edinburgh is equally good at producing leftfield talent. Wright releases a new album, Shimmering New Vistas, on Scottish label Benbecula next month. AE
10 Sara and the Snakes
Sara "Sidewinder" Forshaw is a rare talent on the Edinburgh scene, a singer with a PJ Harvey growl and command over a finely grizzled blues-rock three-piece who swerve away from genre clichs and into murky but finely honed swamp rock territory. They're also notable for the presence of Andy Brown, walrus-bearded guitarist and a figure of personable but quite towering ubiquity on the local scene. DP
• Words by Andrew Eaton, Fiona Shepherd and David Pollock