Edinburgh Festival's contemporary music scene faces severe losses in 2023

The lack of a thriving music scene at the Edinburgh Festival is more obvious than ever this year

The state of contemporary music at the Edinburgh Festival is no new topic of discussion. Its presence in August tends to ebb and flow, but there’s a feeling that 2023 represents a fallow year, where certain high-profile outlets have fallen away.

One of the biggest losses is Edinburgh International Festival’s presence at Leith Theatre, where artists like Mogwai, Anna Meredith and the Jesus and Mary Chain previously played one of the best live rooms in Scotland. Former EIF director Fergus Linehan, a person of eclectic music taste, instigated EIF’s current contemporary music strand and brought Leith into play.

“Leith Theatre took an extra layer of resources,” says Roy Luxford, EIF’s creative director, pointing out the temporary renovation costs incurred each August. “We're not immune to the challenges of the last 12 to 18 months, so alongside other investments we're making, this year we chose to put the music somewhere else. We’ve got a new festival director (in Nicola Benedetti), lots of things are different, but we're making a big investment in music generally and in our programme at the Hub. It's just a different way of presenting it.”

Luxford also makes the point that, although Leith Theatre will be missed, the baton of Linehan’s contemporary music programme has been passed, and popular artists like Alison Goldfrapp and Jake Bugg, auteurs including John Cale and Anoushka Shankar, and interesting new musicians including Lady Blackbird and Lankum all feature. “We've got 18 different gigs compared to, I think, 15 last year, although it may slightly vary depending on genre classification. I think it's as strong a line-up as recent years.”

Also lost have been the Summer Sessions gigs at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, which previously hosted outdoor festival shows by Florence and the Machine, Tom Jones and Lewis Capaldi. “We’ve had to pause Edinburgh Summer Sessions at Princes Street Gardens,” says Geoff Ellis, chief executive of promoter DF Concerts. “It was a much-loved and successful event, but the ongoing risk of falling rocks has meant King’s Stables Road is out of bounds due to the risk of injury. The only alternative means of loading in equipment is through the cemetery.

“To make matters even more difficult, the council’s Cultural Committee passed a new rule restricting events in Princes Street Gardens to only four nights per year – an unfathomable move for a European capital to deny the use of its main city centre space for entertainment purposes. Hopefully pop concerts of an international standing will return, it’s one of the most stunning concert locations in the world.”

Ellis and DF are, however, also promoting the second edition of the revived Connect music festival out at Ingliston by Edinburgh Airport on the final weekend of the festival. It’s not part of the programmed Fringe, but it is part of Edinburgh’s August arts offering. It welcomes artists including Fred again..., boygenius, Loyle Carner, Franz Ferdinand and Roisin Murphy, and a comedy stage with Susan Riddell, Lost Voice Guy, Hal Cruttenden and Dan Tiernan.

Lady Blackbird performing at Edinburgh International FestivalLady Blackbird performing at Edinburgh International Festival
Lady Blackbird performing at Edinburgh International Festival

“There are so many events taking place in Edinburgh across August, with such variety, so it’s always difficult to cut through to everyone,” says Ellis. “However, we’re offering such a unique event at Connect, which combines many aspects of what’s on offer across Edinburgh in August in one location.” With sparse accommodation in the city during August, this year’s Connect camping options have also been increased.

At Summerhall, meanwhile, there’s a sense of the guard changing. Jamie Sutherland, whose band Broken Records release their new album this autumn, first came to the venue as a musician, then as a member of its technical staff, before starting the year-round Nothing Ever Happens Here music programme. Its festival line-up – this year including Kathryn Joseph, BC Camplight, Pictish Trail and others – has become an institution, but next month Sutherland moves to Skye as creative director of the SEALL arts organisation. NEHH’s future remains uncertain.

“Summerhall audiences generally look for live music,” says Sutherland. “We're sitting on the best presale we've ever had this year, and are approaching August with real confidence. We’ve found more agents are receptive to the idea of Edinburgh being a place to come on the summer festival touring circuit.” He accepts, though, that he’s in a unique position.

“We’re a Fringe venue, so people come to us already,” he says. “Music doesn't naturally fit the Fringe model – an artist gets in at three and gets out at half past ten, and the Fringe model would get through five performances in that time. We're lucky that Summerhall’s Dissection Room space doesn't work naturally for dance or as a theatre.

Alison Goldfrapp performing at Edinburgh International FestivalAlison Goldfrapp performing at Edinburgh International Festival
Alison Goldfrapp performing at Edinburgh International Festival

“It brings a different audience, people who maybe aren’t interested in theatre but want to see live music bring a different dynamic to our courtyard that perhaps doesn't exist in other Fringe venues. I think that little bit of magic has led everyone to see this as something that's worth carrying on.”

Meanwhile, live music is springing up in unexpected places. At the St James Quarter in August, a new series of SJQ Sessions events will appear on two indoor stages, as well as teaming with the Festival Fringe Society to support 13 pitches for paid busking. Among the many artists appearing will be Gus Harrower, Alice Faye, Amy Duncan, Shears and Chef the Rapper.

“We want to continually surprise and delight our guests, providing unexpected experiences,” says Susan Hewlett, Brand and Marketing Director at St James Quarter. “We’re delighted with the way the two stages have developed, and believe this event provides a great start to our supporting live music on an ongoing basis.”

Also looking beyond the festival is Douglas Robertson of Edinburgh promoters Soundhouse, who with his partner Jane-Ann Purdy was given just four weeks’ notice by Peter Schaufuss, owner of the Rose Theatre on Rose Street, that it would be available as a live music venue throughout August. With a large team of volunteers, they prepared the venue for use by a great programme of Scottish indie, folk and jazz artists, including Ballboy, Fergus McCreadie, Su-a Lee, Shooglenifty, Niki King and Roddy Woomble.

“The Edinburgh Festival is sadly lacking a big music programme, and that feeds into itself,” says Robertson. “If it’s not seen to be a great festival for a lot of music, then music fans don't come to it, and that’s a barrier to be broken. We'll see how it works. It’s a tough gig, there's no doubt about it, but all we can do is give it our best shot. We've got a great programme, hopefully people come in and say, wow, this building’s amazing, I'm coming back.

“The easy way to do the festival is to book thirty stand-up comedians and put one spotlight and one mic on the floor, no overheads, no costs, no sets to build. Half the Fringe programme is comedy for that reason. What we're doing is more challenging, but it absolutely has to be done. Music is lacking at the festival, and we’re trying to change that.”

More information about the respective festivals can be found at their websites: Edinburgh International Festival’s contemporary music programme; Connect Festival; Nothing Ever Happens Here; SJQ Sessions; and Rose Theatre by searching for ‘Rose Theatre’ under ‘venue’ via the link.

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