Brian Ferguson: Picture House hits gig cred

Guitar legend Slash performs at the HMV Picture House. Picture: Greg Macvean
Guitar legend Slash performs at the HMV Picture House. Picture: Greg Macvean
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I have a confession to make. In the five years or so that the Picture House in Edinburgh has been open, I have only darkened its doors on two occasions.

Both were during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Neither left me hankering for a return visit. I cannot pretend I was fond of the venue. It lacked the intimacy of the Queen’s Hall, my long-time favourite, and could not match the acoustics and visual splendour of the Usher Hall, the undisputed jewel in the city’s cultural crown.

However, anyone with an interest in the live music scene in the city realises what a blow its impending closure is. The fact that by the time of writing almost 10,000 people have signed a petition protesting against this prospect says it all.

There has been plenty of grim commentary online since the news of its sell-off emerged last week. Not for the first time in the last decade, the obituaries are being penned for the city’s gigging credentials.

There is little doubt that revival of the former “Caley Palais” filled a major gap in the capital’s cultural infrastructure when it opened. It was a rare case of a famous venue from the city’s past – where the likes of David Bowie, AC/DC, The Smiths, Orange Juice and REM all played – coming back to life when the Picture House opened.

It had been a particularly grim few years, with the demise of the much-loved Venue behind Waverley Station, the forced relocation of the nearby Bongo Club to the outskirts of the city centre and the devastating impact of the Cowgate fire.

At last Edinburgh was able to boast a medium-sized venue for relatively big-name bands that were either unsuited to, or incapable of filling, the Usher Hall or the out-of-town Corn Exchange.

The Picture House’s value to the capital’s scene grew significantly after another Old Town blaze led to a lengthy closure of the Liquid Rooms.

And its future seemed secure early in 2009 when its owners, the MAMA Group, agreed a deal with music industry giants HMV to help run its venues.

Fast forward less than four years and by late last year HMV had chosen to dispose of the Picture House, along with most of its live music assets, in a deal done shortly before the company collapsed. However it appears that the venue was simply not profitable enough for the company, although as MAMA has not explained exactly why the venue has been sold off, everyone is being left to speculate.

As has become the norm with the spate of closures over the years, accusing fingers are being pointed in the direction of Edinburgh City Council for failing to protect and nurture the live music scene.

Is the criticism justified? In this specific case, probably not. The council approved the building’s use for live concerts. And it is unable to intervene in commercial deals between licensed trade operators.

The venue’s closure is as much down to competition from similar sized venues in Glasgow that anything to do with a potential audience in Edinburgh.

That is not to say the city should wash its hands of the situation. It has shamefully tinkered around with the idea of a major new concert venue for years – to no effect whatsoever.

While Dundee and Glasgow have pressed ahead with major cultural projects on their waterfronts, Edinburgh has turned its back on the entire Leith Docks area, which hosted the MTV Europe Music Awards a decade ago but little in the way of major events since.

Of course, what makes the situation on Lothian Road all the more embarrassing is the Picture House was one of the key players in the area’s curiously-underplayed “culture quarter”. Little of note has happened since the refurbishment of the Usher Hall was completed almost four years ago.

The big new idea, discussed at a cultural summit just over a year ago, of a multi-arts venue which would accommodate the needs of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and also become home to both the Filmhouse and the Traverse, still seems light years away.

The recent study for Creative Scotland on the nation’s music sector outlined specific concerns about the lack of a medium-sized venue in Edinburgh and recommended a new study of viable options.

But unless there is a serious will, a clear vision, plenty of ambition and pledges of substantial funding, Edinburgh is likely to be a very poor musical relation to Glasgow for many years to come.