Brian Ferguson: Council rules keeping venues to themselves

Gigs at the Royal Park Terrace flat have been shut down
Gigs at the Royal Park Terrace flat have been shut down
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TIMING is everything, they say. So there was something deeply ironic about news of the impending demise of one of Edinburgh’s best-known underground venues emerging on the same day a summit was being held to look at the capital’s cultural landscape.

At some point in the near future, a list of future priorities should emerge – hopefully with a bit of meat on the bone and some robust timescales for improvements to ageing infrastructure and viable new venues to fill genuine gaps in the landscape.

In the meantime, the council has another round of fire-fighting to try to head off a growing row about its handling of the latest independently-run venue to accuse the city of forcing its closure.

Photographer Douglas Robertson did not miss the powers-that-be with a bulletin revealing they had called time on the “house concerts” he had been holding at his home on the edge of Holyrood Park in recent years.

Many of Scotland’s leading musicians had appeared at his large flat-cum-studio on Royal Park Terrace. However the popularity of events – among both audiences and musicians – have almost certainly been his downfall. He has been told they must end by Hogmanay.

As far as he is concerned, he has done nothing wrong by following the same format as the one which has swept across the US – open his doors to musicians, ensure that they keep all money taken on the door and provide an intimate, convivial atmosphere.

He has told hundreds of subscribers to his mailing list: “We thought a home was somewhere where people sleep, eat and brush their teeth, and that we were entitled to invite whomever we pleased into that home. It seems, as far as the council is concerned, our house is a venue.”

That is indeed the view of the council, which after much lobbying earlier this year, has agreed to exempt venues hosting free events for up to 500 people. But events at Mr Robertson’s home-studio are not free – the whole point of them is they are a money-making enterprise for the musicians.

He claims to be merely helping musicians to make a living, but is also clear that he is offering an alternative to other venues for performers. “They are being grossly ripped off,” he states.

The harsh truth for Mr Robertson is that many performing arts venues in Edinburgh are either owned, managed or directly funded by the council. Other privately owned enterprises are also unlikely to take kindly to his words, especially having jumped through all the regulatory and licensing hoops he has managed to evade.

Many acts at the “Sound House”, whose concerts are widely promoted on the internet, are now simply bypassing much larger venues. One testimonial on his own website – from musician Jed Milroy, of Southern Tenant Folk Union – states it offers “the only viable gig in Edinburgh”.

As ever though, it is worth looking at what the council is up to elsewhere. I can’t help contrasting its handling of Sound House with the way the Tron Kirk in the Old Town suddenly became a licensed venue for the Fringe, and now the Hogmanay festival, in direct competition with local bars and nightclubs.

It also strikes me as odd this was approved at roughly the same time as the council was trying to stop a proposed Sainsbury’s store just a few hundred yards away from selling alcohol after concerns from police and health officials.

It is no secret that a consultant on the Tron Kirk venture, now being bankrolled by Drambuie, is a former councillor, Tom Ponton. The G1 Group, one of Scotland’s biggest licensed trade operators, has permission to run the venue until September of next year. The initiative has privately angered heritage figures worried about the suitability of some events there.

Elsewhere, the council also appears to have pulled out the stops to rescue the Bongo Club following its eviction from its Edinburgh University-owned premises. But there will be no events beneath the Central Library until all the relevant licences and building warrants are in place, and these come at a cost.

The council’s approach to these other two hugely-different ventures would suggest Mr Robertson might get a sympathetic hearing if he is willing to compromise on the way his events are run – or if he finds an alternative venue which is just as appealing to his many musical friends.