Brian Ferguson: Room for optimism on Edinburgh's music scene

If there is one certainty about Edinburgh's year-round arts infrastructure it is that nothing normally happens very quickly.

Electric Circus is due to close at the end of the month. Picture: Jon Savage
Electric Circus is due to close at the end of the month. Picture: Jon Savage

Progress can often appear to move at a glacial pace, particularly when it comes to major developments. Whenever the city edges tentatively forward two steps forward, it then retreats one back.

Projects which ought to be a top priority in any vision to develop and grow the city’s cultural offering have been stuck in the sidelines for years, particularly when it comes to live music.

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As a result, Edinburgh has been left lagging way behind Glasgow when it comes to the development of small, medium-sized and large venues. And the rate of new arrivals in Glasgow has almost been matched by the spate of closures in Edinburgh.

Bad luck has played its part, particularly with the impact of the devastating Cowgate fire and the extended closure of the Liquid Room in the wake of another blaze on Victoria Street.

But there has been a lack of protection for other venues like The Picture House, on Lothian Road, Cafe Graffiti, in the New Town, the Bongo Club on New Street and The Venue, on Calton Road.

When it emerged last week that Electric Circus, on the fast-changing Market Street, would close at the end of this month, instead of in 2019, when an expansion of the Fruitmarket Gallery is due to begin, it felt like the latest in long line of failures overseen by the local authority, which owns both buildings.

At the other end of the scale, there has been a depressing lack of ambition to create an indoor arena, a failure which will hamper Edinburgh’s ability to bid for major events for years to come.

The only significant investment in music infrastructure over the last decade has come in the Usher Hall. The completion of that long-term project in 2010 was only triggered by part of the ceiling falling into its auditorium.

A new £16 million arena for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, unveiled in 2011, has delivered some benefits for concert-goers, but mainly those who can afford to pay for a VIP seat in a hospital box. The Assembly Rooms was refurbished at huge expense to the public purse in 2012, but rarely hosts any kind of live music. If there have been any gigs of note in the recently expanded EICC I must have missed news of them.

Thankfully there is some room for optimism. Sheer determination from a handful of individuals, rather than any visionary thinking from any of the city’s culture leaders, should see a replacement for the almost unusable Ross Bandstand and a new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, earmarked for a site tucked off St Andrew Square, delivered in the next few years.

And the hugely-impressive line-up for this spring’s Hidden Door Festival, the first event to be staged in the shamefully neglected Leith Theatre building for nearly 30 years, must be the catalyst for it to become a long-overdue performing arts hub. Crucially, none of these projects is reliant on financial backing from the city council.

But they certainly cannot proceed without the support and encouragement of senior officials and councillors, along with their counterparts in the Scottish Government. They should be the bare minimum of delivery for the next few years, as well as the basis of a strategy to ensure that the failures of the last 20 years are not repeated.