Edinburgh Jazz Bar's closure shows how we've forgotten the 'one cause behind all forms of social misery' – Kate Copstick

As Leopold Kohl wrote, human beings, while charming as individuals or in small groups, are prone to aggression, brutality and mass idiocy when things get too big

In Scotland last year, 22 per cent of small, grassroots music venues either closed or were in crisis. These venues are classed by the Music Venues Trust as those that have music as their “raison d’être”, that “take risks” with their cultural programme and “programme artists that deserve audiences, with no expectation of direct financial reward”.

Last week, in Edinburgh, The Jazz Bar closed. An institution. A marvellous little basement venue which is genuinely a huge loss to live music, jazz in particular. Like so many other live arts, jazz is, in my opinion, vastly improved by being enjoyed close up and personal. But our small venues, our intimate performing spaces, seem to be losing out everywhere in today's number games, and that is ultimately dangerous.

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Just a month ago, I read, with something approaching horror, that Edinburgh is to get a new 8,000-capacity venue. I do not think I am alone when I say that I can think of absolutely nothing that I could possibly do that would be improved by doing it alongside 7,999 other people. Our values are skewed. Our admiration is somehow predicated on size (please, no sniggering at the back) and that is just… how can I put it… wrong.

The Jazz Bar, on Chambers Street in Edinburgh, has announced its sudden closure after nearly two decades (Picture: The Jazz Bar)The Jazz Bar, on Chambers Street in Edinburgh, has announced its sudden closure after nearly two decades (Picture: The Jazz Bar)
The Jazz Bar, on Chambers Street in Edinburgh, has announced its sudden closure after nearly two decades (Picture: The Jazz Bar)

£6,000 to see Taylor Swift

This summer, at Wembley Stadium – capacity of 90,000 – tickets for the front row at Taylor Swift's gig are changing hands for £6,000. Each. Mz Swift is a 34-year-old American businesswoman of some aptitude, daughter of a stockbroker and a marketing executive, and possessed of a reasonably pleasant singing voice. I’m sure the gig will be very nice.

I think that one row of tickets might well have paid for the necessary repairs to the Jazz Bar and allowed it to remain open. In terms of VVQFM (variety, value and quality for money) that would be a much better deal. No insult intended to Taylor.

The magic word nowadays is 'growth'. Yet there is nothing magical or even particularly clever about growth, as long as the grassroots are healthy, it’s quite natural. Yes, even in business. However what is happening now is an expectation of growth without developed or cared for grassroots. In anything. And we are seeing that it is just not sustainable.

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Recently many of Europe's most popular tourist destinations – having enjoyed exponential increases in visitors on cheap flights and bargain packages – have been forced to cap the number of tourists allowed in or cut off water supplies to their areas because the sheer number of consumers is just too much for the grassroots facilities. Like water. And housing. Who knew? More worryingly, who cared?

Babushka doll-type corporations

Here at home, small and independent is, across the capital, being forced out by big and corporate. All forms of culture are ultimately at risk. Jazz Bar closure aside – and don't get me started on the death of Bar Italia – it seems that independent, grassroots are in a parlous state, ignored, while further up the stem, much of the foliage is being bought up by huge Babushka doll-type corporations, ultimately based in notorious tax havens. From there, they simply reach across and harvest the fruits every so often and are interested only in maximising that harvest. Which means only easy-to-grow fruits which everybody already likes. The world will never get the chance to love the taste of durian or kumquat. Which are strange but delish'.

Worrying numbers of Scotland's theatres and performing spaces are in this state. “The homogenising effects of these remote and disinterested ownership structures are especially concerning when it comes to culture,” says Chris Hayes, of think tank Common Wealth. And he is right. “Cultural life flourishes through variety, experimentation, and autonomy. It is foundational to any community’s distinctive identity,” he adds. I am distressed by his use of the Americanism “foundational”, but agree with what he means.

Killing off real Fringe

Currently the industrial mindset of “never mind the whole 'Fringe ethos' nonsense, show me your income prediction spreadsheet” is in the process of killing off what is left of the real Fringe. For years, its 'growth' has been held up as a glorious thing. Now, where once talent, passion and a willingness take a risk and fling it all at the wall was the entry fee to the Fringe, everything is money.

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And a huge amount of it. Big venues with big stars, small venues being gobbled up by big organisations… anything like an actual Fringe is shrinking and struggling. And that is deeply, infuriatingly unfair. But it is getting bigger and bigger, so who cares? Well, you never know…

Once a decent pint of beer was all but impossible to find in mainstream bars. Only industrial stuff that tasted of the metal barrels they were shipped in. But the small breweries and their aficionados fought back, and, through organisations like Camra, the drinkers of Britain rediscovered individual brewers, small batch beers and valued them for their individuality.

As Leopold Kohl, who inspired the economist EF Schumacher, wrote, “there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big... And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.”

So maybe it just takes people to care enough. About the small things. Look, I told you once, no sniggering at the back!



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