The troubles of the live music scene in Edinburgh have been well documented in modern times, not least in these pages.
A full list of venues which have fallen by the wayside could fill a large chunk of this column. A walk around the city centre offers a stark and depressing reminder of those still lying vacant or long demolished, including the Odeon, Electric Circus, Studio 24, the Bongo Club and The Venue.
What has been less documented is how Edinburgh has struggled to sustain its own traditional music festival over the same period that Celtic Connections in Glasgow has grown to become one of the nation’s most important cultural events. It has been something of a mystery that the city which produced acts like The Incredible Sting Band, The Waterboys, The Proclaimers, Shooglenifty, Salsa Celtica, Aberfeldy, Dick Gaughan and Karine Polwart has not had an event offering a proper launchpad for future generations in recent decades.
The launch of Tradfest at the Traverse Theatre this week certainly felt like a new era, with its ambitions of filling concert halls and hotel rooms during one of the quietest spells in the city’s calendar of events. Promoters Soundhouse have not shied away from setting out ambitions to stage an event which can do for Edinburgh in the spring what Celtic Connections has done for Glasgow in the depths of winter. They are also building on a legacy going all the way back to the formation of the Edinburgh People’s Festival by Hamish Henderson in 1951.
But a brief trawl through the archives offers grim reminders of the demise of the Edinburgh Folk Festival due to mounting financial problems in the 1990s, and the low-key nature of the events which followed in its wake. These mostly had shoestring budgets barely enough to cover a marketing campaign and printed programme, let alone pay for acts of the calibre that audiences are used to seeing at the city’s other major cultural events.
It is something of an anomaly that folk, trad, roots and world music acts have not had their own festival when Edinburgh’s jazz and blues celebration has long been central to the city’s summer calendar. A loyal local audience, the respect it has commanded from Scotland’s leading jazz musicians and singers, and its international reputation have seen it benefit from having a clear identity and the confidence to move away from the main events in August. Since moving to a late July slot, it has also used almost every available indoor concert venue, as well as some of the best-known “pop-up” venues created for the Fringe in spaces like George Square and St Andrew Square. It also stages huge free public events in the Grassmarket and on Princes Street which act as a curtain-raiser for a summer of cultural festivities. Of course, Edinburgh is also able to sustain dedicated festivals for film, books and visual art, as well as the Fringe and International Festival behemoths. But it is success of the jazz festival that Soundhouse seems to be looking to for inspiration for its own ambitions.
With public funding of less than £24,000 this year, Tradfest will be starting from a low base. But how long will it be before it points to the £830,000 in public funding that Edinburgh’s jazz festival gets or, indeed, the £460,000 allocated to Celtic Connections? With the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland regularly on record as stressing the importance of traditional music to the cultural fabric of the nation, the onus is likely to be on them to match the warm words with serious money.