Brian Ferguson: Capital loses another music venue

A trip through Edinburgh city centre on a Saturday afternoon in the run-up to Christmas can be an eye-popping experience.

The former Caley cinema in Lothian Road became a popular music venue. Picture: Ian Rutherford

From the top deck of one of Lothian Buses’ finest, I had a fine view of the vast crowds thronging not just Princes Street, but the markets and attractions at The Mound and in Princes Street Gardens.

The number pop-up bars, stalls and venues were a reminder of how the heart of Edinburgh is utterly transformed these days during its winter festival, with the volume of people thronging the streets and other public spaces a match for the scenes that unfold every August.

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The latest addition to the line-up is a long-overdue pop-up theatre on Festival Square, one of the most criminally-underused public spaces of the last couple of decades.

Credit is due to not only promoters Underbelly for creating the temporary venue for the hit Broadway musical Five Guys Named Moe but also to the city council for approving a fairly radical use of the normally soulless square.

This year has also seen a joint marketing campaign launched to promote the shows being staged in Edinburgh’s official quarter, including the new “Festival Square Theatre”, the Traverse and Royal Lyceum Theatres and the Usher Hall.

But I could not help but think these admirable efforts were hugely undermined by the reincarnation of one of Edinburgh’s most historic cultural venues.

There is something deeply depressing about the fate of the former Caley Picture House, virtually opposite Festival Square, which is about to reopen as a bar-restaurant complex three years after its demise as a concert venue.

It was one of the few medium-sized concert halls in the city centre, and unlike bigger stages like the Playhouse and the neighbouring Usher Hall, was pretty much dedicated to pop, rock and indie concerts.

The reopening of The Picture House this month is likely to also reopen the wounds about the demise of the music venue - especially coming at a time when the axe is hanging over yet another live music venue, despite the many promises from the city council that lessons had been learned over the debacle over the Lothian Road building.

The council faced a barrage of criticism after giving planning approval to pub giants JD Wetherspoon for its conversion of The Picture House. Now it is in the firing line again over its part in a deal which would see the Fruitmarket Gallery expand onto the site of Electric Circus, one of the oldest nightspots in Edinburgh, and one of a dwindling number of live music venues in the city centre.

The lease-holder of the Electric Circus has agreed to close the venue to accommodate an expansion which has been a long-held aspiration of the gallery. Its deal with the council is reliant on the gallery raising £11 million, then winning planning permission, which the local authority will presumably feel obliged to grant given its financial involvement.

The only thing seemingly missing from this tidy little arrangement any consultation whatsoever with those music industry representatives who have spent the best part of two years working with the city council to make things easier for Edinburgh’s bands. That is all the more surprising given Fruitmarket director Fiona Bradley’s role on a steering group behind a new cultural policy for the city which was supposed to do more to help the live music sector, not further dismantle it.