Opinion: Will Edinburgh ever learn to love live music?
- David Pollock
- 29 June 2018
After noise complaints forced Summerhall's Rip it Up events indoors, David Pollock argues for a solution to the city's live music conundrum
Let's be clear, there's no doubt that what happened at Summerhall in Edinburgh last week, on the same night as a much-publicised and deservedly hyped exhibition celebrating the huge contribution of Scottish pop musicians to the world opens at the National Museum of Scotland, was an embarrassment.
With pop stars and representatives of the Scottish Government and the City of Edinburgh Council in attendance for Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop at the Museum, the unofficial opening party up the road at Summerhall was hit with a council compliance order because one near neighbour complained about being able to hear Idlewild from their house. And in the following days, just as the Scottish press should have been wringing the sense of local pride and achievement from an entertaining show celebrating a successful Scottish industry, we were once more back to the dismal subject of the thorny relationship between Edinburgh's live venues and its licencing officers. For every one of the politicians showing support to the exhibition, that's what you call a massive beamer.
Yet I'd rather not thump the tub marked 'the council are bad', when most are just overstretched workers like the rest of us; or the one marked 'people complaining about noise are bad', either. Even in the centre of the city (and Summerhall is, to anyone who knows Edinburgh, pretty much on the boundary of where the centre ends and the suburbs begin), people are entitled to expect attention and a hearing if they think their environment is being polluted with anti-social racket.
Similarly, there were inaccurate reports floating around of what happened: for example, that the council's licensing officers closed down the Idlewild gig (they didn't, because it had just finished when they turned up, a little after 10pm) or that they told the venue to move the next three nights' events, including the exhibition's official opening party, indoors (again, untrue: the venue chose to do that themselves, to mitigate against further action.) Everything, as far as reports read and information gleaned from elsewhere suggests, was done by the book.
But that's the thing, though. 'The book', if it exists, appears to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for a myriad of possible situations. How many neighbours were enjoying or unperturbed by what music they could hear? How many had engaged with the venue after events earlier in the week, and apparently been satisfied by their efforts to move PA systems around to restrict noise bleed? We don't know, of course, and that's the thing: just because someone complains about a venue, and council officers carry out their duty to visit the venue, it doesn't necessarily follow that the venue has done anything wrong. Or that it's done something which can't be made right with a little time, mediation and compromise.
It seems, if the Summerhall case is anything to go by, that we're back to the bad old days of the council automatically taking the side of the complainant against the venue, and of only one complaint being enough to have action taken; accounts have varied regarding Summerhall, of whether it was one, two or multiple complaints which preceded the call-out, but I've seen a council response letter issued after the fact which refers to officers attending due to 'a call from a local resident'.
This is surely the situation which the council's now all-but-defunct working group Music is Audible was set up to mitigate against, and which the Music Venue Trust's wide-reaching 2015 official report into Edinburgh's live music scene was designed to offer good advice concerning. And yet both of these appear to have been dumped with the voluntary departure in 2017 of former Councillor Norma Austin Hart, a supportive champion of Edinburgh's live music industry. With them gone, old arguments are rising again, chief among them Edinburgh's pride in itself as an anything-goes festival city in August, versus the reality of the other eleven months of the year.
As someone who also lives near the city centre, I can reliably tell you there are few things more aggravating than the sound of Tattoo fireworks and jet fighter flypasts late into the evening throughout August. Now I realise that the Tattoo is an important part of the Festival's identity and I don't want it shut down, but can we blame small promoters for feeling singled out if a set of amps turned up a little high can threaten their business, yet simulated combat operations get a free pass in August?
City centre life and a vibrant entertainment culture are designed to go together, and if a venue like Summerhall wants to introduce a little outdoor music during one of the warmest weeks of the year, they should be encouraged – within reason – and not penalised. And I say this, knowing and agreeing with the belief that residents should have a say in what goes on around them; but that means residents, not a resident. Look at Glasgow, where great outdoor venues like the SWG3 Galvanizer's Yard and Kelvingrove Bandstand have been permitted to operate; and the difference between the two cities is that Glasgow is an internationally renowned hub for music, with the reputation to attract all the economic benefits a 12,000 capacity venue brings.
If the intention at the top level is to avoid a disheartening situation like the one which occurred last week – and I'm led to believe many at the council are firmly on-board with the statement that '(t)he council wants to help promote a diverse, inclusive and affordable live music scene. We are ready to work with all venues and promoters to make that happen' – then they really should acquaint themselves with the Music Venue Trust's thoughtful and even-handed report as quickly as possible. And if any member of public has an opinion on this either way, either as a resident or a concertgoer, then they should politely and emphatically make their voices heard. Here are the councillors for Southside and Newington, where Summerhall is based. Now let's see if we can stop kicking this can around and sort it out for the permanent benefit of everyone involved.