The Picture House
After years without a mid-sized live music venue, Edinburgh’s prayers have been answered with the arrival of the Picture House. Doug Johnstone gets a guided tour
For gigs of a certain size Edinburgh has long had a gaping hole where a venue should be. Up-and-coming acts love Cabaret Voltaire, smaller touring bands play the 700 capacity Liquid Rooms and then … nothing until the Corn Exchange at almost 3000 punters.
While Glasgow has the Barrowland, ABC, Academy and Old Fruitmarket, Edinburgh’s only options for established bands have been the Queen’s Hall and Usher Hall, both fine venues but neither ideal for most indie or rock bands.
So hopes are high that a new 1500 capacity venue will plug that gap, although the Picture House isn’t new, it has sat on Lothian Road for 85 years. Originally a cinema, more recently the building has been used as a cheesy club in various unsuccessful incarnations.
But a new owner and a £4.5 million revamp aim to make it an essential Scottish live music venue. MAMA Group – who own a large chunk of Britain’s live venues including the Barflys, several London venues and Glasgow Academy – have stripped the place to original fixtures and fittings, put in a new stage, floor, top spec sound and lighting rigs and open this month with a Travis show.
‘The industry sees Glasgow as stronger,’ says David Laing, operations manager for the renovation. ‘Not because people in Edinburgh like live music any less, there just haven’t been the venues until now.’
A venue is only as good as the acts booked, but initial signs are that Scotland’s biggest promoters are convinced of the Picture House’s potential. ‘From our point of view it’s ideal and the perfect size,’ says DF’s Dave Corbett. ‘Edinburgh has desperately needed it for years – just how desperately is illustrated by the number of shows we’ve booked in there already.’
The large space inside is well-finished and surprisingly intimate. The main room is wide, tapering towards the stage with view and acoustics in mind. A partially seated balcony offers adaptability, something promoters are keen on. ‘It’s open to artists from Martha Wainwright to Taste of Chaos, from rock to indie to alt.country and beyond,’ says Corbett, who is keen to keep things as eclectic as possible.
Laing also has plans for local band nights and events tied to the building’s cinematic past. Indie clubs will run every weekend, although Laing stresses they won’t encroach on the live music. Given the venue’s location on the less-than-salubrious Lothian Road, does he worry about problems with atmosphere or clientele?
‘There’s always been a mix on Lothian Road,’ he says. ‘Remember the Usher Hall and Traverse are here, so the stag and hen thing can be overstated. When you open the right building with the right music policy, it changes the area.’
At this stage, of course, it’s all still potential, but signs are good, and Laing believes the Picture House could quickly become a vital part of the capital’s cultural landscape. ‘It has the potential to become the heart of Edinburgh’s live music scene,’ he says. ‘We’ve certainly put a lot into trying to make that happen.’
The Picture House opens on Thu 25 Sep with Travis.