Edinburgh's club scene: what happens now?
Representatives from Bongo, Cab Vol, Electric Circus, Summerhall and G1 Group have their say
Edinburgh is at a crossroads. In February it was revealed both that the Bongo Club is to be moved on from its current premises by owner Edinburgh University, and also that Cabaret Voltaire is to be re-fitted by giant leisure company G1. Where will the legendary Bongo go? And will Cabaret Voltaire become transformed into a soulless George Street-alike style bar? Edinburgh is still reeling from the loss of the Forest, Roxy Art House and The Lot last year. If two more venues disappear, or change beyond recognition, can the city recover? The List has pulled together six important voices from the music and clubs scenes to answer a simple question, ‘what do we do now?’
Manager of Bongo Club’s parent organisation, Out of the Blue
Despite being a beautiful, blossoming city of international renown and appeal that hosts the biggest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh’s all year round independent music and arts venues are currently few and far between.
At the heart of this scene since 1996, The Bongo Club is a nightclub, gig venue and all-round artistic hub has developed a local, national and international reputation for nurturing fresh talent and providing thousands of cultural opportunities. It is truly independent, as the performance venue of Edinburgh arts charity Out Of The Blue, which has an established track record as a catalyst for creativity in Edinburgh. This has allowed The Bongo Club to put the sounds of the underground and imaginative aspirations before the mighty dollar, encouraging the community to get involved and The Bongo Club to do their own thing. A long standing stalwart of the Edinburgh Fringe with a list of guests that reads like a ‘who’s who’ of cultural alternatives, the loss of this venue would be of real detriment to the city.
By giving The Bongo Club notice to quit its premises, the current Edinburgh University decision makers are undoing the fine work of their predecessors who eight years ago established a partnership with a social enterprise of great significance to the people of Edinburgh. During its tenure The Bongo Club has encouraged mass participation, in the last year hosting 580 events ranging from clubs, live music, dance classes, theatre pieces, comedy shows, talks and workshops for 67,795 audience members.
Clubs and arts spaces come and go but institutions, (call them brands if you like) such as The Bongo Club are built up through the collective love, sweat, tears and imagination of Edinburgh people for people from Edinburgh (and beyond!) to experience all year round.
We have seven months to ensure that the club that Mark Thomas calls ‘a rare and wonderful thing’ continues to flourish in the city.
List columnist, Limbo and Trouble promoter
There can be no doubt that Edinburgh University’s decision to force The Bongo Club out of Moray House a year before its lease was originally due to be renewed is disastrous for Edinburgh. The Bongo Club occupies a niche of enormous importance for many, students and longer-term residents alike. It took the venue two years to recover from its last eviction (with that land still derelict a decade later), and, if it really is impossible to let it remain, finding a good replacement space is imperative. The Bongo is one of a dwindling number of vital cogs in the wheel that pumps lifeblood into the city’s alternative music and club scene(s).
The others (including Sneaky Pete’s, Electric Circus, The Voodoo Rooms, Henry’s Cellar Bar, Wee Red Bar, The Liquid Room, Studio 24 and The HMV Picture House) are either on a smaller or larger scale, while Cabaret Voltaire and the Bongo have occupied an essential middle ground for the last decade. Of a similar size, The Caves would definitely be more vital if it wasn’t so expensive to hire. A wide network of venues is fundamental, to offer a broad enough variety of audiences for whom acts can regularly perform their work and to hone a style of their own.
It remains to be seen exactly how the recent change of hands at Cabaret Voltaire will affect its programme. But, given new owner G1 Group’s track record, there is one thing you can be certain of: Cabaret Voltaire will no longer be breaking boundaries in music. The gap left here will undoubtedly be filled, though, by The Liquid Room’s new lower-ground-floor club, The Annexe (approx. 250-300 cap.), launched at the end of February, and its new basement space, currently projected to open at the end of 2012. This last room could match the capacity of the main space (750 gig – 1000 club cap.), but a smaller size would clearly be the way to go, if credibility and longevity are its main objectives. Negociants' old basement, Medina (250 cap.), currently undergoing a soft re-launch as The Third Door, also has real potential. If new owner Ellis Johnston can invest as required and employ an intelligent team, all of whom exhibit the kind of passion and savvy for the music scene to be found at the aforementioned venues, it could be realised.
So, things aren’t so bad that Edinburgh can’t recover (again). However, it does take blood, sweat and tears, as well as real business nous, imagination and talent. If a few more politicians also cared enough to understand how significant a part of the broader cultural economy this night-time trade is, by addressing these and related licensing issues, the whole state-of-play could be improved, and drastically.
Promoter of Wasabi Disco at Sneaky Pete’s, and DJ at Gasoline Dance Machine at Cabaret Voltaire
It's not uncommon to pick up a flyer in Edinburgh to find eight or nine local DJs listed (I counted no less than 15 recently) playing over two rooms giving each an hour at most to play a set. Now this might be a group of like-minded friends happy to just play a few tunes each or it might be that running a club in Edinburgh is a financial nightmare and huge risk. Edinburgh's nightlife has suffered significantly since the millennium or more accurately the closure of the legendary Venue. Since then its seen venue after venue closed down or taken over and turned into a rugby-friendly soulless commode. Edinburgh is now in a state of fur coat and no knickers – a beautiful city with great history and a world renowned arts festival yet provides next to nothing to support grassroots, counter-culture creative types and zero diversity for it's long suffering residents. The grim but inevitable news that Cab Vol is suffer the same fate as Anakin Skywalker is yet another boot in the chuckies for Edinburgh's punch drunk alternative nightlife. Don't get me wrong, the country needs these commercial musical war graves to keep the police, paramedics and abortion technicians in steady employment but does Edinburgh, a 'beacon of culture', really need another one?
Even more depressing and embarrassing is Edinburgh University's decision to turn the Bongo Club – arguably the city's most productive and diverse venue – into fucking offices! No wonder you never win Uni Challenge! The outcry from Edinburgh's music fans has been huge and hopefully the Bongo will find a new venue – a brand new venue and not just take over an existing one. The truth is that Edinburgh is long overdue at least two brand new Bongo clubs – versatile spaces that can be utilised seven days a week as rehearsal spaces for theatre or music and can be used commercially for comedy, music or theatre all year round, particularly during the oh-so-precious festival period. Surely two of the 1000+ venues that pop up over August can be used in this positive, productive way? There need not be heavy investment – creative people just need the space.
Sadly I've recently heard of Scottish Government's amendment to Section 41 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, enforcing a charge for a 'public entertainment licence' (set up by the Scottish Government), even for non-profit, free-to-enter events.This basically means that nascent artist-run galleries, recent graduates setting up exciting events and so forth will have to pay to stage exhibitions [see our opinion piece for more information]. At this time this is about as welcome as a syringe of legendary Edinburgh skag and anthrax – I guess it's now up to us, the bands, the DJs, the artists, the actors, the poets and fuck, just people who like to have fun to stand up and be counted and try kick against the pricks or we will be all be suckling on Simon Cowell's man boobs. C'mon, let's not get to the stage where the most edgy alternative thing this wonderful city has to offer is brown sauce on your chips! Fight The Power! Occupy. We are the 1%, or something like that …
Artistic director of Summerhall and former director of Roxy Art House
Only time will tell whether the Bongo Club's move/closure is a bad thing. The space they currently occupy is not ideal in a number of ways, but the scale of the upheaval will naturally take a toll on the running of the business. The Bongo is one of the best clubs in town, so hopefully they can find somewhere better suited to their needs, and it will work out for the best. I’m sure everyone with an interest in Edinburgh not being shit will wish them luck.
The same applies to Cabaret Voltaire – I don’t really know what has been going on behind the scenes, but the space certainly still has potential; in time we’ll see how it is being run.
What the Edinburgh scene as a whole needs now is a change in the reason young people come here to live and work. People come here because it’s ‘nice’, not because it’s exciting. But I think the city is tantalisingly close to solving this problem. Music and clubs are part of a much more complete system of art, performance and lifestyle (just look at Berlin or Barcelona). If we had just one or two artists emerge on a national or better still international level (of the Belle and Sebastian or Douglas Gordon sort), and a few more effective champions (people who will speak positively for Edinburgh’s scene, not just to amplify their interests but with a sense of what happens across the city), I think the artistic talent is here to attract people to settle in the city for that experience.
Hopefully one thing Summerhall can help with in this regard is exposure: that people can come here to experience new, top quality things that will inspire them further.
What people who live here now can do to help is to be willing to be more adventurous in what they will do on a night out. Clubs, venues, and most importantly their audiences can be unnaturally segregated here, both between musical styles and artistic genres. There is nothing more exciting than when people with different interests come together and have fun. Let’s have more R&B and live art nights, more techno exhibitions, more antifolk architecture events. And let’s encourage this way of life by wanting and supporting it.
Music booker at Electric Circus and promoter of This is Music at Sneaky Pete’s
I've been involved as a live music and club promoter in Edinburgh since 2005 and it's always felt like a bit of a roller-coaster ride. With venues either constantly reinventing themselves, closing or brand new ones opening, it's a bit hard to keep up sometimes – The Venue, The Honeycomb, The Bowery, The Roxy Art House, Medina, The Third Door, Octopus Diamond, Green Room Venues, The GRV, The Store, Cabaret Voltaire – and the list goes on … These changes and closures haven't stopped us before, so why should it be any different now?
There's no denying it would be a massive loss to Edinburgh's underground community if The Bongo Club was no more. It's an incredible space for live music, entertainment and the arts, and the clubs which take place there are truly alternative and innovative. The work they've done in the nine years since moving from their old home on New Street has been second to none, and if the University are adamant that Bongo must get out, then they need to support them, not only in finding a new location, but also financially. Setting up a venue of that calibre, especially for not-for-profit ventures, is not an easy thing to do.
Cabaret Voltaire is a completely different story altogether. It will be dearly missed as the Cab Vol we all know and love, but in the last 3 years alone it's had somewhere in the region of four different owners so it's clear something hasn't been right for quite some time now, and as an ex-member of staff, I can honestly say that everything has been done to try and save the venue. For whatever reason the formula just hasn't been working like it used to, and with no disrespect to Sarah David, it's all fine and well to put on some of the biggest and best DJs in the world (Diplo, Fake Blood and Erol Alkan to name but a few), but at the end of the day big names cost big money and it's just not financially sustainable in such a small space.
I in no way want to stick up for the company now in command of the venue, and I definitely don't condone the way they appear to have done certain things during their time there. However, I do believe they did try to give Cab Vol a chance to prove its worth, as they've been there for almost a year now, which I think a lot of people have chosen to dismiss. In the middle of a recession, these changes are not surprising, but it doesn't stop it being an unbearably heartbreaking scenario to witness.
In terms of the proposed changes to the Cab Vol, every week I'm hearing new and conflicting rumours about what the venue will become, ranging from a wine bar, to 'The Hive meets George Street', to mainstream clubs during the week but still maintaining alternative clubs at the weekend and live music, so I guess we'll just need to wait and see on April 1st. Who knows, maybe it will be better, but I don't think any of its loyal following will stick around to find out.
As well as all the favourite small and alternative live music and club venues like Sneaky Pete's, The Electric Circus, Studio 24, Wee Red Bar, Voodoo Rooms and Henry's Cellar Bar, it seems that there are already exciting things on the horizon for Edinburgh's music community – The Third Door, previously Medina, is open and already starting to pick up a strong live and club following after only a few months; The Annexe, a brand new 250 capacity club space has just opened at Liquid Room, with another space below the main room planned to open in the not too distant future; and who knows what else might come to fruition over the next couple of years?
It's an absolute fact that times are tough right now in Edinburgh, so independent venues and not-for-profit organisations and promoters need to stick together, support each other where possible and keep plugging away at what they love most and do best. And as for the gig goers and clubbers, start supporting your (for want of a better phrase) 'music scene', and stop complaining about it. Leave your house once in a while to see your new favourite band/DJ that you've not heard of yet. It's a two way street – discover some new music and be part of the solution, not the problem.
In short, it really doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. In the past, Edinburgh has always managed to dust itself off from major change and get back on its feet again, so I'm confident this is just the beginning of another new and exciting chapter for the capital. I really feel like Bongo will pull through, whether in the same location or in a brand new and exciting space they can make their own.
Spokesperson for G1 Group
G1 Group is pleased to announce that work to refurbish the Cabaret Voltaire club will begin on February 27th. A six week period of work will not only address significant structural issues, including severe water ingress, but will give the venue a wholly new look. Award-winning Scottish design company Surface-ID will create a new club and bar design for the venue. They come to the project after winning 'Best Bar’ for Grosvenor Café and 'Best Pub’ for Stravaigin at the 2011 UK and International Bar and Restaurant Design Awards.
The transformed bar, club and live music venue will champion the best in design, ambience and entertainment. The site is one of the best club spaces in the country and the company is excited about the opportunity to develop the next chapter of this landmark site, Cabaret Voltaire and its predecessors Honeycomb and Peppermint Lounge.