Opinion: Why Edinburgh needs The Picture House
The venue is at risk of being transformed into a yet another Wetherspoon's pub
If you asked music fans for a single word to describe the news that Edinburgh venue The Picture House is to become a Wetherspoon's, 'depressing' might be a popular choice. Another might be 'baffling'. Why would owners MAMA & Company sell a seemingly successful venue? Without details, we can only speculate. Was it a loss-making venue the owners were keen to sell anyway? Did Wetherspoon's approach MAMA with an offer for the city centre property they couldn't refuse? If the venue was losing money, were there factors such as noise complaints restricting full usage of it?
All the more baffling is the fact that the new proprietors are Wetherspoon's, a pub chain who champion low prices and long opening hours, policies at odds with the years-long battle to tackle Lothian Road's reputation for late-night, alcohol-fuelled violence, largely earned during the 1990s when the same venue was the Revolution and Century 2000 clubs.
The only parties likely be celebrating the news (fans of cask beer and affordable food can already find two Wetherspoon's outlets five minutes walk from Lothian Road) are Scotrail and EasyJet, whose services Edinburgh residents will now require to get to artists' nearest tour date in Glasgow, Manchester or London. It's already too easy to characterise Edinburgh as a city rich in tourist-friendly heritage, but unwilling to encourage contemporary culture outside the Festivals in August. The closure of The Picture House exacerbates this.
But why did it happen? Even if we assume the pessimistic scenario that The Picture House was losing money, wouldn't the cultural contribution made by a mid-size music venue – Edinburgh's lack of which is a long-acknowledged problem – warrant making Edinburgh City Council or Creative Scotland aware of the situation? Both Ratho Climbing Centre and Hillend Dry Ski slope were open about their financial struggles as private enterprises, and both became council-run services, now operated by Edinburgh City Council and Midlothian Council respectively.
A more relevant comparison might be with The Queen's Hall and The Arches in Glasgow, similarly-sized venues to The Picture House which both receive partial subsidy from Creative Scotland. The underlying assumption throughout this area of the funding debate is that pop music lives and dies on the free market and doesn't warrant state subsidy like classical music and theatre do. Perhaps it's worth noting here that The Queen's Hall (home to Scottish Chamber Orchestra) and The Arches (who host many theatre programmes including Behaviour and Arches Live) are organisations with a foot in both the high and low art camps. However, with ticket prices for some gigs now approaching opera and ballet territory, the gig-going demographic now encompassing those between 14 to 70 and post-internet income from recorded music being reduced, it's becoming increasingly hard to see the differences.
In practical terms, there are several possible outcomes. The petition to Wetherspoon's, requesting they keep it as a live music venue, has over 11,000 signatures so far. The chain is famously music-free, so it's unlikely they will run it as anything other than what has worked for them in the past, but overwhelming opposition may lead them to withdraw from the project entirely. Another outcome is that the Parliamentary motion brought by Marco Biagi MSP and supported by 28 further MSPs successfully prevents the venue from changing use, thereby forcing Wetherspoon's to sell the building on again. If MAMA don't fancy it, perhaps Academy Music Group, DF Concerts or PCL do, possibly as a subsidised venue.
Of course, it's also very possible that market forces prevail and the venue simply opens as pub on a day in late January 2014. It's just supply and demand, like everything else. Why should culture be any different? It's neither depressing nor baffling.
There are two words that greet all those arriving to visit, work and study in Edinburgh: 'Inspiring Capital'. The slogan may have been been knocked in the past for the self-congratulatory tone of its multi-level wordplay. It would be worse if it simply became inaccurate.