Opinion: Live music matters?
Neil Cooper on the decision to turn Edinburgh's Picture House into a super pub
The decision by City of Edinburgh Council to give pub chain JD Wetherspoon planning permission to convert the historic music venue and former cinema most recently known as The Picture House into a 'superpub' on Lothian Road is a huge blow to Edinburgh's live music scene. Based on CEC officers' recommendations, this decision marked the end of a saga which has left a much needed mid-scale music venue boarded up since December 2013 after JD Wetherspoon bought it from HMV.
The decision was passed by CEC Planning Committee's Development Management Sub Committee by six votes to four, with Councillor Eric Milligan, who is also head of the Licensing Board, abstaining. Four members of the 15-strong committee were absent. Given the significance of the issue, which prompted almost 13,500 people to sign a petition organised by the Save The Picture House campaign, this result was disappointing to many.
The impact of the Picture House's closure in terms of discouraging mid-scale touring bands to visit Edinburgh due to a lack of an appropriate city centre venue has been plain to see since 2013. While in its prime, the Picture House could host shows by the likes of Bat For Lashes, Chic, the New York Dolls and Mudhoney most nights of the week. Now, the likes of Ride and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have noticeably left Edinburgh off their current tour itinerary. More significantly, perhaps, the signals that CEC's decision sends out to pub chains, property developers and hoteliers is potentially catastrophic to Edinburgh's year-round artistic life.
The recent bid by developers to convert the site of the former Old Royal High School into a five star hotel is already symptomatic of current CEC thinking, although a counter proposal by the city's St Mary's Music School for the Royal High to become its new premises has also been mooted. This month has also seen the bid by Out of the Blue Arts Trust to transform the former Boroughmuir High School into a community arts hub put under threat by property developers, Cala Homes, who want to convert this historic building into flats.
The decision regarding The Picture House site was delivered a week or so prior to the publication of the Desire Lines report, a call to arms designed in part to protect, support and enable Edinburgh's assorted arts and culture scenes in the face of such decisions. The decision comes too at a time when CEC are purporting to support a grassroots live music scene with initiatives such as the Live Music Matters forum. Out of this large scale event, attended by musicians, promoters and venue managers in November 2014, two working groups were set up.
The first, Music is Audible, is focusing on the use of CEC's current licensing condition of 'inaudibility' which requires any live amplified music to be inaudible beyond the venue itself. The second, simply called Live Music Matters, is attempting to develop a music industry industry-based think-tank that looks to protect and develop live music activity in the city. Having been invited to join both groups myself, things are at a very early stage in terms of development. While what eventually results from them in real terms remains to be seen, however, the Picture House ruling potentially undermines both.
Despite this, Edinburgh's assorted grassroots music scenes are livelier now than for at least a decade. This welter of activity would seem to be despite, rather than because of anything CEC has done during that period. Just how lively it is might become clear following the forthcoming Edinburgh Live Music Census, which can be regarded as the first positive by-product of Live Music Matters and Music is Audible.
Initiated by the University of Edinburgh-based Live Music Exchange, the Edinburgh Live Music Census will attempt to find out just how much live musical activity is currently taking place in Edinburgh, be that in pubs, cafes or concert halls, established regular venues or pop-up grassroots art spaces. The Census will take place on 5–6 June, and is based on a model in Australia conducted in 2012, which led to the introduction of the Agent of Change principle. This principle is designed to protect established venues from complaints resulting from encroaching gentrification.
Both the Musicians Union and the recently established Music Venue Trust are lobbying for the Agent of Change to be introduced in the UK. If live music really matters to CEC, a clear and ongoing civic will for live music provision needs to be built into council policy. If every musician, promoter and venue manager in Edinburgh takes part in the Edinburgh Live Music Census, the Agent of Change principle might eventually become a reality. With this in place, whatever venues rise from the ashes of the Picture House debacle can be protected alongside existing spaces as vital homes for Edinburgh's music scenes which allow it to flourish.
Neil Cooper is an arts writer and critic who lives and works in Edinburgh, where he has seen property developers, pub chains and hoteliers favoured by assorted local authorities over music and arts venues for a very long time. He is involved in both Music is Audible and Live Music Matters.