‘Nothing ever happens here’, the tongue-in-cheek moniker of Summerhall’s headlining gig series, is an apt description of Edinburgh dwindling music scene. For a city boasting at least 267 live music venues and playing host to the largest arts festival int he world, The City of Edinburgh Council’s (CEC) barbaric licensing laws, consistent failure to support grassroots musicians, and he diminishing number of large-scale venues suitable for the ‘big names’ in live music presents an alarming threat to the cultural heritage of the capital, not to mention the future of its music scene.
In November 2014, the CEC called its first ‘Live Music Matters’ meeting in Usher Hall in an attempt to identify the key issues affecting live music in Edinburgh, undoubtedly pressured by backlash to the tragic loss of The Picture House – one of the city’s principal mid-sized music venues which played host to legends including The Smiths, R.E.M, and the late, great David Bowie – to make way for Edinburgh’s electrifying new cultural hotspot: the UK’s nine-hundred-and-something-eth Weatherspoon’s ‘superpub’. The conference established a taskforce under the name of ‘Music is Audible’, charged with reconciling the ongoging conflict between music venues and residents through the improvement of the city’s noise policies; a crucial first step in providing a support network for Edinburgh’s music industry. On February 22, the 2016 music is audible panel, comprising city officials and industry professionals alike, reconvened for an open forum to discuss the group’s progress.
According to the 2015 Edinburgh Live Music Census conducted by members of the University of Edinburgh, an astounding 44 per cent of the musicians surveyed reported that their performances had been affected by noise restrictions, with the CEC receiving 64 independent complaints relating to 18 venues aroudn the city between 2014-2015.
Whilst the CEC emphasises that none of these complaints required direct action from the licensing board, the problems were predominantly ‘resolved’ by ruling in favour of local residents and simply cancelling the affected gigs. Under current legislation, section 6.2 of the Licensing Act (Scotland) 2005 dictates that amplified music must be “inaudible in [neighbouring] residential property”. This is a zero-tolerance policy to noise pollution which threatens premises with the removal of the liquor licence for non-compliance, destroying the backbone economy of the vast majority of venues. Forced with a choice between closure or impossible levels of soundproofing, many venues abandoned the exhibition of live music, leading to a steady but inevitable decline to Edinburgh’s live music industry.
A recent victim of this so-called ‘inaudibility clause’ is the Forest Café collective based in Tollcross. Once a thriving hub for the exhibition of grassroots music, the café has been threatened with action from the council following a string of noise complaints from local residents. Grant McNeil, a staff-member of the café , confirmed that the venue has since been restricted to the exhibition of acoustic-only shows until an 8pm watershed as well as a blanket ban on amplified live music, theatre and even poetical recitals under the council’s oppressive regime.
Young Fathers, the Edinburgh-based experimental hip-hop trio who won the 2014 Mercury Prize for their magnificent debut Dead, are a key example of local talent that has encountered similar obstacles, openly speaking out against the council’s tyrannical legislative practices that hampered the band’s rise to success. In an interview with Edinburgh Evening News, the group’s manager Tim Brinkhurst, who has since become a member of the Music is Audible initiative, charged the council with “implementing ridiculous practises” through their rigid enforcement of the inaudibility clause, labelling Edinburgh as “a city that likes to keep its curtains closed and its mouth shut”. Hardly a glowing review from one of Scotland’s premier creative groups.
This is not the first time that the Scottish music scene has suffered at the hands of draconian licensing laws. Following a riotous performance by The Stranglers in 1977, Glasgow District Council effectively implemented an unofficial, city-wide ban on punk music, threatening to revoke the licenses of uncooperative venues that continued to play host to bands of this genre. Journalist Billy Sloan reported that venue owners were not authorised to charge for admission to shows and were forced to provide mandatory seating for their audience, actively alienating punk musicians and resulting in a mass exodus of bands to the neighbouring town of Paisley.
The dystopia forecasted by current council policy is avoidable however, the Music is Audible taskforce is well on the way to bringing about a change to Edinburgh’s licensing laws having launched a solid proposal to amend the stifling ‘inaudibility clause’ to include a greater degree of tolerance as well as providing scientifically verifiable conditions under which live music must be allowed to continue until it becomes an ‘audible nuisance’ to local residents. The implementation of this simple but dramatically effective amendment to legislation is projected to have untold benefits to the revival of Edinburgh’s rapidly vanishing music scene, with a negligible impact to both music venues and city residents. Whilst the proposal is yet to fully breach the myriad layers of red tape that surround this delicate issue, the enthusiasm and combined expertise of the Music is Audible group shows promising signs for an attitudinal shift towards the city that can be truly proud of its music culture.
Live music in Edinburgh does not deserve a death-by-bureaucracy. For all music fans in Edinburgh interested in helping the cause, full details of the group’s proposal can be found via the Music is Audible Facebook page along with information as to how to get involved in future events.