The ‘music city’ movement - a view from Edinburgh


When I started Edinburgh Music Lovers, one of my ambitions was to work with others to strengthen Edinburgh’s reputation as a ‘music city’. (If you’re reading this and thinking ‘hold on, surely Edinburgh’s already a music city?’, you might want to scroll down a bit further).

But what exactly is a ‘music city’?

It’s a pretty wide-ranging topic, but helpfully, a Music Cities Manual has just been launched. It’s been created by Sound Diplomacy, an organisation which has been taking a lead on the ‘music city’ movement and advising governments, cities, businesses and developers around the world.

At the heart of their ‘music city’ idea, is establishing a structured music policy at local authority level that increases the value placed on music in a city.

The hope is that having this foundation in place and adopting a coordinated collaborative approach across sectors can lead to the development of new music infrastructure, create jobs, develop economies, drive tourism and promote social inclusion and wellbeing.

In the manual, Sound Diplomacy outline the 13 key indicators of a ‘music city’ (see below), which when implemented contribute to a city’s economic, social and cultural development.

These points have been collated through their experiences advising on music strategies and policies in cities such as London, Manchester, Barcelona, Vancouver and Brisbane. Here they are - further detail on each is available on the Music Cities Manual site:

  1. Music is an infrastructure - develop a policy

  2. Understand your environment - asset map it

  3. Music and non-music people unite - create a coalition

  4. Respect and celebrate your past - use your heritage

  5. Everyone loves music - use yours for tourism

  6. Use music to achieve sustainable development

  7. We all need a place to develop - support venues

  8. Create an entrepreneurial environment for business

  9. Prioritise music education across young and old - engagement is key

  10. Support your night-time economy

  11. Prioritise affordability - humanise your buildings and land

  12. Recognise how big we are if we work together - be international

  13. Music is central to our health and wellbeing

Previous work to support live music in Edinburgh

It’s important to note that discussions and work of this type around encouraging live music in Edinburgh have been ongoing for several years.

Since 2014, the council and its Live Music Matters and Music Is Audible (MIA) Group working groups have been working to support live music in Edinburgh. The release of the Music Cities Manual is a useful tool to add to the conversation.

The Usher Hall has staged various Live Music Matters Forum events, while the MIA group worked with the Music Venue Trust to help have wording changed around noise regulations in Edinburgh. It is also active in the Agent of Change campaign, which seeks to protect venues against property developers.

In 2015, the Edinburgh Live Music Census report by Dr Adam Behr and Dr Emma Webster with Dr Matt Brennan also gathered and documented extensive information about the music ecosystem in the city.

In 2017, the council also arranged an event around a previous recommendation made by the Music Venue Trust that Edinburgh appoint a ‘music champion’, similar to the role of the ‘Night Mayor’ in Amsterdam. This event included a presentation by Lutz Leichsenring a spokesperson for Berlin’s Club Commission.

Edinburgh as a music city

It’s also important to state that Edinburgh already has a thriving music scene driven by a community of long-established live music and club promoters, venues, musicians, DJs, radio stations, blogs, shops, labels, studios, managers, journalists and so on. Too many to name-check, but a few of them feature in our Inspirations section. A few more will be added soon when I get time.

As I’ve written previously, the city has hosted an incredible array of music events in recent months and years across the city, from the seven-days-a-week shows at Sneaky Pete’s up to the incredible recent run of big shows at Usher Hall in particular.

On the electronic music and clubbing front, FLY and Nightvision both host incredible events and festivals that any city in the world would be proud of. The FLY Open Air events in Princes Street Gardens and Hopetoun House (next one 18/19 May) are particularly impressive.

While its focus is the Scotland-wide music industry, the annual Wide Days music convention has also done sterling work since 2010 to promote live music, artists and debate in Edinburgh. There are many others, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.

Equally, Edinburgh also has a fantastic music heritage, having hosted everyone from the Stones and Pink Floyd to Led Zep, Bowie and The Clash during the 60s, 70s and 80s.

That’s not forgetting the long line of artists who have emerged from Edinburgh such as Fire Engines, The Rezillos. Josef K, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, Shirley Manson, Boards of Canada, Beta Band, Idlewild, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Young Fathers and others.

Exploring Edinburgh’s potential

To be clear, looking at whether Edinburgh is, or could be, a ‘music city’ should not be misconstrued as being negative about Edinburgh or disrespectful to all those who have been involved in the music community for years. For me, it’s about exploring its potential to be even better.

There’s no doubt however that while Edinburgh is thriving, its progress has been dented along the way. Especially in the last dozen years or so, with the loss of some key venues* and previous licensing restrictions around the audibility of amplified music.

There have also been a few well-publicised/over-hyped incidents and issues that unhelpfully create a perception, held in some quarters, that music isn’t as highly valued as it could be in Edinburgh.

These include the noise complaint after Idlewild’s show at Summerhall in June, the controversial hoardings at Summer Sessions in Princes Street Gardens, and the ‘Silent Disco is too noisy for Edinburgh’ story.

Questions to consider

There are other questions that come to mind when looking at Edinburgh as a music city.

For example, some people see a gap in Edinburgh’s venue ladder at the 1500-capacity level between Queen’s Hall and the likes of the Usher Hall, Playhouse and the now rarely-used Corn Exchange.

For a while, this was filled by the Caley Picture House until it was turned into a pub in 2016. The question now is will Leith Theatre, if and when it’s fully kitted out, be able to fill that gap? The likes of Hidden Door, EIF, FLY Club and EH6 Festival have shown what great potential Leith Theatre has - it could be a real game-changer.

At the top end, should Edinburgh as a capital city and a music city have an arena? Does it need one, and do people want one? And where would it be given the lack of land, and would it be actually be sustainable? That’s a whole other blog.

On that note, it’s interesting to consider that Aberdeen will soon launch the TECA, a 15,000 arena, which looks comparable to the extraordinarily successful Hydro in Glasgow.

How does the ‘music city’ movement relate to Edinburgh?

With the positive elements I outlined above, and the prospect of various new venues** coming through, I believe Edinburgh is hitting an upward curve and well-placed to enhance its reputation as a music city.

That’s not forgetting all the other factors in Edinburgh’s favour: its status as a capital city and tourist destination, an international reputation for arts and culture, a relatively affluent and rapidly growing population, a massive student population…

That’s why I believe Edinburgh being a ‘music city’ is a discussion worth having.

With this in mind, Edinburgh Music Lovers is staging a discussion & Q&A event in Edinburgh with Sound Diplomacy. Details will be announced soon, follow us on @weareEML to find out more.

Meantime, let me know what you think of the ‘music city’ concept, Sound Diplomacy’s 13 indicators and your perspective on Edinburgh in the comments below.

*The Venue, Picture House, Electric Circus, Studio 24 etc

** the ongoing rebirth of Leith Theatre; the recently launched Old Dr Bells Baths; the opening of Rose Theatre; the proposed new IMPACT Centre concert hall in St Andrew Square; a grassroots venue planned by the NEKO Trust; the planned redevelopment of the Ross Bandstand