Donate

Thank you for supporting The History of Scottish Music Centre

Edinburgh City Centre Retail and Footfall

This is something I will have more to say about in my Edinburgh Evening News column but it absolutely clear things can not go on as they are. If left to the market the city centre will deteriorate to nothing more than food outlets, tartan tat and beauticians / nail bars/ hairdressers. If Edinburgh Council decide that diverse and interesting retail is part of the attraction of a city and if they want to be seen to support artists selling their wares then positive intervention is the only answer. It would certainly help if those with the power to do something weren’t so sure they understand the challenges facing retail that are neither as simple or black and white as many think.

The current situation with a very strong business improvement district (BID) in Essential Edinburgh based around Princes Street, a weak West End BID and and an Old Town BID that will not get the mandate it needs to replace the smaller Grassmarket BID also has to be addressed sooner rather than later. I am now more hopeful than I have been that this will happen. BIDs clearly need to work together closely rather can compete. 

Edinburgh Council identified King’s Stables Road as a key part of the jigsaw in improving footfall around the city and yet abandoned all plans to do something about it when they sold the large site there. While there is still no final agreement on the development for the site leaving a possibility something can be salvaged I’m not optimistic the council will insist on any of the positive features for the arts and footfall that were in the original plans. 

While I intend for the ScotPop Music Exhibition Centre to be in the city centre and unlike most exhibitions cover a large part if not all of its costs it should be sheltered from the worst vagaries of retail.  Having said that we all benefit from a thriving city centre and my heart will always be with the retailers that fight the good fight on the high street every day.

Selling new and old music to new people

I could  give you a long explanation as to how the current methods for sales and marketing music only work for the very few all of whom have developed their fan base under a completely different system and how for everybody else all the accepted ways of selling and marketing are wrong but I feel I’ve said enough about that already.

The recent report that over 70% of vinyl is bought by superfans points to the problem. Not enough general music lovers are being reached and tempted to buy music they may like but not know well if at all. My hope with the ScotPop Music Exhibition Centre is that it will be a good way of reaching people interested in Scottish music and wanting to hear more.

It has long been known that if you put good music, well presented in front of people they will still buy it but as footfall in shops has declined that has become harder and harder. Online browsing simply doesn’t work the same way. I had hoped the National Museum would take up the idea for their exhibition and while they declined Waterstones had already said they would be happy to support Scottish music. 

Waterstones ground floor opposite the castle

What the idea needs is customers used to browsing and open to new things so we simply could not have done better than have Waterstones on board and from June I will be curating a selection of newer releases along with some older ones in a space on the ground floor. 

Whatever happens in the future I have no intention of competing over new releases when the playing field is not level. Put quite simply it is only fair to our customers that we offer them the same formats, at the same time for the same price. To say artists and labels are disingenuous with their “indie only” releases is to put it mildly. Most but not all offer these indie releases to the fan base with no mention that they will also be available in shops and before the shops even know about them.  

After months of trying to persuade fans to buy directly all of sudden come the week of release labels and bands suddenly remember you can also buy their release in a shop and encourage folk to do so. Even worse is when the indies only release has some extra from the label that the shops don’t get or when sales are so good that there aren’t enough of the limited format to go round all the shops and they get the numbers they have ordered cut back.

Avalanche is committed to giving customers the best deal and making sure fans get the version of a release they would want. This goes to the very top and was very obvious with the new Arctic Monkeys album. When vinyl first started to recover but before everybody jumped on the bandwagon we had to stock all the Arctic Monkeys albums on vinyl five at a time to cope with demand. It helped we also had some great original promo posters for sale.

Even though we weren’t covering the album we had a lot of enquiries from old customers asking if we would be getting the silver vinyl. The answer was no, silver vinyl was only from their label Domino Records. A few others were looking for the gold vinyl but that was only from the band’s pop-up shops. There was an indies only clear vinyl but truth is more than half of all vinyl sales were silver and gold. A few superfans wanted to buy all three or even all four including the black vinyl. 

Of course at the other end of the scale there are different issues but Avalanche’s focus will now always be on reaching new people with Scottish music and building up a base of those people for the future. The stocking policy will simply be based on whether the music is good enough to tempt people to spend their hard earned cash and whether I think I can do a good job promoting it.

Looking for clues

“Johnny thinks the world would be right
If it would buy the truth from him”

I went to see Robert Palmer at the Playhouse in June 1981 (date courtesy of the Edinburgh Gig Archive) just to hear “Johnny and Mary”. Otherwise I wasn’t really a fan but I loved that song. I was never sure why but recently that lyric came back to me.

It’s been four long years since I left the Grassmarket looking for clues as to how things could move forward both on the music side and in Edinburgh city centre retail. A handful of you will see what I did there ! It was all going to take a year ! Also by then the germ of an idea for an exhibition centre had also formed. Four years later I really do think I have the answer and it isn’t 42.

Of course I haven’t worked all this out myself, more than anything else I’ve just listened to others. Add in the new experiences of being at the Tron Kirk and St Mary’s Street and the traumas of dealing with the council and arts bodies and an understanding of what is needed started to form. The good thing about listening to people is that you have far more chance of success if you give folk what they want. The good thing about physically being out on the street trading is that you face the reality not some theoretical “experiential” retail.

Truth is while I genuinely believe that an amazing amount has been achieved the cost has been too high. A year out is one thing but four has consequences that it is hard to justify. All that has gone before was necessary to reach this point so what is important now is to make the most of things.

Over the course of the next week I’ll say more on the three areas that while distinct in many ways do at time also overlap – music retail especially new music, city centre retail and the ScotPop Music Exhibition Centre.

While I have had involvement in the discussions over music venues in Edinburgh it is not something I can personally get involved with beyond potentially a venue being part of the centre. 

This is not me knowing best and telling folk what to do. This is the result of four years of on the ground experience and listening to people. I’ve already run many of the ideas by people who have a wide range of experience and they have been well received. 

I just hope those concerned will buy the truth from me because I can’t afford to give it away for free !   

ScotPop Centre moving forward and set up

As expected there has been no last minute offer of a building or money though every possibility hasn’t quite been exhausted yet. There was always a plan to set up a non-profit making organisation with a board once we had reached the point of opening the centre as that is how all such things are run now and I have plenty of people who are willing to join the board who already hold important positions in business and the arts and have skills that will help.

One reason we have run out of time to be ready by June is it will take around three months to set all this up and then see if we can get matched funding for any sponsorship. One very positive thing is publicity and promotion will never be a problem. There is worldwide interest and support and all parts of the media are just waiting for me to press the button. From double page spreads in magazines and radio and TV coverage to a UK poster campaign from the same people who promote Record Store Day we are extremely lucky to have such support and of course social media is our friend !

Postcard Records press release

Because the idea is so popular I haven’t felt the need to go down the route of places like the Leith and King’s Theatres with celebrity endorsements but maybe we should do a little more of that in the future. 

My advice to the museum was that they would need to cover everything from introducing people to bands to having things even fans hadn’t seen and possibly that is an advantage the ScotPop Centre has in that that is maybe too broad a remit for them but something the centre can excel in thanks to all the help we have had.

For now though  sensibly I need to get back to making some kind of living and I’ll look into that in the coming weeks. All being well it will just mean selling music with some work on the centre when the focus has been the other way round for too long now.

ScotPop Centre news

Pic by @Birmingham_81

Sadly it looks like we have run out of time to find a home for the centre in time for the summer. Everything from what we have been offered to very visible worldwide promotion has gone well beyond all my expectations but I’ve been unable to find a home or any substantial financial support.

Money is now a huge issue and I will need to focus on that while putting the centre if not quite on the hold at least on the back burner. Avalanche/myself has financed this idea for over three years now and Avalanche will almost certainly need to return physically to raise the funds needed. Quite how that will be done is still to be decided but it certainly won’t be achieved by selling new releases ! 

Despite the support of Donald Wilson the Culture Convener and Paul Lawrence the council’s Chief Executive of Place it is clear that the centre is in no way being treated as would an art exhibition be by the council. What is more it is also clear that the more I fight the corner for pop music as art the more some folk are irritated. I guarantee the council will give plenty of space free of charge to the visual arts during the Festival despite saying they need to bring in an income for all their buildings and the Festival being the prime time to do that and of course saying that just annoys them more.

The next deadline is to have something ready in time for the museum exhibition finishing in November and by coincidence Avalanche has an offer to work on a very exciting project about that time with investment from Europe. I can’t pretend it isn’t a huge opportunity lost to promote Scottish music in an alternative but complementary way to the museum’s plans but while there was huge confidence after the Fruitmarket Gallery pop-up that individuals and businesses would come forward to offer support actually it mostly generated several enquiries from Glasgow !   

And before folk ask yes if I get a firm offer from Glasgow the centre will open there. I had always hoped to eventually have something in both cities and possibly others too and once the opportunity to coincide with the Rip It Up exhibition is lost then there is no reason not to open in Glasgow first. I have already had offers that I haven’t had time to explore fully though nothing permanent.

Some ScotPop Centre related things are already in motion and will still go ahead and there are one or two fund raising ideas too. More of that very soon. I won’t even start to try thanking people just now for all that has been done to get this far for fear of missing folk out but though I say so myself it should not be underestimated just what has been achieved. Given what I’ve managed to get done dedicating most of my time to the centre I estimate there is still about three years work left and of course often more leads are generated so as such it will probably always be an evolving idea which no doubt is a good thing.   

Finding the ScotPop Centre a home – a brief history

While Avalanche was still in the Grassmarket Edinburgh Council decided to support music in the city centre “like New York and Sydney”. Plans to use empty council buildings were quickly dismissed by their property department but it was suggested space in council buildings might be found and it was soon established that council owned museums and galleries were by far the best possible locations.

Consequently a little later when looking for a home for the exhibition centre artists who were also musicians said that ignoring any arguments about the validity of the art there were large rooms that would be all we needed dedicated to maybe a couple of paintings or a sparse installation. Soon after that several people associated with the City Art Centre got in touch to say the ground floor of the CAC would be perfect and just what was needed to attract more folk in. 

It is well documented elsewhere that despite a very successful pop-up at the Fruitmarket Gallery two drawn out attempts to get space in the CAC have failed. It is still the case that huge rooms exist within the council’s galleries including the CAC but despite assurances it is not the case a pop music exhibition doing its best to break even is not seen in the same light as an art installation or exhibition that needs several grants just to exist and 99% of people have no interest in. 

You see there is a clue in the grant system. If a gallery needs half a million, or a million or two million pounds every three years on top of any other funding received just to cover its costs then it’s because the vast majority of people really don’t care and in fact it will only get worse. In a recent YouGov survey the younger folk were, the more likely they were to consider the arts, be that classical music or art galleries, as “posh” and of no interest to them. 

That the powers that be consider a Mexican artist with his field recordings of whales and dolphins to be art worthy of waiving any fees but an exhibition about Scottish musicians to be unworthy of support says it all. 

I really did think that the National Museum of Scotland’s Rip It Up exhibition this year would have established that a permanent Scottish music exhibition should be taken seriously but that is very clearly not the case. Sadly I don’t see things changing.   

How the ScotPop Exhibition Centre idea came about

I often get asked how the ScotPop Exhibition Centre idea came about this so I thought if I made a post about this I could also then refer to it when I have to email people rather than get involved in a long explanation never sure how much is known already.

Avalanche used to sell a lot of music by local bands. By a lot I mean hundreds of copies by an artist like Withered Hand and a box of 25 CDs by a band that maybe wasn’t that well known even locally. We gave everything a chance but there were still many releases that sold very little simply because they weren’t very good.

We could easily sell a hundred copies or more when we had an in-store from a band like Idlewild or Twilight Sad for a new album. An album featuring high up in our end of year chart, itself based on sales, could sell an extra 50 to 100 copies because of that. We could add an extra 20 people to a local gig’s attendance just by recommendation to the groups of visitors who would come to the shop normally on the day.

Orange Juice at Regent’s Canal, Near Camden (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

At the same time there was a lot of interest in older Scottish bands from Orange Juice and Josef K to The Shop Assistants and Pastels. Visitors to Avalanche would be looking for current bands that they might like given their taste in other music and as bands like Belle and Sebastian became more established we would get folk looking for similar artists to more current bands too.

There are no recommendations online that work quite as well as would come from a good shop. We wouldn’t just suggest something we would play it so the customer wasn’t relying on our say-so. These bands were not our friends so we played no favourites and we gave people music we thought they would like not what we thought they should like.

Online there is nearly always some agenda and then of course it is easy to listen and decide something isn’t worth your money anyway. One thing that was very relevant, especially in the old days of actually being very busy, particularly on a Saturday, was that playing all this stuff to people was quite time consuming. On the other hand this was balanced by fans who needed no persuasion.

Obviously things gradually changed but so this post doesn’t go on too long let’s fast forward five years or so. Avalanche had moved to the Grassmarket and was gradually building up an influential online and social media presence to add to the shop’s reputation and never been more influential but sales had plummeted. Shops were now competing for sales that were already dropping with the very bands and labels they had supported and customers/fans no longer needed to buy music anyway.

I would still get asked for recommendations as much as ever and even play them but now people would tap the names into their phones saying they would go away and listen more. If lucky they might buy one or two things when before they would have bought many more. In-stores went the same way with sales only a quarter of what might have been expected. With online sales and social media one thing became very clear and that was given a fair chance with a limited gold vinyl Withered Hand album or a Frightened Rabbit album with a bonus 7″ our online reach meant we could sell 100+ but most times we were at a disadvantage and selling  a fraction of what we would have expected just a few years before.

And so the idea for a centre promoting Scottish music but not on a commercial basis was born. At its heart it would still support and promote current bands but it would also celebrate the music from previous years that visitors seemed so keen to talk about with posters, badges and other memorabilia. At that point the idea was as simple a that. Only later would I discover that documenting the last six decades of Scottish artists and their music had been woefully neglected and how much work there was to be done. 

Trinity Apse and the ScotPop Centre

Another option that had been mentioned by Frank Little the Museums and Galleries manager was Trinity Apse which is an old church just off the high street on Chalmer’s Close, some may remember it as the Brass Rubbing Centre.

I did look at it before Christmas with Frank but was given no indication of availability or price. It had I was told been rented out just recently for the day to some architects for £500 (actually £600 + VAT) but otherwise details were sketchy. There had been a big effort to have it used during the Festival but with no other details except that for some time now no council building could be given out for free.

Clearly I was looking for the arts price rather than the commercial price. Again if I knew what the building had made financially in a year I could maybe offer a little more and we would have a temporary home and the council would have increased income. I included Trinity Apse when I asked for details of the income for council buildings under FOI so I would know what to offer.

Frank felt the CAC was a better option so Trinity Apse was put on the back-burner even after I saw the figures for its usage. However when it was decided the CAC top floor would go through due process and not be treated as a trial I looked into the idea again. With the Tron market traders soon to be homeless I could possibly include an arts element, give a few of the artists a home and bring in a little more income to help with whatever rent I was quoted.

By now I had seen the figures which were astonishing. That architects’ rent I had been quoted was the only commercial rent in the three years I was given figures for and despite being told no arts related project for some time had been considered for a free let all the other lets had been free. It would be hard work getting people to visit given the location but it was still an exciting prospect with plenty of potential. 

Unable to contact Frank I found a contact who was actually the commercial manager, a new post created 8 months ago that I was unaware of as surprisingly it had never been mentioned despite being relevant. I enquired about using the building until the end of the year depending on availability. Apart from a wedding in October there were no other firm bookings though it was on hold in July and August for the Edinburgh Art Festival part of the CAC and those architects were considering coming back at the end of June.

Given the EAF use 30+ venues and the council make no income I hoped they would give Trinity Apse up and we could work around the rest. However the commercial manager came back to me yesterday with no firm offer and asking me to make a proposal bearing in mind their commercial rates of up to £750 a day.

It is clear that despite constant reassurances the ScotPop exhibition is not being given anything like the same treatment as other arts projects and now the council has employed somebody to deal with these matters albeit with little success so far my original discussion with Paul Lawrence, the council’s Chief Executive of Place, of basing offers on previous performance is no longer relevant. This probably explains the insistence on due process over the CAC’s top floor.

          

The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership on display for all of the Festival last year is clearly art attracting no charge while the ScotPop Centre appears to lie at the heart of capitalism.

In all my discussions it was agreed that pop music deserved the same support as the visual arts but it was stressed that no art form could now be supported as before with free or even heavily discounted venues. All evidence shows this not to be true and to be honest it is clear that rather than argue the case people are just saying one thing and doing another.

I have a sponsor flying in from Germany in a week’s time and after that I will make a decision but without a building ……………………

Questions raised on twitter about the ScotPop Centre latest news

Many thanks to Brian for raising these questions 

Brian Ferguson – arts journalist for the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotsman

An interesting read, but just couldn’t see any sense in agreeing to set up a rival history of Scottish pop & rock exhibition in the City Art Centre at the same time as the one.

Reply

ScotPop Centre has a completely different focus + complements the museum. I’ve been in contact with museum since April 2016 at their request forwarding exhibits they could use + working on areas they are not covering. They finish November + some exhibits will be available to me

Frank Little (museums and galleries manager) told me he asked if CAC could work with the museum on the exhibition but got knocked back. I already had that agreement though I believe their comms people are wary. They asked me not to stress differences as that was pointing out what they weren’t doing.

The council aren’t setting anything up and the centre won’t be a rival but it will be able to continue the work done by museum long after they have moved on to their next exhibition. The museum is understandably out of their comfort zone whereas I have 30 years worth of contacts.

Brian Ferguson

The only other thing I would add is that it took the trust around a decade to get access to a building which was going to rack and ruin.

Reply

To be fair to they have made that point about and also the Calton Hill Observatory. It was said I had achieved in three years what would normally take a team of people seven given what I have ready to go. Things though don’t have to take this long.

Brian Ferguson

It’s 15 years since the party was cancelled when the stage started getting torn apart. Not a brick laid. Easier said than done when reality kicks in!

Reply

Of course when building is involved things take a lot longer but the original idea from the council was that they have too many buildings so finding one for should be possible. If a cafe/bar/venue included even better as that helped with the issue over venues.

The Scottish Pop Music Exhibition Centre – search for a home

As regular followers will know the City Art Centre at the back of the Waverley Station has often cropped up as a possible home temporarily or otherwise for some time now. That interest seemed to have ended when they refused even a short pop-up despite being virtually empty. The Fruitmarket Gallery however did step in and we had a hugely successful exhibition in June with over 1,500 people visiting over the three days.

Following that it was suggested I speak to Paul Lawrence the council’s Chief Executive for Place. Paul, a no nonsense northerner from Hull with a soft southern job title, was very supportive and interested not just in the centre but also on the current state of Edinburgh’s venues.

I had previously spoken to Frank Little the museums and galleries manager who wasn’t keen on the idea but Paul said he would speak with him again and with news that Frank was now a convert we met up. The day before I had met with Donald Wilson the Culture Convener who had pledged his support saying the exhibition centre was just what Edinburgh needed and just what the City Art Centre needed !

One suggestion from Frank was that I was given the top floor of the City Art Centre which though hired out was done so infrequently. With a small presence on the ground floor and a lift as you come in straight to the top floor it wasn’t perfect but a great space with great views.

I gave Frank a proposal of what was intended so we could then discuss things further. When I say “give” me the top floor I would have been expected to make sure the CAC wasn’t out of pocket by offering a payment a little greater than their previous income.

However I soon received an email saying the CAC was fully booked with exhibitions for the next three years and there was no space for me. This was very odd in that it made the meetings we had had pointless but more importantly the top floor is not an exhibition space, part of the reason it had been considered. 

Back to square one Paul Lawrence’s desire to help meant he agreed to meet just before New Year. Unable to come up with any other options Paul agreed to put the CAC top floor plan to Frank Little again. We agreed I would offer a little more than the average of the last three year’s income and I made an FOI request to find out what that offer should be.

I had a second meeting with Councillor Wilson mid-January when he reiterated there was nothing more needed said to convince him of the worth of the project. Paul had flagged up the council would need to agree that there was no need to follow due process given this was a temporary project, possibly for a year, and the council would be financially better off than previous years.

Councillor Wilson said he wasn’t even sure it needed to go to committee but would check and if it did it was a Culture not a Finance matter and agreed to liaise with Paul. Given the time constraints in trying to be ready in time to coincide with the National Museum’s exhibition I was concerned about how long all this would take and I then received an email from Paul Lawrence saying my best outcome would be to have it put before the Culture Committee on the 20th March. 

This was tight for being ready indeed but doable and gave me time to assemble a small team of helpers for a presentation. I would need to show quality within the exhibition and the Fruitmarket Gallery offered to give a recommendation. With the museum having also taken several of the exhibits from the pop-up the quality was not going to be an issue. 

Financially I spoke to potential sponsors who would look to cover the proposed rent of around £10K – £12K. I had offers of free food and drink for launches and free advertising both from established advertising companies and record shops all over the world.

By coincidence an old customer and friend who now lives in LA and was a photographer in the 80s was over visiting and not only offered me many unseen band photos but also a professional trailer for the exhibition as his job in LA was to produce film trailers and adverts. 

I agreed with the council not to say anything publicly which of course would have helped with the fundraising but the response privately was tremendous.

However I still had no confirmation until Tuesday when an email from Paul Lawrence told me that a speedy outcome was unlikely as the idea would need to go through due process. Basically this would mean 

  • The Council would need to agree that the space in the CAC is to be used for alternate purposes and therefore is available to ‘the market’;
  • They would need to run a marketing/bidding process;
  • They would need to evaluate all bids including an assessment of detailed business plans;
  • The Council would then determine a successful bidder based on a range of criteria.

The first point alone baffled me. There was no change of use as it was a hire space that could be hired for just what I had planned. In fact if the exhibition was not to be treated as a trial, which it obviously was, then it could be treated as a lengthy hire which of course was also true. Neither involved due process something I had taken (free) professional advice on.

I was asked if I still wanted to continue. Given that there was no guarantee of success, no idea of cost and it was impossible to reach agreement in time this was an offer designed to be unacceptable.

My initial reaction was just to give up but then I realised that as I had been working to March 20th I should at least consider options until then now the plans could go public. What has caused this turnaround ? I genuinely don’t know. Donald Wilson and Paul Lawrence could not have been more helpful and generous with their time. Both hold very senior positions one as a councillor and one as a council official. It’s important to have both sides on board I’m told. Yes Minister is certainly good grounding for understanding the relationship.

I’m not sure who else would have the authority to insist that due process was followed even when it was unnecessary and why they would do that. Apart from that there has been a feeling for some time that the CAC is to be sold. This was pure conjecture from staff and those close to the CAC on the basis that it was so badly run there had to be an ulterior motive.

It has been acknowledged now by most involved with the CAC that there have been issues for some time in every department though they don’t thank people for pointing that out. The recent report that footfall and income were both down over 30% was blamed on being closed on their two quietest days which clearly was a flawed argument.

Maybe there are plans, be it a sale or some other major overhaul, and they would rather I wasn’t in the way. Maybe the CAC understandably annoyed at being shown to be struggling instigated the decision to enforce due process. I have to say I was initially invited to look at using the CAC by staff and that it has so demonstrably been underutilised, as the council prefers to say, is not my doing.

All of this is conjecture and possibly wide of the mark on every count. I’m still of course in touch with the National Museum and Waterstones are on board to support Scottish music. There are many exclusives I could source if  I want to. Avalanche is a worldwide brand which never ceases to amaze me and I have an offer to consider at the beginning of March based on Avalanche but with interest in the centre too.

I have interest from Glasgow for the centre which needs to be followed up but for now I will give things until the middle of March and if no home can be found by then I will need to reconsider. I’m already getting regular enquiries about when the centre might open with some people looking to book holidays and it is hard to believe such a popular idea would be blocked by the council after being so supportive originally.

I have sunk every penny I have into this or we wouldn’t have reached the stage we have now. I simply can’t afford to do that any more and until the centre finds a home it will be impossible to bring on board sponsors and the other revenue streams needed.

Apologies for not having something more positive. Believe me I never expected this outcome from the council after so much support. I suspect there may still be more twists in the tale.

Still to come – Trinity Apse, the City Art Centre’s cafe and what I’d do given all of the CAC !