You won’t find many people arguing against the fact that Edinburgh should have its own arts quarter, but up until now very little has been done about it.
Just over a year ago, Argyle House in Lady Lawson Street and the land behind it was reportedly identified as one possible location, but talk then concentrated more on the issues of demolishing the building rather than what might be in its place.
Since then, there has been nothing except the city council’s vow a few months ago to help music industry-related businesses stay located in the city centre. Meanwhile, cities throughout the UK have been working hard on plans similar to Manchester’s “Northern Quarter”. Liverpool has just announced expansion for its Bluecoat arts hub, Birmingham has its Custard Factory and Nottingham has joined the fray attracting Rough Trade to open in its Creative Quarter. England’s major cities have also recently all agreed to start working together, not only on these areas but in keeping interesting retail alive in general.
After the city council’s announcement about helping the music industry, I kept an even closer eye on what has been happening in Edinburgh, so when I was told that council land originally earmarked as part of the Edinburgh arts quarter had just gone up for sale, it seemed worth further investigation. A 1.2-acre site on King’s Stables Road, it stretches all the way from the tunnel famous for its saxophone player to the entrance to the Grassmarket.
A large storage shed could easily be imagined as a venue, with shops and cafes complementing something else Edinburgh needs but does not have – a fantastic indoor market, still leaving space for artist studios. With most arts hubs being created on the periphery of city centres at best, Edinburgh has the chance to create something very special indeed in the heart of the city, close to so many other arts-related buildings – from the Usher Hall to the Filmhouse and, of course, the art college itself.
Something else that was pointed out to me very quickly was that the arts quarter would also be great for footfall in the city, meaning people would walk the length of the Grassmarket to reach it from Victoria Street and encouraging those in the west end of Princes Street to approach from Lothian Road. With a little bit of signage, the long daunting walk up King’s Stables Road to the Grassmarket would be halved and bring new life to the area.
Word spread like wildfire and within 48 hours I’d been contacted by a range of interested parties all pledging support for the idea. There are so many wider benefits that extend beyond the arts and even tourism that there would be a huge positive effect immediately. There is no doubt the project would give an air of credibility to the wider area being considered one of Europe’s finest arts quarters attracting new visitors to Edinburgh from all over the world.
For more details on how to get involved in the Edinburgh arts quarter campaign
This opinion piece was written for The Edinburgh Evening News and appeared on 30/09/2014
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1. There Will Be Fireworks – There Will Be Fireworks
2. Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol.1
3. Kid Canaveral – Shouting At Wildlife
4. The Savings and Loan – Today I Need Light
5. Star Wheel Press – Life Cycle Of A Falling Bird
6. There Will Be Fireworks – The Dark, Dark Bright
7. King Creosote – Psalm Clerk
8. TV21 – Forever 22
9. Quickbeam – Quickbeam
10. Olympic Swimmers – No Flags Will Fly
11. Bwani Junction – Fully Cocked
12. Randolph’s Leap – Introducing …..
13. Kevin MacNeil and Willie Campbell – Visible From Space
14. Scottish Enlightenment – St. Thomas
15. King Creosote – Disclaimer
16. King Creosote – Vintage Quays
17. Emily Scott – Longshore Drift
18. The Last Battle – Heart Of The Land, Soul Of The Sea
19. Rob St John – Weald
20. Emily Scott – abcdefg…etc…
21. Cancel The Astronauts – Animal Love Match
22. Endor – Endor
23. King Creosote – Red On Green
24. Edinburgh School For The Deaf – New Youth Bible
25. Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
26. Dead Flowers – Midnight At The Wheel Club
27. Aberfeldy – Somewhere To Jump From
28. Trapped Mice – Winter Sun
29. Hamish James Hawk – Aznavour
30. Emily Scott – I Write Letters I Never Send
So big hitters like Ballboy, Saint Jude’s Infirmary, Meursault and Withered Hand aren’t included as they all had distributors I bought from. Others in the chart may have had distribution but I dealt directly for the vast majority of the stock. The Scars album would have been at two but I stuck to new releases and not reissues.
I never met Peter. Most of the New Zealand artists made their way over to Scotland at some point but Peter never made it to Europe or the US until his visit just a few weeks ago to New York where he played his first ever US gig. We spoke regularly of course when Avalanche put out the highly regarded debut album “Shotgun Blossom” from his band Snapper and I had in fact been in touch only recently to let him know of all the interest there was in both his old stuff and what he was doing currently.
We decided to reissue the album and of course I had long lost any contract we had. With interest from labels far bigger than Avalanche I wanted to make sure the best possible job was done of the reissue but labels wanted to see a contract. I’d tracked Peter down via his friend Ian of Fishrider Records and asked on the off chance if he had his copy of the contract. Peter proceeded to produce not just the contract but all our correspondence from a drawer in his house. In a time before email and with phone calls to New Zealand not cheap I’d forgotten how much had simply been put in writing and posted.
It is a small consolation that Peter had so recently been made aware just how highly thought of he was not just amongst fellow musicians and those in the music industry for whom he had always been something of an icon but more and more with a new generation of listeners. With a music pedigree second to none (The Clean, The Chills, The Great Unwashed, The Puddle and Snapper to name only some) Peter’s influence stretched well beyond New Zealand and there are any number of bands who would cite Snapper in particular as influential. I always remember Stereolab popping in the shop on their way home from a gig asking if they could get a “Shotgun Blossom” cassette for their van.
How an Edinburgh record shop ended up putting out not just such an influential album but also other great New Zealand stuff from The DoubleHappys, Peter Jefferies and the Xpressway label is a story for another time. Peter and the rest of the guys in the band were always very grateful Avalanche risked what was then a considerable amount of money on a band so far away but they repaid that trust many times over and were a pleasure to deal with. I was genuinely touched that Peter had kept everything and hopefully some of it will be made available when “Shotgun Blossom” is reissued. Well thought of in its time it made number two in the indie charts kept from the top slot by a Babes In Toyland mini album.
I never heard a bad word about Peter even though he was quite opinionated about others and though he was something of a recluse that didn’t mean he didn’t resurface from time to time to play with old friends. His recent trip to New York was a very pleasant surprise and I’d hoped the start of a new chapter in his career. He was clearly very talented but most of all I’ll remember him for being a really cool guy !
In the end it was the rates that killed us in the Grassmarket. The landlord was very good about the rent and didn’t put it up when he should have but I feel very badly let down by Edinburgh Council. I’d been told they had spent 4 million pounds on the “improvements” and hoped to soon have a BID (Business Improvement District) in place. As it turned out the BID happened a year late and just oversaw the further decline of retail. More of that another time.
Obsessed with the tram works the Grassmarket was abandoned from the first Christmas I was there and the Christmas market cancelled. This culminated in last Christmas when everything was done to attract visitors to Princes Street and St Andrew Square and nothing to bring them to the Grassmarket. That the BID did nothing to remedy this beggars belief but I was told the committee felt money would be better spent on other things ! It was no surprise to see footfall figures were down 10% in December showing a month on month decline every month from August something unheard of in retail. What is worse the Grassmarket footfall figures are taken at the Grassmarket Hotel so many of those counted do no more than get to the bottom of Victoria Street and turn around never getting anywhere near the majority of the shops.
The council funding for a council employee to help with events in the Grassmarket ran out a year after the works were completed so given the BID was delayed by a year there was nobody from the council to help almost as soon as I moved in. The council had asked to meet me as they were very keen on the idea of an “arts quarter” and to be fair they had said they had no money but could help with red tape. Another problem not council related was that The Lot then closed and the lady who owns it can clearly manage without the income and has declined anybody interested in using the building.
There was the constant promise that things would improve once the BID was in place to liaise with the council but very little indeed seemed to happen. Even more galling was that when big events were put on they regularly involved blocking people’s view of Avalanche, Helios Fountain and the West Port. Large inflatables, film screens and stages all ended up blocking us off and that was by no means all. Most events involved fencing being put in front of the road and therefore blocking easy access to the shop. However as soon as there was a market that might attract folk down our way that was placed in the middle and led to people just looking around and then turning back up Victoria Street. All these events led to LESS takings and the market sadly did not improve things either. Some might put this down to the decline of the record shop but Helios Fountain who have been in the Grassmarket for 30 years and keep scrupulous records said sometimes things were so bad they matched the bad old days when all the work had been done, dark days that thankfully I had missed. Shops in the West Port also reported a drop in takings.
The council has recognised the rates problem and for smaller properties with a rateable value under £10K they now pay no rates at all but this does not help many in the Grassmarket. Similarly because I took on a shop that had been empty for a while I would now receive some rates relief but sadly not 4 years ago.
What it has left me with is a huge rates bill I’m still paying off and I have absolutely no idea what I got in return. In fact it seems to me the council spent that money encouraging folk not to visit the Grassmarket. Maybe even at this late stage I’ll get a refund !
It is imperative that we resurface soon but at the same time I’m still considering a range of options and future challenges more of which over the next week. What I had decided is that we needed a small central base in Edinburgh that people could visit meaning we could take our time with the considerable options that have been put before us. A place has been identified and it is now a case of seeing if things fall into place as quickly as I would hope.
Our time since the Grassmarket shop closed has been invaluable but has raised as many questions as it has answered and led to even more opportunities being put in our path. And the pic ? Well it said Avalanche HQ and it was either that or the lego pic ! Much more very soon.
1. Withered Hand – New Gods
2. Mogwai – Rave Tapes
3. King Creosote – From Scotland With Love
4. Owl John – Owl John
5. PAWS – Youth Culture Forever
6. Broken Records – Weights and Pulleys
7. Hamish James Hawk – Aznavour
8. Jack White – Lazaretto
9. James Yorkston – Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society
10. The Last Battle – Lay Your Burden Down
As many of you will know we don’t accept money to promote artists on the website and I’ve refused all offers of links as well. However it has been put to me that the Avalanche site which is already a focus for Scottish music in particular as well as being known for promoting new music in general could be the gateway artists need to reach an audience who might be interested in their music.
Each artist would be allocated a page only they could access and would be free to promote themselves any way they wished providing links for their own sales and highlighting gigs etc. In return Avalanche would receive a small fixed fee each week small enough that artists would only need a sale or two each week to cover it. Obviously if enough artists signed up this would still provide a reasonable income for the shop while giving artists a far greater chance of having their music heard.
Though artist led there would be scope to deal with labels too and given our worldwide connections all bands would be welcome. Customers would really like a one stop Scottish website where they can buy everything but that just isn’t possible so a site that they can come to and check out a wide range of Scottish artists is a more realistic option. We will add sections for bands from other countries as Avalanche has always been a Scottish shop with a worldwide reach. Avalanche won’t actively promote the bands beyond saying when they join but we will give our full social media backing to getting people to visit the site and check out what is on offer.
We will also link to other sites we feel an affinity with such as the guys who do the Pine Vinyl cartoons or the Jersey Milk Cow drawings. This will be free and we won’t accept submissions for people wanting links. Having talked this over with only a few people other ideas have also been put forward to utilise our unique social media presence without compromising what we do. For now this seems a good start and while I was not prepared to overly subsidise a shop with online sales if our online presence can make a shop more viable with a decent income I’m very happy to take that route.
Bands continually come to me feeling they are “lost” online so being part of the Avalanche site will immediately give them a profile way beyond what a small band can expect. They will then be able to link to the sites they are using for sales, downloads, merch etc with far greater hope people will “find” them.
So briefly that is it. By coincidence I had somebody contact me from a website design background with an idea not far from this with Avalanche as a hub so hopefully giving each band unique access will not be hard to realise. For now bands should register an interest just so we can gauge at what level we launch the idea and use the shop email firstname.lastname@example.org with the heading Avalanche Artist Website. I can’t see us needing to limit places but we may need to roll it out in stages so we will contact those who register an interest first.
There has been an enormously positive response so far given the frustration bands feel so hopefully this will provide an outlet not just for new bands but for others trying to reach a wider audience. More soon !
Many thanks for all the comments and there is a general consensus as to what people want. Achieving it will be a little harder ! Overall suggestions weren’t a million miles from what we did in the Grassmarket. At the core Avalanche selling new and used vinyl but still some CDs, posters and a large selection of local/Scottish bands. Some loved the vast amount of vinyl we had but more would prefer a more curated selection. The posters have always been popular and unique to Avalanche and a fair number of people would like to see more similar merchandise. Many suggested a larger selection of vintage clothing from Armstrongs especially if no longer close to their Grassmarket shop.
Again people loved the coffee shop but it had been a bit cramped in our Grassmarket shop and of course we were limited in what we were allowed to do. Quite a few people suggested something more of akin to a cafe and adding some hot food especially come winter. Two subjects occurred again and again and were not a surprise but a solution will be something else.
One was that we needed to be central enough so that people didn’t just “pop into FOPP” because it was nearer. I have to say that even when we were in Cockburn Street for the majority of customers especially those based in the new town this was an issue for us. What was in our favour was their poor selection whereas now since all their stock is consigned they can stock anything without risk or need for payment. Obviously such an expensive location is out of the question for us and we will never get the same support from record companies and labels.
The other issue at least has a positive side and that is our reputation for recommending new and in particular local bands’ music. On one hand customers again and again said they felt guilty in that they regularly read the Avalanche blog and followed on social media bur rarely now bought anything happy just to listen on Spotify, bandcamp etc. A surprising number of people especially from outside of Scotland suggested maybe trying to monetise what we do in some other way rather than hope for sales while not compromising our reputation for honest appraisal.
One interesting thing that is a real positive given the difficulty these days of reaching a wider audience is how many people have said that they don’t really bother with social media but do follow Avalanche just so they can keep in touch with what is happening. As many of you will know our twitter feed is wide ranging in its subject matter and to many we seem to act as a filter highlighting things they might be interested in without the hassle of following lots of different accounts. In particular if we highlight something the feedback to the accounts we have mentioned often way exceeds what might be expected from an account ten times our size. Logically this I imagine is because we have 7,500 genuine followers interested in the kind of things we cover be that music, music industry news, cartoons, interesting photos or indeed pictures of bands made from lego !
Clearly there is a more level playing field online for us be that on social media platforms or even on our website. Many have suggested expanding our online shop not just in range but to make it more encompassing in its coverage of Scottish music. There is a big demand for a one stop shop for all things Scottish but whether that can be achieved is another matter.
So again many thanks to everybody who has taken time to email and often pop in to see me and have a chat. Not sure what will be possible but it certainly gives food for thought.
In 30 years of Avalanche it has never been about the money. It was always about the music and more importantly new music. Not necessarily Scottish music just new music. Good, interesting, exciting new music. As someone who started listening to and buying music in the 70s I moved from Wizzard and The Sweet as a kid onto punk and never had a liking for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and their peers. Sure The Beatles were great and as a kid in Liverpool everybody knew someone who knew one of The Beatles but they were for a different generation.
Now three decades later is has to be about the money. It still has to be about the music but it has to be about the music as well. Edinburgh council don’t accept anything but cash for the rates and no shop in Edinburgh is cheap to run. At the same time as we all know music has never been valued less and been so easily available for free. The propping up of HMV and FOPP with terms indies could only dream of has been well documented already as has the fact record companies, labels and artists all now want a share of a cake that gets smaller every year.
Against this backdrop there has to be a plan for the future. Not a survival plan but something more positive than that. So what are the options ? Edinburgh Council has recognised that looking “cool” to tourists is a good thing and have a brochure to that effect out later in the year in which they have asked to feature Avalanche but whether their plans to help with council buildings or have a creative quarter like so many other cities comes to anything is a big “if” indeed.
We could find somewhere not so central with a rateable value under £10K and therefore not pay any rates at all under the council’s scheme to help small businesses. It would give people a base to visit and while I’m not totally against it it would need to be about more than just surviving.
We could find bigger premises in conjunction with other like minded businesses. If this was the case I can no longer take the risk of leading the way. There is interest in this from others and I’d be keen to hear from anybody else who thought they had something to bring to the idea.
We could “go online”. Not in a sad selling on Amazon/eBay kinda way but developing the website to cover Scottish music comprehensively and using our strong social media presence in a way nobody else is really doing at the moment. Again others have expressed an interest in being part of this option without compromising what Avalanche stands for.
Lastly and by no means least we crowdfund or possibly Pledge. I have had offers of investment but what is needed is customers as well as investment and involving customers ticks both boxes. I’m interested in the Pledge model and know Benji Rodgers the founder and president from his indie band days. As part of the council involvement I spoke to various agencies, which is a blog in itself, but when it came to funding even they suggested that with a worldwide brand we should raise funds this way. It would be a case of how we pitched it given we will also be doing more with the label, looking to commission posters and have a couple of other merchandise ideas in the pipeline too.
Whatever we do we will need to sell stuff and therein lies the problem. Dan’s Withered Hand album this year may be the last album we ever sell in any quantity. Scott very kindly tweeted our link for the Owl John album but as soon as Warners own site listed the album at a price we couldn’t match and with a signed poster sales just stopped. We have an indies only James Yorkston vinyl and again James publicised we had it not once but twice but Domino his label are very efficient at taking sales for themselves. And so it goes on. Today We Were Promised Jetpacks put their album up for presale and we were immediately offered tote bags and t-shirts to help compete and the guys tweeted we had them but it is an uphill battle achieving sales anything like they used to be.
Which brings us to the Twilight Sad and their new album. As I said in the last short blog it will be more important than they can ever know. Sure there will be an indies only vinyl but that will be available from the band and their label too. Whether I sell 20 or 200 is completely out of my hands depending on what is available to fans. Again I know I can count on their support but understandably fans will go with the best offer they can get.
And that in turn brings us back to making money. If we can’t sell a lot of these albums with great support from the artists themselves then more than a major rethink is needed. Our destiny has to be in our hands and I do have thoughts on how that can be achieved. I’ve really just touched the surface here but I need to move forward quickly now and encourage folk to add to all the input I’ve already received.
This break has done me a power of good and let me see things in a new way. We hold our own best online now but there is also a huge amount of goodwill towards the shop and in particular a need for a physical presence. Can I just say a general thank you for what have been some very kind comments and apologise for not replying individually to everyone. I really do appreciate the thought people have put in to our future as well as understanding both Avalanche’s history and what makes us tick.