Musicians are like footballers

twilight sad - fourteenOne thing that has changed is that when music is new to somebody they only buy the music they love. Whether new music or simply new to the customer it doesn’t matter so for instance if I recommend The Twilight Sad to somebody who has never heard of them out of 5 people one may not be keen, one may buy but the other three will say how good it is and how they will go away and listen to more. Especially with local bands there was a time when the only way to hear more was to buy but now of course there are several options.

Often people make lists on their phones of things we have recommended and these days may not even feel obliged to buy anything at all. Of course this is not always the case and only yesterday a customer from Greece, in especially for the second Broken Records album on vinyl, asked for a recommendation and after listening to the Oran Mor Session eventually plumped for the limited Twilight Sad RSD double LP.

damon + jarvis footballThis is a problem not just for shops but for small bands trying to build a fan base. The constant talk of making the most of superfans is all good if you are an established band but not so good for bands starting out. On the other hand there is no reason for people to spend their money on music they simply like. The one explanation that artists seem to understand is comparing someone who is a talented musician with somebody who is a talented footballer. Somebody may be a good footballer while not playng professionally but they would never expect their workmates to all come along to watch them. Similarly these days people simply have other things to do (even if that is watching 6 episodes of Breaking Bad !) than go along and watch a band be “quite good”. They might find time to give their music a listen but pay for it !

girl who cried wolfTo be fair this is why I recommend only a limited amount of things each year and we can still have successes as Laurie Cameron proved. I find having an album of the week simply daft. Also if I’m honest while those whose job it is to constantly claim there is lots of great new music out there do so, the truth is that there isn’t. More importantly now the customer can listen to anything before buying they agree. Some things will appeal to a niche audience and that is fine but there aren’t many albums each year which we can play in the shop and guarantee to have people coming to the counter asking what we are playing. Clearly this is not a great business model for selling. However if we sold huge amounts of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin reissues or even god forbid Adele there would be a safety net there but of course we don’t. Much as I love Joy Division and The Smiths when kids do buy them a part of me wishes they were buying something at least a little more recent like The National.

Playing in a band is a great hobby to have as is playing football but online all bands are the same and people simply don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the average to find the few gems. Also there is if truth be told only a limited number of folk out there with any interest in new music. Take away all the Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith fans, add to them all those who go no further than the Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines and there aren’t a lot of people left. At the height of music sales the average person only bought six albums a year. Now it is down to one or two.

Quickbeam album coverOf course bands who do reach a certain level then often clog up the small arena that is left with solo or side projects and of course if they split up several more bands can be spawned. That new artist trying to get their first break simply doesn’t have a chance. If you are as good as Withered Hand, There Will Be Fireworks, Star Wheel Press, Quickbeam and most recently Laurie Cameron we may indeed be able to sell your album along with a handful of other artists customers may not have heard of. Interestingly more and more we find that customers have not heard of the “big names” like Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad or even  Belle & Sebastian ! When a customer asks for Scottish post rock we would assume they had heard of Mogwai. Now we have to ask.

Incorporating all this into any sort of sensible business plan hasn’t been easy but hopefully there is now a way forward more of which at a later date.

Avalanche blog

avalanche-logo-use NMEFor a variety of reasons I’ve had to look through old Avalanche blogs recently and was amazed to find my self reading over them not knowing what was coming next ! It often seems a long time ago now. People still refer to the blog a lot, even old posts and I can now sort of see why. There is quite a lot of “this isn’t good” or “if we don’t do something bad things will happen ” and to be fair to myself a fair amount of “this is what we should do to stop the bad things happening”.

I say that because simply moaning isn’t good enough if you don’t have positive ways of moving forward. Whether I was talking about the music industry and record shops in particular or the high street and the Grasmarket in particular I simply felt that wrong paths were being taken that would eventually prove disastrous not specifically for a record shop in the Grassmarket trying to support local music but disastrous in the far bigger picture.

What I didn’t predict was the “vinyl revival” which has very much muddied the waters and the level of support that would be given to HMV/FOPP by the music industry and landlords in order to make them a viable business.

More recently I felt that a blog that simply pointed out how I had been right about things or simply recorded how bad things had got served no positive purpose without some new way forward. Twitter is great for not letting the current situations be ignored but anything more lengthy seemed pointless. The old ideas still remained valid but had been universally ignored by those with the ability to instigate them so until I was able to bring about change myself or indeed things changed to make new ways forward possible there was nothing left but to look for those positive ways.

So after several false starts I’m fairly confident we have a plan in place that will make a difference. What will follow is a series of blogs on the current state of things clearly from a personal perspective but they will explain how ideas have been formed and plans put in place. Issues can be very different now in other parts of the UK while in some matters problems are indeed global. What will then follow will be a solution for what Avalanche faces both locally and globally. Others may have a model that works for them but so far I’ve seen nothing that would help Avalanche. I have no interest in purely concentrating on the past or indeed relocating to London !      

King’s Stables Road planning application and the Grassmarket

A planning application for the King’s Stables Road site has now been lodged and it can be viewed here

king's stables road outlineNot too much more can be said that hasn’t been said already in previous blogs. Edinburgh Council clearly understood what was needed here both in  supporting the arts and improving footfall in the area and instead took the money for a hotel and student flats being the main focus. The only surprise is that even now the developers are unable to name their hotel partner despite promising it would not be a budget hotel and would be declared in time for the planning application and that the much reduced arts facility still doesn’t have a taker when you would imagine there would be arts organisations out there prepared to sell their souls to developers in return for free space.

In terms of objecting to the planning application it is hard to see what can be said. Edinburgh Council have ignored their own brief for the site so they are not now going to refuse permission on that basis. The developers have certainly paid too much for the site so unless they try to drop their price at some point I can’t see how the council will suddenly have a change of heart and revert back to their original demands. It would appear that so far there have been no comments at all. It would certainly still do no harm to object on the basis it does not comply with the council’s original brief and that in particular the arts complex concept fails both in its diminished size and in being an attractuion.

grassmarket emptyAs for the Grassmarket which would benefit hugely from footfall being dragged through from the Victoria Street/Cowgate end to the West Port and King’s Stables Road it seems to have been abandoned by the council completely now. Plans to finally have some attractions at Christmas were voted down even for a trial week never mind the month envisaged on the basis of complaints from a very small but vocal number of residents. While footfall in November was generally disappointing everywhere in the Grassmarket where figures were already at an all time low footfall was down 47.2%  month on month and  down 25.1%  year on year.

These are huge drops and while it would be inconceivable that December’s figures would also drop is has to be remembered how low those December figures are with even Underbelly saying in 2014 “Footfall in the Grassmarket is less in December than in February. We need to bring some of those 2.6 million people who passed through our two sites at St Andrew Square and East Princes Street Gardens to the Old Town.” To put that in persective footfall in the Grassmarket this November was 111,319 and that figure is taken from the far busier end and includes all the night time traffic which of course is of no use to shops.

Edinburgh Christmas lightsMore and more Edinburgh Council is happy to have pop ups appear during all the best trading months but leave shops paying rent and rates all year round. At the same time the council works with Essential Edinburgh and Underbelly to do all it can to keep visitors and shoppers within a very small part of the wider city centre at Christmas and New Year. Without doubt the Grassmarket is not the only area to suffer and in what is already tough times on the high street to let some pick and choose when to trade while discriminating against shops trading all year can only have dire consequences in the future.

Arts and Culture at the Royal High School Hotel

Just a few of the 40+ arts organisations David Orr has worked with

Just a few of the 40+ arts organisations David Orr has worked with

One of the unfortunate consequences of the ongoing saga of whether the Old Royal High School will be diminished by the hotel wings being added and if a music school would be a better choice is that an important part of the equation has been forgotten. Yes adding the hotel will take the school off the at risk register but little has been said by either side on the benefits of the well documented support Rosewood and the Urbanist Group give to the arts. 

The benefits are indeed fourfold. First of all the school will be used to showcase the best that Edinburgh and Scotland has to offer covering all artistic mediums which of course includes music. I’m told there will be at least three venues on the site from a small intimate room with 60 seats to a much larger room catering for 300+. The school will be used for exhibitions and also for the sale of the best Scotland has to offer in the arts. The school will therefore not only be saved but providing a valuable home to the artistic community.

witheredhandnewgodscoverSecondly it will be putting all of this in front of some very rich, famous and indeed influential people. I can relate any number of stories of how well connected people who have come into Avalanche have helped bands I’ve recommended one of the best being the famous American actor who loved Withered Hand so much he not only came to see Dan when he played in LA but still takes Dan’s CD with him when in a movie to see whether he can get his music into the film ! Only last month I had a young girl in from Beijing obviously one of the new wealthy Chinese middle class who came in to buy a Scottish album on vinyl as a wedding present for her brother and ended up buying every album I recommended and was so pleased with the time I spent explaining the band’s music to her she had her photo taken in the shop and could not have been more pleased. Having such a clientele literally on the doorstep will be a fantastic boost for all the arts not just music. 

rosewood logoThirdly Rosewood have a worldwide reputation from their established hotels for supporting the arts and as we all know there is a worldwide interest in Scotland so there is a synergy there that can not be underestimated. Also in these days of endless cutbacks they have very deep pockets indeed and will not skimp on promoting and sponsoring the Scottish arts. The Urbanist Group themselves are no slouches when it come to sponsoring the arts either and I would defy even the most cynical arts journalist to meet with joint founder David Orr and not acknowledge his passion.

Fourthly the school will finally be open to the public, as will of course be the hotel’s bars and restaurants, but given the school has been a public building for so long it is a tragedy that the stunning panoramic view from the school’s portico has been unavailable, an added irony with so much importance placed on the view to the school.

There is of course much more from Rosewood’s policy of supporting local businesses to their Slow Food & Living Markets and as I’ve said a lot of this has been lost in this constant talk of the hotel wings. For those of us not so precious about the views and we are all entitled to an opinion the economic benefits alone make a good case for the hotel. There may be 2,000 people prepared to sign a petition but that is a very small percentage of Edinburgh’s population and the truth is a large part of the general public are in favour just by no means as vocally.

You may quite rightfully ask why more has not been made of all this. From what I can make out both sides have concentrated on the nitty gritty of the planning application given that that is where much of the detail lies. On the other hand I’m told planning submissions are normally very general with regard to the arts as anything in the submission developers can be held to. Most developers as I know from the King’s Stables Road site are indeed looking to do as little as posible to fulfill their arts obligation but in the case of the Old Royal High School hotel this is certainly not the case. What the music school intervention has done is make it very hard for the arts and culture sector to support the hotel without seeming to be taking sides. Should the hotel application be successful I think you would see a very different picture emerge very quickly.

Nobody is claiming the hotel is the perfect solution, but it is the best solution and will without a shadow of a doubt benefit the arts community far more than any other option.  

Haters Gonna Hate – World-class Hotel and Royal High School Arts Centre

RHS planSince being persuaded to help with the proposed arts complex for King’s Stables Road I’ve come to understand gradually the world of developers and Edinburgh Council together with the arts community and general public’s response to development with or without an arts leaning. It is something that to be honest had passed me by previously but in a way that helped as I had no previous baggage of causes lost or words spoken. Then when at the last minute the development I was involved with lost the King’s Stables Road site to a developer clearly only interested in a hotel and student flats after all that had been said to me by Edinburg Council there was immediately a sense of injustice that I have to say so far hasn’t abated with time.

I was drawn into a world of budget versus luxury or high-end quirky hotels. An arts community divided into many factions mostly, and many would say understandably, only interested in their own specific needs. Arts journalists rather than artists tend to look at “the big picture”. And Edinburgh Council were everything people complained about and more despite having an awful lot of good people working for them. I understood the retail problems but this was a whole new world.

Consequently I crossed paths with Bruce Hare and Duddingston House Properties firstly over King’s Stables Road and then briefly when asking about the Odeon. What I have to say was Bruce Hare was the only developer I spoke to who took the arts complex idea for King’s Stable’s Road seriously and showed genuine enthusiam for what could be achieved. When I plucked up courage to ask what was happening with the Odeon he seemed determined that he would find somebody who would keep it as an entetainment venue. That has now recemtly proved to be the case. So I was more than surprised when I saw how the succesful bid to turn the Royal High School site into a world class hotel while saving and restoring the school was being portrayed.

I was further confused when the Music School option appeared. I wasn’t an expert on these things but from what I had learned over King’s Stables Road the hotel bid had been successful against 50+ others so not only would the developers be given plenty of time to get planning but also should they eventually fail there would be other developers waiting in the wings with far more rights than the Music School. Those behind the Music School were clearly well versed in planning matters so I just assumed there was something I had missed. Then a couple of days ago there was a statement from the hotel developers confirming all I had thought.

Clearly the best thing to do now was accept there was going to be a hotel and come together to make the very best of the massive opportunity there was for the Royal High School itself to become a centre for the arts. Alas no. The response was to start a petition. You do start to get the feeling that there is a small group of well educated, arts and heritage orientated people who I suspect could afford to stay in the proposed six star hotel who think they know what is best for the rest of us. The building has been empty and allowed to get into disrepair for almost 50 years and what is needed as soon as possible is something to happen and not a campaign to stop things happening.

When Edinburgh Council asked me to get involved with the developers looking at King’s Stables Road they made it clear they were fed up with being promised arts facilities that once the proposed hotels and flats had been built never materialised. That obviously made it all the more galling when the preferred bid was one that clearly would follow that pattern. Even now they have no plan beyond dedicating two floors of a five storey building to “the arts” and their planning application is due this month.

On the other hand there is no doubt about Bruce Hare’s enthusiasm for the arts and Rosewood the hotel operator has a track record that speaks for itself. I don’t think anybody thinks the hotel wings are perfect but they are the best solution given all the constraints and opinions that had to be cosidered. In particular from what I have read the number of rooms and therefore the size of the wings was determined by the land owner and the look was determined by those wanting something that “blended in” more than more orthodox buildings.

So there is an opportunity to restore the iconic Royal High School to its former glory and make it a centre for the arts with a financial backing much needed in these days of so many cuts. I’ve been told (because I asked) there will be three venues catering for betwen 65 to 375 people always available to the public. The school itself will be a public facility but at no cost to the public and in fact the financial burden of trying to look after such an old building will be removed. Hundreds of jobs will be created and local businesses in particular will benefit from the custom of both the hotel and its patrons. On the downside if you find the right spot and look at the right angle it won’t look like it was meant to in the 19th century. Having recently visited Calton Hill and searched out the views to Calton Hill the reality is far removed from the idealistic picture so eloquently espoused by some.

Going by the surveys the hotel already has the support of the general public just not the heritage activists and the more vocal arts community. Taylor Swift might indeed choose to stay at Rosewood Edinburgh and in her immortal words the “haters gonna hate” but it is time for the rest of us to get behind an idea that is good for the arts, good for the tax payer and a real boost to both the Edinburgh and Scottish economies.

The hotel’s arts and culture strategy can be found here near the top of the list – well worth looking at

Everything and Everybody’s Getting Older (part two)

tron kirkThe original plan had been to have a presence in the Tron Church when it reopened in September and work that in tandem with our shop in St Mary’s Street. Unfortunately the Tron market had a change in their own plan and decided to not open until November and have a Christmas market. It was also decided that selling music wasn’t Christmassy enough though obviously given the delay we had already started to look at alternatives.

The high street has changed beyond recognition in the last decade especially with regard to spending patterns.There was a time when students would be in as we opened at 9.30am killing time until their next lecture when of course now they would spend that time on their phones. Again while before people came in the shop at lunchtimes to get out of the office and away from their computer screens they now spend that time in the office on social media. Most business is now often squeezed into an hour or two after 4pm as people leave work and uni. Even the many visitors we get from the UK and abroad seem to choose this time to visit.

avalanche-logo-use NMENow while this leaves time to deal will online orders, emails and social media as I said in the last post I really have to look at how my time can best be used. It is great to have time to chat with customers who have travelled half way around the world to visit the shop and lovely to chat to the many other record shops that visit when in Edinburgh but I have to consider how sensible that now is. We had more students in this year than we have had for a few years now and the posters were incredibly popular but for all the vinyl revival they seemed to show little interest and those that did whereas before they would tell me of their local record shop by far the majority now spoke of visiting HMV which is understandable given the number of stores they have and their new found love of stocking vinyl.

I’m looking at a couple of possible things leading up to Christmas but all things considered I’ll be pushing any decision making forward more of which later today.

Everything and Everybody’s Getting Older

I’m asked a lot about what Avalanche’s plans are which in a way is nice as it assumes we don’t just stay still and are always looking to move forward but the honest answer at the moment is I’m not sure. I am fairly sure the simple shop format isn’t the best use of  my time or what Avalanche does best and can achieve but that isn’t to dismiss the shop completely.

We have options in St Mary’s Street and I have other possibilities to consider which are mostly music related but it makes little sense to focus on the one area in which we are disadvantaged at every turn. I don’t think there is any doubt next year will be very different for Avalanche and the one thing I want to do is concentrate on the things I enjoy. I know what that isn’t and I just have to decide what it is.

I can be as nostalgic as the next man and I’m certainly old enough but the focus is now so heavily on vinyl reissues, anniversary tours and bands reforming that new music hardly gets a chance and then depressingly when you search it out so much is really not very good at all. It’s going to be an interesting couple of months but I wouldn’t have it any other way ! 

King’s Stables Road, Royal High School and Edinburgh retail

As Edinburgh’s figures for August show all is not well with Edinburgh retail with this from Essential Edinburgh

Edinburgh retail sales were down -4.8% in August 2015 compared to this month in 2014. This means that Edinburgh’s retailers performed worse than their Scottish peers as the Scottish average fell only -2.4% on a year earlier; in the rest of the UK however, sales were up a marginal 0.1%.

king's stables road outlineIt was the same story in July and of course the decline of footfall and sales in the Grassmarket in particular have been well documented for several years now. With Avalanche having a presence in the Tron Church and then St Mary’s Street in the last year I’ve seen first hand that the Grassmarket is not the only area to suffer. For businesses footfall is irrelevant and what has to matter is spend. Even then there is a widening gap as visitors continue to buy food and drink (not a huge surprise) but then cut back on non-food items. When I first became involved with what would be built on the council site in King’s Stables Road I was surprised at the general consensus that something as high end as possible was needed for the arts complex, flats and hotel. As a kid from a council house in Liverpool it didn’t sit well with me.

However the reality of the situation soon became clear. We needed to compete with the many other cities both UK and worldwide actively chasing the high end market and the associated spend and for too long Edinburgh had just relied on its reputation as a cultural city. Without a doubt Edinburgh had a head start but it was clearly starting to be left behind by others maybe not hampered by the focus here on August.  I still pushed for attractions that would appeal to all incomes but the argument for a top class hotel was strong. Sadly it looks like it is not to be though the planning as yet is not confirmed.

While in the Tron I understood for the first time why Edinburgh has so many tartan tat shops. It is because visitors buy it. Exposure to The Royal Mile soon made that clear and you also have to question the council’s decision to allow so many traders selling silver made in Asia but “designed in Scotland”. Really !!!

Carson-Clark-GalleryPeople do expect quality when they come to Edinburgh and quality there certainly is but often pushed into side streets or out of the city centre. Our move to St Mary’s Street enlightened me even more. We have the Carson Clark Gallery next door selling antique maps and prints and forced to leave the Canongate by a vastly increased rent from the council when it is exactly the sort of shop people hope to see on The Royal Mile. Also though there is a Travelodge at the bottom of the street which traders tell me brings them very little business indeed. I too found this though I have to admit that recent concerts from King Crimson and The Damned did bring custom as fans stayed there. What was interesting during the Festival was how many visitors said they had had no problem getting cheap accommodation. Now I’m all for young families and couples being able to afford to visit Edinburgh on a budget. That has to be a good thing. It would now seem though that Edinburgh has enough budget hotels for its needs.

RHS planWhich brings me to The Royal High School. Much has been made of saving the views it affords and I realised I had never seen these views. I do of course see Calton Hill every day and to be honest always considered it to look a bit cluttered and messy. I started to ask others and they too had not seen the view or were even sure what was meant. Now both sides in the debate over the establishment of a world class hotel take the views seriously but maybe they are not quite as important as some think to the people of Edinburgh. What has to be considered also is the undoubted  economic benefits of such a hotel. The STV gifs of before and after wee very good but maybe to show balance they could have some fancy graphics showing the economic benefit to Edinburgh with and without the hotel. I do understand the significance of The Royal High School and those concerned I’m sure mean well but they have no more right to their views than anybody else. Once there is talk of Chinese ownership though they reach stickier ground. Nobody suggested boycotting Jenners when it was bought buy a Chinese conglomerate !

With King’s Stables Road there was a fantastic opportunity to create something special that would have promoted the arts and much improved the footfall through the Grassmarket. Sadly it very much looks like that opportunity is lost unless Edinburgh Council  go back to the vision they themselves had for the site. I don’t think anybody thinks the plans for the Royal High School are perfect but again to say that no notice of previous comments from concerned bodies has been taken is blatantly untrue just from what little I have seen and does the objectors no credit.

It will I think send out a real positive statement to the world and it will be a real shame if planning is granted and then things are dragged out even longer by a public inquiry. Edinburgh’s economy needs a boost sooner rather than later and hopefully this will not be the only project to show Edinburgh is not resting on its laurels.        

Documentary about the Glasgow music scene of the ‘90s

Feel free to reply

Hi there Avalanche,

 I’m writing from Still Films in Dublin.

 We’re an independent film production company making a documentary about the Glasgow music scene of the ‘90s.

 More specifically, we’re bringing Mogwai and some of that crew, Chemikal Underground etc, down memory lane and tracing the steps of some of their earlier shows etc.

We’d love to connect with you about your experiences and get some genuine insight into Scottish indie in the mid ‘90s. Or perhaps you can point us in the direction of some people who were ‘on the scene’ a lot back then and might have some interesting material or contacts?

We’re looking for material such as videos, photos, flyers, posters, ticket stubs etc, from that era. We want to use as much authentic material as possible to make sure we capture the spirit and feeling of those days as best we can.

We’re hoping to find pics of bands, live shows, parties (after parties, gaff parties, club nights, DJs, record shops etc), any material about the scene including posters and tickets, but also pics of Glasgow in the ‘90s.

 We are also particularly interested in a small music festival in Mauron, France, in 1997 where Mogwai, The Delgados, and Arab Strap played. It was called ‘Ils ne Mauron Pas’, if you happen to know anything about that, or know anyone that might, we would love to know.

 Thank you very much for your time and help.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.



Avalanche Recommends

While more and more people use the Avalanche site and our social media platforms as a resource to discover Scottish bands they may not have heard of we now sell less and less for the very obvious reason that music is now so easily available for free online. Visitors to the shop will often comment how much they have enjoyed an artist we have recommended or indeed say they regularly check to see what we are saying but rarely will they have bought from us. For a while we lost out quite heavily to the artists selling online but it is clear from talking to people now that these days mostly people just stream and don’t buy from Avalanche or the artist.

There are of course still those folk who do buy from Avalanche both in the shop and online and I thank them for that. However now is the time I think to move on and accept that the financial rewards for supporting Scottish artists will be minimal. It is a regular occurrence that we are asked in the shop to recommend bands, not necessarily even always Scottish ones, and people frantically type all the names into their phone to listen to later. If I’m lucky they will buy an Avalanche t-shirt  and possibly one album as a memento.

I think what brought it home recently was when a young girl from Zurich had me play a whole bunch of Scottish stuff and then bought all the albums she had liked something that would have happened regularly a decade ago but now happens so rarely. Clearly there is now so much music available all of which social media says is brilliant when of course it is not that people still struggle to find new music or even older bands they have missed. It isn’t just Scottish bands we are asked about. We are of course well known for selling Bright Eyes, Neutral Milk Hotel, Godspeed and many other bands but for now this new Avalanche Recommends section will concentrate mostly but not exclusively on current Scottish artists that are not so well known. Who knows we may even occasionally sell something !

You will find the drop down list of artists as one of the headings on the blog. For now I’ll simply compile a list and then as time permits will add content.