Petition pressures City of Edinburgh Council to review clause affecting live music scene

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Phoenix Bar on Broughton Street in Edinburgh.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Live music venues in Edinburgh, Scotland are awaiting a review later this year on the 2005 licensing policy, which places limitations on the volume of amplified music in the city. Investigating into how the policy is affecting the Edinburgh music scene, a group of Wikinews writers interviewed venue owners, academics, the City of Edinburgh Council, and local band The Mean Reds to get different perspectives on the issue.

Since the clause was introduced by the government of the city of Edinburgh, licensed venues have been prohibited from allowing music to be amplified to the extent it is audible to nearby residential properties. This has affected the live music scene, with several venues discontinuing regular events such as open mic nights, and hosting bands and artists.

Currently, the licensing policy allows licensing standards officers to order a venue to cease live music on any particular night, based on a single noise complaint from the public. The volume is not electronically measured to determine if it breaches a decibel volume level. Over roughly the past year there have been 56 separate noise complaints made against 18 venues throughout the city.

A petition to amend the clause has garnered over 3,000 signatures, including the support of bar owners, musicians, and members of the general public.

On November 17, 2014, the government's Culture and Sport Committee hosted an open forum meeting at Usher Hall. Musicians, venue owners and industry professionals were encouraged to provide their thoughts on how the council could improve live music in the city. Ways to promote live music as a key cultural aspect of Edinburgh were discussed and it was suggested that it could be beneficial to try and replicate the management system of live music of other global cities renowned for their live music scenes. However, the suggestion which prevailed above all others was simply to review the existing licensing policy.

Councillor (Cllr) Norma Austin-Hart, Vice Convenor of the Culture and Sport Committee, is responsible for the working group Music is Audible. The group is comprised of local music professionals, and councillors and officials from Edinburgh Council. A document circulated to the Music is Audible group stated the council aims "to achieve a balance between protecting residents and supporting venues".

Interior of the main auditorium of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Following standard procedure, when a complaint is made, a Licensing Standards Officer (LSO) is dispatched to investigate the venue and evaluate the level of noise. If deemed to be too loud, the LSO asks the venue to lower the noise level. According to a document provided by the City of Edinburgh Council, "not one single business has lost its license or been closed down because of a breach to the noise condition in Edinburgh."

In the Scotland Licensing Policy (2005), Clause 6.2 states, "where the operating plan indicates that music is to be played in a premises, the board will consider the imposition of a condition requiring amplified music from those premises to be inaudible in residential property." According to Cllr Austin-Hart, the high volume of tenement housing in the city centre makes it difficult for music to be inaudible.

During the Edinburgh Festival Fringe during the summer, venues are given temporary licences that allow them to operate for the duration of the festival and under the condition that "all amplified music and vocals are controlled to the satisfaction of the Director of Services for Communities", as stated in a document from the council. During the festival, there is an 11 p.m. noise restriction on amplified music, and noise may be measured by Environmental Health staff using sophisticated equipment. Noise is restricted to 65dB(A) from the facades of residential properties; however, complaints from residents still occur. In the document from the council, they note these conditions and limitations for temporary venues would not necessarily be appropriate for permanent licensed premises.

Busker sitting in sealed window of St Cecilia's Hall on Niddry Street, Edinburgh during 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Image: Brian McNeil.

In a phone interview, Cllr Austin-Hart expressed her concern about the unsettlement in Edinburgh regarding live music. She referenced the closure of the well-known Picture House, a venue that has provided entertainment for over half a century, and the community's opposition to commercial public bar chain Wetherspoon buying the venue. "[It] is a well-known pub that does not play any form of music", Cllr Austin-Hart said. "[T]hey feel as if it is another blow to Edinburgh's live music". "[We] cannot stop Wetherspoon's from buying this venue; we have no control over this."

The venue has operated under different names, including the Caley Palais which hosted bands such as Queen and AC/DC. The Picture House opened in 2008.

One of the venues which has been significantly affected by the licensing laws is the Phoenix Bar, on Broughton Street. The bar's owner, Sam Roberts, was induced to cease live music gigs in March, following a number of noise complaints against the venue. As a result, Ms Roberts was inspired to start the aforementioned petition to have Clause 6.2 of the licensing policy reviewed, in an effort to remove the 'inaudibility' statement that is affecting venues and the music scene.

"I think we not only encourage it, but actively support the Edinburgh music scene," Ms Roberts says of the Phoenix Bar and other venues, "the problem is that it is a dying scene."

When Ms Roberts purchased the venue in 2013, she continued the existing 30-year legacy established by the previous owners of hosting live acts. Representative of Edinburgh's colourful music scene, a diverse range of genres have been hosted at the venue. Ms Roberts described the atmosphere when live music acts perform at her venue as "electric". "The whole community comes together singing, dancing and having a party. Letting their hair down and forgetting their troubles. People go home happy after a brilliant night out. All the staff usually join in; the pub comes alive". However licensing restrictions have seen a majority of the acts shut down due to noise complaints. "We have put on jazz, blues, rock, rockabilly, folk, celtic and pop live acts and have had to close everything down." "Residents in Edinburgh unfortunately know that the Council policy gives them all the rights in the world, and the pubs and clubs none", Ms Roberts clarified.

Discussing how inaudibility has affected venues and musicians alike, Ms Roberts stated many pubs have lost profit through the absence of gigs, and trying to soundproof their venue. "It has put many musicians out of work and it has had an enormous effect on earnings in the pub. [...] Many clubs and bars have been forced to invest in thousands of pounds worth of soundproofing equipment which has nearly bankrupted them, only to find that even the tiniest bit of noise can still force a closure. It is a ridiculously one-sided situation." Ms Roberts feels inaudibility is an unfair clause for venues. "I think it very clearly favours residents in Edinburgh and not business. [...] Nothing is being done to support local business, and closing down all the live music venues in Edinburgh has hurt financially in so many ways. Not only do you lose money, you lose new faces, you lose the respect of the local musicians, and you begin to lose all hope in a 'fair go'."

With the petition holding a considerable number of signatures, Ms Roberts states she is still sceptical of any change occurring. "Over three thousand people have signed the petition and still the council is not moving. They have taken action on petitions with far fewer signatures." Ms Roberts also added, "Right now I don't think Edinburgh has much hope of positive change".

Ms Roberts seems to have lost all hope for positive change in relation to Edinburgh's music scene, and argues Glasgow is now the regional choice for live music and venues. "[E]veryone in the business knows they have to go to Glasgow for a decent scene. Glasgow City Council get behind their city."

Ms Martina Cannon, member of local band The Mean Reds, said a regular 'Open Mic Night' she hosted at The Parlour on Duke Street has ceased after a number of complaints were made against the venue. "It was a shame because it had built up some momentum over the months it had been running". She described financial loss to the venue from cancelling the event, as well as loss to her as organiser of the event.

The Mean Reds at the Blind Poet, Edinburgh during Saturday Wolf Sessions, November 8, 2014.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Sneaky Pete's music bar and club, owned by Nick Stewart, is described on its website as "open and busy every night". "Many clubs could be defined as bars that host music, but we really are a music venue that serves drinks", Mr Stewart says. He sees the live music scene as essential for maintaining nightlife in Edinburgh not only because of the economic benefit but more importantly because of the cultural significance. "Music is one of the important things in life. [...] it's emotionally and intellectually engaging, and it adds to the quality of life that people lead."

Sneaky Pete's has not been immune to the inaudibility clause. The business has spent about 20,000 pounds on multiple soundproofing fixes designed to quell complaints from neighboring residents. "The business suffered a great deal in between losing the option to do gigs for fear of complaints, and finishing the soundproofing. As I mentioned, we are a music business that serves drinks, not a bar that also has music, so when we lose shows, we lose a great deal of trade", said Mr Stewart.

He believes there is a better way to go about handling complaints and fixing public nuisances. "The local mandatory condition requiring 'amplified music and vocals' to be 'inaudible' should be struck from all licenses. The requirement presupposes that nuisance is caused by music venues, when this may not reasonably be said to be the case. [...] Nuisance is not defined in the Licensing Act nor is it defined in the Public Health Act (Scotland) 2008. However, The Consultation on Guidance to accompany the Statutory Nuisance Provisions of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 states that 'There are eight key issues to consider when evaluating whether a nuisance exists[...]'".

The eight key factors are impact, locality, time, frequency, duration, convention, importance, and avoidability. Stewart believes it is these factors that should be taken into consideration by LSOs responding to complaints instead of the sole factor of "audibility". He believes multiple steps should be taken before considering revocation of licenses. Firstly, LSOs should determine whether a venue is a nuisance based on the eight factors. Then, the venue should have the opportunity to comply by using methods such as changing the nature of their live performances (e.g. from hard rock to acoustic rock), changing their hours of operation, or soundproofing. If the venue still fails to comply, then a board can review their license with the goal of finding more ways to bring them into compliance as opposed to revoking their license.

Nick Stewart has discussed his proposal at length with Music is Audible and said he means to present his proposal to the City of Edinburgh Council.

Dr Adam Behr, a music academic and research associate at the University of Edinburgh who has conducted research on the cultural value of live music, says live music significantly contributes to the economic performance of cities. He said studies have shown revenue creation and the provision of employment are significant factors which come about as a result of live music. A 2014 report by UK Music showed the economic value generated by live music in the UK in 2013 was £789 million and provided the equivalent of 21,600 full time jobs.

As the music industry is international by nature, Behr says this complicates the way revenue is allocated, "For instance, if an American artist plays a venue owned by a British company at a gig which is promoted by a company that is part British owned but majority owned by, say, Live Nation (a major international entertainment company) — then the flow of revenues might not be as straightforward as it seems [at] first."

Despite these complexities, Behr highlighted the broader advantages, "There are, of course, ancillary benefits, especially for big gigs [...] Obviously other local businesses like bars, restaurants and carparks benefit from increased trade", he added.

Behr criticised the idea of making music inaudible and called it "unrealistic". He said it could limit what kind of music can be played at venues and could force vendors to spend a large amount of money on equipment that enables them to meet noise cancelling requirements. He also mentioned the consequences this has for grassroots music venues as more 'established' venues within the city would be the only ones able to afford these changes.

Alongside the inaudibility dispute has been the number of sites that have been closing for the past number of years. According to Dr Behr, this has brought attention to the issue of retaining live music venues in the city and has caused the council to re-evaluate its music strategy and overall cultural policy.

The Parlour, Edinburgh.
Image: Brian McNeil.

This month, Dr Behr said he is to work on a live music census for Edinburgh's Council which aims to find out what types of music is played, where, and what exactly it brings to the city. This is in an effort to get the Edinburgh city council to see any opportunities it has with live music and the importance of grassroots venues. The census is similar to one conducted in Victoria, Australia in 2012 on the extent of live music in the state and its economic benefit.

As for the solution to the inaudibility clause, Behr says the initial step is dialogue, and this has already begun. "Having forum discussion, though, is a start — and an improvement", he said. "There won't be an overnight solution, but work is ongoing to try to find one that can stick in the long term."

Beverley Whitrick, Strategic Director of Music Venue Trust, said she is unable to comment on her work with the City of Edinburgh Council or on potential changes to the inaudibility clause in the Licensing Policy. However, she says, "I have been asked to assess the situation and make recommendations in September".

According to The Scotsman, the Council is working toward helping Edinburgh's cultural and entertainment scene. Deputy Council Leader Sandy Howat said views of the entertainment industry needs to change and the Council will no longer consider the scene as a "sideline".

Senior members of the Council, The Scotsman reported, aim to review the planning of the city to make culture more of a priority. Howat said, "If you're trying to harness a living community and are creating facilities for people living, working and playing then culture should form part of that."

The review of the inaudibility clause in the Licensing Policy is set to be reviewed near the end of 2016 but the concept of bringing it forward to this year is still under discussion.

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