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Drumming out the Bongo… Edinburgh’s evaporating alternative venues – Adam Behr


Edinburgh sometimes feels like a ghost town after the Festival ­– a city with a hangover, figuratively and literally. After a theatrical and musical binge when it feels like every back room and every spare courtyard is a venue, we return to a shrunken version of Auld Reekie. Maybe it seems a bit early in the year to be making the traditional resident’s gripe about the Festival, but it appears that the city is drifting towards a month of plenty whilst the terrain dries up for the rest of the year, at least for smaller to mid-range alternative music venues.

The latest to hit the rocks is The Bongo Club, operating out of Moray House, which has been given notice a year before the end of its lease by its landlord, Edinburgh University, which plans to reassign the building as a home for the Office of Lifelong Learning. The Bongo, a wholly owned subsidiary of the arts and education trust Out of the Blue, has been operating out of Moray House since its move from the rather shabbier New Street premises, since 2003 and has been a valuable city centre mid-level space accessible to established and new acts as well as clubs and comedians in that time. Regular club nights have rubbed alongside higher profile touring acts from DJ Format and Gilles Peterson to Money Mark and Vampire Weekend.

I’m not here to eulogise the place, although I’ve had my fair share of nights out there. Rather, its current plight looks illustrative of a wider trend in Edinburgh. Other spaces for live music have disappeared under comparable circumstances. The Roxy Art House and the Forest Café finished up when the Edinburgh University Settlement charity that owned the buildings went under. They lie empty still. Cabaret Voltaire has been bought by the G1 group, whose promised “wholly new look” has prompted fears of another city centre mainstream space unlikely to support the indie bands and alternative clubs that appeared there previously. Before that, former Edinburgh institution The Venue, a crucial step up from the pub stage for live acts and site of early performances from the likes of The Stone Roses and Jamiroquai, was sold to a property developer. Its last leasees, given what seemed like exponentially rising prices at the time, had next to no hope of securing the place when owners Caledonian Heritable put it up for sale, despite running a successful business out of it. It now houses flats above an art gallery, after dark mutterings and hearsay that nearby residential developments were conditional on a change of use. There is, as a former promoter mentioned, “always another way of making more money out of a building, venues are expensive to run, and it’s bloody hard.”

 The internet static has involved a lot of foreboding about the transformation of Edinburgh’s city centre spots into corporatised stag/hen night venues – slick but empty. Music venues are hardly the easiest money making avenues without substantial backing, which is always going to cause problems for the enthusiast promoter when the hard matters of money and property prices enter the equation. Love and money are uneasy bedfellows and development and regeneration have always had a fraught relationship with the grassroots of music businesses, from clubs to shops to live spaces. Sara Cohen’s substantive account of the musical life of Liverpool, for instance, describes the resentment and tensions as the smaller labels and shops felt ‘trampled’ when the city’s Cavern Quarter Initiative encouraged commercial growth to turn the area into a cultural space.

It’s certainly easy to valorise the ‘rock n roll’ days as well. But before the rationalisation and integration of the live music sector, many venues were run by rather shadier operators. As Martin Cloonan has pointed out, the live music sector has a long history of rather sharp practices and as much as it was a loss to the city that The Venue closed its doors because its enthusiast operators couldn’t match property developers’ wallets, its earlier incarnations involved murky hints of rather more than just rock ‘n’ roll. Presumably no-one wants a return to that sort of operating routine, however amenable to up and coming bands it might have been and the culture of clubs and venues has undoubtedly changed, even though they’re still part of the ‘night time’ economy.

 The point is, however, that a city as a whole needs spaces for acts at different levels, as well as different types of music– the ‘ecology’ that Matt Brennan, Emma Webster and Simon Frith have written about­–  if its musical culture is to flourish. Former promoter Richard Forbes remembers the previous situation.

“There was almost no progression between The Venue and The Playhouse, or the cattleshed at Ingliston”.

 With more stadium tours than ever rolling through town, and a steady stream of high profile gigs at the Castle, it looks as if we’re heading for the opposite state of affairs as the ladder is getting pulled up from the smaller acts with a diminishing roster of smaller spaces to play. In terms of a balance between the corporate and the fly-by-night, a town centre venue like the Bongo, owned and operated by an arts trust in a building leased from a university and hosting start-up clubs and international acts alike resembles something like a utopian middle middle-ground. As ever, utopias are perhaps not built to last. Words of support for the Bongo from figures as diverse as comedian Mark Thomas, MSP Malcom Chisolm and the university’s Rector Iain Mcwhirter have thus far not brought about a reversal of the decision. Lifelong Learning is, of course, also a valuable cultural resource and it’s likely that the university (for whom, I should add in the interests of disclosure, I work) is genuine in the belief that Moray House is the most appropriate place to locate their offices just as it is no doubt the case that the notice to vacate is ‘within the terms’ of the contract.

The university statement adds,  “We have investigated whether there is a suitable alternative building within our estate to host the Bongo Club, but were unsuccessful. As the situation moves forward, we will provide the Bongo Club with all the appropriate help we can in its relocation. We wish the Bongo Club all the best for the future.”

 Warm words, but the club’s manager Ally Hill says he’s getting more of a cold shoulder.

“So far”, he told me, “their delivery of that has come in the form of an e-mail with phone numbers of estate-agents. Not what most people would construe as help.”

He added that he had contacted Estates and Buildings and mentioned the nearby Old Kirk building, currently empty, to be told “they have no specific plans for it but wouldn’t consider us, which flies slightly at odds with their promise to help re-house”.

Obviously the Bongo is looking at plans beyond just a reversal of the decision, but the current uncertainty is having a knock-on effect on any future plans, whichever venue they involve.

“It’s making things hugely difficult. This time of year is when I traditionally book the festival and that’s a full time post’s worth of work, never mind on top of this”, says Hill.

And booking beyond that?

“I can’t consider it”.

It’s possible that the Bongo will find an appropriate space, although likely that they’ll suffer in the process. They have, after all, moved before and their identity isn’t just tied to the bricks and mortar. And perhaps G1 will address the physical structural issues with Cabaret Voltaire but leave its character intact in the shiny new space. But the prevailing winds in Edinburgh are blowing hard against this type of space for live music and clubbing and whatever the result of the current campaigns the live music ecosystem in the capital city may look rather different after the summer. Still, we’ve always got the Festival.

Adam Behr

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