Is the Edinburgh Festival Any Good For Music?

Pale Imitation Digiflyer

You better get used to that image up there, because it’s going to be the first image on the blog for most of August. I apologise, but when trying to promote gigs in the maelstrom of the Edinburgh Festival, you kinda have to make the most of any and all outlets available to you.

It’s a weird one, the Festival, because it can be a total nightmare in many ways, but this year looks like it might be the best August in years in terms of the presence of local music and the opportunities for under-the-radar Scottish bands. This post is going to be a bit of a re-write of this article I wrote for the Scotsman recently, except where that was targeted more at tourists, this will be written more from a local point of view.

On the face of it, the Festival is a fucking disaster, honestly. I’ve tried putting on gigs in Edinburgh in August before, and it’s a nightmare. You’d think there would be such a great potential new audience, what with the population apparently doubling during the Festival, but reaching them is pretty bloody tough.

There are so many flyers and posters around for Fringe stuff that anything you put up is either overwhelmed by the sheer volume of other stuff, or instantly torn down and replaced by some twat working for a bunch of home counties fuckwits whose parents were too modern and middle class to let their little Ollie know that he didn’t actually have any fucking talent after all.  On the other hand, reaching your own natural audience in the city can be a challenge, as a lot of people either retreat from the Festival altogether, or take the chance to see something exotic from out of town while they can.

I’ve had success and failure doing this myself in the past, but the response to the awesome Retreat Festival for the last few years showed that if you can pitch it right, people will come to DIY, under-the-radar stuff. Quite how well they reached the out-of-towners I don’t know, but they certainly galvanised the local audience.

In a very different way, while they still existed, T on the Fringe and then The Edge Festival would also provide some support for local bands. It was a bit variable depending on the year, but some years the opportunities for local bands to play decent support slots for higher-profile-than-usual imported talent were pretty good. All of this went away last year with the absence of all these wee sub-festivals, leaving pretty much only the Queen’s Hall supporting local bands during August.

What the Queen’s Hall has been doing recently has been brilliant, but at roughly 900 capacity, there is only so much they can really do for the less well-established bands.  They can and do take a lot more chances during festival time with more adventurous bookings, but you do still have to be pretty well known already to fill that size of venue. Having said that, if the QH feel they can take more chances during August, then presumably they feel there is a bigger audience than usual to be reached, which has to be a very good thing.

In the absence of Retreat, as you know, some pals and I are putting on the Pale Imitation Festival (see flyer above, all tickets to be found here) where we take Henry’s Cellar Bar for two nights a week throughout the entire Festival, and put on as many local bands as possible. It’s an important thing, I think, to have strong local representation during one of the biggest arts festivals on the planet, but who does it benefit?

Festival audience or not, it certainly benefits some of the smaller bands on the bill, giving them a chance to take the stage with some of their better-known contemporaries. The bigger bands, however, will only really benefit if we can expand their audience a little bit, and somehow attract some of the out-of-town audience, in the middle of their Scottish Summer holiday, down to a small, slightly murky basement venue. The goal with anything, after all, is to try and expand the fanbase of any band you work with, however incrementally.

Having said that, I think there is also value in, if not growing your audience, then consolidating your relationship with the fans you have. Retreat was great like that. The huge majority of the audience was composed of people I already knew, so I doubt it was really helping anyone increase their fanbase outside of Edinburgh, but for an event like that to be such a success in the face of such a commercial juggernaut as the Edinburgh Fringe gave great confidence to the music community around here.

The other aspect to all of this is the impact on recorded music. Because the Edinburgh Festival utterly dominates every last paragraph of the entire Scottish (and no little proportion of the English) arts press during August it is pretty much impossible for us to release anything at all around this time. We found this out the hard way, but it’s not entirely the fault of the Edinburgh Festival, more festival season in general. Glastonbury and Latitude were all over BBC 6Music to such an embarrassingly silly extent a few weeks back that pretty much every show was a ‘special’ of some sort or another, meaning the singles we released were pretty much ignored even by our staunchest supporters at the station.

So we’re at the stage now where the six weeks around August are turning into almost as much of a no-go zone as the six weeks around Christmas, dominated as the latter are by endless Best Of lists. Both times have something in common, in the sense that the near-total blackout on normal operations is pretty fucking irritating, and pretty fucking damaging, given the audience to which it seems we are denied access.  Nevertheless, as the success of various band and label Christmas parties, coupled with Retreat and The Queen’s Hall programming, and the *cough* inevitable runaway success of the Pale Imitation Festival suggest, perhaps running scared from these things isn’t the way to go. You may have to do something rather different in order to succeed at what are quite odd times of year, but if you get it right, it can certainly be done.

As I said in my Scotsman article, for various reasons the Edinburgh music community seems to be driven by an odd group of stubborn individuals, and when you look at the Queen’s Hall booking, what the Haddowfest guys are doing at the Liquid Rooms this August, and also at the Pale Imitation Festival, last year’s musical void seems to have galvanised enough people in the city to ensure that 2013 might actually be the best yet for local music.

In the long run, though, rising to the challenge of exploiting the massive Fringe population to get local music out to a wider audience than is generally possible is still a little elusive. It’s not really clear to me how best to do it, but like everything else, I guess we just have to keep on trying.