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Desire Lines, Music is Audible and City of Edinburgh Council's Noisy Silence

On Tuesday I attended a meeting of City of Edinburgh's Culture and Sport Committee. I was there in my capacity as a member of CEC's Music is Audible working group, set-up a year ago following a tsunami of dissent concerning the capital's attitude towards live music during a meeting of the city's musical community at the Usher Hall under the banner Live Music Matters.

One of the main issues raised at LMM was that of noise complaints. CEC's current legislation dictates that live amplified music must remain inaudible beyond the four walls of where it is being performed. Many argue that this favours a complainant. While outside of John Cage any notion of music being inaudible is an absurdity, such legislation isn't made any more credible by CEC officers not being trained to measure sound in any meaningful scientific way. This has made for some full, frank and very necessary exchanges between music professionals and CEC officers.

The culmination of this process was the presentation on Tuesday of a report drafted with MIA input by Beverley Whitrick of the London-based Music Venues Trust, who was brought in by CEC to advise MIA (which, if left to my own devices, I would have called Music is A Better Noise, named after a 1980 single by post punk band Essential Logic, who also released a saxophone-led instrumental called Tame The Neighbours, but hey) .

MVT was set up to protect existing music venues across the UK in the face of encroaching gentrification which similarly threatens Edinburgh's own year-round cultural life. See the ongoing Caltongate/New Waverley development on the site of the original home of the Bongo Club, JD Wetherspoon's plan to convert the former Picture House venue on Lothian Road into a so-called superpub and the furore over the proposed luxury hotel in the Old Royal High School. All of these were sanctioned by CEC's Planning Committee in the face of considerable public opposition.

Live Music Matters took place prior to the first meeting of Desire Lines, an initiative set up by a cartel of representatives from Edinburgh-based arts institutions. As with LMM, Desire Lines brought together many working on the frontline of Edinburgh's year round arts organisations who in the past have perhaps felt sidelined from the city's high-profile festival-led portfolio. In a Jekyll and Hyde city where respectable institutions mask the underground that feeds them, twas ever thus.

The result of Desire Lines thus far has been another report compiled from a survey thrown open to all-comers, while the steering group will meet shortly to discuss further developments. Like the MVT/MIA report, Desire Lines is progressive in its recognition of an artist-led infrastructure and a burgeoning city-wide grassroots scene.

Both reports made me think of Artist Unknown, a surprisingly readable history of the Arts Council in England penned in 1998 by Richard Witts. A former percussionist with the Halle Orchestra, Witts was a key figure in Manchester's 1970s post-punk landscape, both with his own band, The Passage, and as founder of the Manchester Musicians Collective. As Music and Dance Officer of Merseyside Arts Association, Witts brought Merce Cunningham and John Cage to Liverpool before going on to run Camden Festival. As an academic, for a time he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and could often be spotted at some of the city's more outre musical events.

Beyond such a pedigree, Artist Unknown is notable for a pithy biographical introduction, which points out how Witts 'has whiled away many frustrating hours on committees and panels...and remembers writing two policy reports. He wonders what became of them.' Those involved in Desire Lines and Music is Audible must take care that their reports are not similarly jettisoned into the dustbin of history, but that their recommendations are trumpeted as loudly as possible, whatever the noise laws might say.

The Herald, October 24th 2015

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