Music: Live and kicking?

A round-table debate on live music in Shetland

There are countless music festivals on the Shetland calendar, Fiddlers’ Bid continue to do wonders for the isles’ reputation in the wider world and we are blessed with a litany of supremely talented young musicians. Yet ask many music fans and they will tell you that there is something sorely lacking in the live music scene.

Shetland Life got together a panel of interested parties from various backgrounds to discuss a host of issues surrounding the state of the live music in the isles earlier this month.

Sitting around the table were Shetland Arts development officer and Bongshang bassist Bryan Peterson; his predecessor, promoter, band manager and general authority on all matters musical Davie Gardner; Fiddlers’ Bid’s Maurice Henderson, whose second band Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag have been touring frantically around the isles this summer and have just released their debut album; music promoter, studio owner and producer Marvin Smith; Karen MacKelvie, a music fan who put on a gig by Orkney band Ragstone at the museum and archives in January, and Shetland Life editor and singer-songwriter Malachy Tallack. Chairing the discussion was Neil Riddell.

We started the 90-minute discussion by asking the panel, focusing primarily on traditional and contemporary rock music, whether they thought the live scene was currently thriving, dying or ticking over:

Bryan Peterson: I would say everybody around the table would agree that the demise of the North Star has been a major factor in where we are just now.

Marvin Smith: The demise of the North Star, yes, but it was also in demise before it closed as well. Me probably more than anyone else laments the passing of the North Star, but at the same time nobody was turning up to see things at the North Star – whether it’s to do with what was being programmed, or just generally audiences wanting something else, I don’t know. There’s a lack of gigs that I want to see, there’s probably a lack of gigs that most people sitting at this table want to see, but in all fairness – and hats off to him – Dave Kok puts on a gig at the Angling Club, it’s hard metal/punk, and the place is stowed out the door. Is the live scene disappearing or has the audience completely changed?

Davie Gardner: The metal stuff has always been a niche market, and has always had its followers, probably never more so than it does now. You should fill the Norscot Angling Club – but if you were to move that into the North Star, how many more would you get? I don’t know. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. [But] there’s so few gigs in the real sense. I’ve heard an awful lot of folk saying about the Proclaimers coming up, ‘there’s been nothing for so long, we actually don’t really like the Proclaimers but we’re not going to not go to the gig’.

BP: There is a big difference between the big festivals, and then you’ve got your local events like regattas, Unst Fest . . . but the more independent gigs by local promoters taking up bands specifically to play one-off gigs, it’s becoming more difficult to draw audiences for that. . . . Generally, the music scene consists of enthusiastic individuals that do it because they want to do it. Everybody will have had their fingers burnt severely by putting on their own events, but the reason you keep going back is because you want to do that. Folk are less ready to take the financial risk of putting on events now.

MS: Less willing, but what happened to our successors? When I started promoting gigs I was 19 years old. I don’t know what 19, 20-year-olds want anymore. I know you have the ‘young promoters’, and it’s great they’re willing to do that.

BP: There has been James Stewart, Jono Sandilands with Energizer Promotions, putting on gigs that coincided with taking their pals back from college and playing. The lack of venues, potentially, is one [problem]. Particularly the local halls. They do a fantastic job [but] there’s a definite degree of volunteer fatigue, because of the amount of rules and regulations that have to be complied with. It’s going to get more challenging for them with the new licensing laws coming into place.

Malachy Tallack: For me, that seems to be a big issue, because at school, maybe 12, 15 years ago, there were bands playing every weekend at one of the country halls. You’d take a taxi out, watch a band – but you just look in the paper, that’s ceased to exist now.

DG: I would say the shift is it’s younger folk going to the halls, and that’s put promoters off because they have got to be more responsible now. Not only legally, but there is a lot more to deal with socially on the night into the bargain. That’s why I stopped doing gigs – I could do without that hassle. It was just becoming incredibly negative to handle, but it’s interesting to hear even 25-year-olds are not wanting to put on gigs, like Jeff Ampleford, God bless him, used to do. If the shit hit the fan, Jeff dealt with it. That can still happen.

BP: That is one factor: Jeff stopping doing gigs – just one man.

MS: He wasn’t getting enough support from everybody else, he was losing money. Jeff was just getting so much hassle here, there and everywhere.

DG: I’d put on gigs tomorrow for young folk if I thought I was in tune with what they wanted to do, but what you are ending up with is blood, sweat and tears, and occasionally vomit into the bargain. At one of the last Youth Voice meetings I was at, the police were speaking about taking responsibility for young folk until they got home, that was the madness we were getting to – yet I couldn’t even control outside the hall, let alone two hours after the gig.

Does the drinking culture in Shetland have a negative impact on the music culture here?

BP: I don’t believe underage drinking has got worse, I think as society we’ve begun to look at it in a different way. It’s become more visible and it’s less tolerated, and that’s a good thing. In my experience working with young folk, a lot of them don’t want to go out and drink but that’s the done thing. When we put on an alcohol-free gig, they’re delighted by it – the majority of them don’t want to get full of drink and spew in the taxi on the way home, they just want to go out and have a good time with their pals.

Karen MacKelvie: It’s interesting talking to some of the hall committees, they say “oh, we all had to do this at some point” – the whole focus of the night is drink and the youngsters moving through some rite of passage to being an adult Shetlander and being able to drink in pubs.

DG: It’s not actually good for the musicians either; you go back to the Cosmic Rough Riders, that was one of the worst and most embarrassing nights. There were 250 folk in that hall, there was about 50 interested in the band, 200 there for a piss up wanting whatever was on the stage. You might as well have had a GTL disco going, it would have been as successful as putting a chart band into Scalloway Hall, and a hell of a lot cheaper.

MT: From a musician’s perspective, I find gigs very off-putting when you go and play, folk are clearly just there for the drink, they’re not hearing you at all – I feel like not playing again.

Maurice Henderson: If you look at what we’re going to now, it’s very much mixed age group with halls of young folk, families, maybe at more of these events like festivals, foys. It does gather a broad crowd and I wouldn’t say there’s folk rolling about full of drink – you might get one or two individuals who will do that anyway but it’s not that kind of scene at all. If it was a shambles, folk wouldn’t come back.

Do the panel feel there is a problem with an event like Flavour of Shetland – subsidised each year by a £70,000 grant from the SIC’s economic development unit – generating an expectation with the public that they can get live music for free, thereby discouraging them to pay a decent price for gig tickets at other times of the year?

BP: I’m not a big fan of putting on events for free because I think to some degree it, not necessarily devalues music, but it can make it more difficult for folk to want to do it commercially, or to cover their expenses.

DG: I would support you on that.

BP: A few months either side of Flavour of Shetland, there’s not really any point in trying to do things because it is free and folk do go there mainly because they know it’s going to be free.

MT: It’s an interesting point, because what a lot of promoters will have found is that ticket prices here are probably considerably lower than anywhere else in Britain because you can’t get people to come out if you charge what is a commercial rate for a ticket, and possibly the amount of free music affects that.

MS: If Flavour of Shetland was happening every weekend, it would take away from the paid gigs scene, but . . . it certainly gives me access for the first time I have seen many bands. I would happily go and pay money to see them again. If there’s no showcase, how can you possibly access a crowd? Ok, yes, it’s subsidised but it’s about giving bands access to play on a proper stage, proper light, proper sound, showing off what Shetland has musically in the best possible environment and I don’t know how else you can do that.

DG: Flavour of Shetland is a very positive one like that; you’re normally playing to such a wide audience. You get a lot of folk just interested in the drinking but there’s an amazing crowd even on a Sunday when it’s a quieter crowd.

BP: The production values are really good and that does raise the bar.

MS: The likes of Ryan Couper and Adam Johnson, playing in the middle of Saturday afternoon, the tent was full and you could have heard a pin drop because they come on and blew the place away. What access could that folk have ever had to know who Ryan and Adam were?

MH: It’s an absolutely first class event, brought a really good feel-good factor to the community, with the yachts and hundreds of visitors over that weekend.

The money put into Flavour of Shetland dwarves the budget which Bryan Peterson has to work with as music development officer for Shetland Arts. Last year he had a basic budget of £9,500 to work with – a tiny fraction of the organisation’s annual £1.3 million spend.

DG: There’s no less money potentially going into music development. Shetland Arts is choosing to spend that in a different way and reduce the budget for music development. I do personally take a bit of exception when I look at the efforts and money that’s going into the Festival of Light, for instance. Is that really where Shetland wants to be pushing itself and selling itself? Is organising 100,000 or 200,000 folk to flash a blinkie at the sky so we can be seen from space to welcome the Olympics more important as giving Bryan a reasonable budget to work with? I don’t think it is. £9,500 a year, you can’t do anything with.

BP: Cheers, Davie! It’s part of a greater development project. I don’t think you can just section off music development and its own individual budget. It’s true I have about £9,500 as a starter budget, which is generally used to lever in other funding. I try to work [on the basis that] for every £1,000 that I put up we’ll get £9,000 back – it’s money that works for itself. Obviously, I would like more money … belts are tightening, the trusts are being reviewed. [It limits your scope for taking risks, e.g. taking up a band and potentially making a loss…] That is a difficulty, I would make no bones about that.

DG: There’s an awful lot more put on big, big projects, of which music is a small part. What do we get out of that musically-wise? I’m not saying everything we did before was right, but there’s a lack of grassroots music or artistic development going on.

BP: I would say that the work that’s going on with youth clubs, for instance, and the work going on in a lot of different departments not just administered by Shetland Arts doesn’t maybe get the publicity. It can’t be underestimated, the amount of work that goes on as far as music development across the board, in schools, in youth clubs [is concerned]. What I think you might be alluding to is the higher level investment into touring bands and I think that’s how a lot of people judge how buoyant our music scene is.

There seems to be an important gap in terms of the opportunities for teenagers getting the chance to see bands and be inspired to form their own groups?

MS: But it’s something we shouldn’t actually lose sight of, we do have good gigs, we do have good music, good lighting. We’ve a population a quarter of the size of Elgin – go to Elgin and try and find a gig.

BP: We do sometimes lose sight of the fact that we do have a fantastic music scene in Shetland, but we can always be helping it.

Do you think the huge number of organised events and festivals possibly take away from the public’s appetite for individual gigs?

KMacK: It seems flooded. With so much on every weekend, it’s hard to pick.

DG: Everybody now is doing a festival – the season is packed with them, as you say.

MH: They probably do. And some concerts can go on for perhaps too long, a bit of a marathon.

So what thoughts do people have on what specifically could be done better?

DG: I don’t understand why young bands don’t go out and do their own thing. There doesn’t seem to be that incentive to come together as groups and, I get criticised for this, but the last traditional groups that made an impact in Shetland that had the commitment to hang together, they’re still Fiddlers’ Bid, Filska, Rock Salt and Nails, Hom Bru, we’re speaking about 20 years ago.

BP: When we were putting on gigs, you would just phone up the hall and put an advert in the paper, pull together a van and a PA and get there – it’s not that simple anymore. For the young ‘eens, if there’s four or five things they’ve got to do, once they’re onto the third thing the fun’s over, they’re not that interested in doing that. “Have you got your public liability insurance?” “That sounds terrible, I’m not putting on a gig anymore.” Who are we to tell young folk what they should be doing anyway?

DG: You’re right, but they’re asking us to do it. We put in £750,000 a year into instrumental education in Shetland. In terms of that investment, what are we getting out of it? It’s fantastic in schools, it’s tremendous. You go to school concerts, they blow you away with orchestras, fiddle bands – incredible. The last AHS concert I was at you could have damn near put on in the Royal Concert Hall. What happens when all that stops? [A promoter from the Cambridge Folk Festival asks every year] “Hey Davie, what’s happening in Shetland?” I’m still saying Fiddlers’ Bid have a new album out . . .

BP: Yeah, that’s because you’re their manager!

KMacK: Success depends on the music. Fiddlers’ Bid have stood the test of time because they’re absolutely magic, everybody wants to listen to them.

BP: Fiddlers’ Bid – once in a generation something like that happens. I don’t think it’s fair to be constantly comparing our young folk to an exceptionally talented band like that.

MH: There’s loads of really good talents, Ryan and Adam, their band Rummel – I’ve noticed in the last year what an odds, there’s Kollifirbolli, really class fiddle-playing.

MS: We’re all agreed the musicians are probably more plentiful as they’ve ever, ever been. What can we do to make sure that musicians get into bands, keep together, hang together and can progress? Or do we just leave it and hope?

MH: The Shetland showcase at Glasgow Concert Hall sold out . . . you had Ryan on stage with Martin Cooper and Aly Bain. Would you get a showcase like that from Elgin?

DG: What are we getting for the level of investment [£794,132 in visiting music teachers and instructors, not including individual schools’ contributions]? You see them performing at Christmas time, but where’s the gigs in the country halls with them, where’s the bands that’s hanging together beyond the couple of years that they’re together at school? There doesn’t seem to be the commitment. Grades are fantastic and all the rest, but we’re not really seeing the impact coming into the industry.

BP: Instrumental tuition doesn’t have to naturally lead on to studying music at university, it’s a pretty niche thing.

DG: I’m not putting up a criticism, I’m putting up a question. Why is there not more even following the academic path? It just seems to stop after school.

MT: You could blame all kinds of things, for instance schools are far more geared towards pushing people towards career paths. Doing music at university is a big risk.

BP: Something that we haven’t mentioned is the college course, which will go some way, I hope, towards smoothing a pathway. The college course starting at national certificate level is a good way for folk to test the waters, as it were, for going into further music education.

How does the £12.2 million cinema and music venue Mareel, due to open in the spring of 2011, fit into the various issues discussed so far? Will it help mitigate or solve some of these problems?

BP: I don’t know if it will solve any of them, but almost every topic that we’ve covered today will be helped. Having a working music venue and working education venue – real world experience is what employers are looking for. If the courses are running in tandem with a real venue, the synergies between the two are important.

MS: The important thing is not to presume that Mareel is going to tick the box. It’s only a tiny bit – it’s not a big venue and, dare I say it, it’s not even that an expensive facility. It’s about putting in at least the ground levels, the foundations [so] that we can start sorting out or working with a lot of the issues we’ve raised.

KMacK: I’ve got no vested interest so, personally, I would have preferred to see the Garrison being upgraded and use venues that already exist. But I could not imagine the museum before it was built and it’s gorgeous, so if Mareel’s anything like that I’m going to enjoy it and I’m going to use it. But I’m worried that it doesn’t have a personality. If it doesn’t then it’ll be a shame. If it doesn’t have a nice atmosphere I won’t really feel like putting anything on in there. It’s got to be better than the Clickimin, which is a bloody barn of a place.

MS: I don’t think anybody around this table would look at the Mareel project and say it’s perfect, that’s what I want. Nobody sits there and says it is a perfect solution.

KMacK: To go back to Elgin, you would not get the quality of music being brought to Elgin that is brought to Shetland, and you wouldn’t get the quality of musicianship that you find already. It’s full on, it’s flooded at the moment and that’s the main problem rather than we need more. You need to be a bit more selective maybe, that’s my opinion.

What do you think of the views expressed by our panel? What is your opinion of the live music scene in Shetland today? Write to us at


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.