Hastings is a town with, arguably, one of the highest venues per capita in the UK.
There are approaching 100 pubs, bars, dedicated venues and open performance spaces within just a few miles of the newly refurbished pier.
This encompasses an area extending out to Rother, a district of East Sussex that sweeps from Bexhill, through Battle, and across to Rye.
And, by teaming up, these two powerhouses of grass roots music have planted a flag in the map and unilaterally pronounced themselves to be a ‘music city’.
It’s not the first time this tag-team has been in the ring together. A few years ago they put in a joint bid to become the UK city of culture. Sadly the judges backed the wrong horse and plumped for Hull.
Hull for goodness sake!
Does Hull have the UK’s biggest Mardi Gras? No – Hastings does…it’s called Fat Tuesday…that’s English for Mardi Gras, for you non-French-speakers.
So what is a music city?
Andy Gunton is just one of the many linchpins of the local scene, and he was given the honour of announcing the town open for musical business as a city in all but name.
He neatly summarised the three key characteristics that define a music city…talent, spaces, and a receptive audience, all things that Hastings has in spades.
Did you know (bet you didn’t) that Hastings was named in an academic research paper as having the most musically sophisticated audience in the UK?
What does that mean?
It means Hastings people know talent when they see it.
And that’s probably because there is so much of that talent around every corner.
As local residents, Lorna and Dan from Skinny Lister are perfect examples of that.
They spoke at the launch – explaining how they tour the world telling everyone who will listen what makes this part of the world so special for live bands and musicians.
Also speaking was live music luminary, Martin Elbourne.
With 30 years under his belt working for Glastonbury (the man behind the main stage bookings), Martin is also co-founder of Womad, The Great Escape, and the Music Cities Convention.
His presence alone validates Hastings’ pitch to lay claim to the title it has adopted.
But, as he pointed out, it’s more than just a tagline.
And it’s not just about having lots of live music on offer.
Being a music city is about having a proper strategy and a vision for change. And that vision has to be backed up by research and analysis and have education, training and employment opportunities at its heart.
Martin cited his work with Adelaide in Australia as an example – a city that embraced music as a way of retaining its talented young people and giving them the opportunities to explore their creativity locally as a means of earning a living.
Hastings isn’t short of opportunities for hard-working musicians.
As one of the delegates at the UnConvention music industry conference that hosted the launch said: ‘…if you’re good enough and keen enough you can play five nights a week to full rooms if you really want to.’
Polly Gifford, Hastings council’s cultural champion, was keen to emphasise that the borough was fully behind the Music Cities concept.
She explained how the idea had actually come from the local musical community – but that the town hall team was embracing the initiative. A fresh cultural strategy has recently been published, but the authority has recently commissioned Sound Diplomacy to do a full venues review so a map of the current scene can be drawn up. That will allow plans to be made to work out what more needs doing to better support and promote the local music industry.
As it stands it almost looks like the town doesn’t need much help – with new recording and rehearsal studios popping up regularly and so many venues thriving it’s clear there is a natural momentum.
And Jeff Thompson, founder of the UnConvention movement, underlined this when, from his wide experience of the live music scene across the UK, he told the audience that as far as he was concerned Hastings is ‘unique’ in the breadth and depth of music on offer every day of the week.
This was echoed by Councillor Dawn Poole, Hastings’ elected lead for culture.
As a teenager she remembered spending way to much time in The Crypt and other equally infamous venues of the day. She also had her first date with her partner in one of the notoriously sweaty and delightful Frat Cave sessions.
As she explained, although her brief encompasses the whole range of cultural offerings, as far as she is concerned music remains the most inclusive and accessible art form. And in Hastings it is alive and kicking, with the sounds of live bands spilling from doorways across the town everywhere you look and listen.
Old school unreconstructed punk and music journalist, John Robb was also on hand as a panelist.
Talking about how people might seek to find ways of making a career in music he joked that the art of music is everything, but it’s no way to live a life if you want to have a comfortable income. However, at the same time, having the time and space to create what you believe in is way more valuable than money.
What Hastings and the surrounding area of Rother offers musicians is both of these thing.
Rother’s Melanie Powell explained to the audience how a big part of their challenge was to link up the pools pf creative talent that are to be found in the more rural parts of the area and ensure they benefit from the buzz at the centre. However, with both council’s firmly backing this new venture onto the international musical stage, the hope is that these connections will be easily made.
With house prices and rents way more affordable than you’d think for a town in the heart of the affluent south east that is only an hour and a half from London Bridge, it’s not surprising how many people are choosing Hastings and Rother over Brighton to put down roots and develop their art.
Check out what’s on in Hastings at www.hastingsflyer.com