Hastings (and Rother…NEVER forget Rother) launches its first ‘music month’ on Valentines Day this year.

Running until St Patrick’s Day, the aim is to highlight the rich diversity of live music in the region.

As this takes in Fat Tuesday and the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition it’s an obvious choice…even if there isn’t much time to get the word out.

Collectively the area is using the month to name itself as a ‘music city’ – putting Hastings (and Rother…) on a footing with Austin, Texas and Adelaide in Australia.

If you are putting on a gig during that month make sure it is listed by e-mailing culture@hastings.gov.uk

Our listings for the month can be found here.

So what is a ‘music city’ and why is it relevant to our seaside town?

Well, just under two years ago, the international worlds of town planning, economic development and music met head-on in Brighton at the inaugural Music Cities Convention.

Delegates from around the globe shared experiences of the real and tangible benefits cities enjoy when they embrace their creative industries through festivals and live music venues.
 
With fifty cities represented from twenty countries there were perspectives from as far afield as Australia, Ethiopia and Montreal. And whilst the focus was on live music, many of the initiatives discussed touched on a wider community of creative entrepreneurs and artists.

Sound familiar, Hastings people?

 
Is music art, or is music business?

 
Australia’s Becc Bates kicked off the debate with her experience in Adelaide. There the city has recognised how musicians themselves are very much a grass roots micro-industry, so there is real value in treating them more as business people. That’s why when funding is available it is allocated based on sound business strategies as much as artistic talent.
 
This approach was just one of the practical results to come from the many recommendations made in a report authored by the city’s ‘musical thinker in residence’ (don’t we all want that job!) Martin Elbourne, co-founder of the Music Cities project.
 
The city initially makes grants available, but the funding decisions themselves are left to members of the local music community. They are the ones who get to judge where the money goes and how it is spent.

What the local government then does is look at how it can remove barriers to live music by examining licensing and planning regulations. This approach was the most common thread to run throughout the day and was frequently fueled by people recognising that their city’s musical heritage was being lost – often due to small independent venues falling away because of pressure from residential developments and conversions.

Unintended consequences

 
The irony of this unintended consequence of regeneration through house building is increasingly recognised as a global phenomenon. The more places strive to make their centres more attractive places to live, as well as work, shop and go out, the more they also see noise and nuisance complaints rise and conflicts escalate between new residents and established live music venues.
 
After one particularly iconic old live haunt, The Tote, came close to closure Australians rallied around and protested in their thousands at this growing threat to a highly-valued way of life and demonstrated in the only way they saw fit – by staging an impromptu festival on the steps of the seat of government.
 
This is resulting in fundamental shifts in planning regulations, with the ‘agent of change’ principle being used to make developers of new residential buildings within 50 metres of an existing music venue responsible for paying for suitable noise attenuation improvements to reduce any potential sound pollution.
 
It has also forced a review of the approach taken by police and licensing teams who had increasingly been putting pressure on venues based on a perception that their clientele were guilty of alcohol-fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour.
 
In fact the review found quite the reverse. In an economic climate where door charges for gigs in small venues have stayed static for years, putting more emphasis on the need for venues to increase bar revenues, the actual spend per customer on drinks tended to be lower. This was particularly so amongst the vast majority of concertgoers who don’t want to lose their place at the front of the room or are simply focused on the music.
 
This is of course another potential nail in the coffin of the live scene, because venues are businesses and they have to trade at a profit or they will inevitably close. And this fact was also widely recognised and delegates frequently discussed plans or initiatives aimed at making the costs of running venues more economically viable.

Protecting cultural assets

 
Mark Davyd of the Music Venues Trust (and a close neighbour of Hastings – he runs The Forum in Tunbridge Wells) picked up on this theme and outlined the organisation’s research, which has shown that London alone has in recent years seen a 38% reduction in the number of active live music venues.
 
This is reflected to a greater or lesser degree across the UK and is in part responsible for artists’ tour schedules falling from typically 35-50 dates to an average of just 12-15. Not only does this reduce a band’s ability to make a living, it also reduces people’s exposure to the live music experience and this impacts on record sales and the willingness of major festivals to try out new headline artists. In turn this means there’s an increasing stagnation at the top end of the market, with most of the big money increasingly focused on a dwindling supply of established names.
 
The Trust would like to see key venues taken out of direct commercial ownership and put on long community leaseholds. That is one fundamental way they see of stopping hungry developers eyeing them up for a quick residential development profit.

 
Bring people together and take risks

 
Manchester’s Dave Haslam was eloquent in his support for the real value of live music and the wider club culture. As a promoter and DJ of many years he is highly qualified to talk about the difference it can make to people’s lives.
 
He emphasised how being in a room together will always be so much more than a detached online experience and how venues are so much more than simple bricks and mortar – the real point being what they are used for.
 
And his belief was that cultural activities can’t be left to big businesses and local authorities because the only way to deliver events that will really change people’s lives is to be different, make mistakes, take risks and be passionate – all things which are anathema to the majority of corporations and government departments.

This view was echoed my Liverpool’s Kevin McManus, who described how Liverpool had gone from being seen almost universally as a dump just twenty years ago to now being a thriving centre for creativity and the arts (hello Hastings…does this sound familiar!!) – and how this had been achieved by the council stopping trying to do things themselves (particularly city centre festivals) and instead creating the right environment for imaginative mavericks to be supported in making new events successful.

 
The German and Dutch models

 
Mannheim and Berlin were represented by Matthias Rauch and Nicolas Zimmer who each outlined how their respective cities were investing heavily in the music industry by ensuring government structures bring culture and the arts within the same funding framework as ICT and media industries.
 
By taking this approach huge amounts of investment have been unlocked and a dedicated music industry university is just one example of how a city is not only seeking to nurture new talent, but also look to retain it by subsequently making inspirational space available for creative industry start-up businesses.
 
Groningen’s vice-mayor really raised the investment game as he described how the small city, with a population of just 200,000, puts some 14million Euros into it’s cultural budget every year as it sees this as a fundamental way of developing talent, creating jobs, regenerating the city infrastructure and enhancing it’s overall liveability.

The way forward…

If you’ve got this far you may be wondering about how, in a time of austerity, any council can consider investing in the arts.

Well, although some of the big cities have gone for an approach that relies heavily on investing big bucks, that’s not the only way forward.

What Hastings (and Rother) are saying to the world of music is – “we’re open for business”.

What happens next is largely down to venues, promoters, studios, bands, and – perhaps most importantly – audiences.

If music is to become a viable and important part of the local economy then more people need to be prepared to go to paying gigs more often. Just £5 on the door can make a huge difference for a band trying to cover the costs of instruments and rehearsals.

So make a point of going to at least one ticketed gig in Hastings every month…you know it makes sense.

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