The rapid rise of Nottingham’s music scene in recent years is all the more impressive given that it came from nowhere. Look back and there’s little signposting of the current success. Local group Paper Lace made headlines in the 70s with their international hit Billy Don’t Be a Hero. But between then and the late noughties, Nottingham bands had little success. But then something happened.
Despite having no signature sound to live up to and no recent acts to follow, Nottingham started producing some of the UK’s finest musical talents of the last three years. The city is now recognised as one of Britain’s best music cities; no genre is off limits, no music too experimental.
The city’s most famous export is Jake Bugg, a singer-songwriter born and bred in Nottingham, who shot to fame in 2012. His success alerted the music scouts who descended on the city to find the next big thing. And in the two years after Bugg’s ascent, two additional acts were signed and have gone on to have incredible international success – London Grammar in 2013 and Sleaford Mods in 2014.
“All around the world, not only in the UK, people know about Nottingham musicians, and that just wasn’t the case five years ago,” says Mark Del, who heads up the community project Nusic, which helps local musicians. “Now we’re in a situation where arguably the most talked about, credible artists of the last three years have been from Nottingham.”
Bugg may be the stand out star – his talent is undeniable – but he was also a product of the momentum that started building around Nottingham’s music scene in 2010. At that time, indie pop band Dog Is Dead started to get some interest, and the Guardian published an article on the city’s music, which really thrust it into the spotlight.
“Outside of Nottingham, there’s probably a perception that Jake Bugg led the Nottingham music scene,” says Del. “But actually he was the first artist to breakthrough from what was already a buzzing music scene.”
The impact Bugg has had on Nottingham’s musical success is clear.
Jared Wilson, the editor of Nottingham’s arts, entertainment and culture magazine LeftLion, explains, “The success of Jake Bugg brought a lot of A&R men from bigger cities to Nottingham and you saw in the wake of that that Saint Raymond, London Grammar and many others got signed.
“People who came to check out our music scene, who hadn’t been here in a very long time, were drawn here by that one artist.”
Among those drawn to the city were foreign media who’ve helped to spread the city’s music around the world.
“When Jake Bugg played Rock City, we came out of the gig and walked down the steps and had a camera shoved in our faces,” Del remembers. “It was [a German broadcaster], there to cover the story. A huge TV station from the biggest country in Europe had come to cover Jake’s homecoming gig.”
The city’s newly-acquired international status as a dynamic music centre is attracting acts from every corner of the globe – including acclaimed stars – who rub shoulders with budding local artists and those from other parts of the UK in search of their big break.
“You could feasibly see The Specials at Rock City, Beyoncé at the Arena, and some amazing up-and-coming act at The Maze all in the same night,” says Del. “It wasn’t all that long ago that we had to work really hard to stop our musicians leaving and all going to London and Manchester.”
The venues themselves are also helping to foster this eclectic range of musical talent. Set lists often include artists from a variety of genres, which means no single style is favoured over the other, and the true diversity of talent is showcased to audiences.
The sheer number of venues – most within a 10 minute walk of the city centre – also gives up-and-comers the chance to perform on any given night of the week. And local music festivals like Dot to Dot, No Tomorrow and the huge Hockley Hustle, an annual one-day event held in October featuring over 400 acts playing in over 40 venues across the city, are also drawing fans from around the UK, giving local talent a chance to be seen by a broad audience.
“Pretty much every Nottingham act you would have heard of has played there,” says Wilson.
The plethora of opportunities to perform at local venues and festivals has given Nottingham artists plenty of platforms to shine from.
“This city is alive with music, but it’s not always in traditional music venues,” explains Wilson. “If you walk into Nottingham Contemporary, which is a big art gallery, every weekend there’s a gig on. Jam Café is a tiny little café where everybody is crushed together [and] there’s JT Saw, which was an old fruit and veg shop.”
The latter, which includes a recording studio and rehearsal room, also exemplifies the DIY ethos of this city. Budding performers can use the venue to get their music off the ground. Another site, the Chameleon, also promotes the can-do attitude that enables artists to pursue musical careers without being signed to a label.
But, labels are getting involved. In November 2014, Rough Trade, a world famous record company, opened a branch of their shop in Nottingham. That their only other locations are London and New York speaks volumes for the city’s music scene. Local labels are also setting up shop, with Ear Ache going on to have
particular success; now with offices in
London and New York.
“There’s clearly something unique going on in the Nottingham music scene,” says Wilson. “And I guess it’s partly due to the fact this is the right city, at the right time.”