Mike Willis, a singer songwriter and music promoter originally from Nashville, is now an evangelist for the Hastings music scene.  Here he reflects on Audiotrope’s charter for musicians.

Most reading this will agree that Hastings’ Music Scene punches well above its weight, but when it comes to its sustainability in the face of creeping gentrification, we aren’t exactly singing from the same hymnal. 

In his book, How Music Works, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne provides some observations from his time in New York City’s Bowery before it “transitioned into a chic Boho zone. A change that spelled the end of those places that weren’t pulling in lots of cash.”  Byrne suggests that a vibrant scene, if left to market forces, will inevitably consume itself by attracting investment and driving up the costs of living and in turn driving its musicians and artists out. 

How do we protect our scene from its own success, and where do things stand now? Firstly, the going rate for a band playing in a pub in Hastings is around £300 – which hasn’t increased materially since 1985. So, each individual musician in a five piece can expect to earn £60 per gig. Factor in time requirements on the day and a musician might average £12 an hour for actual time spent. 

CREDIT: Dave Boutwood

Unsustainable Situation

Once you factor in expenses like purchasing, maintaining and repairing equipment, paying commercial auto insurance premiums and incurring mileage costs, net income for a musician with three gigs per week comes to £7,000-£9,000 per year. With average rents approaching £1,400/month in Hastings, this situation is unsustainable. So, can’t the pubs pay more? 

Audiotrope founder, Tina Morris certainly seems to think so. With her recently crafted Audiotrope Charter, she is asking venues to up their standard pay to £100 minimum per musician per gig. Sounds reasonable, right? 

Instead of simply putting a charge on the door of a pub gig, let’s invite our audience to step closer to our entire creative process

Actually, with 12,000 pubs closing across the UK each year, it seems a bad time to ask our landlords to stump up more cash. Bob Tipler from The Albion in the Old Town explains, “Costs are enormous. Taxes and legal responsibilities are growing all the time. The recently released budget hasn’t offered much relief to independent landlords either. These days, a pub is doing well to turn a 10% net profit. “ 

Another former publican, Paul ‘Tublord’ Osmond, laid the formula out succinctly saying “Before even opening the doors, you’ll need bar staff, security, and a sound engineer. You need bar sales of around £2000 to break even on paying £250 to a band. That amount is tough in Hastings even on a Friday or Saturday night.” 

Save our Scene

With venues stretched thin and rents on the rise, how do we Save Our Scene? There are many places in the world with great musicians, but what makes Hastings unique is its audience. Never have I known an audience so eager to connect with its musicians. Filling the dance floor or finding a listening ear for a new song seems effortless here. 

So, what if that dynamic is the solution? What if the audience gets more involved? And, not just by putting their hand in their pocket. What if we ask our music lovers to guide the scene’s development – to tell us what shows and bands they’d like to see in local venues, and to help vet and fund new songs being written, recorded and released? 

Instead of simply putting a charge on the door of a pub gig, let’s invite our audience to step closer to our entire creative process. If this deeper listening experience could be packaged, valued and sold, our audience engagement could provide the support our musicians so desperately need to remain in Hastings. 

My friend and local music lover, Richard Fryer, has this to say on the transformative power of music and the potential price we stand to pay by not supporting its development: 

“Live music in a small venue (especially a pub!) is one of life’s greatest experiences. Each gig has the potential for great synchronicity, when the band and the crowd are so close they are, to quote Neil Pert from Rush, ‘Each the other’s audience’ – feeding back and forth from one another and driving the mood higher and higher to what can only be described as a kind of ecstasy.

“I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to the Old Town on a Sunday feeling a bit shit about the world, or my life, and, after two or three hours at live gigs, I’ve been completely restored. How much does one pay to a psychotherapist for such service? Which antidepressants with their negative side effects would your GP prescribe to ‘cure’ you in this way? Surely, after the entertainment desert of Covid, we can agree that musicians ARE key workers. 

“At the top of the pyramid our artists generate huge tax revenue and national prestige for the UK, but think too of the Gross National Happiness generated in the grass roots venues of which I speak. 

“Musicians in Hastings must be able to earn at least a journey-man’s wage to, at minimum, put food on the table and pay the bills. As audience members, this is so easily within our gift – provided everyone who can afford it puts in a small amount. 

“If the dream of becoming the next Stormzy or Ed Sheeren dies because the only way in is by being owned by the likes of Simon Cowell, or if even having just reasonable success means being financially eviscerated by Spotify or YouTube, within a generation our beloved music industry will die, and all of the above will die with it.” 

Unique Opportunity

Hastings and St. Leonards welcomes more new people, ideas and businesses every day, and as our economy grows so must our efforts to find sustainable ways to protect the character of the town. Said another way, music is and has long been a part of Hastings’ identity, and we have a responsibility to protect it. 

Chapter eight in How Music Works ends with this, “People and neighbourhoods that were never suspected of being huge creative hubs – Detroit, Manchester, Sheffield, Seattle – exploded when folks that didn’t even know they had it in them suddenly blossomed and inspired everyone else around them.” 

Here and now, we have a unique opportunity to make an even more vibrant Hastings, to set the tone for other music scenes on the verge, and to create a safe haven for musicians and other vulnerable creative people. 

This is our potential and our challenge, Hastings. Let’s inspire each other.

Let’s make music. 

Mike Willis is director of a non-profit organisation called KiKu Scene CIC which aims to facilitate an even more vibrant music scene in Hastings.

To learn more visit www.KiKuScene.com

Read more HIP related articles: Now give me money and Extracts from the Audiotrope Good Practice Charter


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