Is it as vibrant and as creative as we think it is? Gareth Stevens and Mike Willis assemble a small group of musicians and promoters to discuss this and other questions.

I remember the first ‘pinch me’ moment about my decision to settle in Hastings (St Leonards actually) after moving back to the UK from Hong Kong in 2017. It was my first Sunday in the Old Town and I was sitting with an old friend having an early evening drink in Whistle Trago on George Street when we both became aware of a live band playing an incredibly funky version of Deee-Lite’s Groove is in the Heart at The Albion next door. I left my drinking buddy to go and investigate. 

I peered through the pub’s window and saw what was reminiscent of a Camden club at midnight on a Saturday, rather than a coastal pub at 6pm on a Sunday. The place was rammed, people’s hands were in the air
and the place was buzzing. I hurried back to relay what I had seen. We drank up slowly assuming the band were there for the evening. 

By the time we finally made our move to relocate for some live music, things had changed. The Albion was now sparsely populated with a few small groups of drinkers. Crew were coiling leads amongst a few skeletal mic stands. I asked one of the bar staff what was going on and they said, “Everyone’s gone down to The Standard for the reggae!” That was an amazing evening, beautifully rounded off by Los Twangueros’ late set back at the Trago.

The Sunday live music scene in the Old Town is like a weekly festival. Well-coordinated by venue owners to minimise clashes, it is a key indicator that the town’s music scene is in great health. Since first realizing that the scene here is like no other, I am still of the same opinion, but my view has been tempered by the sneaking suspicion that despite being dynamic and vibrant, music in Hastings has some blind spots. 

Is the scene here as diverse and vital as it possibly could be or as we would like to think it is? For instance, why is it that in a town which dines out on legendary gigs such as Hendrix’s show on the pier in 1967 (I believe you can still purchase reproductions of this gig’s poster), it is rare to see bands gigging here from outside Hastings? 

Is the scene here as diverse and vital as we would like to think it is?

When I first felt the urge to write this, and after discussing it with friends who are in various capacities active in the Hastings music scene, I assembled a tentative longlist of 638 people that I should probably speak to in order to arrive at a balanced and representative discussion piece. So, from the outset I need to make it clear that, whilst the impressive number of potential contributors is in itself a strong indicator of the current health of music in the borough, the article was never going to represent everyone’s opinions. Neither would it be conclusive in any way. It is merely intended to be a conversation starter.

Rather than planning a series of ‘one to one’ interviews with a range of people, and after speaking with Mike Willis, we decided to assemble a discussion group at ‘Ramshackle’, Mike’s shop in Norman Road, throw out a few questions and see what happened. A few people that were approached were unable to attend. Others were reluctant to go on record, some were self-isolating and, to be frank, some just didn’t respond. So who was there?

Left to right: Sister Suzie, Remi Vibesman, Mick Whitnall, Gareth Stevens, Haydn Ackerley, Mike Willis

Remi Vibesman – A promoter and DJ who moved to the town from London in 2007. Remi has been very busy providing us with great ‘feel good’ soul, funk, jazz and disco and, in his heart, is committed to a more rounded and community-led spirit in all the events he has put on. He has tried to bring us music from outside the borough under the moniker of ‘Hidden Beach’ and is known for his efforts to see things a little differently.

Sister Suzie – Suzie is a well-loved, powerful and passionate rhythm and blues singer who is also currently booking original artists for a new online music platform called ‘Audiotrope’, a side-line of the Coastal Currents Arts Festival.

Mick Whitnall – Mick has lived in St Leonards for the last four years. He formed the ska and rocksteady reggae band One Hundred Men, was in Finlay Quaye’s band, played guitar and was co-songwriter with Pete Doherty in Babyshambles, and was working with Amy Winehouse on her third album when she left us.

Haydn Ackerley – Haydn produces under the pseudonym ‘Itch Iker’ and is also a multi-instrumentalist and composer with the Jung Minds. The median age of the discussion group plummeted suddenly once he agreed to be on board as he is enjoying the last year of his teens.

Mike Willis – Mike is a singer songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. He has also formed a music promotion company in the US. He moved to Hastings five years ago and is currently exploring ways of supporting the local live music scene, not least by developing a music streaming software.

It seems that my first experience of live music here was not unique. All but Haydn, who was born in the town, told similar stories of how the ‘New Orleanian’ spirit that is front and centre of the town’s approach to live music and best exemplified by Fat Tuesday was one of the most important reasons why they ended up living here. 

We discussed what were the best features of our local musical culture. Suzie was keen to applaud the people here for the way they actively support local bands. The fact that a range of local bands can play several times a week across the borough and still draw loyal crowds is startling. She went on to comment on how the diversity and enthusiasm of people here gave her confidence and impetus. 

Why is it that people here are generally unwilling to pay over a fiver to hear live music?

We all agreed that whilst “Salt and Pepper” rock bands are in abundance, audiences are not defined by age or sub-cultural groups. Beyond that, all concurred that the capacity of local venues to offer such a diverse range of musical genres was a hugely positive thing. Haydn, too, talked of the open mindedness of audiences. “An early set the Jung Minds did was, in part, wholly improvised and the accepting and appreciative response to it from people genuinely helped build my confidence as a young performer.”

Remi loves the fact that the Hastings music scene “doesn’t always take itself that seriously”. He loves that he can play cheesy goodtime tunes here without being faced with snobbery. 

Mike said that when he plays here he feels he is in the presence of genuine music lovers – “even in Nashville it is hard to find a real music appreciator”. 

Mick expressed the view that there is an authenticity to music in Hastings and said the scene here is a far cry from Camden’s where at times some spindly “snake hipped” wannabe has an entitled view about getting a record deal without being able to comfortably find their way around a fretboard.

So are there any less positive things about our music scene? Whilst the town’s loyalty to its homegrown talent is inarguably a good thing are there any downsides to this? 

Well, not because people are loyal, but maybe because the musical menu in town can appear a little repetitive at times. Haydn enjoys being in the audience at gigs in Hastings, but also thinks it is a hard scene to penetrate and the group as a whole agreed that there was a degree of insularity that unwittingly excludes younger upcoming bands. To some degree this has prompted the Jung Minds to think differently and to develop music that is beyond the obvious. 

Perhaps the most intensely discussed issue of the evening was, why is it that people here are generally unwilling to pay over a fiver to hear live music? Remi thought that “you can’t develop local talent if people are not prepared to pay to support it. It’s easier for venues to convince bands to play for shit money than it is to persuade customers to pay an entrance fee.”

Mike was quick to qualify this by saying that no venue owners are getting rich on the back of the live music they offer. “It is a pervasive problem across the whole music industry. Musicians are manipulated and coerced because they have an innate will to be creative” – and to find audiences for their music. 

Whilst I can’t fully reflect the two-hour conversation in this short space, the main wish list that emerged that the group felt would make our scene even stronger would be that it would be great if:

• there were more medium-sized dedicated music venues in Hastings;

• these venues routinely booked bands from outside the borough;

• more local bands and musicians played outside of Hastings in order to spread the word about the Hastings musical spirit;

• bands were paid reasonable fees and people were prepared to pay money to see live music sometimes;

• we could build a culture of writing ground-breaking songs that was exemplified by John Martyn;

• we could develop more infrastructure to support the writing, recording and releasing of music;

• there were more promoters who were prepared to take creative risks to broaden our musical offer.

I think it is fair to say that whilst we were a little bit concerned that our individual opinions might be different to others in the group, overall there was consensus. All of us were hugely positive about the music scene in Hastings, yet we all agreed that we should be careful not to rest on our laurels, nor to collectively drop the ball, and that we should invest in ‘filling the gaps’. It is so important that we have our eyes on sustaining and developing Hastings’ musical future… that we preserve all that is good and great and continue to grow.

Mike and I are planning more discussions on questions and ideas that have come out of our first session. Please contact me with feedback or expressions of interest if you want to be involved [email protected]

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