BRISTOL, U.K. — You probably think of London as Britain’s musical capital: It is where musicians get discovered, where music moguls sit in skyscrapers and decide on the next big thing, and where artists land the elusive record deal. But a smaller city has knocked off London’s crown.
Bristol has been declared the most musical city in the United Kingdom by the Performing Rights Society for Music (PRS). The results of the survey carried out by PRS, which found Bristol has more musicians per capita than any other city in the U.K., were met with disbelief.
Even the musicians who haunt Bristol’s lively music scene were surprised by the announcement.
“Maybe it’s just the tourist board saying that to draw more people in,” said Mark Legassick, also known as “Howling Lord,” a Bristol-based country artist. “I would say that we are No. 1 for producing country music."
London is "good, but it's too nice," Legassick added. "In Bristol we have a bit more venom.” Venom has certainly secured attention for Howling Lord. According to Legassick, a horror film in production in the United States will feature one of his EPs.
Bristol is also very possessive of its musicians. And the wonders of its music scene often remain a secret. To the outsider Bristol is known only for having produced the Triphop genre in the 1980s and 1990s and as being the hometown of experimental music production duo Massive Attack. But there is far more to Bristol’s scene.
Those in the know will bypass the larger generic nightclubs and head to the smaller, and more energetic clubs such as Mr.Wolfs, legendary for its great DJs, friendly crowds and electric atmosphere.
The initiated will recognize locals like "Big Jeff," an enigmatic music fan always at the front of any gig worth seeing, jumping exuberantly, blond afro flying.
Bands that have evolved in Bristol have a special place in locals' hearts, such as Let’s Tea Party, who repeatedly feature at music festivals.
And every Bristol music lover knows the best venues are the smaller ones. The Louisiana, a venue known locally for its great acoustics and sound team, has attracted international acts that include The White Stripes, The Strokes and Kings of Leon. But these big names have not overshadowed the local element according to Mig Schillace, The Louisiana's main promoter.
“The Bristol scene is as strong as ever," Schilliace said. "There are lots of great new bands coming through from all different genres.”
The diversity of Bristol’s music scene means that separate musical clusters have formed, and only exploration will lead you to its wonders.
“Like anything in life, you have to go out and find what you're looking for. That's part of the joy of music, discovering new bands,” Schillace said.
It is certainly not a lack of talent that has people wondering at Bristol’s new title. It is the city’s obscurity. Bristol, like many other U.K. towns, is often overlooked by the music industry, which traditionally has been London-centric.
“The problem with Bristol is there is not much support for local artists” on the national level, said Chazzie Jay, a local music producer and DJ. Booking agents and promoters often undervalue local artists, he said, and radio airplay remains elusive. “Artists outside of London are not getting fairly represented as far as radio is concerned,” he said.
Sam Bonham, presenter of the BBC program "Bristol Introducing Radio," admitted that not many Bristol bands get radio airplay.
“I don’t think that many of Bristol’s musicians are particularly commercially viable, or mainstream,” Bonham said. But the talent here has surprised him: “I could not believe how high the standard of music is in Bristol.” Bonham said in the nine months he has worked on the radio show, at least six of the Bristol bands featured have gone on to gain BBC Radio 1 airplay, showing that talent can break out of obscure origins.
Part of the beauty of Bristol’s music scene is its obscurity. Unlike London, whose musical community is very industry-driven, Bristol’s music is untainted by the more commercial aspects of the music business.
“I think it would be spoilt if it was like London. What is beautiful about Bristol music is that it has that homegrown ethic,” Bonham said.
The city’s music supporters just hope that the attention from being declared the most musical city in the U.K. does not go to Bristol’s head and destroy its small-town feel.