Dundee’s Musical Heartbeat

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Much has been written about Dundee’s City of Culture bid, most of the articles I’ve read have been a good summary of Dundee’s cultural heritage, the city’s transformation in recent years, with plenty of detail about the museums, exhibitions, the art school (Duncan of Jordanstone), the Dundee Rep Theatre, and Dundee Contemporary Arts.  But to highlight what the city has meant to me over the last few years, I thought I’d take a more personal approach to explaining why I think Dundee richly deserved to be named City of Culture.

I grew up in Fife, around twenty minutes by train from Dundee, and spent a lot of time here before I finally moved here in 2007. I played in bands as a teenager, and the majority of the gigs we played at that time were over the bridge in Dundee.

Despite our novice status, we never found it particularly difficult to get gigs in the city. There were always plenty of people who were enthusiastic about promoting young bands, and plenty of venues willing to accommodate them. The shows that we played back then were always relatively well attended, given that Dundee is a fairly small city and most of the shows were on weeknights. If it wasn’t for the huge number of enthusiastic bands, promoters and venues, my musical ‘career’ might not have even got off the ground.

After some time away from the city – I lived in London for a year then went travelling for six months – I moved to Dundee permanently in 2007.  My experiences as a teenager were a huge factor in this decision, coupled with the fact that many of the friends I had made in that time were still here.

The Dundee I came back to had a different feel to the one I’d left, however.  In 2007-08, bars and venues were starting to feel the squeeze. People had less money than they did even five years earlier, and gigs were poorly attended as the price of drinking out increased. Several of the venues I played had shut their doors, including the famous Westport Bar, and the small city centre was bereft of the opportunities that I had had at the turn of the decade.

But the artists and music lovers of Dundee recognised this problem, and set about trying to reverse the trend. Previously empty venues gradually started to reopen as enterprising individuals saw an opportunity, saw that a vibrant music scene can still exist in Dundee, and began to rebuild. Even the pubs who were run by larger companies and chains appointed local people to put on bands and promote gigs – people who knew the Dundee scene and its rich diversity.

Independent venues began to work more closely with the bands and promoters too – they became more accommodating and were keen to promote live music as a selling point, rather than a reason to avoid a pub. People started banding together (if you’ll pardon the pun) and formed collectives. One mainstay of the local scene, the punk rock label Make-That-A-Take Records flourished, and thanks to the spirit, imagination and determination of the individuals involved, began to attract better known bands to Dundee. One of the highlights of the gig going calendar is their Book Yer Aine Fest, which even in name epitomises the spirit that exists here. The festival, which takes place in November, is now in its seventh year, and each year is bigger than the last. There’s also the annual Dundee Blues Bonanza, which takes over the city for a weekend every summer and attracts a wealth of international as well as local talent. These festivals are complimented by the huge number of one-off gigs, and thanks to organisations such as the Rusty Hip Collective and the Tin Roof Artists Collective, you can often go along to a gig and take in an art exhibition between the bands.

I’ve seen opportunities for musicians increase greatly in the last six or seven years, and many people now concede that Dundee more than punches above its weight in terms of the quality of its musical output.  The View and Snow Patrol (who met while studying at Dundee University) are our most well-known exports, but there’s far more to our music than that. From folk-singer songwriters to garage punk and heavy metal, there is a diversity that belies the city’s small population.  In recent years we have seen bands such as The Mirror Trap and Fat Goth gain national radio airplay, and we’re also home to arguably the best unsigned band in Scotland, The Hazey Janes, who are fresh from a UK tour supporting Scots legends Deacon Blue and recently toured Europe with US indie stalwarts Wilco.

And it is all powered by individual and collective effort. Dundee may not be a priority on many touring bands’ schedules, especially those of non-Scottish bands, but the dedication of a few and the enthusiasm of many ensures that Dundee’s music scene continues to grow. As more and more collectives and organisations spring up the outlook becomes brighter. Dundee more than deserved to be named City of Culture, but despite our acute disappointment at the result many have vowed that they will continue to keep Dundee’s cultural heart beating strongly. And that is perhaps the most inspiring thing of all.

Gord Matheson
National Collective

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About Gord Matheson

Gord is a student, musician and songwriter who records and performs live as The Strangers Almanac. Raised in Fife and resident in Dundee, Gord is a member of the Scottish Green Party and was ultimately converted to the Yes cause by his younger sister, who works at Westminster for the SNP. When not waxing lyrical about music and Scottish independence, Gord can often be heard loudly discussing football, cinema and science. He is also a devout Rangers supporter. You can find him on Twitter: @gordmatheson

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