Paul Dunton


Looking back over the past 10 years, the local music scene has definitely gone from strength to strength. From a personal standpoint, it’s been quite a rollercoaster journey, but on the whole a very enjoyable one.

So, how have things changed over the last decade? In my opinion, the town has continued to embellish its growing reputation as a music destination, which can be seen at its two free-to-attend music festivals, Unfest and Local & Live.

These festivals are expanding year upon year and the number of festivalgoers continues to steadily increase. Since both events are run on a shoestring budget, this is probably down to word of mouth more than anything else. Local & Live moving its main stage from The Pantiles to Calverley Grounds in 2014 certainly helped numbers swell, as the event now offers more space, attracting a growing number of families and children.

It’s also become apparent that more music and arts festivals have suddenly appeared as regular calendar events across the borough – surely a measure of the local scene’s burgeoning reputation. In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of new festivals, including Alfresco Festival, Joy Festival and the Live Expressions Festival. This year, celebrity chef Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park comes to Dunorlan Park in early July, boasting an international roster of global music pop stars, while the esteemed country/folk-themed Black Deer Festival arrives in Eridge Park in late June.
The amount of pubs, bars, cafés and concert halls hosting live music has fluctuated over the years, but in the last three to four, it’s been on the increase. More often than not, you can now find regular live music at The Beau Nash, The Royal Oak, The Bedford, The Spa Hotel, Scallywag Café, The Duke of York, Grub & Liquor, The King William, The Bull Inn, The Trading Post, The Masonic Hall and many more.

We’re very fortunate to have three great arts venues in the forms of Trinity Theatre, the Assembly Hall and The Forum, all of which have continually hosted live music with great success. The Forum is, of course, iconic – a central hub for local bands, which has the pulling power to attract acts from all over the world. It recently celebrated its 25th birthday, an incredible achievement, and has received recognition from NME magazine as the UK’s best small venue, a much-deserved accolade. It punches well above its weight, which is all down to the dedication and passion of owner Jason Dormon and the Forum team.

The Grey Lady Music Lounge on The Pantiles has been going for around 16 years now, and continues to host live music five times a week on average, championing local singer-songwriter acts, in addition to local covers bands spanning a multitude of genres.

Likewise, the Pantiles Jazz series has been hosted annually for over 20 years, and is more popular than ever, running over a four-month period throughout the summer on Thursday nights. I’ve certainly noticed an increase in numbers since 2008, and if the weather’s good, The Pantiles is absolutely buzzing!

Elsewhere, the Mela Festival and the Tunbridge Wells Classical Festival both continue to flourish year upon year too, plus the King Charles the Martyr church is an established venue for world-class recitals and concerts.

Some exciting success stories include the emergence of Slaves, a local punk rock band who have gone on to hit the big-time, signing to a major label and performing all over the world. Other acts who have cut their teeth on the local scene and are starting to enjoy real success include Will Joseph Cook, Elle Watson, The Noble Jacks, The Standard Lamps, Tom Williams, Zoe Nicol (Worry Dolls), Dan Clews and many more.

In closing, the local music scene is stronger than ever before; it’s on an upward trajectory, but that will only continue if people keep going out to support live music. As strong as the scene is, it’s also incredibly fragile, and without support and investment, has no guaranteed future. I for one hope it will continue for as long as possible, as it’s truly an asset to our wonderful town.