I’ve written my fair share of Union-slating articles. I am not a frequenter of the Bops, and I can’t say I’ve ever been enthralled by their theme choices. But I’m a little sick of reading post after post on university Facebook pages, complaining about the terrible state of the St Andrews music scene, evidently written by people who haven’t noticed that ABBA Bop isn’t the only thing going on here. Frankly, we are failing to recognise just how phenomenal this place is for music – and you don’t even have to love ABBA.
Take your average Joe at Manchester university. Let’s say he picks up a guitar one day and finds himself strumming some smooth chords, or writing a decent lyric. Or perhaps he’s messing around on his mate’s decks and nails a couple of song transitions. He works a little harder, writes a few songs or develops his DJing technique. Eventually, he’s ready to step out into the big bad world of music and book himself a few gigs. Only, he’s a student DJ in the middle of Manchester. His degree is long finished before he even hears back from the fifty venues he emailed about gig vacancies.
We are so lucky to be in a town where students have the power to cultivate, control and dominate the entire music scene. The scene we have in St Andrews is practically unmatched – no other university nightlife is designed by students, for students, to such an extent. If you’re in a big city, you’re out clubbing at huge venues. Student musicians get totally lost and, unless you’re lucky enough to know the right people, it’s almost impossible to book gigs at places of note. Here, we have entire collectives set up where resident DJs can secure gigs at St Andrews’ most popular venues – and look at events such as Szentek, where those DJs are playing alongside names as major as Peverelist and Eclair Fifi. We also have societies like STIMS, who are bringing smaller indie bands to a town which isn’t exactly on the map for touring musicians. There’s Music Is Love which gives student performers a platform to play live and promote their music; groups like Jazzworks which expand the genres covered by live performance in St Andrews; and bands like Too This For That who encourage genre-crossing by gigging at Szentek over heavy electronic music, as well as giving us some incredible improv performances at a huge variety of events throughout the year.
But don’t just take my word for it. I spoke to a number of students involved in either cultivating or exploiting the music scene in St Andrews, and unsurprisingly ended up with enough positive feedback to write a book. Michelle Marsh, a second-year student who you can find on the dance floor at pretty much every techno event in St Andrews, spoke to me about her experience as a music lover. “Because of the small network of students, there’s a sense of solidarity when it comes to supporting new events. And because the market is so small, any attempt at filling the numerous gaps is normally successful and appropriately appreciated.” Networking as a musician is common, but it’s pretty rare to build up a network of people who attend music events, and that’s what St Andrews does. Everyone knows everyone on the dance floor, and everyone wants everyone else to have a good time.
Michelle also talked about the associations we’ve made with the union, given their track record of events. “Any event at 601, regardless of the quality, will be somewhat downgraded because of its bad associations.” Of course, reputations can change, but for now it’s completely fruitless to criticise the union for its lack of techno events: people don’t want to boogie to techno in the same room which hosts Pirate Bop, Pyjama Bop and Meme Bop.
Tom Groves, Head of STAR and a name with which you’re probably familiar, continued this discussion about the issue of venues which seemed to dominate the Fessdrews ‘601 debate’, as people like to complain about the lack of techno events put on at the union. “Try putting on an intimate techno event on in 601 – effectively a huge cuboid with plain walls and an unreachable ceiling – and you’ll fail, as proven again and again. The union advertises these events as much as any other, and yet the turnout is invariably less than a bop.” Wax Collective is inextricably linked to Aikman’s cellar; BPM is usually found in the Vic; Szentek’s smaller events take place in the Rule. These are all small venues which lend themselves, in Tom’s words, “to a sweaty atmosphere of positivity”. They simply work with the music and the crowd. 601 is associated with cheesy bops, and techno events are the furthest you can get from that. If you’ve been to a Wax event in Aikman’s, you’d probably say the same thing as me: why would anyone want to move Wax out of that tiny, sweaty, underground room? Wax-type music belongs there, not in a huge and somewhat impersonal club venue which has apparently traumatised so many students with its over-indulgence in ABBA.
And, as Tom points out, it’s a similar story with the venues chosen by STIMS: “small or student bands aren’t going to fill out 601, but they’re going to make someone’s living room the liveliest place in Fife for an hour.” The union isn’t against techno music, or gigs by student bands. They would probably actively encourage it. So, stop complaining about their lack of techno events, when we all know that a Wax event in Aikman’s goes off in a way which 601 wouldn’t be able to imitate. Meanwhile, the glorious sounds of ABBA deserve as large a venue as we can get our hands on.
I also spoke to Annaliese Nixon, who’s in charge of booking bands to play at events like Sounds of Sandy’s. She had something to say about how the size of St Andrews as a whole university lends itself to a thriving music scene: “The size of the student population allows for intimate gigs at Sounds of Sandy’s, or STIMS events where a band and their audience fit into a living room. They are unmissable events which wouldn’t be afforded at bigger universities.”
Annaliese also reminded me of the similarities between opportunities being provided to musicians by both STIMS and Szentek: as mentioned, Szentek residents are sharing the decks with massive names, and STIMS also offers the same privilege for young indie musicians. “We have gigs planned where student bands are playing alongside established Scottish bands, which evidently wouldn’t be happening in bigger cities.” Not only is this providing amazing opportunities for our St Andrean musicians, but the potential exposure and networking opportunities for event organisers are second-to-none. How often does an entirely student-led electronic music initiative like Szentek end up being featured on Resident Advisor? Students who are looking to dive into the daunting world of music after university are gaining invaluable experience before they’ve even graduated.
Moving away from the high-energy gigs and events being put on by electronic-based collectives or groups like STIMS, I also had a chat with Liliana Potter, a successful Spotify artist who performs at tonnes of the more low-key, chilled out St Andrews gigs such as the Bell Pettigrew Sessions or STAR Radio Live Lounges. “As a singer/songwriter, it’s been super easy picking up gigs here. I love the creativity with gigs as well, like putting on events in the Bell Pettigrew or Jannettas.”
Jared Israel, another St Andrews musician, also talked about his positive experience booking gigs or collaborating here: “Musicians in St Andrews seem to have a nice web. The small town mentality pushes everyone together – you want to help each other out, mention a gig to another player who would suit it better.”
I can corroborate this: as a musician whose music also suits a calmer vibe, I’ve been able to get gigs through STAR, Music Is Love and ‘On The Rocks’ festival, because it’s so easy to establish a name for yourself here. Gigging in a museum is one of the coolest experiences ever, and it felt like I was playing a Sofar gig – except in a bigger city, it’s practically impossible to get yourself on a line-up like Sofar. I’ve also played a few gigs at the Adamson, one of my favourite spots in St Andrews. Securing a set at a pretty cocktail bar in the middle of London would be completely out of reach for me, as an unsigned and relatively inexperienced musician, but you’ll struggle to find a St Andrews musician who hasn’t played at the Adamson.
Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you to think twice before moaning about the music scene in St Andrews. We’re honestly harbouring some of the most talented, enthusiastic people here and it shows. But if you’re still not convinced, then take a leaf out of Gandhi’s book and be the change. Mika Schmeling, Director of Events and Services, wanted to add a little note to anyone bursting with ideas on how to change up the scene here: “This year, the union has been focusing on using all of its venues to showcase the diverse talent in St Andrews. Student societies and groups are more than welcome to reach out at any time to put on any genre of music.” In other words, if you’re not satisfied, go ahead and show us how it’s done.