The Wells are alive with the sound of music

The Wells are alive with the sound of music

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Paul Dunton

When you think about live music in Tunbridge Wells, one name that immediately comes to mind is Paul Dunton, singer, songwriter, pianist and local music promoter extraordinaire. Here, he explains to Fred Latty why the town is on the musical map and what audiences can expect from Local and Live’s tenth year…

Tell us about your background as a musician and how you got involved in the local music scene
It all started for me about ten years ago. Before that, I was splitting my time playing and teaching professional golf, but the playing side came to an end due to injury, so I found myself with a bit more spare time. Initially, I started playing the piano again and felt very enthusiastic about that, but it led to something more and I really wanted to make some recordings and release a CD, which happened at Trinity Theatre in January 2005.

You also host live music evenings at The Grey Lady music lounge – how did that come about?
Unknown to me, the current owners of The Grey Lady were at that event and approached me afterwards to come and play at the venue, offering me a weekly slot on a Wednesday evening, which was a new venture for them as well. With all the goodwill in the world, I knew pretty soon, exciting as that was, I wasn’t able to maintain a weekly showcase for myself; I didn’t have the repertoire and was quite new to performing, so it made more sense to me to start a showcase for local singer/songwriters, keeping it very acoustic. The venue was very happy with that idea.

Those evenings have become hugely popular since – was that always the case?
With a bit of perseverance, it grew and grew to the point more and more acts were applying to play at the showcase. The first few months were really tough because the audiences were quite low and I didn’t really have any budget to market the show, but once we got some traction in terms of artists and numbers, it snowballed in the right direction.

What about your role organising the annual Local and Live music festival?
Local and Live was originally to celebrate that showcase and also to celebrate the town’s 400th year, in 2006. The event was called Bandstand 400 then; we had ten bands a day and a very small budget for the event, but people responded pretty well and it gave me the impetus to make it bigger and better the next year. The title was changed to Local and Live, which I thought was much more apt for the whole event and a bit more catchy, and the festival also grew at a quicker rate – by 2008 it had become very big, as it had gone to three days and had a lot of bands. The attendance has now reached an average of 20,000 which is pretty staggering and really encouraging.

Is anyone paid for putting on the festival?
I’ve always believed that, if you’re going to put on an event, make sure you do it as well as you can. When you’re putting on Local and Live, which is now effectively a four-day festival spread across the whole town with a big set-up in Calverley Grounds, there are elements that cost and you have to employ professional services to ensure the event goes ahead in the right way. That means employing professional security, medical teams, sound engineers and stage management, so there are elements of Local and Live where people are paid for their services, but they’re essential to the event.

Are there volunteers as well?
Over the years, I’ve been very lucky to meet many fantastic individuals in the community who have responded to Local and Live. We do need a lot of volunteers, not only on site at Calverley Grounds, but the ‘fringe’ element is also a key thing where we need people at all the different venues. We always get great support; 50 to 60 people come forward every year. The festival couldn’t run anything like it does in terms of organisation without the volunteers.

How is the event financed?
There are lots of different ways. Primarily, we would always look for a main sponsor or several sponsors each year, to take some of the pressure off pre-event costs in particular. At the event itself, it’s quite hard to legislate, because it can be weather dependent, but we get profits from food and drink concessions and invite local traders to get involved, so we go on a profit-share basis with them, which is a good way of raising money. There are also donations at the event from the public and merchandise sales, so it’s a combination. The festival costs around £35,000 to put on, so the idea is just to cover its costs every year.

Do you receive funding from the council?
We’ve received grants from the council over the last few years, between £1,000 and £1,500 per year. That’s a help and they’ve also made life very straightforward in terms of red tape and the organisational side and have been really helpful from start to finish. It’s not a council event, but they’re certainly behind it and involved and I hope that will continue.

Does finding sponsors present a challenge?
Sponsorship is the key, but I’ve found that, in recent years, particularly with the financial climate everybody has been enduring, we’re still not out of the recession quite yet, so although things are looking like they’re going in a better way, sponsorship has been a little bit harder to come by. There are still many local businesses I know will help us as much as they can, but getting that big sponsor isn’t always that easy.

We may look to crowd-fund the event, which might be the answer.

Who performs at the festival?
The majority are chosen from the Grey Lady roster, which is predominantly acoustic, but there are also lots of other bands I wouldn’t naturally showcase there, but might be involved at The Forum, for example. We’re really looking to be true to the festival, which is to showcase local artists and give them that platform to play their music. Over the years, we’ve had one or two guests from further away, but I feel very strongly that it should be just for local acts. Making sure that they’re original acts is also very important and the ethos of the whole event.

And what kind of audience does it attract?
One of the charming aspects of the whole thing is that the demographic is all ages, from children to the elderly. I noticed that right from the start and I think that comes down to two things: the music is very accessible and appealing to lots of different tastes, and it focuses on local musicians and artists that people want to support, like they would their own football team. Age is no barrier in that and it’s wonderful to see people from all different backgrounds and ages; Local and Live and the whole scene really pulls people together.

This year marks Local and Live’s tenth anniversary – what can audiences expect?
Two stages in Calverley Grounds is something that’s always been on my mind and we plan to do that this year. The main stage will be in exactly the same location as last year, and then at the very back of the park there’s an old bowling green that’s sadly not in use any more. For us, that can work really well as a space for an acoustic stage, which will run while the main stage is going and will allow us to bring in another ten or 20 acts. On the main stage last year, we had 32 acts and I’m hoping that we’ll get over 50 in total in Calverley Grounds alone for the two days.

You moved the event from The Pantiles to Calverley Grounds last year – what has the response been like to the change of venue?
It has been really positive; we had eight great years on The Pantiles and it was the right venue for the festival, but once we got to years six and seven, I felt that it was getting a bit tight on space. With the success of the jazz nights on The Pantiles, understandably, more health and safety has come into play, so there just isn’t the space now. It was time to move it and Calverley was the natural option.

What are your thoughts on Tunbridge Wells culture in general?
I really think we’re on the map now. The Forum is where it all started and they’re an integral part of the town’s arts and music scene. But with The Forum, we also have really lovely venues like Trinity Theatre, the Assembly Hall, the Grey Lady and more and more pubs putting on music. And it’s not just music – there’s lots of comedy in the town and lots of other forms of arts getting good attendances. There are lots of things going on and that’s great to see because there’s obviously a real sense of culture in the town. Tunbridge Wells has a lot to offer in this area and is now being seen as a destination, which is a great thing that I don’t see slowing down.

LOCAL AND LIVE 2015
The free Local and Live 2015 event runs from August 28 – 31 at Calverley Grounds and a variety of ‘fringe’ venues around the town. For more information, visit www.localandlive.org

To find out more about upcoming acts at The Grey Lady, head to www.thegreylady.co.uk or www.paulduntonandguests.com