Nottingham's music scene: soon to be heard?

Its biggest claim to pop fame was once Su Pollard. Now, a formidable new generation of Nottingham artists is emerging

'So, which acts from round here have been in the charts?" In any decent-sized city, there's a standard pub conversation to be had – but in Nottingham, it might be briefer than most. Forty years after their last big seller, blues rockers Ten Years After remain the city's most successful albums act, by a huge distance. As for singles, the hall of fame is still headed by Paper Lace (three hits in 1974, including the chart-topping Billy Don't Be a Hero), closely followed by KWS (early 90s dance-cover merchants, best known for their grim take on KC and the Sunshine Band's Please Don't Go). A pause will follow, as brains are racked. "What about Alvin Stardust?" someone might venture. "No, he's from Mansfield," another will counter. Finally and fatally, someone else will dredge up the lone hit by Nottingham's highest-charting female singer: Su Pollard, who stormed to No 2 in 1986 with the wince-making Starting Together.

"It couldn't get more embarrassing" says Simon Wilson, entertainment editor at the Nottingham Post, who is acutely aware of the city's reputation for underachievement. "Record labels have always said to me: build up a scene in your own city, and that will attract the attention of A&R," he says. But where cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds have all had their time in the sun – thanks to a particular defining sound, or a notable breakout act – there has never been a "Nottingham moment". If success came at all, it was despite an artist coming from Nottingham, not because of it.

In 2011, the situation is markedly different. Four local acts have signed to major labels this year, and there's a tangible buzz in the air, as the scene finally finds its identity: confident, visible, with a new spirit of collaborative bonhomie. "They all seem to be genuinely supportive of each other, and they don't slag anyone off," Wilson says. "It wasn't like that in the 90s; there was a lot of bitching going on. We've not had anything like this, in terms of people getting recognition."

This shouldn't be surprising, given Nottingham's enviable reputation for live music venues; a recent survey placed it third in the UK in terms of consumer choice, behind Newcastle and Manchester. Venues range from the 10,000-capacity Arena to tiny ventures such as The Chameleon, and the Jamcafé. Four of them – Rock City, Rescue Rooms, Bodega Social Club and Stealth – are operated by local promoters DHP, whose booking policy regarding homegrown acts has become notably more inclusive.

"There's more of a spotlight on the city, because we're trying to put one on it," says DHP managing director George Akins. "We're trying to be more proactive about how we give the leg-up. If we spot someone we like, we try and fit them with a suitable support slot. Let's not wait for the agent to tell us there's no support. We're already thinking about who would fit." This integrated approach has spread to annual music festivals such as Dot to Dot and Splendour, both promoted by DHP. The city's leading acts now share stages with nationally recognised names, bringing local talent to the attention of more casual punters.

Mark Del, who heads the non-profit voluntary organisation Nusic (it's a contraction of "Nottingham New Music"), has lobbied hard for this shift. A forceful, ebullient character, who grew his venture from local radio shows and a "let's get a Nottingham act to No 1" Facebook campaign, Del is just the sort of scene champion the city needs. Nusic is active on a number of fronts, including awareness-raising workshops in schools, weekly podcasts, and a high-profile contest called Future Sound of Nottingham, whose winners opened the main stage at this year's Splendour. The podcasts are cheery affairs, peppered with jingles and DJ banter, and aimed squarely at a general audience. This sits well with the more populist, less niche-bound nature of the current scene, which is now producing many acts that you could plausibly expect to hear on daytime playlists.

Liam Bailey has already tasted chart success this year, contributing lead vocals to Blind Faith, a top five hit for Chase & Status. Bailey achieved recognition in the old way, by moving to London and slogging round venues in the capital. "Not enough bands are willing to come down and play London," he says. "They're too happy where they are. In London you're here on your own, and it's dog-eat-dog. So if Nottingham is starting to establish itself as a scene, then God bless it."

Bailey retains strong personal links with the city – his last video was shot here, for instance – and he enthuses over fellow soul singer Natalie Duncan, now signed to Universal. ("The best singer I've ever heard coming out of Nottingham. She wipes the floor with me.") He's particularly passionate about its long-established and distinctive hip-hop scene, which is characterised by adherence to old-school breaks-and-beats values and an almost universal retention of local accents. (Nottingham's vowel sounds and cadences are mysteriously well-suited to rap; it's difficult to imagine rappers from Birmingham or Bristol pulling off the same trick.) Lyrically, there's an absence of brag, bling and hard-man posturing; instead, the wry, observational rhymes of MCs such as Cappo, Scorzayzee and Juga-Naut are rooted in real-life experience. On C-Mone's current album Dancing With Mirrors, there's even a rap about housing policy in St Ann's, one of the city's toughest neighbourhoods. "Nottingham hip-hop is how it should be," Bailey says. "It's real people talking. I don't hear any American hip-hop artists talking like that."

Bailey's decision to leave town might have made sense at the time, but perhaps it's no longer necessary. Take Ronika, for instance. "Obviously, coming from Nottingham it's harder to get yourself heard," she says. "But now there are so many online tools, I decided that rather than waiting to be found, I'd do it myself."

Working almost entirely independently, Ronika has built her own buzz, offering previews to tastemaker blogs (Electronic Rumours has dubbed her "the Madonna of the Midlands") and steadily accruing national press attention for her delightful brand of 80s-influenced dance pop. While majors hover, she is retaining her mystique and keeping a cool head; a third EP is due this month on her own label, and live dates are gradually becoming more regular.

The impact of Ronika's online strategy suggests an altered landscape, with a newly levelled playing field. Today's A&R departments are no longer just trawling gigs; they're scouring SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Facebook, and looking for evidence of genuine support. In this world, followers and play counts matter just as much as audience numbers, offering enhanced opportunities to regional acts.

Nottingham's newest significant arrival is 17-year-old Jake Bugg: a plaintive performer with a distinctive, reedy voice and a knack for writing songs that already sound decades old. Bugg, who signed to Mercury over the summer, is a beneficiary of the BBC Introducing initiative, which aims to support "unsigned, undiscovered and under-the-radar" musicians. Its website provides an upload facility for new acts, who can tag their tracks by genre and region. Any submissions from the east Midlands are automatically routed to Dean Jackson, a music presenter at BBC Radio Nottingham. Jackson and his team typically receive around 200 tracks a week. They aim to listen to at least 95%.

If Jackson likes what he hears, a live session is arranged for his Saturday evening show The Beat, and filmed for YouTube. A respected figure nationally, with several years of service on the Mercury prize judging panel, Jackson habitually refers the most promising acts to his contacts on national radio, such as Tom Robinson at 6Music, Radio 1's Huw Stephens, or Mistajam at 1Xtra. The dream conclusion of this process is a place on the Radio 1 playlist, which reserves a weekly slot for BBC Introducing acts. This year, four tracks from Nottingham acts have qualified for inclusion, including Jake Bugg's Someone Told Me and Young by Dog Is Dead, a dextrous and characterful five-piece who have since signed to Atlantic.

Meanwhile, Jackson's radio clout has been matched by his track record of placing bands on the BBC Introducing stages at festivals, both regionally and nationally. At this year's Glastonbury, for example, three of his proteges appeared: Jake Bugg, shoegaze revivalists Spotlight Kid, and a rap collaboration between 2Tone, Jah Digga and DJ Vimto.

Dog Is Dead's 2010 appearance there proved to be a major staging post, setting them on the path that led to their deal with Atlantic. Widely tipped to be the next Nottingham act to break through, they remain unfazed by the weight of expectation. "I don't think there's that kind of pressure," singer Rob Milton says, "because we've had all the support we need. So it spurs us on, in a way. It's something to be proud of, and in fact it helps us nationally – because it's more interesting, coming from a place without anything."

Thanks to this recent flurry of activity, a gathering sense of momentum has infected the music community, sweeping aside the last vestiges of cosy fatalism. "Coming back to Nottingham after two months on tour, you notice that there's three or four artists who are pushing to a stage where we were a few months back," Milton says. "It's happened really quickly, and it hasn't really happened before." Speculation is rife in the city as to who will be next to step up; perhaps it will be Nina Smith's deftly understated acoustic pop, or Kirk Spencer's Indian-influenced electronica, or Swimming's synthy, cosmic indie rock. And who knows, perhaps Mark Del's longed-for third Nottingham No 1 may yet become a reality.

Ronika releases the single Only Only on 3 October on Record Shop. Dog Is Dead's Hands Down is out on 30 October on Atlantic.

Mike Atkinson

The GuardianTramp

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