Glasgow is renowned for its strong, vibrant and diverse music scene. It has been named the UK’s top cultural and creative city and is a UNESCO city of music.

Consistently praised for its iconic venues, it hosts more live music events than any other city in Scotland. As Adam Behr notes, “to be a “music city” […] suggests a critical mass or centrality of musical activity that carries its own cultural cachet”. In reality, any city can have a “scene”. So why is Glasgow’s music scene so successful?

In early October, when I was at Lizzie Reid’s gig at the legendary King Tut’s, I found myself wondering what sets Glasgow’s music scene apart from any other in Scotland and in the UK. Just as the show was about to start, I began to recognize several familiar faces in the crowd, all artists and musicians currently involved in the Glasgow music scene. While many of us recognise Glasgow as the music hub of Scotland, I wanted to explore where this uniqueness comes from. I decided to look into the city’s indie music scene, its history and the musicians within it, in an attempt to gain an understanding of Glasgow’s longstanding relationship with music.

Lizzie Reid

It would be very difficult to pinpoint exactly how and when the Glasgow music scene, as we know it today, began. Some attribute it to Postcard Records and its DIY approach. Others, like Vic Galloway, suggest it was 80s band The Pastels that defined the scene. In a BBC documentary called Rip It Up Unwrapped, Galloway said:

“The Pastels were absolute instigators in Scotland, because The Pastels were a band that just went: We don’t want permission. […] We’re going to make this music whether you like it or not.

They were, as Mogwai frontman Stuart Braithwaite suggests, one of the first Glasgow bands not to leave for London. The band were forerunners for many in the Glasgow indie scene. When Stephen McRobbie (aka Stephen Pastel) started his own record label, 53rd and 3rd, it attracted a lot of the local artists and led him to discover bands like Teenage Fanclub formerly known The Boy Hairdressers, Pretty Flowers, BMX Bandits and The Vaselines.

The Pastels
The Pastels in the 1990s

Pastel describes it as feeling seamless: “there were lots of talented people […] hungry to do stuff and I suppose friendships became […] a scene”. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the socio-economic context in which the Glasgow music scene developed. At the time, the city was nearing the end of a post-industrial decline. Duglas Stewart, of BMX Bandits, explains that “the emergence of the sunny guitar pop of bands like Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits in this context [was] as an escape, as an effort to create a different world”.

One aspect of Glasgow that is universally recognised as being a contributing factor to its vibrant music scene are the venues. Karl Whitney describes Glasgow as “a city that’s culturally self-sufficient”.

Bands seamlessly transition from small to larger audiences through the city’s rich ecosystem of venues. In addition, Glasgow has a considerable number of pubs and bars that contribute to the live music scene and who put “live music on because they really [want] to”.

In addition, the city also boasts an impressive array of record shops, music shops and recording studios, all of which contribute to the musical infrastructure of Glasgow; an infrastructure that embraces the musicians’ DIY ethos. Given the size the city, it becomes almost inevitable for bands and artists from various genres to meet. Perhaps this is why NME editor Julian Marshall describes Glasgow as having “a real community scene”. Furthermore, according to Edith Bowman, “the friendliness and the sense of bands helping one another has always been prominent [in Glasgow]” which is why it makes Glasgow unique.

This friendliness and lack of competitiveness amongst Glasgow bands certainly contributes to the scene’s success. Although it’s not clear exactly where it comes from, Bowman suggests it stems from a “sense of contentment in just making the music they want to make. They won’t jeopardise their sound in order to be commercially successful”. The artists don’t expect to sell, they make music for the sake of making it without asking for approval first.

Tom McGuire and The Brassholes
Tom McGuire and The Brassholes

Through its history, we’ve established how the blueprint for the Glasgow scene was drawn. Although it was at a time of economic decline and the city has changed exponentially since, I don’t believe the music scene is much different, just perhaps larger. To gain an understanding of how musicians today perceive the indie music scene, I turned to Lizzie Reid and Tom McGuire. When speaking to each of them, I found that although they’re both artists from different genres and perform in different band settings they have a very similar experience of the music industry.

When asked to describe the music scene in Glasgow, McGuire said:

“It’s a vibrant and active community with a great set of jam sessions that serve as a hub for people getting together to play music.”

He goes on to explain that this is how he built his network of artists in the industry. Additionally, he describes something Vic Galloway had noted about the music scene in the 80s; musicians often move from one band to another. This crossover between bands, their members and the bills they share allow for connections to be formed.

Lizzie Reid commented on the subject of jam sessions as well, indicating that just like Duglas Stewart and his bandmates started through impromptu gigs, she began her career in music by meeting “like-minded people” at jam nights. When asked what she thought about peer support and competitiveness, Reid shared Tom McGuire’s views on the community feel of the scene, she added that although there is some competition, it’s natural and healthy for a music scene to grow as it serves as encouragement and inspiration. 

Both artists went on to comment on the size of the city, especially in comparison to London. McGuire describes it as “large enough to deliver a lot of great bands but small enough that everyone eventually knows each other” which contributes to an active and vibrant scene.

Overall, the Glasgow music scene was a result of the socio-economic context of the time leading people to embrace their creativity in search of escapism. The city’s relatively small size and density of music venues allowed the music scene to develop and grow into a vibrant community. This feeling of support from one artist to another and their eagerness to make music defines Glasgow.

As Lizzie Reid says: “I think Glasgow feels electric.”