Durham’s Live Music Scene – A Commentary

Check out the Collingwood open-mic documentary here!

I never used to like live music – it’s messy, performers can make mistakes, and audiences are noisy. Why not just listen to the same song on headphones, in its pure and perfected version? But I’ve been seeing the beauty in it since a few months ago when someone told me that ‘live music is more interesting’. Like how live music possesses the charm of the unexpected – listening to a recording that never changes can get boring, and musicians often make little improvisations every time they perform something since always playing the same version of a song bores them. Furthermore, as Harry Rylott of Collingwood said in his interview above, ‘music is about more than audio’. When you go to an open mic night it’s not to listen to pure, abstract, distilled music. Live music emphasizes the social aspect of music. You go there to watch the performers (who are often also your friends), to be exhilarated or bored at the way they engage the audience, to be awed at the creative energy of some sexy drummer boy, to visually witness the chemistry of a great band. While live music is more flawed and full of errors, it’s heartening, to see the human side of musicians. (Because I always thought guitarists were soulless pricks who only pretended to be emotional to get girls! Gasp)

Having extolled the merits of live music, what can I say about Durham’s live music scene? Watch the documentary above to find out. Cough. The short ten minute video features excellent performances at a Collingwood open mic, as well as interviews with the organizers on what makes a good music scene, whether a united music scene exists at all in Durham, how the friendly college atmosphere helps nurture aspiring musicians, and so on.

We’ve also compiled a list of some upcoming open mics and music events – also, if you’re interested in running your own gig, scroll to the bottom for advice from people probably more experienced than you.

Van Mildert

Music is Van Mildert’s thing. People don’t just end up in Van Mildert, they choose it for its music scene. Robert Sinclair, head of the society that organizes Mildert’s live music events, applied for Mildert for this reason – how to resist when it advertised with its excellent musical facilities and its annual Jam By The Lake festival. Van Mildert is also where The Quays – one of Durham’s most famous student bands – got together.

Upcoming Van Mildert events? Open mic nights are held twice a term, so look out for them. They will also be holding Battle of the Bands on March 7th, a competition between student bands from all over the university where the prize is a guaranteed spot at Jam By The Lake. Finally, do look out for Jam By The Lake – an open-air music festival – once exams are over.


St. Cuthbert’s

Cuth’s music scene is both lively and tightly knit. Azin Khan speaks in praise of the closeness of the scene where there is always a supportive audience. He notes however that there can be a downside to this, saying that at times Cuth’s can feel like a niche club as ‘live music isn’t on the mainstream agenda around the university’. Cuth’s is famous for its Big Band, which performs at events all over university.

Upcoming Cuth’s events? Their next open mic is later in February, with the date yet to be confirmed. The BandSoc, which originated in Cuth’s, also holds open mics every Friday at the DSU.


St. Mary’s

Mary’s has an excellent music scene, with a highly active Arts Society that holds dozens of events every year. Open mic events at Mary’s are called ‘The Live Lounge’ and are constantly sold out due to both popularity and small venue size. Limited space gives their open mics an ‘intimate and atmospheric’ feel, heightened by the fact that the performers are on the same level amongst the audience rather than on a raised stage. Performances range from ‘comedy serenades to beautiful Arabic ballads’.

Upcoming events at Mary’s? Catch their ‘Live Lounge’ open mic night on the 19th of February from 8pm. For those into 60s culture and fancy dress pub quizzes, there is a sixties themed night on Saturday 23rd February.


At Collingwood, a tradition of regular open mic nights is being established thanks to Harry Rylott and Sam Jones’ initial efforts a few years back. This academic year also saw the creation of a new Collingwood Big Band and Choir for those inclined towards less contemporary music. Some prominent Collingwood musicians are Heartbreak Harry and the Charmers, Liv & The Lionhardts and Nick Wallis.

Upcoming events? Open mics are held two to three times a term, and the next one is on Monday, 18th February.


Josephine Butler

Despite being Durham’s newest college, Butler’s music scene has grown rapidly, with their jazz band regularly playing around Durham. Butler is also the college of Anna Costello and Sophie Hammill, two musicians who have garnered acclaim at university-wide events like the BubbleBurning and Vane Tempest Sessions. Owen Franklin credits the Butler Bar for making Butler a hotbed of musical activity – it’s apparently an excellent concert space that holds performances at least weekly.

Upcoming events at Butler – their next open mic is this Friday, 8th February. Do arrive before 8.30pm as performance slots fill up quickly. They also have a concert and societies showcase on Tuesday 19th February, and a session of Butler’s Got Talent on Friday the 22nd.


Some advice on running your own open mic or music event:

  1. ‘You don’t need to be good’ to start your own event, says Harry Rylott of Collingwood, who started a Purple Radio show despite having no DJ experience. What’s important is making the initial effort – getting good can come later.
  2. Take risks; no venture can really fail as long as you learn something from it.
    Rylott did a successful Oxjam gig using his own money – ‘even if I lost money on it, at least I’ve done something in my life. I think if everyone did that the world would be a more interesting place’.
  3. Publicizing your event “can be done through the performers as it’s in their interest to bring people along.” – Azin Khan of Cuth’s.
  4. “My advice would be to not hold them too frequently and so make each event special.” – Azin Khan.
  5. “Always have a plan B for when your headliner pulls out the night before.” – Robert Sinclair of Van Mildert.
  6. To book performers for your event, Sinclair says “contact as many people as possible to find out about all the hidden bands out there. If possible don’t book bands that you haven’t seen live or heard about before”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.