As the city that gave the world acts such as Portishead, Roni Size and Massive Attack, Bristol has a well-deserved reputation for an incredibly varied, thriving music scene.

From legendary artists playing in iconic concert halls, to bluegrass twanging under Banksy-decorated walls, music lovers are pretty much guaranteed to find gigs that float their musical boat during a visit here. The city is also host to an eclectic selection of music festivals that take place all year-round.

While you could probably just turn up, study the promo flyer-covered city walls and follow your ears to some quality tunes, our music lover's guide to Bristol will help you get to grips with the local scene before you visit.

Crowd at Bristol Sounds on the Harbourside

Image - Bristol Sounds, credit Paul Box

Bristol’s music history

Bristol hasn’t always been a hotbed of musicians and cool venues. Rumblings of sonic change started back in the sixties with the rise of sound system culture and underground clubs, as people from the Caribbean islands settled in the city. Reggae, dub and ska became a familiar sound in neighbourhoods like St Pauls and Easton.  

In the late eighties, against a counterculture backdrop of battles with the police, activism and a growing graffiti scene, artists were fusing those Caribbean-inspired genres with hip-hop, punk and electronica into a unique psychedelic style. This was later coined the Bristol Sound (aka trip-hop).

Trip-hop peaked in the nineties, led by pioneering Bristol artists like Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. The Bristol Sound also influenced drum and bass, which hit the mainstream in 1997 when legendary Bristol producer Roni Size and his group Reprazent won the Mercury Prize for New Forms.

Crowd at Massive Attack on Bristol Downs September 2016

Image - Massive Attack on The Downs, September 2016

Fast forward to today and the city is shaping successful artists playing all kinds of genres – post-punk rock band IDLES, indie singer-songwriter Katy J Pearson, BIMM student turned pop star George Ezra and acapella trailblazers The Longest Johns, to name a handful. There’s still a thumping underground scene too, with world-class clubs, epic club night line-ups and respected labels attracting DJs and ravers.

Where to watch live music in Bristol

Bristol’s music venues span sweatbox basement stages to vast auditoriums. For a grand concert hall experience and cracking acoustics, visit the beautiful St George’s Bristol and catch renowned performers of classical, chamber, world, folk, blues and jazz. Bristol Beacon would usually be another go-to for major names in a concert hall setting but until its renovation is complete in 2023, enjoy their programme of gigs in the foyer and around the city instead.

Crowd in the foyer of Bristol Beacon

Image - Bristol Beacon

Church turned arts venue Trinity Centre, one of the spiritual homes of the Bristol Sound, welcomes a line-up of consistently class acts. You might find anyone from a dub legend to rising indie rock stars on the stage. For a deep dive into more Bristol venues, see our rundown of 10 of the best featuring a jazz pub, a German boat turned gig venue and more.

Bristol hosts heaps of music festivals and gigs in unique outdoor settings too. Dance lovers flock to Love Saves The Day, foodies dine and boogie lakeside at Valley Fest and outdoor concert goers pop up a camping chair in the wondrous Westonbirt Arboretum for Forest Live. Cast an eye over our guide to festivals and see which takes your fancy.

DJ looking out towards crowd at Love Saves The Day 2022

Image - Love Saves The Day

Bristol nightclubs

Bristol loves to party and exciting DJs and event organisers in the city ensure the late-night, early-morning soundtrack is something special. If electronic music and all its sub-genres are your vibe, you’ll be in your element at nightclubs like Lakota. This Stokes Croft stalwart of the local nightlife scene (it's celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2022) has booked countless major acts over the years as well as celebrating new talent. 

Crowd and confetti at Lakota

Image - Lakota

Then there’s Motion, the superclub that’s regularly namechecked as one of the best in the world. Expect globally respected names of the dance world on the programme, as well as live music at adjoining venue the Marble Factory.

Basement 45, The Attic Bar, The Love Inn and Cosies are just a handful of the other late-night clubs and bars where you’ll find DJs of an excellent calibre on the bill.

More things to do for music lovers

Brush up on some more of Bristol’s music history at M Shed, the Harbourside museum telling the story of the city’s people and places. They have exhibits on Creating Music and Going to Gigs, as well as local festivals such as the iconic St Pauls Carnival.

M Shed and crane on Bristol  Harbourside

Image - M Shed, credit Quintin Lake Photography

Another way to explore Bristol’s musical landscape is through Everything is Music. Follow this digital trail through your smartphone, tracking down locations connected to artists and prominent figures from the local music ecosystem, past and present. 

If you’re always looking to top up your vinyl collection, go crate-dipping in Bristol’s many record shops. There are some gems spread across the city, whether you’re looking for the latest 12-inch dance cuts or a niche decades-old LP.

For a proper Bristolian experience, catch a ride with Bristol Ferry Boats down the River Avon to Beeses, the riverside café and bar where bands play every Friday night. Tickets include dinner at the venue.

Bristol Ferry Boats' Matilda sailing on the harbour

Image - Bristol Ferry Boats

Anyone planning a stay in or around North Somerset should check out Mendip Activity Centre’s free Live at the Lodge gigs showcasing talented local artists. Book yourself into their Basecamp family campsite for the convenience of crashing back at your tent or campervan at the end of the night.

Start exploring Bristol’s music scene right now…

Treat your ears to some Bristol sounds from wherever you’re reading. Give our Bristol Music Playlist a spin and get to know your Raleigh Ritchie from your Tricky.

You can also get under the skin of the local scene by flicking through music mag LOUD Bristol, which runs interviews with artists and those working behind the scenes, like venue and label owners. 

Find your next Bristol gig:

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