The Promotion Game
In my first blog for Blues & Roots, I mentioned that I used to promote gigs – so here’s the story of how it started, where it all went wrong and the decision I made…
If you’ve ever seen the film or read the book Hi Fidelity, you’ll know the sort of record shop I used to work in back in the 90’s. We all made Best Of lists, did tapes for friends, and knew more about music than anyone else (even if we didn’t).
Decoy Records sold jazz, blues, folk, country, Americana (or New Country as is was known then), Cajun, Zydeco, bluegrass, World Music as well as reggae and what we called “crossover”, which was basically music we liked that didn’t really fit into one of the specialist categories. Ozric Tentacles (www.ozrics.com) fell into the latter. They were (and still are) a mixture of prog rock / hippy / space / trance music. Back in 1991, the Ozrics had moved on from being a hard working festival band, selling cassettes and building up a committed core audience, to releasing their first album on their own label. Crucially, they hadn’t toured yet.
Although some of the details are a bit sketchy, I think that as we were selling their cassettes in the shop via their management, they asked if we knew how to get a gig in Manchester. I knew there was a buzz about this band and that they’d do well, so with a devil may care attitude I said, yeah, I’ll do that.
How hard could it be..? We agreed how much the band wanted to be paid, which seemed reasonable, plus they had their own light show guys – The Fruit Salad Light Show. I have no idea how I decided on a venue. Looking back, it seems crazy to me that I’d book the (now defunct) International 1 – capacity of 1,200+. What was I thinking..?
After deciding on the ticket price, then getting posters & tickets printed, I went to work on selling the gig. This is where I was really fortunate – working in a record shop meant I didn’t have to do much in the way of paid advertising. Everybody who came into the shop was a potential ticket buyer.
Although advance ticket sales didn’t actually do particularly well, my first inkling of the potential success of the gig was when I was walking to work one day and I saw bootleg posters for the gig. Seriously, how cool is that..?
There are many stories I could tell of the gig itself – but now isn’t the time or place. Suffice to say that a thousand people went to that gig, and there were even impromptu campfires on the street afterwards. It was a major success, and is still occasionally talked about today.
In fact, it was so much of a success that their management wanted a second gig fairly soon after. But they wanted it on Glastonbury weekend, and I said no, because that’s where their audience were likely to be. But they were adamant – so I passed them on to a guy called Simon Moran, an up and coming promoter who had heard about the success of the Ozrics gig and he snapped at the offer.
It dived. The majority of the audience were at Glastonbury. I got a phone call from Simon after the gig asking me how mine worked and his didn’t. As it was, the band felt bad for Simon and booked another gig with him, which was a success. Simon went on to become SJM a year later – you might have heard of them. Just use your friendly neighbourhood search engine and type in SJM Concerts…
Flushed with the success of the Ozrics gig, I thought I knew how this promotion game worked. Turns out I didn’t, I really didn’t. If I’d have started smaller & built up, it might have been a different story. But selling 1,000 tickets for my first gig, well I was ready to take on the world.
I came up with the idea of the St. Valentine’s Day Blues Night, which I ran for two years, then the Manchester American Blues Night – each one lost money. Large amounts of money. I booked too many bands, didn’t do enough advertising, got the pricing all wrong. Finally, I did what I should have been doing a lot earlier – just one act, a smaller venue, much smaller break-even point of about 100. It was during this time that I put on Chris Smither, Martin Simpson, Terry Allen – all broke even (with a bit of “Rick style accounting” – if I had enough to pay the artist on the night, all was good.)
Then, because I’d put on so many gigs, my name got about a bit and in 1995 I was offered a big gig again: Emmylou Harris. She had just released Wrecking Ball, a huge crossover, cover version album. There was to be a tour, paid-for advertising in the national press and we were selling lots of the album in the shop.
I thought about the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. In the round. It would be perfect. Then I did the maths. And bottled it. I just couldn’t take the risk. The album went on to win a Grammy and the tour was a huge success.
It would be almost 20 years before I put on another gig. And I still didn’t really get it right, even then. I’d forgotten the “keep it simple” motto. I put a series of small gigs on, Roots & Fusion Playing Out’ with two acts each time. And I thought if I kept the ticket price low, more people would come. I had to work hard to get 40 people to them – but then I realized that, although I have a radio show, I have a bigger audience in Canada than in Stockport. So I offered free entry to Canadian passport holders…
The gigs did okay – they mostly sold out (I’d chosen a small intimate venue), and the artists really enjoyed them. The last gig I put on was Luke Jackson – an incredible talent, but again I had to work really hard to get people to turn up. And that was when I finally realized – I am not a promoter.
There are many good promoters out there, and most of them work really hard at what they do. And that’s the key for promoting gigs – never be complacent, never assume people will turn up, no matter who the act is you’re putting on. Get that advertising out there; make sure people know about it. I was at a gig recently where only nine people turned up. Tragic, heart breaking.
So if you like live music, go see it. Whenever you can. While you can. Because one day, it might not be.
It's the height of summer which means several things; rain, quiet roads with no school traffic and music festivals. Cambridge this July had all three. The Cambridge Folk Festival was the first music festival I ever attended and it still holds a special place for me. I love everything about it from the train journey to the first walk through the entrance; it has a buzz. The festival itself is held in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, a Grade II listed Victorian country house set in a beautiful park and now owned by Cambridge City Council.
Every festival has its own atmosphere and Cambridge is Middle England personified. One of the great traditions is the broadcast of “The Archers” on Sunday morning before the music starts. Hearing those Mummerset accents and Barwick Green drifting across the site, just a mile from the colleges, is surprisingly comforting; like hearing Lilliburlero in a rainforest.
The music is, of course, excellent both in depth and range. There are four stages running Friday to Sunday, just two on the Thursday evening opener, and they continuous. At some festivals there will be afternoon and evening concert but Cambridge doesn't stop and one of the interesting things to watch is the stage crew preparing and sound checking the next act. It's not too bad when you have somebody and a guitar but for one of the bigger bands its a real piece of art yet done in a totally calm and controlled way, taking less than 15 minutes.
The organization, in general, is superb as it should be after 52 years of practice. This year I was fortunate to get a press pass so was able to get behind the scenes and I was even more impressed. I saw 60 acts over the weekend, and missed plenty more, who all had to be marshalled, fed and watered. With 14,000 visitors over four days the bins needed emptying, the toilets cleaning and everyone kept safe and happy. My admiration for the largely volunteer staff has grown enormously.
The acts I saw covered a huge range, from established stars such as Martin Simpson, Jake Bugg and Shirley Collins through to those just starting out. Cambridge has established links with both Sligo Live in Ireland and Feis Rois in Scotland, so musical representatives from both were invited along to show their talent, and didn't they just do that! The future of traditional music looks very bright, but that tradition involves plenty of people who are trying to innovate and experiment. Niteworks (http://niteworksband.com/#home), from the Isle of Skye, play traditional Scottish music but they mix it up with club beats and aren't afraid to go experimental electro and why shouldn't they? If synths and drum kits had been around 200 years ago they would have been used. If traditional music doesn't evolve, doesn't experiment, it becomes a dusty museum piece. Of course, not everyone can pull it off. I did see one electro act who hadn't figured out the difference between “can we?” and “should we?”, which was a pity.
The other thing I became aware of over the weekend is that being a musician just starting out these days isn't only the ability to sing or play an instrument; being able to make that connection with a potential follower in a time of multi-media is equally as important. On the Thursday I saw a very good performer, Chloe Leigh
It's one of those surnames that's easy to get wrong so I caught up with her after her set to check the spelling. I was presented with a professionally printed business card listing everything I needed to know; name, weblinks, facebook, twitter, soundcloud all laid out for me.
A couple of days later I saw a good duo and wanted to get some details from them too. They apologetically explained that they were going to get something set up on facebook before they'd arrived but hadn't quite managed to do so. The message here is to make life easy for your audience because you have a lot of competition.
So great music in a lovely location and an atmosphere which encourages you to enjoy yourself and gives you the ability to do so. I think the best way to appreciate Cambridge is to be mobile; don't stick to one stage but move around the site, have a listen and decide if you're going to stay or try somewhere else. That also gives you plenty of opportunities to pass the reasonably priced and very good food stalls, the market stalls and the beer tents. If Cambridge has one failing it's that they don't do as many real ciders as other festivals, but you can't have everything.
What about the other elements of a British summer? Well the lighter traffic made it easy to cross the road to the nearest supermarket for a personal Cambridge tradition of mine, the breakfast bacon croissants! As for the rain, we were particularly blessed this year...every day and there was even some wind thrown in for free. It didn't stop anyone enjoying themselves, of course. The picnickers outside Stage 1 put on their waterproofs and the children had great fun jumping in the puddles. As soon as the rain stopped, it did eventually, the brollies and ponchos were packed away and we carried on regardless.
If you only ever visit one folk festival this is the one I'd pick as it has everything and is very easy to get to using public transport, thanks to the network of courtesy buses for festival visitors. Away from the festival you also have one of the most historic cities in the country that still has a whiff of dreaming spires about it.
Of course, there are plenty of other festivals around as well, every weekend, but my next trip will be to a new one for me at Towersley, which is just a short drive away. I'm looking forward to that with Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy, Show of Hands and Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater amongst many others on the bill. No doubt I'll also find plenty of new acts as well, which is all part of the fun.
As well as editing Fatea Magazine, curating the Fatea Showcase Session Downloads and producing Along The Tracks for Stevie here at Blues & Roots Radio, I occasionally get asked to do workshops at festivals and events, mainly aimed at newer bands and solo artists trying to get themselves established, so I thought it might be a good idea to take you through a few of the ideas from that.
I mentioned in my first blog, “After your music, the website and associated applications will become the most important asset an act owns”, I’ve repeated it here for a reason because it is true. If you only have one piece of internet real estate, make it a website.
It’s not as important to own the underlying infrastructure, servers etc, but own the domain and treat it like gold. Your website is your window onto the world so it needs to be clear and kept clean and, particularly important if you are selling music and merch through it, it needs to be kept safe and yes you should be selling music and merch through it.
The role of your social media is to drive people that you interest in your music to your website, not Apple, not Spotify, your website. These are the people that you need to turn into your fans and followers, not Apple, Amazon, Spotify customer, your fans, followers and customers.
By way of example you send a tweet that you have a new track on Spotify, person clicks on tweet, likes it, stays on Spotify, likes the next track, by someone else and there you have your fraction of a cent.
Send out a tweet that you have a new track and tour with the link to your website and the person can now hear the track, checkout dates you may be in their area, see you’ve got t-shirts for sale, an album and a video and you are on the road to turning them into your fans and your customers. I’ll hold my hand up here and say, there is a possibility that less people will click on the link to your website than might have clicked on the link to Amazon, Apple etc, but here’s the key…Those that do will already be more committed to your music because they have already made a commitment directly to you.
The quality of the people that engage with you through your website will be higher than those that you only interact with through social media because they have already reached out to you and you need to make sure they enjoy the experience by keeping your website, clean and fresh, focused and relevant, you owe it to them. Get interactive with them, regularly update your news, let them know what you’re doing, ideally get them to sign up to a mailing list, turn them from being followers into fans, reward them for being so. Incentives are nothing new The Beatles used to give their fan club a free Christmas single, but remember to be genuine.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with building followers across your social media , in fact I would absolutely encourage it. By its very nature, it’s social you, have aways of interaction with a genuinely global audience on a personal level that could only be dreamed of ten years ago. Make it a proper two way process, engage with your followers, have conversations, ask opinions, let them know when one of your tracks is getting played on Blues & Roots or the album that you’ve released has been reviewed in Fatea and link to them, but remember the role of social media is to drive people to your website, to become your audience.
Quality of audience is more important than quantity, get both and the world really is your oyster. I hope this has been useful to you, happy to respond to your thoughts and comments.
Talking of thoughts and comments since we last talked there’s been a new Fatea Showcase Session. The new 18 track download, “Changing” is available from www.fatea-showcase-sessions.co.uk and from there you can link to the artists’ websites.
I love festivals. I’m either playing at one, working on broadcast sound, or attending one pretty much every weekend from early May to mid September. Indoors and outdoors, big or small - and Glastonbury is about as big as they get, at least in Britain.
As a musician you might think what’s in it for me? No sound check, sometimes a shared drum kit, will anybody come and see us, what will the sound be like? Long drives and traffic jams for a short set, chemical toilets, rain or sunstroke, good onstage crew, bad onstage crew…
And yet, I just love festivals. It’s not always your core audience which is good for a band - it makes you think about your stagecraft and gives you a whole new set of people to win over, so try to encapsulate all that’s good about your usual gig in an hour. Quick line check in the changeover and you’re on. Often you are urged on by an audience determined to have a good time, so keep in the crowd pleasers and maybe save some of the torch-song ballads for another night. Be good, give it everything you have and an hour of magic can happen; and quite frankly it’s a chance to sell CDs and T-Shirts to people who haven’t got them already - gotta make a living!
This works as an audience member too - you are trying to fit a lot in for a day or a weekend, so an hour of any band is plenty. Hopefully there are many other attractions such as good food and drink, and good company. This is also true for the musicians, who are notoriously bad about seeing anybody else play - after all if they have a gig that night, you hope you may have too! So it’s often a chance to hang out backstage and catch up with other ships that pass in the night on the motorways of the UK.
But it’s possible now in Britain that there are too many festivals and in recent weekends we have had two of them cancel the last day, whilst the festival was underway. Some others have been pulled ahead of time, which has happened to us, leaving a hole in your diary when you might have already turned down other offers for that weekend. A lot of these are boutique festivals, trying to offer something a little different. The successful festivals in this vein are Latitude and Wilderness ; both offering a lot more than a couple of stages of music - with wider cultural, food and drink offerings. In the blues area in the UK, festivals like Upton and The Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival at Colne draw huge crowds every year. Many other blues festivals here run on the model of multiple small venues across a town, or in hotel ballrooms and holiday centres - often out of holiday season - and this seems to be a successful way of bringing people to a location when otherwise it may be dead, and also making a bigger gig circuit through the winter months.
Of course, ending your set, as we do, with a song called Make It Rain can be a hostage to fortune outdoors in the British summer - but it makes it memorable either way.
August Blog from Hillbilly Boogie
Welcome, dear readers, to the August Blog from Hillbilly Boogie.
As Autumn (or Fall, you choose) approaches we are normally thinking of returning to
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the Virginia/Tennessee state line and Carolina in the Fall in Wilkesboro, North Carolina; sadly, there will be no transatlantic trip this September but we plan to return in 2018.
Autumn/Fall is also the time that Raleigh, North Carolina is besieged by the Bluegrass faithful (and hopeful) attending the annual IBMA World of Bluegrass event. For some, it will be a networking opportunity, for others it will be just be attending one of the many concerts and showcases that take place but for others the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards will be the highlight. Personally, I look forward to reading the transcript of this year’s keynote speaker, Rhiannon Giddens.
With the hullabaloo caused by the announcement of the IBMA Awards nominees, my mind (once again) started to churn over just how I feel about the awards bestowed by IBMA and SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) (pronounced: spig’ma). While there are many awards such as the Grammy and Mercury Awards it is the music represented by IBMA and SPBGMA that I am most familiar with). Before I go any further, let me state that I am NOT criticising either the IBMA or SPBGMA it is just that I feel ambivalent about the awards. I was thrilled to see that Molly Tuttle has received three nominations – Guitarist of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year. Front Country and Volume Five are also nominees and, if you have listened to Hillbilly Boogie you will appreciate how glad I was to see their names listed.
So why do I feel ambivalent?....
I really hope that Molly walks away with all three awards, I also hope that Volume Five’s ‘I Am A Drifter’ wins Song of the Year and with Volume Five and Front Country being nominated in Emerging Artist of the Year I am glad that I don’t have to cast the deciding vote on that decision! I am genuinely excited at the prospect of seeing recognition for musicians that I admire yet there is part of me that wishes that IBMA and SPBGMA would do more to recognise some of the exceptional ‘grassroots’ initiatives and organisations.
Before I go any further, can I applaud the IBMA’s Bluegrass Trust Fund which is largely funded by the Wide Open Bluegrass event held as part of the IBMA World of Bluegrass celebration. I would recommend the article on the Trust written by John Lawless on Bluegrass Today featuring Phil Leadbetter.
So what would I like to see? I will give one example..
JAM – or Junior Appalachian Musicians – is an organisation that is active in over 40 localities and gives young people the opportunity to play music together. Their website says it better than I ever could:
In my mind, any organisation that seeks to help young people become involved in music at any level is to be applauded; that JAM do so to maintain traditional music deserves public support from organisations that proclaim ‘tradition’, ‘heritage’ and (of course) ‘preservation’.
Let me say again, JAM are active in over 40 localities – 40!
Anyone who has worked with young people at a music club will know how much organisation (and how many adults) it takes to provide a safe environment for the club to take place. Now multiply this by 40! Some of the people giving their time to teach and guide at JAM are musicians of the highest calibre. So while I would like to see recognition of JAM as an entity at IBMA and SPBGMA, I am sure that any of the 40 localities were visited we would see a massive commitment to Bluegrass & Old-Time music at the grassroots level.
Let’s not forget organisations such as Music For Veterans who also bring people together through music.
To use an expression from my childhood, wishing that large music organisations would give more recognition to organisations like JAM or Music for Veterans may be ‘pie in the sky’ but when I see the same names year after year (even though I own many CDs by them, even though I delight in seeing them play live, even though I admire and respect their musicianship) I would love to see the awards committees step out from under the bright lights a little.
Before I shuffle off over the horizon for another month I would like to mention a fantastic community event that we attended recently in Northampton. Various community organisations came together to host a Mela in Becket’s Park. This multi-cultural event was an absolute delight (accompanied by typical British weather or sunshine and showers). There was a performance by the Northampton General Hospital Choir and displays by a local gymnastics group (Gymnastricks), Bhangra Blaze (a Bhangra dance/fitness group) and Tamil dancers but my absolute favourite were the Bollywood Bros.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if they were going to be my ‘cup of tea’ – I was wrong! They came off the stage, and before too long had the crowd dancing. Other highlights, picking up a flyer for a Punjabi Hawaiian Luau (I have a great selection on ‘mad’ shirts) and the best vegetable samosas and chick-pea daal I have ever had. Will I be swapping banjos for Bhangra on Hillbilly Boogie? No…. but if see the Bollywood Bros again I’ll be down the front!
See you soon….as ever, Be Good!