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.