Promoters are Ruining Birmingham’s Music Scene by @JeffStuka

***As ever, Jeff Stuka’s blog post comes with a disclaimer. His views are those of his own and do not necessarily represent those of Blue Whale Studios. For anyone wishing to respond to this article, there are comment boxes below for you to convey any views that you may have in response to this piece, thank you***

Ok. You’re someone who likes indie music  so you go somewhere for a night out, a bar which caters to your tastes with DJ’s playing tunes that fall broadly under the category “That’s my kind of shit”.  You notice a sign indicating bands are playing in the downstairs room. Local bands. You may even have heard of one of them. You’re intrigued.  So downstairs you stumble, perhaps dragging a couple of mates in tow to keep you company, and as you’re getting your first hearing of the young bunch of oiks who happen to be the first on the bill, blaring out some middling piece of clump rock, you ask the guy on the door what the entrance fee is.

“A fiver.”

“£5? What does that get you?” you ask.

“Three bands.”

“Just the three bands?  No DJ?”

“No DJ.”

“What’s on after the bands?”

“Nothing. That’s it.”

You survey the room, sparsely populated by people glumly staring at the stage and think again about that £5 entrance fee.

“Fuck that, I’m not paying a fiver for this,” you decide and back upstairs you gambol to the music that the DJ is pumping out for free.

Not so long ago, Birmingham used to lack venues for local acts to perform.  For a time, bands were limited to the Flapper, the Jug of Ale and the Old Railway as pretty much the only places that were known as regular music venues with proper stages and proper PA systems.  In this limited market space, all bands were effectively vying for whichever one was most amenable to their fanbase i.e. their family/mates.

With so many bands and so few venues, promoters had little problem maintaining a three tier roster of bands, with those bringing the most people to the gig being most able to get their hands on the prime spots.  At £3 a person and the bands not seeing a penny of it before 15 people or more were marked down as specifically coming to see them, promoters could easily expect to see gross returns on the door of over £70 per gig and a lot more if two of the bands pulled a crowd.

Part of this deal was the requirement for bands to create the audience for the gigs themselves, either through word of mouth, their own advertising or sometimes flyers provided by the promoter. Bands would then spend the weeks preceding the gig trying desperately to Shanghai anyone they could into coming along, just to ensure they could continue getting gigs with the same promoter.

Things have changed for the better in the Second City but though this hegemony is now broken, the same approach to gig promotion is still propagated by some, with bands expected to source paying punters to attend a gig where they’re providing the entertainment. It’s an insidious form of pay to play except that instead of themselves paying, bands are embarrassingly forced to cajole family and friends into parting with a significant sum of money or perform to a depressingly empty room and risk not being invited back.  Passing trade, as I’ve tried to show, is unlikely to bulk out the audience.

Bands don’t want to play to empty rooms.  They want an audience present, people who may turn into fans if the band are good enough and who may come back to see them again.  On the other side of the coin, most people aren’t interested in paying three quid plus to see three unknown bands, at least one of whom will probably be a bit crap and unexciting.  Why would they want to stand around in an empty, atmosphere free room listening to music they don’t know when they can happily stay upstairs to enjoy a DJ playing tunes they want to hear for no charge?

Over recent years, it’s been amply demonstrated that gigs involving local bands can attract big crowds of people, simply by keeping prices low, adding a DJ or two to the mix, keeping the night going after the bands have finished and promoting the night vigorously using social media.  Adding quirky little touches to make the evening a more bespoke and exciting event has become a feature of many of the nights and a welcome sign of the ingenuity of Birmingham’s stylish entrepreneurs.

It works for everyone involved. Punters feel like they’re getting a great night out, bands get to play to an audience that they wouldn’t normally reach, the venue gets a shitload of people putting masses of wedge behind the bar and a hell of an atmosphere that encourages repeat business. They might even contribute to the running costs, if they can see the value in it.

Whether or not a venue will put money towards hosting gigs, by charging a nominal fee, the promoters can still get a decent bit of cash out of it to use for whatever.  Paying for equipment hire, covering promotional costs or dropping the bands a few notes for their time, though this is hardly necessary.  Most local bands will happily play for free if they’re guaranteed to get an audience. People don’t miss a quid.  If you have a couple of people to pay for, you still would hardly notice two or four quid, whereas eight pounds is almost a taxi fare home.  Paying a tenner for two people and you could reasonably expect a bit more than two or three not very polished bands coming through a shit PA and fuck all else to entertain you.

Even if your sole purpose for putting on gigs is to line your own pocket, it doesn’t make financial sense to charge too much.  If you get fifteen people paying a fiver to see their mates bands, they’ll come along for that one gig and not come back.  Get 75 people paying two quid and give them a night to remember, you’ll make double the money and they’ll be back again, again and again.

Is it acceptable for this form of promotion to still have a place in this city?  It’s a barrier to encouraging the average person on the street to go out and see local bands and as such, I believe it’s incredibly damaging to the future of Birmingham’s music scene.  Other promoters have proven that if you give people a value for money experience, they will flock to see live bands, and afterwards they’ll talk about a great night with friends and colleagues, creating a buzz which will attract more people to future events.

Promoters, you know who you are.  I challenge you to defend yourselves.  Not to me but to the bands you put on, to the punters who pay and to those that turn away.  What exactly are your reasons for promoting and pricing gigs the way you do, because if it’s trying to provide a platform for local music, build a vibrant music scene or just give people a good night out, it doesn’t look like it’s working to me.

Jeff Stuka

Do you agree with this article? Are you a promoter or an artist or even a gig goer who would like to put across your opinion or reaction to Jeff Stuka’s piece? If so, please do via the comment box below. Many thanks.


27 responses to “Promoters are Ruining Birmingham’s Music Scene by @JeffStuka

  1. I totally agree. I know quite a few bands and the amount of times I have paid £5 (and sometimes even more) just to see them adds up to quite alot. Especially when alot of the bands playing with them aren’t actually that good! I only go because it’s my mates bands. If I was just passing by I wouldn’t give it a second look for a fiver and I have turned away from gigs before because I thought the entrance fee was too high to see a band I have never heard.
    When I have paid a fiver plus- on most occasions the bands are playing for free!

  2. hear hear! well said…

    the gigging situation in Birmingham has gone beyond ridiculous… some promoters have the most thinly veiled pay to play schemes ever… and as we all know, nobody is going to part with their hard-earned cash to see a bill that has been hastily cobbled together out of random bands…

    the result, as you so rightly put it, is that the scene is definitely dying, if not already dead….

    you have to wonder where the promoters are coming from?!? and it would seem that the prime motivation is always money…

    another thing that i’ve noticed… promoters don’t actually promote anymore… and seem more than happy to host nights where artists play to artists, and view that as a success…

    recently i played an all day event at the irish centre, i had promoted the show as much as is possible thorugh the net, phonecalls, radio etc… or to put it another way – i completed my half of the bargain…

    the promoter did ZERO promotion… there’s sandwich boards at the IC, even a hastily scribbled board outside the venue would have been something… there was nothing on the website, the first visible advertisment was on the door of the room in which the event was being held…

    what happened? my band was the only band all day to bring any fans… discounting those i think there was at most 4 non-artists in the room all day… epic fail.

    is a myspace bulletin promotion? yes… but in isolation its useless, and yet to some ‘promoters’ it is the everything… but it is not filling rooms…

    the scene is in real trouble, if you don’t employ your own army of fans to buy the 30 tickets you have to sell to play at a reasonable venue (more than once)… you won’t be given many opportunities to expand upon your fanbase…

    disillusioned with the treatment they receive, most of the better acts will leave the area to gig (at the very least stop working with a useless promoter)… the quality of the musicians being booked then goes down… the audience drops… so on and so forth…

    in the last few days i saw two events run by the same promoters on the same day in the centre of birmingham… optimistic estimates put the total combined (non-artist) attendance at around 14 for the day… fail.

    promoters need to promote… its what they’re supposed to do… any good artist will probably play for free, if given the opportunity to play to somebody they didn’t bring with them…

  3. I agree completely regarding prices for all-local bills.

    I couldn’t give a hoot about whether there’s a DJ or not, though. And I am a man with hoots to spare.

  4. Fred the Bread

    As a local musician who’s gigged around Brum for a few years, I agree completely. From the band side people like Arthur Tapp at Catapult Club n Josh from Baddies Boogie are safe but there’s some proper ripoff merchants around then there’s all that ‘no other gigs in Brum two weeks either side of this date’ and all that.

    Plus, importantly, certain promoters seem to have monopolised venues and also these things ften take money to put on meanin if they ain’t an instant hit, they fold n can’t develop leavin it harder for new promoters to get something going.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. We got tired of doing this a couple of years ago and started putting on our own club nights with dj’s on after and we get to pick the bands that play on the night too. We’d had The Ruling Class, Tantrums, Velvet Texas Cannonball, Poppy & The Jezebels, Burnside, Black Market Empire, Little Palm. It’s got busier and busier over time. £3 in for 3/4 bands a dj set till 2/3 in the morning and drinks offers.

    I do think there are a few promoters in birmingham that do really care about which bands are put on together though mainly George at the Rainbow and Carlo at Birmingham Promoters.

  6. We need to think about the economics for a second.

    £250-300 for an engineer for the evening, £150 for an assistant engineer, spark if required for lights, the cost of the venue, cost for hire of light and sound equipment if the venue hasn’t got any house system, money to go in the pockets of the promoter and bands.

    These are some of the largest costs. Money has to come from somewhere other than alcohol.

    Yes, I hate having to pay £5 knowing it could be a lottery if the bands, engineers and venue is ok.

    Some venues even charge £15-20, however usually you know who is playing before you go, example of venues include Robin 2 in Bilston, Wolves Civic, Academy 2 etc.

  7. I’m on the side of nobody (apart form sound engineers which I am one :o) )

    I hate to say this all the time, but I always ask this to people:

    “Ten years ago would you be willing to pay £2 for entry in to a venue”

    The answer is normally a resounding ‘yes’.

    Go to today. We then need to stand back and think about it. We have inflation over time, the usual profit runner was alcohol, however prices have gone down and costs have gone up for drinks, tax has increased and so has licensing, sound equipment has increased in price by 30-35% in a year because of the weakness of the pound so is reflected in hire costs. I could go on, but everything is more expensive than it used to be.

    That £2 entry ten years ago in today’s money is close to £4, if not £5 IMHO.

  8. I reckon it’d be good if your fiver in got you your first drink as well. Sometimes though people don’t even turn out for a free gig.

  9. As a musician myself, and having gigged round Brum in a couple of bands, I have to ask the question: do promoters actually understand what the job involves? Because I don’t call putting a poster up IN THE VENUE AND NOWHERE ELSE promotion. I call it Lazy. I wouldn’t mind buttonholing and strongarming friends and rellies to a gig if the promoter could also pull in a crowd through, oh I don’t know, PROMOTING THE DAMN GIG!
    Right, rant over. Agree with Jeff to all intents.

  10. £250 for an engineer? I wish, I’d be minted.

    Great points on show here, all for Carlo at Birmingham Promoters, Arthur, George @ Rainbow and Si at the Slade Rooms. Great guys.

    • £220 is the minimum rolled up going rates any sound engineer should charge, this is agreed by the unions and its members. £305 for corporate work. Anything less and your undercutting, which causes pay to snowball, which professionals do not want.

      Undercutting has been a problem in Birmingham for a while.

      £250 is typical for a competent professional engineer for one days work. Competent being important because of health and safety, PLI and equipment insurance etc. We do this for a living, and are self employed so the £250 doesn’t go as far as being paid by PAYE.

  11. When you say “a days work”, would the fact that it’s only an evening account for the reduction?

    If not, then I think you’ve probably been undercut by 99% of all pub gigs in the entire history of licensed premises.

  12. I really hope that some promoters see this post and re-evaluate their approach to organising gigs. Realistically, they’re probably looking for money more that for inspiring a great music scene, sad as that is. The idea of charging less and getting more people is a great idea though, as a musician myself trying to make it in this city, it’s a daunting prospect to persuade people to come to gigs, and the lack of enthusiasm is depressing. Maybe high priced gigs are the reason Gatecrasher’s always full and the Sunflower Lounge might not be… and that’s a sad thing.

  13. I get the feeling this is aimed at Bar Academy (Or whatever it’s called at Dome II) more than anything?

    The trouble with that place is that there’s never been a walk-in crowd (location? Price?)… It’s always been whoever’s brought in the most friends and family.That’s the way it’s ALWAYS been. But that set-up has it’s advantages. There aren’t many places left in Brum where you’d get such a good live sound, for example. And if you are popular enough to draw crowd then you get the decent support slots in the bigger rooms. It’s also the best option for you if you’re a f**king dreadful, middle of the road indie/rock band with no chance of ever getting asked to play a gig on the strength of your music.

    You could fear for the less confident (but potentially awesome) bands who get together, pay to play, fail to draw a crowd (Because they aren’t at College anymore) and then take it to heart that they can’t get those coveted support slots and basically lose interest in playing… But at the end of the day you can be a victim or take the initiative. There’s nothing stopping any band from starting their own night, building their own following, making a name for themselves, recording amazing demos…And then end up actually being approached by promoters with those support slots that other bands might have had to blackmail their relatives on a monthly basis in order to obtain.

    SCC started off gigging in Brum after I hassled Arthur Tapp one night at the Jug for a gig, and we were lucky enough to get to open for Distophia. From there on we found our audience. We actually had a really awesome few years ‘Paying to Play’ in the early 00’s before we started our own nights and stuff…(You could even argue things went downhill from there) But I really do see it as a kind of ‘Band Academy’ process in a way, it’s a way to cut your teeth when you’re starting out. If a promoter wants to make money off what is basically a training service for new bands then that’s fine by me… If you don’t like that there are plenty of great club nights going on now where bands are booked soley on musical merit and their relevance to the overall line-up, not just popularity points. But ‘Pay to Play’ exists, and it serves plenty of bands well enough. It’s not damaging the music scene.

    As for gig pricing, that’s a really grey area. Decent touring bands (the kind that actually drag bums out of bedrooms) cost at least a couple hunded quid these days, probably because they aren’t making money off CDs anymore. But if in order to maintain places like the Hare & Hounds and the Victoria as decent venues for international touring acts to frequent, charging more money on the door where needed is totally justified, even when the support groups aren’t getting paid much/if anything at all. I’m personally thankful that there are at least 3 or 4 decent venues maintaining Brum as an actual stop-off point, wheras 10 years ago it was either the Jug of Ale, the Flapper or a trip to Wolverhampton. F**K. THAT.

    And by the way, I think it’s disgusting how little people think live musicians are worth these days. An actual venue will happily hand over £100 our of the bar till to some guy with a bunch of CD wallets and a laptop but they wouldn’t dream of giving money to a hard working, commited LIVE act, usually up to their necks in debt over equipment and rehearsal room hire. In a fair world audiences would be happy to pay at leasyt £3 PER BAND in any situation… But this is just the screwed up system we’ve somehow managed to farm for ourselves.

  14. I have to disagree to an extent, as a promoter myself I put a lot of hours into putting together strong and credible lineups that work together. I then seek to do door price as cheap as possible based on the circumstances.
    Most venues come with a hire fee of £100+, then you have to add on the engineer fee and band riders. As much as I love giving a platform to local bands and djs I have to cover my own back and make sure I am not making a loss.
    Can you seriously tell me that £2 before 9pm/£4 after for :
    This Is Tomorrow Djs
    Rag & Bone Djs
    Live Art from Leon Trimble

    on a Saturday night @ The Rainbow isn’t a good deal?!???

    On top of that we put on quality lineups every week @ The Bulls Head in Moseley for FREE!

  15. I agree with a lot people have been saying on here including Jeff original post and think that the price (especially for local gigs) needs looking at.

    But please remember that the situation is probably better than it was a few years ago. Ive been playing round Birmingham for quite a while now and remember the real bad old days when only a couple of promoters had a monopoly on the 2 or 3 venues where you could play – then bands were paying to play.

    I remember one time bringing a coach load (those were the days!) of people from Nottingham over to Brum only to be told we could only play 20 mins (rather than the alloted 40) because the promoter had decided to cram another band in on the night to make more money! We didn’t see a single penny!

    I think one big plus would be if bands went to watch each other more (perhaps promoters can bring down the cost if you are also on their books) then you get a cross fertilisation of fans

    Anyway in short imo there a good (eg. birmingham promoters) and bad promoters (anything to do with a battle of the bands). Bands should also need to recognise that they need to work hard…although when you get to our age it gets more difficult to drag people there!!

  16. I could not agree more, this is a completely pathetic situation – THINGS NEED TO CHANGE.

    I can’t help but feel that a saturated unsigned scene is to blame for this… a scene in which nobody is winning, and is very much a pay-to-play (and promote!) situation for bands.

    Also – I can’t help but feel that – where DJ’s focus on the crowd, bands focus on themselves – and unless you really are a big personality or a great sound, right now people would rather have a good time with a bad DJ.

  17. Great to see lots of strong salient points to add balance and depth to the debate. I’d like to reiterate that not all promoters are bad. There’s loads of passionate engaged people who do a great job keeping the music scene vibrant. I’d like to add that I don’t think that £5 is necessarily too much for a gig. Hott Date, last Saturday were charging a fiver for a what looked like a great event and I was bummed I couldn’t make it. It’s those nights that have been poorly advertised and the venue is empty that I believe could use some smart thinking and proactivity. There’s lots of opportunity to introduce imaginative approaches to pricing a gig and bringing punters through the door. For instance, if a gig is starting without an audience and there’s a room full of people in the same venue, why not have the flexibility to offer £1 entry to the first 25 people to come in, or a happy hour reduced price entry just to get some people and atmosphere into the gig. The promoter could whizz around the full room and inform those in attendance of the special deal. It’s just one idea that might work. It might not, but I think it does more to bhoy up the spirits of all involved and the wider music scene if you can get more passive potential customers interested in what’s going on.

  18. It is crazy, we gigged as Crash Repeat around Birmingham the last 3 years as a live electronic rock act, we were often put on the same bill as other completely random sounding bands and asked to guarantee that at least 20 people would turn up to pay £5 each. Our 20 people were usually friends as were the other bands. Because the promoter gets their money they don’t care about any passing trade, so there is no actual management or promotion of the night. What should have happened is that promoter put on a night of music of the same genre plus a DJ and advertised it with the bands. Anyway we gave up Crash Repeat as our friends got bored of seeing us! I would add through that there are some great promoters we met though who work really hard for little thanks, there are just too few of them and they are getting squeezed out.

  19. I can understand why bands must feel frustrated with promoters, but from a promoters point of view, it’s really hard work these days and normally a thankless job.

    To paint the picture…Our Times New Viking show last week – we put 3 months worth of hard work into the show, had many a sleepless night worrying about the amount of money we could potentially lose and after all this work we just about broke even, even though we had over 100 people in The Vic…BUT… it was a fantastic show and thats all that matters to us – not the thought of us lining our pockets.

    The truth is, that even though we’ve gone through a recession, agents / touring bands fees if anything have gone up (I imagine this is something to do with petrol prices and so on), and ultimately it’s the independent promoters that suffer as any loses have to come straight out of their back pocket…I’d imagine this is why so many good promoters have stopped running nights (eg. Bohemien Jukebox)

    I agree with certain things in the article, but i think the independent promoters who do what they do well need support, not damning.

  20. Jeff – great point about when there is a packed room on at the same time as an empty gig…should be more of that!

    Anyway one good plug for promoters. Birmingham promoters are putting on a free guest list for this Sundays Airship gig (on zoot management) which will save you a whopping £8 on the door prices! Just email me or and get your name on the list!

    (ok we are playing too so really sorry for the plug!! But thought it was relevant!!)

  21. Having performed and spectated, I would value the passing chance to discover a local musical gem versus the sizeable risk of spending my friday night gnawing at the table leg in utter desperation at approximately 1 quid.

  22. I wholeheartedly agree with this article.

    Headlining the Sunflower Lounge, I saw countless people come downstairs intrigued by the live bands, only to be turned away as they didnt want to pay the ridiculous £5 entry fee (even thought the first 2 support bands had already played!)

    These people had been drinking upstairs and were clearly just wanted to party ! Their presence would have made the gig far more enjoyable both to play and to be a part of, opposed to awkwardly comprising a 1/4 room and playing to an empty floor.

    Expecting people to pay £5 to see almost entirely unknown up and coming local bands is ridiculous – I certainly wouldnt pay that price myself for smaller local bands.

    This article definately needed to be said.

  23. As a student at the Uni here, and as someone in a local band who gig as much as possible, I do think it’d be worth promoters trying to target their advertising and promotion a little more at the universities.
    I go to UoB, and I get handed dozens of flyers for shit club nights on my way in to uni(apologies to anyone on the thread who enjoys oceana…but i imagine that isn’t many of you). The fact is, a lot of students are pretty much only going to these club nights because it is what they hear about the most, and whilst a lot of students aren’t into some of the local music, a substantial number would at least try going if they heard about it.
    The Island bar are offering free saturday matinee gigs at the moment; I reckon quite a few students would consider going, but I haven’t seen a single poster on campus. Yes, 4 or 5 quid isn’t THAT cheap, but it’s the same as a club night at Gatecrasher. It becomes an expensive price when you are asking your mates to pay it over and over again.

    The promoters in birmingham are mixed, as i’m sure they are in most cities. We’ve played with some great promoters who clearly do give a shit about putting on good nights. But it isn’t easy I guess, especially when people are apathetic about parting with a few quid for bands they haven’t heard of. What’s more, if you go to a few gigs like that, see bands that you think are shit, then chances are they’ve lost their faith in such gigs.
    So that is my (probably unwanted) 2 cents.

    Also, Crossen, we played our second ever gig with Crash Repeat last year. It was at the Flapper, supporting Killaflaw. Sad to hear you’ve packed it in; you were nice guys and you put on a hell of a show.

  24. Hey, I agree that pay to play is a horrid way to put an event on.

    I live in Leeds, Yorkshire. As far as I am aware, the Pay to Play thing doesn’t happen too much these days but is still present.

    In my exoerience it leads to a terrible vibe, punters turn up to watch there mates band and leave before the ‘headliners’. This leads to a really drab night with no one there to see the first band and very few there to see the last one!

    Promoters are there to promote, the band are there to play. Get a good headliner and local support that rise in popularity and quality from the openers to the main support!

  25. One more thing. The venue I work at is a free entry venue and the promoter takes a 10% cut of the bar & a free system, lighting & engineer. Loads of passing trade and no one minds coming to see there friends play. It does however limit anyone putting on a bigger band as your not going to earn anymore the 300.00 for a packed night

  26. Be great to condense this into a “what to do / what not to do” manifesto to help improve the Birmingham / Midlands music scene…

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