***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.
“£5? What does that get you?” you ask.
“Just the three bands? 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.
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.