Category Archives: Lead Story

Life As An Out-Of-The Loop Music Promoter (Part 1)

I’ve been a music promoter for most of my working life. It’s basically the same as being a theatrical impressario except, instead of plays, I organise rock ‘n’ roll shows. The wife likes to think of it as being something like a professional gambler, but that’s just her.

A music promoter hires a venue, finds an act people will (hopefully) pay to come and see, and sells tickets. Ideally, ticket money will exceed costs and so a profit is made. That’s the theory at least. In reality you are gambling that enough people will buy enough tickets to pay for everything. If it’s too hot, people won’t come; if it’s too cold, they won’t come either. A big sporting event on the television can ruin you. So too can another, bigger event somewhere else.

There’s a lot of money to be made in music. Problem is, 5% of the participants get to keep 90% of the loot, while the rest of us scrabble around for what’s left. I can’t deny that there have been rare occasions when I’ve made relatively big money. One such occasion was a Boomtown Rats concert in 1977. Afterwards, I couldn’t see the bed in my hotel room because it was literally covered in bank-notes – not to mention the young woman who’d come back with me from the show. But at the time I was living in a one-room office, sleeping on the floor, and I’d lost hundreds of pounds practically every gig I’d put on that year. The only secret of promoting that matters is to win more than you lose.

Generally speaking, to make serious money you’ve got to be in ‘the loop’ and I’m not. Being ‘in the loop’ means being part of the music mainstream.

I’ve always been something of an outsider and I only got to do the Rats in the first place because very few promoters back then would sully their hands with ‘punk’. I’d followed a hunch by booking this unknown Irish band for £250, largely because I rated their début single, ‘Looking After Number One’, and it paid off. It could easily have been another flop but, luckily for me, by the time the gig came around, the single was number 2 in the NME charts.

Usually putting money on bands you personally like is the kiss of death. At least it is in my case. My personal taste doesn’t often coincide with that of the general public. Big Brother, Susan Boyle, tabloid newspapers, obscure 1950s R&B, even more obscure British folk musicians and Socialism are just some of the subjects the general public and I disagree on. The big promoters, like major record company executives, never ever put money on what they personally enjoy, they “invest” their cash on what they are told other people will enjoy. Invariably it’s the lowest common denominator that comes into play. Was it Barnum (perhaps paraphrasing H L Menckne) who said: ‘No one ever lost a fortune underestimating public taste’?

Popular music is one of Britain’s leading businesses and for the last 50 years or so, the biggest players have been major corporations. Led by accountants masquerading as cool dudes, these outfits are not only in ‘the loop’ they pretty much are the loop. The players all know each other, they’ve all worked in one another’s offices at some time or other and they all go to each other’s parties. Maybe they’ve even got the same accountancy qualifications.

I first realised the situation had become critical in the early-1990s when I was a music journalist taken out to dinner to meet the big cheeses of a major British record company. Every single one of them was a lawyer or an accountant and their collective knowledge of music was woeful. A couple of the collected musos had great sport goading them with such misinformation as: Jerry Lewis had turned to rock & roll after dissolving his partnership with Dean Martin and added the “Lee” as a tribute to US General Robert E Lee; Prince Andrew is the name of a 70-year-old ska legend; and the news that Chuck Berry devoted his spare time to playing and mastering the Dixieland jazz trumpet after attending a funeral in New Orleans. These people knew how to maximise profits, they know all about downsizing and negative equity but, when it came to music, they didn’t know their Associates from their Donnie Elberts. Literally.

In my time I’ve been in on the ground floor of quite a few movements in popular music. Rock & Roll was before my time, as was the British Beat Boom of the early 1960s, but I was excited, moved and inspired by Peace, Love and Hippydom, which I was getting tired of when the Punk and New Wave movement started up in 1976. I was into punk months before the Sex Pistols signed to EMI and I desperately wanted to be part of it. And I was, in my small way. The same went for several other, smaller movements, such as pub rock, Indie Rock and the Irish/ Country-punk explosion of the early 1980s that blew the Pogues out to an unsuspecting world.

The small independent promoter has to make his or her money by selling crumbs from what the people in the loop don’t want – most likely what they don’t yet know exists. Because I have always promoted in small venues, I tend to be part of the grass-roots and I get to see new acts coming up. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a couple of shows out of them before they get snapped up by those ‘in the loop’. You’ve got to get in there quick, before the company-guys see what’s happening and kick sand in your face. But every year, it’s getting harder and harder to grab even a small slice of the pie.

The trend these days is to move acts to bigger – and more profitable venues– way too soon, before they’ve had chance to learn their craft and iron out their bumps. The Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones today because, when they started, they were allowed to hone their craft in hundreds of small gigs before stepping up to play dancehalls, theatres, town halls, then to arenas and finally, when they were ready, into huge stadiums. The same went for all of the true greats: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, etc, etc… That’s why witnessing an 81-year-old, arthritic, part-deaf Chuck Berry play a gig in London’s 300-capacity 100 Club, as I did recently, was an exciting, uplifting experience that totally beats going to see the latest manufactured stars play in a stadium or in a field in Somerset.

As they used to say: ‘That’s rock and roll, man.’

Boris Johnson is Mayor of London. Yippee!/The End is Nigh* (*delete as applicable)

In hindsight, it seemed inevitable that Conservative Boris Johnson would defeat Labour’s Ken Livingstone and be elected Mayor of London.

Although the Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames was initially perceived by some as a joke candidate, in reality Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had everything going for him. For a start, the media was rabidly on his side.

The sole London-wide newspaper, The Evening Standard, a hot-bed of right-wing intolerance at the best of times, could never allow a week to pass without throwing up an anti-Livingstone headline or five. Two high profile journalists, Paul Waugh and Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC journalist forced to resign after the Hutton Enquiry, were put on the anti-Ken detail full time and didn’t bother to try for anything like a balanced coverage.

In April, The Standard ran the headline: ‘Suicide bomb backer runs Ken campaign’, only to reveal (in far tinier print) that the ‘backer’ in question runs an unofficial website called ‘Muslims 4 Ken’ and the suicide bombers he supposedly supports are in Palestine.

On top of the media onslaught was the backlash against Ken of what is often called ‘Middle England’ or ‘The Silent Majority’. London’s vast army of middle class and white collar workers like a few quid in their collective pockets and generally rate their own convenience above piddling matters like air or road pollution and parking restrictions. To them Ken was the man who gave them both the dreaded bendy-bus and the congestion charge and who was threatening to tax the SUV.

In the eyes of these inhabitants of Bromley, Croydon, Hamstead, Putney and Hounslow, the incumbent mayor was a threat to their standard of living and must be got rid of. Boris, on the other hand, that nice chap off the telly, knew what Suburban Man (and Woman) wanted, which was to be left alone, and he could be relied on to oblige.

When he turned up at the hustings, which was increasingly rare, Boris pledged to halt gun-crime, disband gangs and get rid of the bendy-bus. He very wisely didn’t say how any of these things could be achieved. All Ken could do was to repeat that crime had fallen under his administration but, as the Evening Standard repeatedly pooh-poohed the figures, no one believed him.

It didn’t help Ken that Gordon Brown’s Labour government was becoming more and more unpopular by the day. Although the two of them obviously didn’t see eye to eye on most things, a vote against Livingstone also served as a mid-term kick up the backside for the Labour administration.

The recent election results, coming as they do after a string of Labour PR disasters, the near collapse of the banking system and in the wake of a much-forecast recession, point to a right-wing resurgence on a par with the wave that swept Margaret Thatcher to victory in 1979. Callers to radio phone-ins are starting to come out of the closet and proclaim: ‘There’s nothing wrong with being right-wing; I’m right-wing and proud of it.’ And let’s not forget that for the first time, the neo-nazi British National Party gained over 5% of London votes and secured themselves a seat in the London Assembly.

Which brings us on to the so-called ‘race card’. For a while now, the press has been whipping up hysteria against immigrants. First came the claims that the lazy blighters didn’t work, more recently that has spun around to ‘they’re nicking our jobs’. Although born in the USA, with an immigrant Turkish grandfather, Boris neverthess managed to portray himself as a true blue Englishman and as much part of London as Trafalgar Square and Harrods.

Of course, Boris managed to get himself accused of racism although, to be fair, most of the evidence was taken from satirical articles he had written with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Even so, it would be a brave or foolish man who would send Boris Johnson into a room full of immigrants and second generation Brits and not expect him to make the odd gaff. Usually we would hope that this would count against him at election time, but not in the current climate.

Only time will tell. I’m prepared to give Boris the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not full of confidence that he’ll do a wonderful job and that everyone will live happily ever after.