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How to get gigs for your band

Let me show you how to get gigs for your band. At the time of writing (July 8th, 2020), England is supposedly coming to the end of Coronavirus lockdown. But live music is still not allowed anywhere, even outdoors. I’m sure gigs will return one day and, in anticipation, I’m sharing the benefit of almost 50 years of experience at the coalface of the music industry. Well, on the outer edges of it, if I’m being totally honest. The music business establishment never really took to me.

How to Book a Gig (part 1)

This is a YouTube video I made a few days ago. Called, ‘How To Get Gigs’, it obviously contains similar information. But I’m sure I’ll manage to include unique information both here and in the video. The format may be different but the message is basically the same.

These strategies and tips apply to just about every type of act within the world of entertainment. From solo singer-songwriters and comedians to theatrical troupes and heavy metal bands. It’s up to you to use your common sense to make my experience as a music promoter and booking agent work for you.

In the course of putting on gigs and festivals in London and beyond, I’ve received quite a lot of emails, letters, and suchlike, from acts wanting me to put them on. It must add up to tens of thousands over the years but sadly, I can count on very few hands the few who inspired me to give them a gig. Being musically good or even great is simply not enough.

Although cream has a tendency to rise to the top, being the best is not a guarantee of success. If it was, we’d only drink the best champagne and eat the finest foods, instead of the fizzy sugar-water and junk food the human race seems to prefer.

How to Get Gigs: The Basics

If there’s one secret to getting gigs, it’s this: look at things from the point of view if the venues you are approaching. Ask yourself a simple question: Why should they give me a gig? To answer that, you might need to ask yourself some more pertinent questions. Top of the check-list must be to make sure the venue is a suitable fit for your particular act.

Unless they run a specialist Folk night, singers of traditional whaling songs might not stand much chance of getting gigs at a Jazz or Reggae club. Similarly, a comedian who’s just starting out cannot expect a major theatre or concert hall to grant them headlining status

It all comes down to money. There are basically two types of venue:

  • Commercial (the vast majority of venues, who rely on income from ticket sales and subsidiary sources, such as bar and food sales to survive).
  • Subsidised (e,g, arts centre or community theatre),

What Males Commercial Venues tick?

To get a gig at a commercial venue you either need to be able to sell a lot of tickets (i.e. already have a following) or else be good enough, or unique enough to entertain people another act has attracted. This is basically, being a support band.

The more entertaining your act is, the more chance you stand of getting gigs. To be brutally honest, whenever I was looking for (say) a Blues act to support a bigger name, I’d give the gig to anyone who stood out from the dozens of (usually all-male) bands, who all seemed to dress in denim and play as if rooted to the spot. The same went for Indie acts, Folk, Punk, Ska, or whatever…

Try and be as original and as entertaining as possible. Being just another member of a large and largely identical herd is not a great way to get gigs, even if you’re the very best of them. To use yet another analogy, no one looks at a herd of cows and picks out the best and the worst, They just see cows.

About Arts Centres and Community Venues

Venues that independently-funded by local councils and arts organisations are getting rarer. But they do still exist in certain parts of the world, including the UK. Selling tickets and beer is not their sole source of income and so they are freer to book acts on artistic merit. Having said that, if you can bring large numbers of people into their venue, as well as being artistically-relevant that would certainly help get you a gig!

The one thing all this type of venue has in common is the need to be relevant to their communities. This can help you but it can also be a hinderance. If you are local to the area, great! Make that very clear. If not, maybe look for a connection, no matter how tenuous.

In my experience, the person reading your email just wants to “tick a box” when it comes to local relevance. They are unlikely to employ a team of private detectives to check out your claim that your family came from that particular town or that you were born there. Just make sure that nothing on your website or any publicity materials contradicts anything you might tell people in order to get a gig. That’s why it’s generally good policy not to lie or make stuff up.

How To Book Shows

Do your research first. Never write a generic email saying how great your band is and send it to as many venues and promoters as you can find. This is the booking agent’s equivalent of junk mail and it’s pointless. None of them will get back to you.

Punk Band London

I suggest you look for 10-12 venues you really want to play at and send each one an individually-written email. Pick venues that you know and think you are a good fit. By all means include a couple of ‘aspirational gigs’, such as a major festival or as a support to a band you love. You never know…

Do as much research for each venue as you possibly can. Look at their website, try and find a booking policy, look at the line-up of past and future gigs. Be honest: would you fit in with what they are doing. If not, move on to find one that is more suitable. If you think it would work, look for a name and email address.

Even if the name and address you find is not exactly right for you — say, only the general manager of a venue is listed — write by name to that person and ask them to forward your email to the right person. You are demonstrating that you care, that you’re professional and that you have done research.

If at all possible, buy tickets and go to at least one show at the venue to get a feel for the place. Never ask the venue for free tickets just because you are an act. It doesn’t work like that. But if you know someone who’s playing there, you could ask to be put on the guestlist.

Writing The Email

Before you start writing, think what the person you are writing to is looking for.

Almost all the letters and emails I still get from bands are written entirely from their point of view. They tell me how good they are. That they’re planning a tour and want to play in my town. How they’re getting airplay on their local radio station, blah, blah, blah. Usually, it goes on and on, paragraph after paragraph…

It’s all stuff I don’t care about. Multiply that by 5-10 a day and you get some idea how little chance they’ve got of getting a gig from me…

Make Your Email Stand Out (for the right reasons)

Your email will be different. You are going to keep it short and address me by name, maybe adding a sentence that says something like, “If you’re not the right person, could you please forward to the relevant booker?” The next line could introduce yourself. Maybe something like:

  • The Beatles are Liverpool’s most dynamic live pop group.
  • “Happy Mondays are the best live band to emerge from Manchester in the last decade”.
  • Adele is a mesmerising British singer-songwriter, known for captivating her audiences.

These aren’t perfect. I don’t have a band to sell and I just made them up off-the-cuff. You know your act. The aim is to attract attention for your act in as few words as possible.

The quote marks around the Happy Mondays sentence is an old trick to be used sparingly. Make up your dream descriptive quote that you’d love to see in print and add quotes to it. Do not be tempted to add a name. Making up a quote for someone is essentially cheating and no one likes a cheat. Plus, it cheapens your ‘brand’.

Getting a Gig: Second Paragraph

Then start a new paragraph (people have short attention spans) and write a sentence or two showing that you’re done your research and know what the venue’s all about. Something like: “I came to see The Beatles play and I was knocked out by what a great venue you have. The Stones would be a great fit and we’d love to play there. I’m sure we could bring some like-minded people.”

If you’ve not actually been, you could say, “I’ve studied your gig guide and I’m knocked out by the quality of acts you have playing there, especially Oasis and Stone Roses. My band would fit in really well and I’m sure we could bring you some new customers.”

A little flattery can go a long way to getting you a gig. Everyone likes to be appreciated and, again, it shows you’ve spent some time checking the venue out. It’s also good to say that you will bring some ‘new customers’ as selling tickets and beer is how most venues survive. Just don’t go over the top and make promises you can’t keep.

Make sure your email includes your objective in clear, easy to understand terms. You want a gig, so say so. You’d be surprised how many bands have sent me letters and emails over the years that don’t say why they are contacting me. A ‘call to action’, as it’s called, is important.

Finishing the Email

Add a quick line about where they can check out your music and/or videos (and the links) and leave it at that. It helps if the videos and music are stunning but that’s a completely different topic.

Some acts sign off using the name of the band. That’s OK but I think it sounds better coming from a single, identifiable person, whether it’s a member of the band or a manager. You can invent a ‘manager’, provided you make it obvious by giving them a name that’s completely OTT. Provided everyone knows it’s done for comic effect and that you’re not trying to trick them, you should be OK.

Before you sign off, ask them to contact you. This will create a reason for you to get back to them if they don’t reply within a week or so. And close with another compliment, plus a reminder of what you can do for them.

I’d suggest the best way to finish an email of this kind would be to say something like this:

I look forward to hearing from you with an opportunity to perform at your great venue. It really would be an honour and I’m sure we could bring you some new people.
All the best
Rick Parfitt
Lead guitarist/vocalist
07885 9020
www.statusquo.com

Adding a cell-phone number always helps. Some promoters (not me) like to book shows on the phone and adding an alternative method of contact is always good. And include your website URL. Just make sure your site is as good as you can possibly make it.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Avoid copying and pasting, as the vagaries of the email system, means that when it’s received, some text might appear in different fonts and that’s a dead giveaway that you tried to cut corners. Keep the email brief and to the point.

When you’re writing emails to prospective promoters and venue owners, concentrate on your live show. That’s what the venue is in business for. Too many acts think I’m there to sell their records or downloads, which may be part of the plan, just don’t make it so obvious.

How Can I Help You?

The ultimate goal is not just to get a single gig but to build a relationship with individual venues and venue-owners. One of the best ways to start on that road is to offer to help. Everybody needs help, right?

“Do you need someone to take your gig-guide around local record shops and cafés?”

If you have a specific skill within the band, such as a web designer or sound-engineer, offer to help them. But don’t make it look like you’re criticising what they already have or touting for work. You are offering to help in order to build up a relationship.

So, best of luck! If these tactics help you find more gigs, please let me know by leaving a comment. And please tell me if you have any better ideas or if something I suggested didn’t work for you and why.

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Blogs & Podcasts Featured Lead Story London Music People Work

Pub Rock Revisited: No Sleep Till Kennington Oval

I’ve recently spent time writing sleeve-notes for a Balham Alligators box set. That’s exactly the kind of thing washed-up old hacks like me have to do when they reach a certain age. I was researching “pub rock” when I stumbled on something surprising.

It’s seemingly now accepted that the Pub Rock scene collapsed following the Punk Explosion of 1976-77. Legend has it that the old dinosaurs were flattened by the New Wave comet, and that clubs like The Marquee, 100 Club, Roxy, and Dingwalls took over. My recollection of what really happened is totally different.

No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution

Will Birch’s extensive reference book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution is great as far as it goes. But it ends in 1977 with most of the main players in the game signing to Stiff Records and touring on the Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs Live tour. Birch’s contention is that the Pub Rock heroes were promoted within the Rock mainstream. That they moved from playing the Hope & Anchor to the college circuit and larger venues like the Rainbow and Hammersmith Odeon.

The Robey in 1982: Pub Rock bastion
The Sir George Robey in 1982, when it still had Music Hall memorabilia on the walls.

As someone who was heavily involved as a music promoter and agent, I know that this isn’t the whole story. Many older venues, such as the Nashville, Kensington, and Pegasus, did close or transform into restaurants or family pubs.

Some were victims of their own success, others just badly managed. Their place was immediately taken by dozens of new pub venues. Some of them had already been putting on Irish music and so had the infrastructure (stages, lights, and often PA systems) ready to go.

Pub Rock 2.0

Off the top of my head, I can recall great nights at The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town. The Cricketers at Kennington Oval. The Robey at Finsbury Park. Bridge House, Canning Town. Hare & Hounds, Upper Street. Half Moon, Putney. The Weavers at Newington Green. So many more. My memory is hazy. Like the man said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” The same goes for the 1970s and ’80s.

Between not writing my novel and trying to be a music manager and agent, from 1984 to 1990 I organised and booked live music for the Cricketers, at Kennington Oval, London SE11. I took over from Joe Pearson, a teacher who’d been responsible for a series of prestige gigs at the Half Moon, Putney. Joe replaced Gordon Hunt at the Cricketers. Gordon went on to become Sade’s guitarist and musical arranger.

Pub Rock in Putney

Three promoters dominated Putney’s music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Myself, Joe Pearson, and an older Scotsman called Bill Knox. Bill had worked in London’s Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) back in the 1950s and ’60s. Apparently, he’d been quite a mover and shaker in the Folk and Jazz worlds of the time.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been in London at the time, playing tiny folk clubs. Bill had a mountain of great stories he’d tell over a cider at the Duke’s Head. It was the only pub in Putney with no background music and so local people engaged in the music business flocked there. Sadly, most of Bill’s stories were either unprintable or undecipherable.

Second Wave of Pub Rock

The second wave of Pub Rock had much in common with the American Wild West. Venues would sprout up and disappear all the time. At the time, audiences often comprised individual and very distinct tribes. You’d get Skinheads, Punks, Mods, Teddy Boys (yes, really!), Psychobillies, Folkies and more. I particularly remember a night at the White Lion when Anarchist Punk band Conflict was attacked by BNP thugs with pickaxes as they unloaded their gear. It was a Thursday, and the attackers were beaten off with the help of Irish labourers drinking in the public bar.

Then there was the Friday in 1982 or ’83 when the police closed down the White Lion for good. A line of bizarrely dressed Rock ‘n’ Rollers had queued almost the entire length of Putney High Street and brought traffic to a standstill. Over a thousand people were waiting to get into a venue that couldn’t hold many more than 300, and would probably have been licensed for 200. If it ever had a licence, which it turned out, it didn’t!

The Cricketers, Kennington Oval, London SE11 5LG

Back to The Cricketers. After “crashing” in an upstairs room at weekends, I was eventually given a couple of rooms above the pub. This became my home and business address for six years. Looking back, it was a surreal little world.

Ostensibly, the pub’s landlord was Roy, who operated clubs and restaurants in town. We hardly ever saw him, and the business was run by the locally-born Ken and his wife, Sheila. Ken is one of life’s natural gentlemen. He would say things like “You can’t educate a mug”, which is so true I still quote it nearly every day.

pearly_couple

Kenny’s dad, also called Ken, was a local character who used to occasionally wobble up on his push-bike after a day’s drinking. He’d demand money and free drinks. After a few pints, he’d turn on anyone within spitting distance and give them an earful. Luckily, no one could understand what he was saying most of the time. What with his South London accent, rhyming slang, and slurred words.

Ronnie!

Then there was ‘Ronnie’. His real name was John but everybody knew him as Ronnie. No one knew why. A natural barman who (when sober) could serve four or five people at once and keep them entertained with his Liverpudlian wit. His “party trick” was to confront someone. It didn’t matter if it was a customer, a band member, the postman, whatever. He’d look them in the eye and say, straight-faced, something along the lines of (expletives deleted): “You are an absolute total idiot. No one likes you and I can’t believe you still keep coming round here.”

The victim would invariably start to crumple, which would make Ronnie double up with laughter. Then he’d say: “Only joking! I had you going there, didn’t I?” Great relief all round. Trouble is people who knew Ronnie knew he’d really meant what he’d said in the first place.

Footballing Royalty

Every Saturday Ronnie and his mate, Moody, would dress up in their best suits and head off to the footie. Somehow, they’d talk themselves all the way into the Directors’ Box at whatever football match they fancied seeing. Preferably Liverpool (Ronnie’s team) or Chelsea (Moody’s). They hardly ever failed and would return at 6 pm, full of free champagne, canapes, and juicy footballing gossip.

Kenny’s past was somewhat chequered. He’d been a senior member of the gang who’d sold fake perfume on Oxford Street in the 1970s. He had a collection of “unusual” friends, who’d sometimes arrive at the pub.

Some lived very well but had no visible source of income. Others ran secondhand shops, greengrocers and one had a chain of tanning salons. I’ve recognised one or two since on Donal McIntyre type programmes. They were always very friendly to me and I’m sure they treated old ladies admirably.

Testing Times

The annual Test Match held at the adjacent Oval Cricket Ground was big business for the pub. But, aside from these three or four days each year, and occasional major cricketing and Australian Rules Footie fixtures, trade was entirely reliant on me booking the right bands. In fact, the Cricketers only opened from 8-11pm, and on Sunday lunchtime.

These free entry lunches were hugely popular. Kenny “the governor” would provide free jacket potatoes, liberally laced with salt to encourage libation. Hundreds of music-lovers would turn up to eat, drink and watch bands like Zoot and the Roots, Alias Ron Kavana, and Little Sister. They’d get two sets until licensing laws demanded an end to the fun at 2.30pm prompt.

These fresh-faced young people were called The Pogues / Pub rock at its finest
In 1983, these fresh-faced young Londoners were called Pogue Mahone

Folk On Pub Rock

For a small venue (capacity 200), the Cricketers boxed well above its weight. I kept up the Putney connection. Several folk-based artists lived there and singer/songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper would regularly play for me. I’d been an early champion of The Pogues. Their first major gigging success had been a series of Tuesday night gigs I’d put on in the spring and summer of 1983 at the Sir George Robey pub in Finsbury Park.

Pogue Mahone

They were called Pogue Mahone (“kiss my ass” in Gaelic) back then, and the venue sold out from week one. They were walking out with hundreds of pounds in door-money every Tuesday. I saw myself as the band’s manager, but it seems they never thought the same way. A proper manager from Dublin called Frank Murray got the job instead. As a parting gift, The Pogues played a week of gigs for me at the Cricketers. Every night we got very drunk and earned stacks of money. Not a word of my early involvement made it into any account of the band’s history. It was as if I never existed.

Who Played at The Cricketers?

Despite perceived wisdom, the 1980s were a lively time for the British music industry. The Cricketers was only one of dozens of music pubs that continued to thrive. It was a couple of miles over Lambeth Bridge from the centre of town. This meant record company A&R men (no women back then), and music paper reviewers could get there without too much bother. As a result, new bands liked to “showcase” there, and more established acts knew they could persuade reviewers to drop in.

T-Pau played a residency there when they were starting out. South London had thriving local ska and “billy” movements, and Rough Trade records used us a showcase venue for many acts. International performers such as Flaco Jiminez, Guy Clark, The Bhundu Boys, Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Laurel Aitken, Giant Sand, Redgum, The Scientists, and Birthday Party would often end up at the dodgy end of SE11.

PUb rocking gero Frank Sidebottom, aka Chris Sievey
Frank Sidebottom

London Base for Frank Sidebottom

Frank Sidebottom was a Cricketers regular. Guardian columnist and broadcaster Jon Ronson recounts how he was recruited to join Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band:

In 1987 I was 20 and the student union entertainments officer for the Polytechnic of Central London. One day I was sitting in the office when the telephone rang. I picked it up.

“So Frank’s playing tonight and our keyboard player can’t make it and so we’re going to have to cancel unless you know any keyboard players,” said a frantic voice.

I cleared my throat. “I play keyboards,” I said.

“Well you’re in!” the man shouted.

“But I don’t know any of your songs,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” the man said.

I heard muffled voices. He came back to the phone. “Can you play C, F and G?” he said.

The man on the phone said I should meet them at the soundcheck at 5pm. He added that his name was Mike, and Frank Sidebottom’s real name was Chris. Then he hung up.

When I got to the bar it was empty except for a few men fiddling with equipment.

I was one of those fiddling men and the venue was The Cricketers. I could go on to reveal how Frank (or rather Chris) “slept with” a fetching young woman I was trying to romance, but I won’t. Nor how I felt when I discovered that Mike The Manager had also “slept with” her — and with her 16-year-old sister.

Jim Driver: Agent for the Stars

Aside from my work as a “Pub Rock legend”, I’d been the agent for many acts including Desmond Dekker, Wilko Johnson, and The Groundhogs, and manager of Geno Washington. All of them would come and play for me, as would Georgie Fame and George Melly, when I could afford them.

Manchester’s Happy Mondays made their first-ever London gig in front of  30 people, most of them A&R on the guest-list. It must have been 1987 or possibly 1988. It’s hard to say because the event has been erased from the band’s history. I wasn’t there at the time. It was a rare night off. But next morning I was ticked off by Kenny because they’d been far too loud and had only played for 30 minutes. More importantly, they’d (rather ineptly) tried to steal a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He’d slung them out on their ears.

Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.

Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.

What eventually killed the Cricketers and many other pub rock venues was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insane Beer Orders. This was a new rule meant to decrease the power of the Big Brewers. It certainly did that: one of the biggest, Whitbread, stopped brewing altogether and turned into a pizza and cheap lodgings company.

The main impact of the BO was to transform pub owners from breweries with a vested interest in keeping pubs open in order to sell their beer, to property developers. The business of property involves putting up rents and selling off prime properties. This strategy becomes more profitable than trying to sell pints to music lovers.

Black Eagle Brewery

The Cricketers was owned by Trumans Brewery – part of Grand Metropolitan, a huge conglomerate that included Watney’s and various whiskey and gin companies – and the beer came from the then magnificent Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane.

The Beer Orders meant Grand-Met had to set up a new company to run their pubs and this was given the ominous name Inntrepreneur. They demanded a rent increase of something like 200% which, for a venue that could only open 25 hours a week, was impossible to meet. We had a final week of gigs in September 1990 and were gone by the morning of October 1st.

Low-Rent Sons of Anarchy Try Pub Rock

The new occupants were a gang of bikers from the South Coast (think low-rent Sons of Anarchy). Their first act was to throw out all the fixtures and fittings. Then they painted everything black.

It didn’t take them long to work out they were paying way too much rent. Apart from anything else, no one was coming to watch the new breed of biker bands they were putting on. One of the major stumbling blocks to attracting ordinary customers was that a gang of smelly fat blokes in leathers can appear quite intimidating to people who don’t follow their creed.

Eventually, the bikers got in touch with me and gave me some money to help them book some of the bands I used to put on. But it was no good. People just weren’t coming in the same numbers. Most of the acts didn’t like the new atmosphere, so they gave up. Was this finally the end of pub rock in SE11?

Insurance Claims…

After I’d gone, I heard a rumour about a bogus insurance claim in which a petrol bomb was supposed to have done a 90-degree turn after being thrown through a window. They vacated the premises in a midnight flit.

“The Rats” (as they liked to be known) were followed by a retired policeman from Jamaica. The poor man thought he was buying into a piece of cricketing history. He lost his entire life savings in less than a year and was plunged into debt. Then came a four year period as a Portuguese restaurant that could only afford to pay £1 a year rent. By this time, Inntrepreneur had realised the Cricketers was more a liability than an asset. Eventually, it was sold for development and has been boarded up for nearly 20 years. See the main photograph, taken by me in March 2014.

And so to bed…

I found a video on YouTube of Diesel Park West, a regular act at the Cricketers during my 1980s tenure. I was amazed to see the video features photographs taken at the Cricketers (from 0:27 to 2:06). I’d totally forgotten about the great jazz players mural, which was painted on board (I wonder what happened to that?!) and the Hovis sign.

Ah, memories…

There’s an update (thanks for letting me know):

I don’t know what Ronnie would make of it…

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Art Blogs & Podcasts Class Conspiracy Theory Featured Lead Story Life Music People Royal Family

Separated at birth?

Separated at birth? You tell me…

So, what do HM the Queen and Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards have in common? The obvious answer is money. They are both stinking rich, though one more than the other. I’ll let you work out which is which.

As you’ll have gleaned from reading my About Me page, I’m neither stinking rich nor a member of the British Royal Family. Nor am I a member of the Rolling Stones, though Mick Jagger has owed me £50 for rather a long time. But that’s a story for another day.

The History of ‘Separated at Birth’

As far as I can tell, this whole separated at birth thing was started by New York-based Spy magazine. I can’t say I’d even heard of this periodical and it’s no longer operating, anyway. Gone the way of many printed magazines in the digital era.

Wikipedia relies on a typically verbose explanation of what the term means:

…usually phrased as a question, is a light-hearted media device for pointing out people who are unrelated but bear a notable facial resemblance, implying that they are twins who were separated soon after being born and presumably adopted by separate families

Wikipedia: “Separated at Birth?”
Separated at Birth? - The Book

I discover now that Spy magazine had a copyright on the term ‘separated at birth’. Just as well for me, they are no longer in existence. When I dig even deeper, I see there was even a book published of ‘Separated at Birth?’ images. I hope it’s not too rude to say that the ones chosen for the cover look pretty lame.

Although I’m not a regular reader, I seem to remember the British satirical magazine Private Eye having a go. From what I can recall, their efforts tend to be crueller and designed to make a point.

I think my sole attempt is as good as any you’ll find. I hope you appreciate it and realise that Keith Richards is not related to HM The Queen. No matter how convincing the photographic evidence might be.

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Conspiracy Theory Featured Lead Story Life Media Music People Work

Glastonbury on the BBC

It’s hard not to find mentions of Glastonbury on the BBC. Most mornings I rise to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. This morning, sixty-nine-year-old rightwing journalist John Humphrys was at Glastonbury. But why should I be surprised? Every year the BBC turns itself into a massive PR machine for this commercial enterprise.

At around 8:45 am on the same programme, immediately after John had interviewed Sir Mick Jagger, Justin Webb read out an email from writer Ian Martin (Thick of It, Veep). He asked: “Is the BBC going to manage one, just one, remotely critical comment on Glastonbury?” John said that there’d been no water in his cabin that morning.

John Humphreys at Glastonbury on the BBC
Michael Eavis and John Humphreys

Now I love the BBC and I am a keen supporter of music festivals, even “Big Mama” Glastonbury. But even I find the relentlessly positive publicity Glastonbury receives too much to bear. It’s getting to the stage where it’s starting to look satirical.

Too much Glastonbury on the BBC?

This morning, one of the main headlines on the BBC News website was “Arctic Monkeys headline Glastonbury”. News? I think we knew that quite a long time ago. Several other Glastonbury stories follow. Then, further down the page, it is revealed that Glastonbury has its own section on the BBC Entertainment website.

bbc_news_glasto_01

I suppose I could be accused of sour grapes. From 2006, I ran a music festival for six years. After the first couple of years in which Rhythm Festival was at least listed as an event. We couldn’t get so much as a mention on the local BBC Three Counties website: “for Beds, Herts & Bucks”. That’s Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, in case you didn’t know.

When they answered emails at all, Three Counties told me the first year that the website’s resources had been cut. The team literally had no one available to write anything. The next year, I was told it wasn’t BBC policy to promote private events (ha!). And, by the time 2012 came around, it was too late, we’d gone bust. Although it was no Glastonbury Festival, Rhythm had been the biggest annual entertainment event in Bedfordshire.

Sour Grapes? Only £10 a plastic cup to you, guv…

Aside from national coverage and the really exceptional television exposure (which I love), the local BBC Somerset website is practically on Glasto Alert all year round.

Elsewhere on the BBC, phrases like “the biggest music news story of the week is that the Rolling Stones are headlining Glastonbury” abound. Is this “news” regarded as “big news” because of the Rolling Stones or because it’s at Glastonbury? Didn’t the Stones play the Isle of Wight Festival in 2007 with far less publicity? And what about the two nights in Hyde Park, London, next month? Surely that should be highlighted? If only because it comes 44 years after the iconic free concert that followed Brian Jones’ death in 1969? Apparently not.

stones-set-list

The BBC weren’t so keen to broadcast the news that the Stones didn’t want their set broadcast at all. Eventually, they agreed to four songs. Then a maximum of 15 minutes. And, after a lot of lobbying from the Corporation and the festival-organising Eavis team, the rumour is that the Regal Rock Royalty has graciously consented to a full hour. We’ll see… [In the end, the BBC joined the Rolling Stones set an hour in, starting with Miss You.]

Glastonbury Festival Finances

Of course, Glastonbury is a fantastic festival. Very likely the finest of its kind in the world. But it’s far from perfect. So why don’t we ever hear anything but the good stuff?

Is it because the BBC’s deal depends on a positive spin? If so, the same must go for Glastonbury’s other “media partners” like The Guardian? On the media grapevine, I’m told that if any broadcaster or journalist neglects to toe the “happy” line, they are denied free access forever afterwards. And what newspaper, magazine or radio station would want that?

Aside from the thousands of BBC staff, who gets to go to Glastonbury? Mostly it’s the multitudes who pay £216 (including compulsory booking fee and postage) for their weekend tickets. In the business, thes are known as the ‘mug punters’.

In return for jumping through hoops to get special identity cards, ticket-holders get to live for up to a week knee-deep in cow-slurry and mud. Another, less trumpeted group of festival-goers, are the “VIPs”. Literally “very important people”.

But not all of these higher beings are connected to the media and the higher echelons of the music industry.

Very Important Liggers

VIPs are very well looked after. They get to use facilities generally untainted by mud, body odours and human and/or animal waste. Some even receive access to luxury camping (referred to as “glamping”) in powered and plumbed yurts, Winnebagos and caravans.

Some don’t even have to pay for their gourmet food or drink. It’s not widely trumpeted but, provided you have a few spare grand, it’s possible to buy VIP access. For £5,000-£11,000 a ticket, you too can experience the luxurious side of Glasto and mix with the performers, media and many other hip celebs.

In the past, your fellow VIP revellers might have included rock ‘n’ roll icons such as Tony Blair, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and members of the Royal Family. That’s aside from the staff of various banks and multinational corporations, of course.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a post that appeared on the eFestivals festival forum on April 30th, 2013:

VIP Package Includes:

  • Festival ticket with camping in the hospitality campsite (better toilet/washing facilities and in close proximity to the pyramid stage). Guests must provide their own tent.
  • Access to the “inner circle” the VIP backstage areas of Glastonbury
  • Access to backstage hospitality areas/ undercover seating /bars and food stands
  • The opportunity to mingle with the media, press, celeb’s and Artists
  • Access to backstage VIP toilet /shower facilities

I paid £2,500 for them and am looking for the same – LET ME KNOW SOON!!!

What do you get for £2,500?

You obviously don’t get much for £2,500 a head. According to the Metro website, Wayne Rooney spent £2,000 on a Tesco “home” delivery to the festival VIP area (the price of crisps, cheese-strings and Pot Noodle these days!) and:

Coleen and her footballer hubby have spared no expense this time around. They arrived by helicopter and, along with their pals, are bedding down in three huge Winnebagos costing £15,000 for the weekend.

Living on the other side of the festival tracks are the mug punters and many of those providing entertainment or working at the festival. I know of a “name” band from the USA who played Glastonbury and ended up having to camp in a public campsite, next to over-flowing toilets. This was over a mile from the stage they were playing on. Their van could only park two miles away, in the opposite direction from the stage. This meant they had to hump their instruments and gear in and out by hand, through the crowds, without any help or transport. They were less than impressed by West Country hospitality.

Part-time Pay

Most people who work at Glastonbury don’t get paid much if anything at all. Often traders will ask for a full day’s work in return for festival access and space in a tent.

Performance budgets are low and you’d be surprised how many artists don’t get any money for appearing. And those who do get paid, receive a fraction of what they’d normally charge. Even the big names.

Chas and Dave played in 2008 for roughly half what they’d get for performing in a London pub on a wet Tuesday afternoon.

Before he pulled out, East London rapper Wiley tweeted: “I’m going to tell all the promoters how much Glastonbury get away with paying people and the other festivals will think wtf…”

In an article in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick goes as far as to say:

Glastonbury Festival is not known for its financial largesse. With hundreds of bands performing, and a large portion of profits going to charities, Glastonbury has never been in a position to pay out the million pound fees offered by other more commercial festivals. “We get headliners for a tenth of their normal price,” Eavis has claimed. “They’re not being paid very much.” Paul McCartney appeared at Glastonbury in 2004 for £200,000, although his normal festival fee is rumoured to be £4 million. Coldplay received the same fee in 2011 – with the implication that the Stones are likely to receive the same.

£4m to Ride?

I doubt if McCartney would normally get £4 million per gig, but let’s not split hairs. It’s a widely held belief that, as Neil says, the festival donates “a large portion of profits” to charities. The only figures I can find are that (according to Wikipedia) in 2005, Glastonbury gave £200,000 to Oxfam who, in return, provided 2,000 stewards. A cynic might say that this works out at £100 a steward, which for very nearly a week’s work (Tuesday-Monday) is much less than the minimum wage. Nice for Oxfam, nice too for the festival finances. Luckily, I’m not a cynic.

Another cynic – not me either – might also do a simple calculation of 135,000 (the stated number of tickets sold) x £170.83 (£205 less VAT) = £23,062,499. Then there are the added bonuses of having 150,000 captives on your festival site for 3-7 days. The bar at a small music club on a single evening, say 8pm-11pm would expect to take £8-£10 a head on bar takings: make that 24 hours, add in food on top and you’re talking big money, some (most?) of which will certainly filter down to the festival organisers. Then there are other income streams, such as sponsorship, selling space for trade stands, facility fees for TV, radio, and so on…

A Very Profitable Enterprise

If a festival always sells out, if your biggest paid act is only receiving £200,000 and most of your staff are working for nothing, it seems inevitable that you’ll make money. How much of it they donate to charity is the business of the Eavis family and I’m sure they’re sincere about what they’re doing. Obviously other charities than Oxfam do benefit from Glastonbury: Greenpeace and Water Aid are two major recipients. Plus, the internet is packed with stories about schools, village halls and other worthy causes in Somerset receiving money for various projects.

I suspect that the Eavis family and Worthy Farm get to keep some of the profits – and rightly so – but that’s never mentioned in any media coverage I’ve ever seen. Like the curate’s egg, Glastonbury isn’t all good. I feel it would be much more healthy if the BBC and others admitted that Pilton isn’t the site of the Second Coming and that there’s more to festivals than simply the Gospel according to St Michael.

Having got rid of the cynics, let’s get back to enjoying the UK’s “most loved music festival” (it’s official – I just heard it said on Radio 2). There’s really nothing quite like Glastonbury anywhere else in the world and we should be proud as Punch about it being a British institution, like the BBC. I’ll finish with a video in which Julien Temple talks about the very first Glastonbury Festival (and plugs his documentary movie about it):

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Rhythm Festival: “the inside story”

Mention “Rhythm Festival” within my earshot and I guarantee you I will cringe. Maybe even start to sob.

But why did I do it? I constantly ask myself. Why? Oh why? Oh why?

Starting a music festival from scratch was definitely one of my wilder projects. It’s up there with starting The Do-Not Press, even though I knew nothing about book publishing. And promoting two tours for Jerry Lee Lewis. Not to mention, writing a textbook on how to write novels, without first having written one myself.

My advice to anyone thinking of getting a music festival off the ground is “Don’t.” With a capital D and a few exclamation marks to follow. However, I did, and this is what happened to me…

Rhythm Festival 2006 @ Twinwood Arena

The first Rhythm Festival took place in August 2006. Though the serious planning started three years earlier. My motivation was that I simply couldn’t find a music festival I wanted to go to.

The Rhythm Festival Experience

For instance, Glastonbury was way too big and I wasn’t keen on the hypocrisy that portrays it as a benevolent, almost charitable event, rather than the money-generating machine it really is. Consequently, I was determined not to fall into that trap.

Another example, Cambridge Folk Festival was OK, if a little too, er, “folky”. Similarly, there just wasn’t enough happening for me at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. One stage in a relatively small field. And if you didn’t think the “The Greatest Folk-Rock Band in the World’s” were worth fawning over for four days, you were stuffed. Likewise, Reading, Leeds, V and suchlike were too regimented and aimed at younger people. And back then, that was about it.

By this time, I was at the scrag-end of my forties, I knew a lot of people like me who wanted to spend a pleasant weekend away. Ideally, listening to good music in relative comfort. Munching on decent grub and supping pints of better than average real ale at prices that wouldn’t make Donald Trump wince. As the Dragons have it, I had perceived a gap in the market. Maybe I could fill it.

But that was my first big mistake.

The Perfect Festival Site?

Above all, what a great festival needs is a great festival site. I was lucky. One of my first Google searches came up with Twinwood Arena in Bedfordshire, purpose-built around the wartime airfield out of which Glenn Miller took his final flight in 1944. Site owners, the Wooding family had been putting on a relatively small festival commemorating the wartime bandleader since 2002 and so knew about outdoor events and what it needed.

After a few meetings, David Wooding and I realised that if we weren’t exactly singing out of the same hymn-sheet we were at least in roughly the same congregation. We agreed on terms around Christmas 2005. I’m not sure if the name came before the dates or the other way round. But eventually Rhythm Festival was up and running. Scheduled for Twinwood Arena over the weekend of August 4th, 5th, 6th, 2006.

Best Rhythm Festival Acts

Secondly, a good music festival needs good acts. Bands, comedians, solo performers, DJs, and more. Booking the right performers can make or break a festival. So can getting the wrong acts (but that’s just break, there’s no make involved with that one. The music industry and agents, in particular, have a schizophrenic attitude towards festival organisers.

On one hand, they treat you as one step up from a con-man, fully expecting you to go bust at any moment. Consequently, they will demand that you pay them in advance for all their acts. On the other hand, they act as if you’re making a fortune out of exploiting musicians and so ask for hugely inflated sums, often many times the act’s normal fee. For instance, a band perfectly happy getting £1,500 for playing the 100 Club would think nothing of demanding £5,000 to play on an old airfield in Bedfordshire.

Rip-off Britain

It took a while to book the headline acts. But eventually, after a series of email and telephone negotiations, I arrived at a bill headlined by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm, Donovan, Arlo Guthrie, Seth Lakeman and, most importantly, Roy Harper who had secured agreement from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to appear with him. We had the site, we had the bill, we had the Festival. All we had to do was sell 2,500 tickets to break even.

What could possibly go wrong?

Find out in the next thrilling instalment of “Rhythm Festival: “the best small outdoor music festival in Britain”…

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Seasick Steve and Key Lime Pie

I’ve just been watching Seasick Steve on a Sunday morning cookery programme on BBC Two television called Something For The Weekend. In it he sang a song, drank a cocktail and grated cheese into a bowl in order to make it look like he was making a key lime pie. The presenters oo-ed and aw-ed his every word, particularly astounded at his admission that he’d never had cocktails before –  aside from harvey wallbangers and martinis, of course. These are the lengths it seems you have to go to in order to “make it big” in the modern age.

It could be said that Seasick Steve got off lightly compared to those fame-addicted minor celebs encouraged to eat whole chillis on Big Brother and live grubs and kangaroo penises for I’m An Idiot Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!. Once you’ve answered and re-answered spurious questions about being arrested for vagrancy and hopping freight cars on the Paul O’Grady Show and Richard & Judy, pretending to make a key lime pie must be small potatoes.

Let me say right here and now that Seasick Steve is a wonderful artist and, by all accounts, a very fine fellow. In no way do I want to take anything away from him. His rise from itinerant labourer and sometime musician to headlining at London’s Royal Albert Hall was fairly rapid (only 40 years), utterly deserved and the stuff of fairytales. In an interview in March 2006 for Blues In London he admitted that his main goals were cash and fame: “I’m motivated by money! I wanna be one of the stars! Man you know I aint got that much.” Can’t blame him for that… at least he has the talent to go with it.

If you don’t know Seasick Steve from Seasick Stephen Hawking, here’s his life in 156 words: At the age of 14, Steve Wold left the family home in Oakland, California, hopping freights across the USA, his only constant companion a battered, customised guitar. He’d been taught a few chords by Delta bluesman KC Douglas, who worked in his grandfather’s auto-shop. After spending part of the Flower Power era in San Francisco, Steve hopped a cheap flight to Paris and travelled through France and the UK, before being drawn back to the States. When he wasn’t picking fruit or digging potatoes, he’d busk and play the odd support slot. By the 1990s, he was married, settled down, raising five children, playing with bluesman RL Burnside and producing albums for the likes of US indie-rockers Modest Mouse. A decade ago, he and his Norwegian wife relocated to Norway, where he made a solo album in their kitchen. It landed on the desk of London DJ Joe Cushley, and the rest is history. Or very nearly.

Appearances on Hootenanny and Later With Jools Holland secured Steve’s status as the hobo we all could love. The nearest we’ll get to Woody Guthrie and with fewer rough edges. A new agent trounced on to the scene and Steve and was plucked out of the clubs and the independently-run music festivals that had fuelled his career thus far and propelled into the big-time, playing the Royal Albert Hall and similarly large concert venues. Exclusive contracts were signed with a big time music corporation for exclusive festival appearances at Latitude and Glastonbury 2008.

Many of us would rather see Seasick Steve in a sweaty club that a fully-seated municipal theatre smelling of faux-marigolds and popcorn, but that’s the way it goes. That’s his choice – or at least the choice of his manager, agent and their financial advisers. You lose the atmosphere in the bigger venues but the money’s better and the seats are clean.

I was giving out leaflets outside the Royal Albert Hall the night Steve played there. The people who were emerging from taxis weren’t the type I would regularly see at the 100 Club, where I promote most of my blues-tinged shows. In fact, most had never heard of the place. I’ll also bet that the majority of the City workers and Notting Hillbillies who seemed to make up Steve’s Albert Hall audience had never heard of Woody Guthrie. After all, Woody never got to appear on Later With Jools Holland and be accorded the attendant honour of the loveable tinkler jamming along to “This Land Is Your Land”. Pity. I can see the freshly-repainted slogan, “This Machine Kills Pub Pianists”.

If you’re wondering how the key lime pie turned out, sorry, I can’t help you. I was so embarrassed for Steve that I was forced to wipe the recording then and there. I hear they’ve got Chuck Berry on next week, preparing individual black forest gateaux.

UPDATE (21/01/09):

Since I posted this, Seasick Steve has just been nominated for a Brit Award. He’s competing with Neil Diamond for the Meals On Wheels Award for Best International Artist or somefink.

I’ve also learned that the female presenter of Something For The Weekend was former Spice Girl Emma Bunting. And I just thought she was just an unknown incompetent who’d slept with the producer.

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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 impresario 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.

Does any Music Promoter ever Make any Money?

There’s a lot of money to be made in music. Problem is, 5% of the participants get to keep 90% of the loot. The rest of us have to 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. But don’t get too carried away celebrating my success. At the time I was living in my one-room office, sleeping on the floor. 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.

Music Promoting Outside ‘The Loop”

Boomtown Rats at Chelmsford Chancellor Hall (I was the music promoter)
Boomtown Rats at Chancellor Hall, Chelmsford, Sun 25/09/1977
Music promoter: Jim Driver

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. I only got to promote the Rats in the first place because few promoters would sully their hands with Punk. Back then, the Sunday newspapers were full of stories of punk depravity and the end of civilisation.

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 happened, 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.

“Where’s There’s Muck, There’s Brass”

The big promoters, like major record company executives “invest” their cash on what they think other people will enjoy. They never ever put money on what they personally like. Invariably it’s the lowest common denominator that comes into play. Was it Barnum (perhaps paraphrasing H L Mencken) who said: “No one ever lost a fortune underestimating public taste”?

Popular music is one of Britain’s leading money-spinning businesses. And for the last 50 years or so, the biggest players have been major corporations. Led by lawyers and accountants with ponytails, 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 legal and accountancy qualifications.

Liars & Accountants

I first realised the situation had become critical some time in the early-1990s. I was a music journalist at the time (my ‘other job’ as a writer), working for Time Out magazine. A PR team took me 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 misinformation. Such as Jerry Lewis had turned to rock ‘n’ roll after dissolving his partnership with Dean Martin. He’d added the “Lee” as a tribute to US General Robert E Lee.

Prince Andrew is the name of a 70-year-old ska legend. Chuck Berry devoted his spare time to playing the Dixieland jazz trumpet after attending a funeral in New Orleans. These people knew how to maximise profits. They are all over downsizing and negative equity. But, when it came to music, they didn’t know their Associates from their Donnie Elberts. Literally.

From Rock ‘n’ Roll to Britain’s Got Talent

Chuck Berry @ 100 Club, London. Sunday March 23rd, 2008
Music Promoter: Jim Driver

In my time as a music promoter, I’ve been in on the ground floor of quite a few movements in popular music. I arrived after the Gold Years of Rock & Roll. I also arrived too late for the British Beat Boom of the early 1960s. But Peace, Love and Hippydom inspired me in the early to mid-1970s. But I was getting mighty tired of it when the Punk and New Wave movement erupted in 1976. Punk really inspired me and I desperately wanted to be part of it from the first minute I heard 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. This is what blew the Pogues into an unsuspecting world.

The small independent promoter must make his or her money by promoting what the people in the loop don’t want. Or what they don’t yet know exists. Because I have always promoted in small venues, I tend to be part of the grass-roots. I get to see new acts coming up. I’ll be able to promote a ‘hot band’ only two or three times. That’s how long it usually takes for someone ‘in the loop’ to catch on. Sometimes I’m not even that lucky and only get one bite of the cherry.

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 Music Promoter as Endangered Species

The trend among music promoters nowadays is to move acts to bigger and so more profitable venues way too soon. Before they’ve had chance to learn their craft and iron out their bumps. The Rolling Stones only became the Rolling Stones because they played nearly every day for years. They honed their craft in hundreds of small gigs before stepping up to play dancehalls, theatres, and town halls. Only then were they ready to move up to arenas and finally, huge stadiums. Back then there were literally hundreds, maybe thousands of people doing the job of ‘music promoter’. Now there are less than a hundred.

The same went for all of the true greats. Chuck Berry Jerry Lee Lewis. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash. There are thousands.

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.

“That’s rock ‘n’ roll, man.” As they used to say.