20.08.16 - No. 16

Being part of a grassroots culture

We book our own shows. We split the financial cost of the venue and sound tech between us. We know our limits with audience expectations and plan with growth and sustainability in mind. We manage ourselves as a co-op and take full responsibility for spreading the word. Our mindset is DIY, and that works for us. 

But this is a slow grind. We don't sell out shows. We turn up, we work hard and a few people get into it and stay with us to dance and smile and be entertained, and when they leave they stick their emails on the mailing list. Then we start again, develop, iterate and to look for ways to improve.

Firstly, you might not be happy with that, it is an emotional battlefield that can be a full-on assault on your self-esteem. Something as simple as putting on gigs can be a big strain that warrants structure and realistic expectations, that’s a topic for another post, but ultimately I’ve found it’s really important to make sure you’re working with supportive people.

Secondly, the venues you perform at might not always be happy with low numbers. In a busy city like London there's always another someone ready to jump into your spot and promise the venue a full house. And let’s face facts, many small venues across the UK are genuinely struggling and are having to close their doors. That prevents a real barrier to developing and nurturing new and interesting talent. 

Small venues are in a tight spot, they’re low on cash so frequent risk doesn’t make too much sense. With the best will in the world, sticking their neck out for bands who don’t pull big crowds is a risk they can probably do without. The problem is, performers need to be able to take that stage. They need to learn the things about their craft that they'll only get to learn in a live setting. And if that is learnt performing to one guy stoned out of his mind in a venue in Bristol, so be it.

So, how do we reconcile the musicians wanting to develop an audience and the venues who need to watch their bottom line? I believe that both are lynchpins in a healthy music industry. The UK charity, Music Venue Trust, is doing a fantastic job working on this exact problem and more. A simple start would be to follow them and read the news they share.

A bigger ask is this: show up at your friends gigs, then show up at your friend's friends gigs. Make sure you pay the entry fee and buy a pint or two, a packet of crisps or a tonic water. Promote your gigs as well as you can. Lazy promoters are a blood clot to the grassroots scene and support a stereotype we could all do without.

In praise of the promoter. They are easy targets. “there's no one at our show”, “you didn't promote it hard enough”, I’ve heard the latter complaint before from venues and the former I’ve heard said by acts about promotors. There are crumby promoters out there, but this blog isn't about them. There is no silver bullet to getting people to come see your gig. Audience development takes time. The venue doesn't have a secret guide book they all share between themselves while they snigger at your futile attempts at getting a few people to take a punt on what you do. Getting people to your shows, and then getting them back to your shows takes hard work, tough skin, good friends who can put up with your mental breakdowns, and a gamble on luck.

I know promoters who have sunk their own hard earned money into events and never recouped it. The best promoters can be the thankless people the audience will never see, they don't get on stage. They love what you do and want other people to see it.

Something to bear in mind: people are generally busy with their routines and lives, the people who love or like your music are busy people and maybe they’ve already been to one gig this week/month/year and that’s their quota, and maybe you only gig in their town once a year. Well, you missed them this year, that’s just bad luck, it doesn't mean you suck.

This isn't a pity party for lost money and bruised egos. It's a highlight of the hard graft people on the underground are putting in. It’s some words of support for people working to build something positive.

Bernard James


More info | Preciptoman 2013