Friday, 29 November 2013

This Is Tmrw: New bands, new music, new promoters

For some time I've been thinking of writing about how promoters work. But I haven't got around to it. Why? partly because it's complex and secretive - and not everybody operates, shall we say, fairly. Few promoters will offer up financial details, obviously, and that's something I'd really like to write about. 

So I am grateful to Julia Gilbert and the This is Tmrw team for stepping up to the plate - and we didn't really discuss money anyway. Like musicians, promoters do gigs for different reasons. Here's two teams taking parallel directions with different approaches. Both of them share some problems and have some solutions. Both are idealists. One team does it for love; one for love and, with a bit of luck, money. Both are important to the music infrastructure of the West Midlands. 

Over at Muthers studio, at the scruffy end of Birmingham’s Rea Street, half a mile and a whole world away from the plusher world of Digbeth hipsters, there’s a three monthly gig promoted by local band The Ghosts of DeadAirplanes. It’s pretty much the first music event to use Muthers' performance space. It rejoices in the name of El Ghost Fest – only this time around, it being Christmas and all, it’s El gHo-Ho-Host Fest. Naturally, the band takes a slot – it’s their gig.

Julia Gilbert is spokesperson. For complex reasons she is currently a non-playing member of Ghosts, but is working on the festival and plugging the band. Ghosts of Dead Airplanes are new(ish), at the getting themselves known stage. They’ve finished one ep; more material is in the can. Over and above local gigs, they, like a number of outfits, have forged mutually supportive links with bands across the country.

How easy is it for the band to get themselves known? 
Julia Quite difficult. I’ve been acting as their booking agent. Promoters in other towns tend to stick with bands they know, local bands who will bring their friends. Sometimes you strike it lucky, but you have to be quite persistent. But the internet helps. Then you can reach further than your home town. 
El Ghost Fest? 
EGF poster for December 14th
Our first couple of gigs were done with other promoters, and we’d been a bit mis-matched with some of the bands we were booked with. We decided to try to take control of that, and play with people we really liked ourselves. So there is a thread, but it’s also quite eclectic. 
And you simply decided to do it at Muther’s? 
We’ve got a lock-up here. We’re in here all the time. We noticed that Adam (Dufrane) was refurbishing the venue room. And it worked. The important thing for the gigs was that lots of people turned up.
We have Anima, and Desperate Journalist from London. Isle of Everywhere – friends of mine, they’re all in other bands. Lydia Glanville from Boat to Row plays with them. 
Yeah but she plays in about a dozen bands, doesn’t she? 
Yes she does! It’s quite hard to get her – she could actually do this date. Oh, and the final band is Bombers. 

Listening to the chat is Adam Dufrane, who runs Muthers. The gigs happen in a rather fine small venue - the Conservatory - with good sightlines and a decent bar at the back. And because it’s in an ancient Victorian warehouse in an industrial area, it has the distinct advantage that bands can kick up a hell of a racket if they want.

I heard about Muthers from Casino's Adam Zindani when he took me though the band’s complicated history. He describes it as surprisingly swish these days, while in its early incarnation, it was anything but. Adam concurs. But the place is being steadily upgraded. 
Adam: We have a very wide range of bands working here. It’s not niche. We have two studios, three rehearsal rooms and thirty two lock-ups where bands can stash their kit. The lockups are key to the business. They can be like gold dust. Once bands have a lock-up, unless they’re very unhappy with the building they they’re in, they do tend to stay. We have a waiting list.
Julia: It’s brilliant – you don’t have to haul your kit in every time
Adam: You can leave your kit on this genius setting, that you thought of the other night… turn the power off, turn it on again, and be ready to go: Ah! Yes! That setting! I can carry on. 
Walking me through the place, Adam rattles off the names of the bands for each lock-up. It seems to go on forever. Bloody cold, though. It’s enormous – a cavernous building with lots of room for expansion. The building was derelict, sitting next to a metal cutting factory which was owned by his dad. Come 2004, Adam took over and started building it up. 
Adam: It was a slow, long process to take it out of the grimy, dirty place it was, to something slightly… cleaner. The venue has a capacity of 120, so it’s not super-tiny, but it can look and feel good with less than that. 
Julia: we think it’s the perfect size. 
Adam: It’s enough. We had dance nights when it’s been totally rammed. It can handle different things: this Saturday there’s a 24-hour LAN gaming thing. They spend the night, gaming around the clock. So our hourly rooms, which are round the corner from the venue, are becoming bedrooms for the evening; they’re bringing their camp beds in… 
Julia: ...but you’ve got to staff it 
Adam: that shouldn’t be that bad; they’ll be either crashed out or heads down on their machines. gaming…. I can potter around painting things. No cleaning up like after Ghost Fest…
Across town, Tom Hopkins and Matt Beck from newish indie promoters This is Tmrw smile when I mention Ghosts of Dead Airplanes – the band had just played one of their venues. This is Tmrw are a collective of young promoters with a very clear idea about their task, and indeed their brand. There is a distinct style to their posters and a desire to encourage a range of bands into Birmingham, while pairing them with local talent.

Matt Beck was part of the Soul Food Project which dished out rather lovely food at the Hare and Hounds. Matt’s now back doing gigs and DJing, while partner Carl Finn has rehomed the project in the Church Inn, in the Jewellery Quarter.

So who’s in the This Is TMRW team?
Me, Tom, John Fell, (from Goodnight Lenin and Moseley Folk) and a guy called JP. John’s really into his indie, and Americana. Our relationship with John is more related to Soul Food, when Goodnight Lenin played the Soul Food Kitchen at the Hare and Hounds – there's a video with John with no facial hair, you got to get that into the blog.
Editorial note: Purely in the interests of historical accuracy, here's the video link. I'm sure Mr Fell won't mind his This is TMRW colleagues outing his clean-shaven self. Not one bit. 
Tom: We started booking acts we felt should be playing Birmingham: emerging indie artists. 
Matt: The first act we booked was Foals. We put them on at theF Sunflower Lounge. They’d toured about four times, but no one was putting them on. 
Did you break even? The Sunflower lounge is a tiny venue  
Ummmm – they were getting paid less than £100. So, yes, we did break even. 
So where do you go to promote? We’re talking in the Bulls Head right now, and you’ve got another gig coming up here on the 19th, and there’s really not a lot of room upstairs. Four bands.... and nice to see Arc Vel.
Matt He’s brilliant. If he was playing in Manchester or London, he’d be considered really trendy. We see a lot of national artists. Arc Vel’s electronic music is so much better than theirs. Maybe we need to get him out there. Maybe we need more managers in Birmingham to propel some of these artists. 
A lot of design thought goes into your posters. Are you trying to create a vibe, an image, so people will trust what you do, no matter what you book? 
The desirable Party poster for 19 Dec
Tom That’s the dream. To get this... brand.... associated with a good night’s live music. We want people to trust us to put on a good night, even if they haven’t heard the music. 
Matt Having a local brand in Birmingham is really important. We have major promoters coming in to the Hare and Hounds with decent acts, and sometime they just can’t sell tickets. Locally, people are really quite loyal to their promoters. If they see a Lewes (Herriot) poster – one of our posters - it’s almost like a seal of approval. It’s a problem because everyone robs them off the walls. 
We want there to be some sort of synergy between the bands – but we’re much more confident about the shows now, For the Christmas party on the 19th, we’re happy to have Arc Vel – all electronic - with Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam: two guitars and drums, and very loud. 
Operating at the level you’re at now, with recognition and a name, and the sympathetic venues you have access to – this allows you to have your adventurous programming policy. Isn’t there a ceiling on the size of venues you can take this to? 
Matt This has always been a problem. You’ve got venues with a 250 cap, and there’s not much in between there and the 3000 capacity venues. If we were to push it to 600, where would be go? The Rainbow Warehouse is a good venue but it’s costly to bring your own PA in. 
So the problem is quality and size, and keeping the quality when you go larger. How can you take it further? Would you like to do something really BIG, like a festival... 
Matt That would be nice, but we’ve always taken baby steps. It’s not an issue just yet. I think we could do a festival… Moseley’s sewn up, but I would be great to have an annual festival for the music we deal with. I’m sure it’s possible – it happens in other towns. 
Links
Ghosts of Dead Airplanes Bandcamp page
El gHo-Ho-Ho-st Fest details - 14th December at Muthers, Birmingham
This Is TMRW Christmas Party - 19th December at Bulls Head Birmingham



More music and promoters and venues posts on Radio To Go


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5 comments:

Ben Calvert said...

That's a good read. A mention of the money might've helped punters to understand how much promoters do for them and bands, while earning something that is often close to an hourly minimum wage!

Robin Valk said...

Ben, it's a very tricky area. Lots of people hate promoters and see them as bloodsucking parasites; in some case I think that's actually not far off the mark. But there are many people who do put on gigs very much out of a sense of idealism and love for the music. That said, the financial area is very very interesting - you raise a good point - but the big problem for the next blog post in this area will be to get someone willing to to open their books.

Ben Calvert said...

I'll agree that the general view is that the promoter is the blood-sucker, though it most cases, I know it ain't the case.

Guess what: I'm willing to show you my books from 2009. I wonder who else might do that? If they do, with this transparency I hope that it'll help to make the punters, bands, and venues aware of their role in the equation. Even the breweries/pub companies have a part in it too, influencing the give-and-take of the cash involved and how the show needs to be run.

Robin Valk said...

Ben - you're on :-)

PF said...

When I was doing this - weekly 1987-1989 - unless we had an act we were paying a fee to we split the money after costs between the acts. PA & lights were about £60, occasional flyposting costs and then it generally went 50% main act, 25-30% second and so on. The promoter balance was about 10-20% which is not dissimilar to the bigger companies (at the time) but without the guarantees.