Sunday, 12 January 2014

How to make a small fortune promoting? Start with a large one.

Promoting small-scale gigs and making money? Defining 'folk' in 2014? Tricky.

Ben Calvert is a songwriter who runs regular Sunday night gigs and a small record label under the handle of Bohemian Jukebox. We had a terrific, lengthy and detailed conversation this past week after an email exchange triggered by a post on promoters who love what they do and the music they work with. Ben pointed out that, contrary to the popular belief that music promoter equals bloodsucker, he and many others work for ridiculously silly money. 

So we met up and he showed me his books. Guess what? He really does work for a pittance. But promoting penury hasn’t slowed him down; he loves his music. Bohemian Jukebox now runs as a venue-supported freebie at the Bulls Head in Moseley, Birmingham. After well over a decade, Ben's not getting rich; he's not alone. A huge tranche of local music businesses work this way. Without this kind of gritty idealism / bloody-mindedness / music obsessions (delete as appropriate), local scenes would be a lot poorer. 

Scary financial stuff and noble principles to follow…

So let's look at promoters.... there's people who do it for love, but don’t want to get completely cleaned out – like you?
Ben Calvert Right…
And there’s people who do it because they love music, but it’s definitely a business – say, Moseley Festival or the This is Tmrw crew who do a whole lot of adventurous indie programming by still mange to wash their face. And then there are the big boys, who don’t really look at a local scene unless there’s a way they can put an act in that they can manage to make some money out of. Bohemian Jukebox is definitely in the first category, and you’ve run it –
Since 2003. An average of one event every two weeks since then. So I’ve got an idea of what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence. Performing, recording and promoting.
And how easy is it?
Very hard. We set up Bohemian Jukebox as a folky, or post-folky night, for bands who are strong on song-writing. 
Yeah. Because we did sell it as folk to start. But traditional folk didn’t really fit. So it’s very important to make the distinction between folk and post-folk. But when we were discussing acts for Moseley Festival, when we were involved there, someone said ‘Oh, you don’t get more folky than Neil Young, do you?’
But then someone quite rightly pointed out – 'Well, he’s not very folk because he writes his own songs.'
We could spend hours on this.
Yes. But we’re not really talking about folk, because we’re talking the folk revival specifically, at the end of sixties and seventies – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Nick Drake…and then making their own material out of an existing tradition.
Yeah. I grew up on all that stuff. It was all very exciting. Dylan going electric and outraging the traditionalists… In the sixties in Brum, Ian Campbell – very traditional – provided a venue for all the up and comers to play. And people like Dave Pegg was in the Ian Campbell Trio and eventually fetched up in Fairport, and he‘s still playing now with Steve Gibbons in the Dylan Project. But that was all fifty years ago, and there’s been a series of revolutions in Folk ever since, thankfully. So. come on, where do you place Bohemian Jukebox’s post-folk point? Where would it start?
Difficult. This year I’m shooting a film which asks exactly this question. To try to pin it down. We’ll shoot at Moseley Folk and a lot of other places. What is essential to folk? We had a band from Bristol I think it was, that wanted to play Bohemian Jukebox. They did funk-folk. I listened to their stuff, and it was an unholy racket
I could single out a couple of local bands that are definitely funky: Urban Folk Quartet and The Old Dance School

And on and on we went at this point. For ages. Ben is an engaging guy who loves to talk music, and so do I. There's a lot more to talk about, given Birmingham's amazing and unsung folk heritage. But the main goal was to talk about promoting.

So. You promote gigs. So that means you’re mister moneybags, the bastard who’s exploiting a string of poor starving artists. Right?
So you would think. If you’re running a typical gig where you’re sat at the front taking money from people – most people who look at the money in the cashbox you’ve got on the table. They’ll see something like £70. And they’ll make this really strange assumption that all the money in the cashbox is going into my back pocket at the end of the night, and that all I’ve done for it is phone up three bands and get them to play on the night.
So what does that seventy quid represent? A fiver in for 140 people?
No! It would represent the first six people coming in and paying, somebody coming in and trying to get in for two quid, five people coming in for free cos they’re friends with the band. and a fifty quid float you’ve borrowed from the bar.
So how can you make any money?
Now, we run things free. When we charged, it was three quid to get in. The sound engineer would get a cut, obviously. The headline act would get a cut of the door, depending on how many people they brought in. The touring band would play as main support, they'd get a guaranteed slice, and no pressure to bring any audience themselves. The second support act might be a local artist who might fit well and bring some people in too. And the first person on would be someone new, a solo or duo, playing with no pressure to bring people. All of the acts would compliment each other in some way, so audiences were encouraged to stay for the whole event, and the acts would pick up more fans. 
So they would play for free?
No, they’d get paid as well.
Ben and promoter's spreadsheet
Hang on a second. Three pounds in, let’s say sixty paying – that’s £180. Out of that, you have to pay a realistic amount to the sound man, plus the headline and supports and something for the opener as well. So, again, how did you ever make any money?
I worked it out. I looked at it in depth to see how much was I making from – or not. How many people paid full price, how many people paid concessions, how many people were in each band, how many people came in for free. On a good day, I might have made a profit of £146. On a bad day, for example, I had 19 people in there, and I lost money. 24 people in meant I broke even.
I'm keen to emphasise that the money I personally made wasn't a reflection that the events weren't working. Quite the opposite. We'd have a busy venue for a lot of the events, and even when there were smaller audiences, acts were glad to have played to appreciative people - audiences that 'got them', and loved them and that bought their merchandise and signed up to their mailing lists.

Well, £146 for one night’s work isn’t too bad….but of course it’s not one night, is it?
No. In one year, for example. there were 22 events, and I averaged a profit of £35 an event. That involves booking the bands – no mean feat in itself - making the poster, making the Facebook event, sending off listings, updating the website, printing the posters, distributing the posters. These days you place an advert on Facebook as well for the week or two weeks leading up to the gig. And then, sitting on the door, taking the money
When would you start?
I’d be there for the get-in at five, working through till eleven.
So you’re already on less than the minimum wage for your work on the night.
I’d estimate about £3.50 an hour. I think every band should set up their own event once in a while, so they can see how it works out.
But you’ve changed things. Now you’re operating free gigs.
It’s made things simpler in some ways. Because we have a level of trust with the landlord (Adam Regan), we have an exceptional deal. We promote it hard, so we get his support, and that lets us run it for free. The PA is exceptional. Bands appreciate that. We do need to get a full room, of course. We now don’t book touring bands, and we have to be very upfront with the bands that we book. They get a good PA, a full room, and we promote it very hard.
You are explicit about this when you book the bands? They know they’re not getting paid?
Yeah. From the start.
That’s tricky. An outsider might say, here’s Ben, he’s getting bands to play for free, and they’re making loads of money… that gets you back to square one! I have to ask, though… what’s in it for you at this point? You’re just about going to wash your face, with a very supportive venue.
I guess it’s about branding and to raise awareness of the label. We’re also looking for people to sign to the record label. The best way to do that is to put them on at our events to see them live. And I’ll always pass details on of quality venues in other towns and cities to acts that are on the ball. There’s nothing in that for me, but it’s a good thing to do, to build networks. 
Simple question: why are you still doing it?
It’s got to be more than that.
I think it’s important to keep it going, and to give people a quality platform to play. David Leach played a while ago and he said from the stage:
'When I first came to Birmingham I played here and I knew no-one. Now I look out and I see a sea of faces and all my friends are here, and I met you all here. Bohemian Jukebox was my ticket into music in this city'.
It's worth it for moments like that alone.

Bohemian Jukebox Facebook page 

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Milton said...

I've put on a fair few gigs in London over the years - similar sort of music. Traditional folk/singer-songwriter/Americana/blues veering over to jazz and experimental music occasionally. So I found this article a really interesting read, and I could relate to a lot of it. But I was a little disappointed that the position Ben Calvert's ended up with is a free-admission gig that doesn't pay acts. I totally understand why. But I think that, long-term, it's not a healthy thing for music as a whole. For the simple reason that it perpetuates this something-for-nothing attitude among listeners. If I put on a free event, I always have a donations hat. If there's a guestlist, I'll always try to make it a "donations guestlist". I think it's essential to remind people that, just because there's no door charge, doesn't mean that it is out of the question to give someone some money.

Ben Calvert said...

I agree completely. In the past we've encouraged acts to pass a hat to raise money towards their expenses or for their fees. From now on we're going to make this more explicit, and I'll make an announcements throughout the event to make punters aware that donations are welcome. This means that acts can get paid and we can start to encourage touring acts to play too.