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

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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.’

{ 2 comments }

superbreaker May 19, 2008 at 2:52 pm

Hey Jim, just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying reading your blog though still in it’s infancy… Found it on the back of your equally entertaining 100 Club emails and I also went to the Rhythm Festival a couple of year’s ago but I don’t think that is related!

Part 1 of your article about music promotion rang true this morning as i’ve just arrived back at work from Wood festival, that I attended with the missus and our 7 month old boy, Woody Joe (his first festival!).

Several times over the course of the weekend I thought fair play to the organisers for being brave enough to put on a collection of acts, a couple wellknown but mostly locally known and independently signed acts.

By not chasing the latest big thing allows them to keep the ticket price down, a rarity on the modern festival scene, allows people to attend purely on the basis of a weekend in a field with entertainment and also the excitment of being blown away by a band you’ve never heard or even heard of!

So I look forward to part 2 of your article and rest assured we can leave the big acts to the Virgins, O2s and even Hard Rock festivals and be happy with the knowledge there will always be people like yourself and the Wood organisers putting on the events that are open to all and that really count!

Anyway keep up the good work and look forward to part 2.

Ralph J Dartford May 30, 2008 at 3:26 pm

I loved that Jim. It rings true and is exactly what it is like. I have seen it from both sides, as a venue manager and a promoter

Stay independent and true. Thats my motto.

You have always been an inspiration.

Best,

Ralph

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