When should gigs start?

At what time should venue start their shows?

Last night, at the meeting of the Leicester Music Forum, someone talked about the time at which gigs start, here in Leicester  7:30 pm is the standard time for nearly all venues to open their doors, for the majority of gigs. They all start at the same time, bar a few events that begin at 9 pm and some that take place on Sunday afternoons.  Is this good?

One contributor thought not.  I also agree.  Venues should network and collaborate to give the ticket-buying public more choice as to when they can go to a gig, if they want to be there for the start. By staggering the start-time of their shows, venues might see an overall increase in the total audience going out to ‘see a band’ on any given night of the week. Well that is what was being suggested.

Will this work?  As someone who goes to a lot of gigs in many venues across Leicester, I frequently notice that at 7:30 – 8 pm there are not many people in the house. The room fills up by 9 pm and a raft of fans turn up for the headline set at 10 pm.  This suggests that a lot of people make up their own minds when they can get there and certainly don’t go to see support bands.

On another point, it was also said (last night) that it is common for a large group of fans to go to a gig to see their favourite  band and – when that band has played – they leave. Various comments were made about this well-known phenomenon, including “it is very disrespectful to other bands playing.”  This might be due to public transport and parking issues but I suspect the truth is that those fans came to see their band and were not interested in enjoying the music of other bands, that they did not know. It remains an vexed issue for bands and promoters alike.

Well, you might take the view that if they have paid to get in then they can make up their own minds what they want to see and how long they want to stay for. Some of the more street-wise promoters play the card of putting the band – likely to bring the most fans – on last. In contrast, I have also been to gigs where the crowd has arrived on time, stayed for the whole night and enjoyed all the music. It does happen.

Do promoters put on too many bands in a line-up?  It is not uncommon around this city, for there to be 4, 5 or even 7 to 8 bands playing on a line-up.  Most music fans find this too much to take in on one night. Gone are the days when you go out to “see a band”, that is, one band that is going to provide the music for a whole night. Such events are limited to covers or tribute bands that play pubs. The typical venue gig these days is made up of a series of bands tat play 30 minute sets, one after another.

Let me indulge myself in an opinion – the best gig is one played by 3 bands and no more. Two support slots and one headliner. Gigs that follow this formula are likely to draw the biggest crowds and to be the most enjoyable. Generally speaking – because there are exceptions, such as metal or punk nights or acoustic evenings.

So why do we get these huge line-ups?  In some cases it is because promoters want to maximise their ticket sales for the night. If each band brings 10 people then 7 bands might equate to 70 ticket sales. I can see the logic of that argument, even if I believe it to be flawed.

Three well-chosen bands – including a well-chosen headliner – should be able to fill a venue. Let’s look at gigs and see if a three band show starting at 8:30 pm works as well as a 7 band line-up starting at 7 p.m. What would aid this investigation is collecting data:  look at a sample of gigs, note their start-time and record how many tickets were sold.  Speculation on the basis of personal experience is fair enough to give us a clue about what might be happening; but it is only when we get data that we can begin to analyse what actually works and what doesn’t.

If our local music Forum achieves anything, it would be to challenge music providers to think about the way they do things and to objectively analyse what works best for the music-going community in our local area.

What makes a good live music scene?

13th December 2010

Having just got back from a really good meeting of the Leicester Music Collective, I thought I would commit a few words to paper. Well the digital version of paper maybe.

The nub of the meeting was talking about how we put more bums on seats.  Leicester has seen a massive increase in the number of live music venues and consequently in the number of gigs happening, week in and week out.

Promoters, venue owners and other industry movers and shakers are scratching their heads about how we should try to get more people to come out to support live music events.

We are all passionate about live music. We want to see more people attending gigs because we believe it is a really great way to spend an evening. But how do we do it?

One solution that is being delivered, is to print a monthly listing of gigs across all venues and distribute it as widely as possible. I support this. Even though I spend a lot of my working day pushing out information about gigs –  on the Internet – I realise that there is still a proportion of the population who do not go on the ‘Net every day. Even if they do, they tend to use it just for e-mail and don’t spend time surfing the web sites and social media outlets where they could come across info about live music.

If you do want to know about gigs or bands or music, you don’t have a problem finding it on the ‘Net.  If you might possibly want to go out and ‘see a band’, incredibly it can be difficult to find out what is going in this city. If Leicester has a problem getting the word out about gigs, it’s also likely to be the case that other cities have the same set of issues.

Distributing flyers that list gigs is one part of the solution and a lot of people said a lot of things about the practicalities of making this happen. Happily, someone has made a start on it and a listing is being produced.

Leicester has a profusion of live music venues; it has a huge supply of bands and artists playing every kind of music you can imagine. Live music has been a feature of Leicester life for decades.

There was some really interesting analysis about the impact of the BIG music society on tours, venues, ticket sales and festivals. Interesting though that is, my focus now is on amplifying the crowd for the small venues and the unknown, unsigned bands.

Someone pointed out that people will pay £20 to £40 to see a band they really want to see. Getting people to pay £5 to see bands they haven’t heard of, is much more difficult. But this is precisely where I operate and that for me is the major challenge.

Everyone agreed that it’s about getting the information out there; whether we use high-tech fixes or plain paper solutions, we need to make sure people know about what is happening, where and when.

On top of that there is a harder task of ‘selling’ unsigned, live music.  Why would anyone want to pay £5 to see a line-up of bands they have never heard of  before? Well, after two years of going to gigs, seeing hundreds of new bands and writing about many of them, I really feel passionate about live music. In a world increasingly dominated by recorded music, the difference between the two is immense. For me, live is the best. Live is what brings music to life. I don’t just want to  hear it. I want to see it.

But can I sell that idea to people who just want to plug themselves into their iPod and think that is what music is about, full stop?

I want to shout about the live music experience. I want to convince the public that live is an unbeatable form of entertainment. I want to convince people that going out to a gig and seeing bands playing is much better than watching it on TV or listening to music through ear plugs.

This wonderful group of people which has come together in Leicester has started to take that whole issue on board. The discussion however has focused too much on the supply side and not enough on the demand side of the market.

They did come up with the idea of doing a survey; asking people who go to live gigs what they think about things like: the venue, the ticket price, the transport there and back, what they like best and dislike most about shows and so on and so on.  That is good; we need to know much more about the punters, we need to keep asking questions that might help us to figure out the quality issues posed by live shows.

The other side of the equation is the bands.  This needs to be on the agenda. In live music, everything is driven by the bands, at the end of the day.  They are the people who make the music. But how do they contribute to making a local live music scene a success?

I am really looking forward to that debate. I already know some of the things that will get said:  what bands thinks of venues and promoters and vice versa. In Leicester, there is an almost endless supply of young men who want to play guitars on a stage. Sorry girls, but the ratio is about 20:1. I have lost count of the numbers of male musicians but I can count the female players of guitars, bass and drums on my fingers. Same is true of vocalists.

I have asked many questions about how bands write music. Who writes the songs, who makes the melodies, how do they choose what style of music they will play, what influences move them, do they ever think about what they look like on stage … and the answers are all invariably the same.

Musicians follow their own musical instincts. When four guys get together, assuming they gel together on the music, they will produce for their band, what they have had as a musical career, what they have grown up with, it’s all about their tastes, their musical passions, their sense of what works.

Ok, I hear you say, but that is also true of every other art form. It’s so obvious it’s hardly worth thinking about. But I also hear musicians talking about wanting to be successful, of making it in the music business.  Having talked with band members (for a few years) about this very subject, I know how difficult it is to get them to think outside of the box.

If a band has real talent and makes music that is good enough for people to pay to hear, what else do they need to do?  Sadly it is not all about the music. Of the 250+ rock bands in Leicester that write their own music, only a tiny few will ever stand any chance of making  it in the world outside. Are they the ones that have their fingers on the pulse of modern music and happen to be writing the best songs?  Not necessarily. There’s a lot more to it than that.

I’ve written about the ‘bands with no fans‘ thing before. I’ve talked about how bands can promote themselves. I’ve gone on about putting fans on floors. It’s still amazing to hear unsigned bands complaining that promoters are not providing them with big enough crowds.

It’s amazing because there is still a lack of ‘mojo’ about what makes live music work. Even if all promoters and venues did a perfect job of promoting shows, it’s still obvious that it is the bands who have the fans. It’s the band who has to put feet on floors. They are the ones who know who their fans are.

It’s incredibly difficult for promoters to sell tickets to the fans of a band. Even though MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are the most immediate conduits to the fans of a band, it’s not easy for promoters to message those people. Bands are not going to hand over their log in details to a promoter and say – ‘ok here are all our fans, you talk to them.’

Promoters can fire out marketing messages to the general body of people who might like  live music. We can put stacks of flyers into what we think are the right places. But the ones who are most likely to turn up at the door, are the people who already know that band. Access to those people is restricted to the bands themselves.

I don’t want to get started on the issue of ‘pay to play’ but the reason that hoary old chestnut won’t go away, is that for many venues and promoters it’s a solution that can work.

In a nutshell:  the promoter sells tickets to the bands. The band members then sell them to their fans. It can and does work but there are many band members out there who do not like it.

Some festival tickets can cost between £20 to £30. If you have to sell, say, 50, that’s £1,000 to £1,500.  For most small bands that’s a load of money to worry about.

Even so, I have heard bands say that they would be willing to pay that kind of money to get on to certain festival stages.

I’m not condoning this; I am just recognising that it happens. If it’s not part of the solution, it’s certainly part of the problem.

If bands want to be successful, they have to play music that people want to hear. They have to put on a performance that people want to see.

They might well have to compromise on their own personal tastes and accept that there is more to being a successful band than self-indulgence.

Moreover, they also have to bear the burden of winning, keeping and organising their fan base, promoting themselves, getting their name known and constantly tapping music industry people on the shoulder.

It’s great to hear stories like “oh, we had this box of 400 CDs and we had to sit down and listen to them all and decide which ones we wanted to sign up.”

As a music writer I sit in the middle of all this and hear both sides of the story. If we want more feet on floors in Leicester then both the promoters and the bands have to work together to achieve that.  No one has the exclusive power to win ticket sales.

We all agree that live music is the best music and we all want more people to join in and enjoy it.  We are only going to succeed if we all work together.

That ‘s what these meetings are about. Not why, but only how and to a lesser extend who.

Standards for live music venues

Hotels get a star rating between 1 and 5, so why not a star rating for live music venues?

The star rating for hotels is given to indicate the quality of the facilities they offer, based on a set of standards and criteria. If we were to offer  a  stars for music venues would would the criteria be? From the point of view of the fans, this might include

* good sound, set at reasonable levels and operated by suitably experienced sound engineers who are present at the controls throughout of the show.

* reasonable and affordable entry prices, relative to the acts that are appearing

* reasonable prices for refreshments and a good selection of them

* some food and snacks being available

* a sheltered smoking area

* toilets that are kept clean throughout the night

* a quiet area for non-smokers to relax in

* comfortable seating for those who want it

* friendly and courteous staff, including those controlling the entry

* the venue is kept clean and in good decorative order

From the point of view of the bands

* good sound with stage monitors, suitable microphones and a decent house drum kit

* the sound system is operated by experienced engineers throughout the show

* Pre-show sound checks

* a secure area for the storage of instruments and equipment

* at least one dressing room

* an easily accessible system for enquiring about bookings

* an efficient and well organised system for publicising shows

* acts are paid promptly in accordance with terms and conditions agreed at the time of the booking

* reasonable refreshments available to band members

* polite and courteous staff available to help band members while they are present at the venue

* suitable stage lighting

* achieved standards of health and safety in all areas including the stage

* a web site that offers bands a good standard of information about how to play at the venue including contact with regular promoters

As with hotel ratings, the number of stars would be awarded by an independent inspector who would visit the venue to check that criteria are met and would do this at least once a year.

It might also be a good idea to ask fans and band members to vote on what rating they think a venue should be given. There is nothing wrong in involving users in this process; it is they who have first hand experience of using the venue.  The technical inspection is also required because issues like health and safety and the payment of bands would not usually be experienced by fans and voting alone is not reliable enough. A voting system shares power between venue users and inspectors.

Pubs sometimes achieve awards, such as “pub of the year”, as an acknowledge of excellence. If enough publicity is attached to such awards, this might be good for business.

If such a rating system were to be introduced, what benefits would it confer on the industry?

I think that the advantages would include fans be better able to make judgments about value for money. True, fans don’t usually decide whether they will go to a venue, based on the facilities available at the venue; they go to see the band of their choice, if they are playing there. It might be of  more value to the bands when deciding which venue to include in their tour. It’s very difficult for bands to know what standard of venue they are booking into when playing out of town. Their only recourse at present is the find other bands that have already played there and ask them.

Once a rating has been set, its then a benchmark. The venue might see an increase in its rating as being good for business.  There might be a degree of competition between venues in the same town, to achieve better ratings than the others. Industry analysts might be able to see if there are trends in ratings over a period of time.

Are there any disadvantages in this idea?  All standards have costs. Venue must meet health and safety (including fire) standards in order to stay in business. If inspectors find them to be at fault they are given the opportunity to correct faults in order to stay open.  They have to find the money to do this.  Voluntary standards would also require venues to find the money to upgrade some of their facilities in order to achieve an additional star. At the moment there is not a lot of incentive to improve standards. Increased standards have to be funded and this is not easy in the current economic climate.

Rating systems are by no means universal in the leisure industry. They have become established for hotels and restaurants but certainly not for pubs, cinemas or leisure centres. Rating systems work best where there is a choice for the consumer or user. If a live music venue is the only one in town, there is no competition for increased ratings.

At present the only bodies to set standards for such venues are the local authorities that license them for public entertainment and that is largely restricted to the safety of the public.

The economics of local live music

The economics of local live music

Published: 2010

It’s very difficult to run a live music venue and since the start of the credit crunch, hundreds have closed.

Making a profit from live music is, at the small scale end of the market very difficult. At the top end  of the market, companies are making huge profits from live music. In fact, the overall value of ticket sales for live music has overtaken that for the sale of recorded music (for the first time ever.)

It is the ticket buying public that funds live music venues. It is what fans pay at the door that keeps these small venues open. Its is often thought that small venues make their money from bar sales. This is not the case. In most venues, the bar sales budget is kept separate from the operation of the music side.

The music side of the venue has to pay for sound engineers wages, entertainment licensing, performing rights fees, publicity and promotion, cleaning, repairs, electricity, business rates, insurance, door staff and all the work of booking in bands to play at the venue.

In the bar side of things, they have to pay for drinks stocks (often in too small quantities to be able to offer good prices), licensing, health and safety, bar staff wages and cellerage costs.

If the venue makes a profit at all, it has to plough some of this back into the business to fund surpluses at the bank.  Venues go through good times and bad times and its in the bad times that good operating reserves are needed, particularly in these times when overdrafts are available than they used to be.

Demand for live music tickets can be very variable; it can for example be affected by the weather. A long spell or wet or very cold weather can affect ticket sales. The public can be very volatile in their consumption of leisure; people that used to enjoy going out to see a band might now decide to buy a video or CD to watch or listen to at home. In the local area, attendance will depend on the supply of bands that people want to go and see. If the local area has a constant supply of new bands, this will fuel ticket demand. Once a crowd has heard all the bands in its local area, their interest in seeing them regularly might wane. We might also argue that the musical and artistic quality of local bands and artists is a factor driving demand. Where there are high quality bands and acts, people will feel motivated to go out and pay to see them. Even if the venues are not of a high standard, people will put up with this, to see they bands they want to support. However, poor standard venues will see people coming down for one or two gigs but no wanting to get back there regularly over a period of time, if they facilities are dismal.

The public is getting used to increasing standards in the leisure industry, in bars, restaurants, cinemas, shops, cafes, theatres and clubs. Big companies have invested a great deal of money in making these venues attractive. They want to give customers a really good experience when they go out to spend their income on leisure. Sadly the small live music venues can compete with this. the public are getting used to clean, well lit, well decorated venues that are fitted out attractively and staffed by people who are properly trained.

Perhaps this is why they feel so let down when they go to small live venues that are grubby, dimly lit, staffed by untrained students who have to work for a pittance and offer poor value for money. Our small live venues are well below the standards we are used to in the rest of the leisure industry.

Why is this?  Other leisure venues tend to be run by large national chains, big companies that have money to invest in their outlets.  Pubs and bars tend to change hands quite frequently and at eash change of owner, they tend to get revamped and modernised. By comparison, small live music venues tend to be privately owned and do not change hands that often. Most of them operate on a shoe-string and have insufficient turnover to be able to invest in refits and upgrades to their facilities.

One other factor can affect ticket sales at the permanent live music venues.  This is the supply of free music gigs in the local area. Pubs that have falling takings, particularly mid-week, often start to put on bands, knowing that this will bring people into the pub. Bands can fill an empty pub, if only on one mid week date. they don’t charge on the door because this would put off the small number of regulars who do venue out on that night. But the down side of all this free music is that the bands don’t get paid either. The more bands that go and play for free in pubs, just to get a performance opportunity, the less ticket revenue goes into the live music venues. Why pay £5 to see a band at a venue when you can see them for free at a pub the week after?

Free gigs offer some bands the chance to play in a new venue, perhaps to some new people who otherwise would not hear them and in some circumstances they might think this worth the odd free gig now and again.  But if there is a systematic programme of free gigs, going on regularly, with bands who also play in ticketed venues, everyone looses. There is nothing wrong with a few bands putting on a charity funding raising event where they all play for free. But if they are out playing free entry gigs week after week, that serves to lessen the demand for tickets at the venues. It undermines the venues and the bands that could otherwise make a little money out of ticket sales.

Its all about seeing the bigger picture. Permanent live music venues play a key role in live music; they are hard to keep going and they depend on tick sales.  If a live music venue were to say “we will stop hiring bands to play here that play free gigs in our local pubs”, it would be harsh but it would also be realistic. If the permanent live music venues were all to close down, then bands would have no where else to play other than free gigs in local pubs. I think that would be a great loss to the quality of live music in a town.