Round10

Battles of the bands

Going to Gigs

Round 10

Wednesday 25th October 2017
by Trevor Locke

In this issue: Band competitions in Leicester; battles and other kinds of series.

This article talks about what have become known as ‘Battle of the bands’ gigs. Essentially these are competitions that have been held, where several bands played at gigs in order to win prizes. Familiar enough to most gig-goers. But when did they exist? Who started them? Have they been successful?

First – let’s see who invented the term. Originally it was a term invented to describe contests in which a group of bands competed for the title ‘best band.’ The winner would have been chosen either by an audience vote or by a panel of judges. Some contests also based their scores on the number of fans brought to the gig by each band. Over the years many such events have been held in Leicester. Whilst many of them have been called ‘Battle of the bands’ some have been given other titles. The most famous was called ‘Original Bands Showcase’ (or OBS.) The promoter of the OBS was at pains to say that it was not a battle of the bands; it was as series of shows to put on the best bands in the city and yes, there was only one winner. There were often runners-up. Winners of the OBS were

Idle Empire, 2016
Dig Lazarus, 2015
Tapestry, 2014
Leaving Party, 2013
Midnight Wire, 2012
The Jack Kenworthy Trio, 2011 (Rassoodocks coming second)
The James Lewis Band, 2010
The Heroes, 2009 (runners-up Megadub)
M48, 2008
The Chairmen, 2007
Proud to have met you, 2006
The Dirty BackBeats, 2004

Jimmy Amnesia, OBS Final 2016.
Photo: © Pascal Pereira Photography

Back in 2011, promoter Val McCoy wrote: ‘The Original Bands Showcase is set up for unsigned Bands and Artists of all genres. This Independent Music Event that takes place annually in Leicester. The first OBS was back in 2004 Its main aim is to give a platform for local live bands and an opportunity to increase exposure and fanbase under the umbrella of a series of organised well supported nights of live music’ [Arts in Leicestershire magazine]

There was also a series of events called ‘obsUnplugged’ that featured solo artists, singer-songwriters and small acoustic groups. Arts in Leicester magazine published an article about this in 2011. Here are some excerpts from it:

Are competitions any good? People have very varied opinions about whether music competitions are of any use to the bands and singers taking part in them. It seemed at one time that Leicester was awash with competitions. Some very local and others national. Some very well organised and others not so. Each year there is the Original bands Showcase (OBS) in which local bands can compete for the number one slot. The winning band gets to play at the Summer Sundae festival. Winners are judged by a panel of experts. Some bands members told us: ” I think they’re good. It endorses a sense of competition thus making bands want to top each other, which forces bands to play to the top of their capability” and “i think that they are a good idea if they are judged by a panel rather than votes. it would be better for bands to hear some advice.” Too often competitions are based only on popularity. It’s just about how many people a band can muster to buy tickets for the gig. There’s is no element of assessment by experts involved. It’s simply a way of making sure that the venue (and the promoter’s pocket) is filled that night. Any “crap band” can win if they have enough friends and family to come to the gig, we were told. As one musician put it: ” Yea, it should be about the performance on the night. Because my band – This Fallen Empire – have played in these competitions and sometimes felt like we’ve played a good gig but not won because another band brought more people.”

It is a mark of a band’s success that they not only play good music but also have a group of people who want to turn up to see them. I have also seen bands play at a competition that have won through on second votes. They have not brought the most people to the gig but have won votes from the fans of other bands. These voters have not seen them before but have liked them so much that they have given them their second vote and the band has won through on that basis. Hopefully, some of those people would turn up to see that band again.

Kermes, OBS Final 2016.
Photo: © Pascal Pereira Photography

Half way through this article, I commented:

If bands enter for a competition they should be given a written statement of the basis on which the winner(s) is (are) to be decided. They can then decide whether they wish to take part. Clearly, some bands book in to play just to get a gig and are not bothered whether they win. Some of these events are actually well attended because the bands have marshalled their supporters and the other bands get to play to a well filled room (even if they have not contributed much to the attendance.)

Later in the piece, a musician said:

A band member liked this comment: “Organisers of these competitions or promotions and so on, should be guiding these young bands and telling them exactly what is what! It surely should be what their job is about. You’re right, they do hold that responsibility. I hope the bands do know that. I hope they are just willing to play and there aren’t a lot of disappointed acts!” “It would be good to see a panel of experienced, respectable figures to judge bands on the positives and offer hints for improvement as opposed to a dismissive panel offering only critique without any helpful pointers!”, he explained.

Judging seems to be favoured but the judges do not always get it right. At one competition, in which I was involved, the judges were biased towards indie bands. That was not intended to be the case, it just so happened that they were the only people available to attend on that night. Needless to say, the competition was won was a band that played indie music and another band (one which played a different style of music but which brought down far more supporters) were displeased at the result and blamed bias on the part of the judges.

The musicians of OBS 2016.
Photo: Philip Vernon Photography. (with permission)

The concept of a Battle of the Bands started out as a piece of harmless fun. It was an idea that probably started in the United States where competitions were held between local bands but took off in England during the mid 90s. Traditionally, band contests were always judged by panels of experts. The concept became degraded when venues and promoters started to mount such events simply to boost their door takings and could not provide anyone to act as judges.

That article was similar to various other pieces that I wrote about the business of live music, in Leicester, at national level and on the television.

The cast of OBS 2015
Photo RhinoFeroSs photography

Another contest that was very popular amongst Leicester bands, particularly in 2008, was the competition known as ‘Surface Unsigned.’ This was a national series of shows that divided the whole country into regions – including for the Midlands. Leicester bands won some of the Surface Unsigned series outright – becoming either regional or national winners of the whole thing. Many of our local bands entered the contest and quite a few got through to the regional semis and finals. These were held in Birmingham, usual at some of the most prestigious venues. Several Leicester bands take part in the national Surface Unsigned competition. By entering the Midlands Region events, they get to play at venues in Birmingham. Winning bands from the Regional Finals get to play at the O2 Academy in London.

What is the best way of adjudicating a contest?

I mentioned that the BOTB winners were selected by an audience vote, a panel of judges or by certain criteria, including how many fans a band had attracted to the gig. That means how many tickets they sold. That brought the whole business into disrepute and proved to be controversial – according to some musicians- as it confused artistic ability with popularity or profit. Nothing remarkable about that chestnut. Musicians have always had mixed views about the tension between musical ability and skills and the need to make money. It has been an argument that has raged for many decades. The bands like to think that their music is the best and only thing by which they should be judged; promoters found that music acumen did not always result in popularity and that large number of people would go to see a band that was not really all that good. Asking properly qualified judges to decide the winners did seem to be the best compromise – if they were selected according to merit and knowledge and if they always judged objectively.

The fans file in
Photo RhinoFeroSs photography

What is clear from the music scene in Leicester over the past two decades, is that band competitions are lucrative methods for filling venues and making money from live music – more so than most of the day to day live gigs. In that respect Leicester is much the same as most other large urban areas. Given the financial success of music contests, they are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Next time on Going to Gigs: How the Internet changed the face of music

See also:

Our last instalment of Going to Gigs, about bands in 2008

Read round 8 – about singers and solo artists.