Originally published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine on 29th July 2010. (This article is no longer available online so we are publishing it as part of our archival record.) The article was based on a posting on the Artsin Blog, 8th November 2009. ∏
Leicester’s live music scene: where are we now?
Editor of Arts in Leicestershire, Trevor Locke, takes a long hard look at the live music scene in Leicester and asks: “where are we now?”
Over this year, the live music scene in Leicester has been and will be changing. The things that have been driving this change are both economic, commercial and and musical. What does this mean for the venues and the bands that play in them?
Firstly, economic change. The recession and the credit crunch has made its impact. People who go out to gigs have less money in their pockets now than ever before. They can no longer rely on their credit cards and overdrafts to cushion their spending and if they are going to spend money on tickets, drinks and taxis, then they are going to do so less often than in the past. Fans are going to be more choosy what they go see, when they go to see it and how often they go out, now, much more so than when they had more money each week to play with.
Secondly, commercial. It’s ironic that at a time when people have less spending power in their pockets and purses, several new venues are opening up. O2 Academy, The Auditorium, Sub91 are just some of the venues that are new to Leicester. The reasons these new venues have come into existence are varied and unrelated. Some have been driven by national companies who see ticket revenues beating the general economic trends and see Leicester as a prime target for the entertainment market. Some of the new venues are due to the passion of local promoters for live music. Music in particular has been a good business proposition nationally, with the value of live music ticket sales overtaking that of sales of recorded music for the first time.
Thirdly, musical. There are Leicester bands out there who are achieving real music success. They are building up real followings and they are winning new fans. There is a core of bands who can almost guarantee to pull a crowd at nearly every gig they play. They are producing music that is genuinely popular on the local scene and might well hit the charts at national level.
It’s always been about ticket sales. Now, more so.
These are bands whose audience is not composed of family members, personal friends or college pals. There are bands who are attracting people who have no prior engagement with the band members; people who are turning up to see these bands only because they like their music. It is still the case that many new bands can pull in an audience to support them when the occasion demands it but these are often composed largely of relatives and personal acquaintances of the band members.
This kind of audience is a volatile situation, a following that is not likely to grow. Unless the band begins to take off and produce the kind of music that will appeal to “strangers”, i.e. music lovers who don’t know the members but who come to enjoy the music they produce, the band will get nowhere.
For a new band to grow, it needs to get on the right line-up. Hence, it is now the case that it does not matter where a band plays: The Shed, Sumo, Firebug … what matters most is the line-up it plays with. Young bands now have to climb the tree by hooking up with bigger bands and getting on to their shows and playing to their audiences. All the main venues have had good nights at some time or other this year. All the main venues have seen some capacity audiences and really great, memorable nights, at some time or other.
Equally, all the venues have had crap nights with tiny crowds. The Charlotte closed in January, largely because it had lost it way with regard to running successful gigs. The Shed used to open seven nights a week but now opens only at the weekend and on certain nights when they have external bookings. Venues cannot sustain their existence with large numbers of loss making gigs; they have to be able to pull in good crowds consistently and to do that they must have line-ups that will attract them. Easier said than done.
It’s not about bands. It’s about fans.
Other promoters and music managers are slowly following suit. These days you cannot afford to book just a band. You have to book a band and their following of ticket-purchasing fans. It’s a package. Bear in mind that none of the main music venues has a walk-in crowd. Leicester lacks something that other places around the UK are known to have: venues that people go to because they like the venue and will happily stand in front of a stage to see bands they have never seen before.
Leicester’s music goers are tribal: they go to see their band. They might stand through the band or bands that play before their band. Regrettably, it frequently happens, that a large chunk of the audience walks out once their band has played. This is the problem associated with bands whose following include friends and relatives who are there to support them … and only them.
Some of our venues cannot now put on gigs seven nights a week. The weekends might still hold up but week days are risky. What bookers have to do now is to book a night that will work. Failure to produce a viable line-up can easily mean a loss making night and in the present climate it takes but a few crap nights for a venue or promoter to go under.
It is no longer feasible for the good nights to subsidise the bad nights. Shrinking profit margins, the absence of overdraft credit and the fierce competition of the venues network, means that bookers have to think very carefully before they allow a night to go ahead. They have to ensure that any night they commit to is likely to avoid a loss. This is however very difficult to achieve.
We have also seen a succession of bands pull out of gigs at the last moment. We suspect this is often because the band realises that it isn’t going to bring many people down and rather than play to an empty room, they drop out. This leaves the venue without a viable night and a big loss to cover.
Despite all of these problems – shortage of spare pocket-money, competition from newer venues, the difficulties of ensuring attendances – Leicester has an increasing number of gigs being put on at an increasing number of venues. Even when audiences are increasingly harder to attract, there is no shortage of promoters and venues wanting to put on nights. There are several pubs that put on live bands one night a week in attempt to bolster flagging bar sales on mid-week nights.
The gig-going public (people who will go out to see bands play) will happily follow their bands to any venue they can get into. But this is a highly volatile audience. If a band gets a booking at a new venue, they and their loyal followers will turn up there. But hardly any of those people will go back there, unless their band gets a return booking. They have not been won over by the destination. Hardly surprising given the deleterious nature of some venues.
Even the long-established venues, like the Shed and Sumo, are not winning over returning customers from gigs. People just do not decide to go back to these venues because they went there once with a band. A bar has to have a really attractive offering to get people to come back there when there are no bands on the stage or when there is a night featuring acts they have not heard of.
So, if a band is good and has the right musical product, it’s not about where they want to play. It’s all about which line-up they need to go on to. Indeed, promoters and venue bookers frequently ask me which bands I think are likely to pull a crowd. Newbie bands often ask me which big bands they should try to hook up with in order to get a decent audience to play to.
It’s not about venues. It’s about line ups.
It’s not difficult to put together a line-up of the best crowd pulling bands in order to produce a gig that is likely to fill a room. Sadly, however, it does not always work. One of the reasons why (in my experience) this has failed to work, is that bands are poorly managed. There are bands who have pulled in quite large crowds and we know they can pull 50 to 70 people. But they don’t always do this and the main reason is that they are over-playing. They are appearing too many times for their fans to keep up with them and some of their appearances are far too close together.
My reaction to this experience (as a promoter) is to insist – in a bookings contract – that the band can only play one of my gigs if they agree not to play any other gig where they are required to pull out their fans, two weeks either side of my planned show. If they cannot agree to this, I will not book them.
In many venues around the UK, the two-week rule has become well established. It’s not new. It’s not draconian. It’s just good booking practice. Too many venues and promoters have been let down by bands who have accepted a booking and then played somewhere else two nights before the event, or even the night before the booked date. Hence, they have divided their fan base and have one well attended gig and one poorly attended gig. This is unacceptable. No fan base can turn out so frequently, however much they love their band.
Venues will get tough about ticket sales
The other practice that is taking hold is the minimum ticket sale policy. This has been slated as being “pay to play“. When a venue sells a slot – for a number of tickets – it is saying to a band, “look, you can play here but you have to guarantee that x number of people will buy tickets for this show.” If the band fails to achieve that requirement, it will not get paid for the gig and it will not get re-booked. It sounds harsh but hard-nosed venues in places like London have been applying this rules for some years now. Bands don’t like it because, for them, playing is about the music, not about ticket sales. Bands would be happy if they could just turn up and be provided with a ready-made audience. This is only likely to happen if they win a place on a line-up where the headline band is going to pull most of the audience and the support slots are brought in to make a longer night of it.
I have booked out-of-town bands several times on the basis of their musical quality; great bands that play top quality music. But they have not sold many tickets – because they don’t have a fan base here. No one has turned up to see them at that show. If they ask to get paid, they are asking the other bands, who did pull in a decent number of people, to subsidise their appearance.
So, if a band wants, let’s say £50, to play at a show and they sell no tickets, there is only one way to pay them: take the money from the income of the other bands who have sold tickets. I for one am not prepared to do this.
These policies are flawed. A mediocre band that can command a large ticket sale from friends and family members, can get on to line-ups with bands that are musically better than they are. This is often the case with new bands. Bookers rub their hands with glee when a new band asks for a debut gig because this nearly always means that a lot of people will turn up for it. That success does not always last into the second, third or fourth performance of the new band. Soon they are desperate for shows and can’t sell their debut volume of tickets.
There is no guaranteed connection between the musical quality of a band and its ticket sales. I have seen some really excellent bands playing to near empty rooms. There are just too many bands around to make this realistic. Live music is watered down by the very large number of bands chasing the limited number of performance opportunities that exist.
The music-going public is saturated with bands and music events. There is more choice than music lovers can easily cope with. In an ideal world, there should be either far fewer bands or far fewer gigs. But in the real world, there is no regulation and no collaboration amongst the venues and promoters.
It’s the scarcity value of a live music event that would drive up its attractiveness. In Leicester, there is always at least one live music gig every night of the week and at weekends often several good gigs to choose from.
Don’t expect your band to play Leicester once a week – those times are over
Serious bands cannot expect to play their home town every week. Once a month – maybe. Bands decide for themselves how often they play but if they play too frequently they risk de-valuing themselves. Venues and promoters might be on their phones on a daily basis offering them gigs, but if they are shrewd they will pick and choose which gigs to play, based on the line up rather than the venue.
New bands need to get out there and get what I call flying hours under their belts. In other words, a new band needs to perform often in order to get that well-oiled, experienced feel to what they are doing. But, that does not justify them taking up slots at serious shows. It would be better if they hired a room and invited their family and friends in because all of these events are simply dress rehearsals for the times when they go out and play serious gigs.
If Leicester’s music scene is to survive the recession, flourish and gain the reputation it deserves, music managers must bite the bullet and start implementing serious bookings policies that will address the shambolic nights that we have seen in the past.
Putting on gigs attended only by the band members and their girl-friends is not good for Leicester’s reputation. Some of these shit gigs have been due to key bands pulling out at the last moment. This has happened at several venues and promoted gigs. But it has also been due to poor or non-existent publicity and an ad-hoc lineup.
I have been asked dozens and dozens of times by bands from all over the UK if I can find them a slot to play in Leicester. My current response is to say, it’s not about finding a venue or a date: it’s only about finding a suitable lineup. Happily I have now pulled out of the bookings business. I direct bands to my page on how to get a gig in Leicester and leave them to get on with it. However, by the time good line-ups are published, it’s often too late. The programme has been completed.
It would be awful if Leicester’s music lovers were to be denied more of the real musical treats we have had a from out-of-town bands, coming here to play. But very few of them have managed to sell enough tickets to cover their own costs and the majority have left Leicester with empty wallets. If they have been lucky enough to play to a full house, it is because our local bands have pulled in a crowd.
Music managers will have to see the bigger picture
So, what does all this mean for live music in Leicester? I want to see venues and promoters seeing the bigger picture. The new venues can now pull in national level acts that we have not had in recent years. If our rising local bands want to win places supporting these top bands, they will have to change their bookings policies. They will have to stop playing small local gigs and accept the bookings rules that the big venues and the festivals will demand – rules like not playing local gigs two weeks either side of a date.
I would like to see venues and promoters coordinating their programmes, so that, instead of competing with each other, they work with each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Currently, venues and promoters book nights in isolation. They don’t look at what else is happening on a date. They just run their own show as though they were the only venue in Leicester. If the Academy and the Auditorium start pulling in the bulk of the ticket sales (on any one night) there will be precious few gig-goers left to attend the smaller venues.
Stale-mate? No. It’s an opportunity to offer choice. When a nationally famous act goes on, there will always be some people who are not interested and if they do want to go out, they want a clear alternative. Bear in mind that some of these big acts will cost a lot to get into. You can go to three gigs at the Shed for the price of one ticket to see a national act at the Academy.
Venues and promoters will have to get smart
They will have to be better clued up about what is happening. They will need to look at the schedules of the big venues and plan accordingly what they will put on. They will not be able to compete with the pull of a big music event. But they can offer an alternative to it. If you don’t want to see a big named act (or can’t afford the ticket price anyway) you can still go to see a good band that is totally different but still very enjoyable (at a fraction of the price.)
If Leicester is to live up to and/or cultivate its reputation as a major destination for live rock music, then the local music managers will need to wise up that the world has changed and they can’t just go on booking gigs the way they always have done.
Programming venues will now require a lot more thinking, planning and searching. Bookers will need to be a lot smarter at their job. If the local music moguls can change their ways and start working together rather than in isolation from each other, our city will develop a much more attractive and vibrant music scene.
The prize for that will be more people going out to gigs, more people coming to Leicester to see shows and in that scenario, everybody wins.
I wrote that article in 2010; now, in 2014, not much has changed. We still have the same problems and, despite the work of the Leicester Music Forum, we still lack the solutions. The Forum has made some progress on some fronts but it still needs to get the music managers (venue owners and promoters) to get together and insist that they start to work as a team – if they don’t everyone losses out. If they do, everyone will win.