Almost half a year ago now I started work doing booking, promoting and a little bit of PR for a medium-sized music venue in my home town. I already worked as a music publicist and had done stints as a paid freelance writer too, so this more-stable work was a dream job in many ways and yet one of the hardest, most testing things I have ever offered myself up for. I’ve lost sleep, lost free time and pay for it with a healthy extra dose of anxiety.
But despite the complaints and the inevitable hard work, the experience has been incredibly rewarding for someone whose dream it always was to work in ‘the industry’.
During the short time in my role, I’ve picked up a few lessons and learnt a few things. After stewing on them for a while and tossing them around in my head, here are four key things you learn working at a music venue (in my humble opinion):
1. You are part of alternative culture – you should act like it.
No man is an island and no music venue exists in total isolation either. Running a venue isn’t the same as simply operating a space for live music performances – it’s far, far more. The places where people congregate to watch people shred riffs and tear apart in-house drum kits are part of the vital organs of alternative culture. They’re a little more special than off-licenses, petrol stations, supermarkets and high-street banks.
Together with places like record stores, tattoo shops, instrument retailers, some charity shops and certain pubs and clubs – your business is the physical space in which today’s punks, beatniks, metal-heads, hipsters and university students meet and consume their love of sound. The people who will become your regulars aren’t (usually) ladies dressed in cream drinking Pinot Grigio, contorting their neck to find a clean place to put down their cashmere scarf. More often than not, the heart of your institution will be balding men wearing tees from an 1980s AC/DC World Tour, people with piercings in every orifice and young women who are far more likely to follow a Tumblr on veganism than have Olly Murs on their Spotify.
That’s not to say that music venue’s are solely for music subculture stereotypes. Live music is for everyone (eccentrics and not) but having a firm understanding that some groups of people are more likely to appear than others is just understanding your audience.
2. Have an offer that goes beyond that
As an external promoter I only ever had to cater to what I knew because I only ever put the shows on that I, personally, would really want to go to. Whether that be a night of really lo-fi grunge, scuzz-rock or shoegaze – any band I booked would also be a band that I’d get off my arse and pay to see live. As an in-house booker and promoter, I don’t have the luxury of appealing to an audience that looks, sounds and (often) acts like me all of the time. My calculations and considerations have to include groups of people which neither me nor any of my colleagues belong to. Our offer has to be bigger than the combined interests of our team.
Every week I’m having to conjure up shows that – if I’m brutally honest with myself – of lot of which I’d have no intention of going to on my own. Tribute bands, death metal and obscure 80s funk rock bands with a handful of Billboard Top 100 hits are just a few examples that come to mind. Would my brain melt if I attended? No. Does my heart bleed at the thought of spending a night at one of those shows? Absolutely not. But it does mean I have a distinct lack of expertise in a lot of these areas. I can’t know everything. Which brings me on to my next point…
3. Know What You Don’t Know
I enjoy a lot of different genres and know some of them fairly well, but whilst my relative expertise in these areas might be semi-impressive to some, I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about music. Acoustic singer-songwriters? Not a clue. Death metal? If I’m honest, it’s not likely to enter my mind. Pop punk? Personally, I struggle with most of the genre. Not surprisingly, like most human beings I have a personal taste that doesn’t match up with everyone else’s, and that’s absolutely fine.
But this is where your external expertise comes in. Promoters, bands and music lovers who represent scenes you don’t touch are a crucial part of a venue’s repertoire. That could mean anything from a bi-monthly genre night to just taking advice from some of the more well-acquainted people out there. Putting on shows should never been done frivolously unless you know you’ll sell out, in which case – lucky you and congratulations on a great booking. In most other cases, shows need to be thought about repeatedly, long and hard. If knowing who’s touring, who’s pulling the crowds and who’s creating a buzz in a particular genre or scene is beyond you – get some help from someone who knows. External promoters are a brilliant way to bring in a person who knows their stuff, and in a lot of ways (although not all) an outside event is a lot less stress. You’re not paying bands, promoting is not your primary responsibility and if it all goes t*ts up it’s not really your fault. Three cheers for avoiding responsibility!
4. Take into account your locality
Now, without giving too much away and revealing where my venue is and what exact venue I work at, I’ll preface this section by saying that my town (despite being one of the largest in the UK by population) isn’t exactly considered a hub of cultural and artistic activity. In fact, it’s arguable that we’re almost too close to those sorts of places to become one ourselves. Nearby we have a great, big gorgeous city with a pretty bohemian reputation, the other side of us we have an even bigger city, with an even more cosmopolitan character. Fifteen minutes in the car will take you to some of the best countryside England has to offer, and half an hour down a motorway are prettier, more middle-class places where “the arts” are considered in higher esteem. We’re also (very notably) without a proper University. Suffice to say, sometimes it feels like we’ve not got a lot going for us.
I first started my promoting in a University city with ample amounts of young people to squeeze into shows. There were arts-y cafes, a vibrant music scene and a variety of music venues which all earned enough money from their trade to remain open. Things were different then, so I behaved differently. Risk was easier, networking was too – you worried a lot less about whether people would be telling their friends about your shows and far more about whose job it was to wait until the after-party to get wasted. It was a lot easier, if you hadn’t already guessed.
How easy it was wasn’t dependent on my skill, in fact, I’ve no doubt that I’ve gotten better at putting on shows since those days. The difference came in the relative lack of young people, of ‘alternative culture’ (which as I pointed out, is so important) and the muscle memory of a town which just isn’t as used to turning up to see local, live music as some others.
That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel, close the doors and give up just because there’s no Student Union Bar to flyer. We must simply re-train people into considering live music as an option for a night out, something that could take a long time. That might mean booking bigger acts to push our business and bring in a curious clientèle or (as mentioned before) expanding the types of activities and performances you host to widen your offer. In our case, our long-term problems will probably require a mix of solutions.