Music Blogs

Bands: Are all promoters complete shysters?

  • By Trev@circlestudios
  • 25 September 2013

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This week our music industry insider, Trev from Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, takes it back to basics with a discussion on promoters and their business models, how they operate and what that means to you in terms of your band's upward trajectory.
So all promoters are shysters.  Right? I mean what they are supposed to do is promote gigs by advertising and sending out street teams and thereby to sell tickets to unsuspecting members of the public who might like your band.  But may, equally, never have heard of you.  Because that way you can come along and play to loads of people that don't know you.  And get paid loads of money for playing.  How about a backstage suite with hot and cold running champagne, beluga caviar and bowls of blue smarties?  I mean, seems reasonable. Right?
In some context, I hear bands moaning about promoters all of the time.  So let's just define what a promoter is.  A promoter is the person who organises a gig: books the venue, pays the security and deals with the logistics. As it is their cash on the line they are effectively responsible for ensuring it is a commercial success.  As a result, you'd think they'd want to put a lot of effort into advertising and the like to make sure it is a BIG success.  Right?
Now I reckon it's fair to say that there are at least two types of promoters.  Let's call the first type of promoter 'Mr Big Fish', or BF for short.  Now BF is generally pretty successful.  They've made some chunky money in their time.  Often, but not always, around the periphery of the music industry.  And because they have some good contacts they've decided to put some of their money into promoting gigs (or for the really big fish, festivals).  Notice how I use the term 'put some money into'.  That's a very similar term than the one you'd use if you wanted to 'put some money' on the Grand National. You see, both of these occupations are commonly known as 'gambling'. But to be fair (i thought if i used the acronym TBF here it could get really confusing), BF is commonly up for a bit of gambling.  Now everyone knows that a sensible gambler never puts up more than he can afford.  But, of course, the list of Mr Big Fish out there who haven't listened to that advice and have had their fingers burned as a result is as long as Mick Jagger's list of old flames... Just look at how many festivals have gone under in the last couple of years if you want some evidence of this.
Now, note I said above that the promoter is responsible for making the gig a 'commercial' success.  There are lots of reasons that can go wrong.  Because the thing is, and this is common to most if not all promoters, they are usually stuck with paying the overhead even if the gig is a complete flop.  And even if the reason it's a complete flop has absolutely nothing to do with how much effort that they have put in to advertising and promoting it.  Yup.  Whether nobody turned up because band X (aka the next big thing) is playing in the next town; whether nobody turned up because it rained, because everyone chose to do their hair that night, or because there was a plague of locusts, the promoter carries the financial can. Sucks to be them, right?
It's also not uncommon for a promoter to have turned out a 90% capacity crowd for a gig, and still lost money.  Maybe because  he was convinced he would fill the place and the last 10% was expected to be pure profit, because he overpaid for the bands who did turn up, or even because the venue owner is even more of a shyster than the promoter and demanded more money because the bar was so full/the crowd were so rowdy/some blonde was sick on his designer shoes.
I know one promoter that used to run a very successful night locally. It gained such a big name that he managed to persuade the singer of a very big indie band to do a DJ set.  He thought this was a huge opportunity to raise the profile of his event and agreed to pay through the nose for it.  The place was packed.  Unfortunately, he hadn't quite done the maths right and he ended up owing a significant amount to the venue and their security (who had been beefed up especially).  As a result, the venue refused to let him run another night.  So what looked like a fantastically successful gig killed his business.
Given all that, you might understand why Mr Little Fish (let's call him LF) plays it a little more cautiously.  Put yourself in his shoes for a minute.  He doesn't have the capital that BF has sloshing around.  (Indeed, he probably plays in a band too and is just trying to make a bit of money on the side). He can't afford to take a gamble as he is close to break-even himself. So he does all he can to keep his overhead as low as possible: Advertising is low key; street teams are unpaid volunteers; bands get the opportunity of making money from the gig by receiving a portion of the cost of all tickets sold. His thinking is that, if they are really good, the fans that the other bands bring might even stay around and listen to them. The band might pick up more fans that way. And if any of those fans actually enjoy the night, they might come back again.  Even if the band they came to see on the first night doesn't play, shudder the thought.  It becomes a virtuous circle. His regular gig-night night then comes to be known far and wide.  Because this particular promoter puts on a great show.  He exercises a quality control that ensures only really great bands play.  Once he gets to this point he reckons he'll be able to pay the band that prove to be a real draw.  Because they attract a good crowd of fans that come for a good night out discovering great music. 
Of course, he might just be lazy. Or he might just be thinking that keeping his operation low cost and getting the bands to play for nothing but a share of the tickets they manage to sell is a better business model.  Because he keeps his overhead (and therefore risk) low.  Or even because this way the bands get what they deserve: they bring a bigger crowd, they get more money.  They don't turn anyone out? I mean they haven't paid towards the overhead so why should they get paid?
So what do you think? Which is the better model?  Make sure you stand in the promoters' shoes as well as your usual ones before typing.
You want my view? This is a pointless argument. As I've been trying to get across for the last 10 weeks, ultimately how successful you are depends on you taking complete responsibility for everything in your power and making sure you do what you can to fill any venue that you play.  Every gig for you is, or should be, part of a bigger marketing plan. Coincidentally, it may also be the night that Sony's head of A&R (hi P! ;-) ) may be standing at the back of the room watching you.  And believe you me, nothing looks worse (or is more demoralising for you) than a band playing to an empty room.  Given how important that gig (or any gig) could be to your career, are you willing to leave the responsibility for the gig being packed with people bouncing up and down to LF? As I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say again, if you can't turn out your own fanbase to your gigs, you are going nowhere anyway. Sucks to be you. Right?
Next week we'll talk about playing the 'right' gigs to move you forward. In the meantime, flame suit on. Let the 'discussion' begin.
Thanks, once more, to Iain at www.individstudios.com for the header photo. If you need PR shots or promotional/ music videos for a sensible price, these are the guys to talk to!
The author of Machiavelli's Guide, Trev, is a record producer and Chief Engineer at one of the UK's top studios, Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham.  Check it out at www.circlestudios.co.uk. He has worked with clients from major and independent record labels across a range of genres from metal to hip hop.  This week he has had a bit of a dicky tummy so hasn't been doing a fat lot except feel sorry for himself.  Go follow @circlestudios on twitter if you like the kind of inane rambling you get to read here. Alternatively, look up Circle Recording Studios Birmingham on Facebook. Big thanks to Iain at www.individstudios.com for the cool header pic!