In the past few weeks I’ve written and deleted this a bunch of times but now I’d better force myself to finish and publish it because I keep flaming other people’s discussions on Facebook, so desperate am I to make the points. So.
I am convinced there is a major under-pricing problem for live music events at small UK venues – and this is doing critical unseen damage to the live industry as a whole. It’s caused primarily by the mixing up of the small but heavily hyped ‘up and coming’ scene with the much, much larger but less exposed world of professional, lifelong gigging. So obviously (since I am in that industry) it’s hard to write, without sounding greedy or pompous.
First the exceptions: local bands; ‘first time outers’; and certain genre sub cultures (Americana and trad folk, for example). Apart from that lot, take a look across the board at ticket prices, they should be approximately doubled for most evenings of live music in <250 capacity rooms. Specifically I’m talking about the crazy prevalence of £3-£5 entry, which absolutely should be £6 or £7 in advance, rising to £8-£10 on the door. The ‘step’ above that is bad too; where tickets are now £6-£7, they ought to push towards £12-£14.
People react badly to this thought, until they start comparing an evening of live music in a small venue to any other kind of cultural experience, or even any other kind of evening out. The cinema is more expensive. The theatre’s a ton more expensive. Sometimes even medium sized ‘selling’ art shows are more expensive, although they’re in themselves a shop window. A lineup of non-famous stand-up comedians playing to a similar sized crowd for a shorter amount of time (and with lower running costs) will be 1.5 times as expensive.
It’s wrong for the following reasons: (and please assume I’m not including free gigs / parties etc. in this bit of the argument, they’re an entirely different issue)
If you pay so little for something that it’s meaningless money – pocket change – then you’ll expect it to be worthless and value it as such. As much as punters and staff, this includes promoters and artists themselves.
Therefore, however much they deny it, people who’ve paid negligible entry are less interested in the music and are simply less good audiences. They’re more likely to use the gig as a meeting place and end up thinking of the music as background to their social occasion.
Which can reduce performers to having to ‘work the room’ to draw attention and win them over, instead of performing our craft or show. I’m the first to agree stagecraft (this ‘working the room’ business) is a crucial skill for ‘first-time-out’ artists to learn. But forcing our hand like that, dealing with a bunch of disinterested people, lets down the fans who’ve come specifically to hear music.
It also doesn’t work economically: any belief that reducing entry price will attract significantly higher numbers (to the point of being more lucrative overall) is simply a myth, it doesn’t work. Even when it does bring a few more people to the show, the figures never add up to an improved overall take. And I’ve just explained why those extra people are useless for the atmosphere.
If a promoter sits down and does the sums for a second, it’s bloody obvious: say you need to make £350 to break even. Charge £7 and the 50th punter puts you in the black. Charge £3 and you need 117 people before you’re at the same financial point. The difference between those two break-evens in small-scale / small-town gigging is enormous.
Worse (this may sound counter-intuitive but) the economic truism of ‘supply and demand’ balance is screwed too and I believe this is a core of the problem in the UK:
People increasingly stay away from ‘small’ live music I believe because they think of it as a cheap and nasty experience. Partly, the entire live industry is skewed by over-attention on the ‘up-and-coming’ circuit. These are young, ambitious artists, working hard to get heard but at this point in their ‘career’ (rightly) not remotely earning a keep from the music they make and still learning their trade. They have a 20-30 minute set. Their reasons for being in the game are multitude and often temporary. Now that sub-set is the most highly publicised bit of the small venue circuit, yet it is forgotten that – by number of performers and shows at least – that sub-set is actually tiny compared to the vast swathe of lifelong professionals swimming in the same pool. The ‘first time outers’ drag down the price because they’ll do fucking anything to play. Then when someone puts a gig price up to a reasonable rate, exhausted gig-goers think that show is uncharacteristically, noticeably expensive compared to the general scheme of things.
Funny thing is, the hopefuls are only ever in that ‘first time outer’ role for a very short period of time, yet in that period they drastically undercut the circuit for the huge majority – including themselves in the future, if they continue to make music beyond their first burst. By the way, oddly, the same is true of big stars at the other end of the industry: musicians in big name bands who sell out arenas usually only do that for a very few years, before they drop back to the same circuit. If they want to be life-long working musicians, in the vast, vast, majority of cases, this paradigm I’m banging on about is where they’ll likely spend the rest of their days.
To sum up; the assumption that it’s only cheap because it ‘has’ to be cheap falls flat as soon as you observe how the entire country has been brainwashed into mis-perceiving small shows as being in that ‘up and coming’ category. You pay £3 for three hyped bands, four times out of five you get newbie shit barely worth £3 with an audience chatting through it and the venue stinks and the sound is awful. Why would you go back? Making music has become cheap because it has become easy – and it has become easy because it has become cheap. Too many providers in it for the wrong reasons. Raise the price, raise the quality, separate the wheat from the chaff.
From a personal perspective, if I’m truly honest about it, if you’re the sort of fan who would come to my gig if it was £3-£5 but wouldn’t pay £7-£9, then I’m not bothered if you stay away. Regardless of the recession, if people argue they “can’t afford it”, does that mean they’re not buying a bottle of wine or a few beers either?
Off on tour, then as soon in your career as humanly possible, please ask to be paid for your show. At the very least get expenses covered, otherwise you’re effectively paying to play. Then if you’re relying on a door-split and my argument about the economics has convinced you, have the balls to tell the promoter what you want the tickets to be priced at.
If you can offer an audience a longer set of decent quality material, that some of them already know and love, and/or a show that will enrich peoples’ lives in some way, perhaps have an opinion on the ticket price when you’re first booking the show (or discussing the tour with your agent). I’ve taken too long to learn this, only just got it figured out to think about door price, even though I’ve been expecting to be paid for over a decade.
The question is: who really won’t come if you stick a couple more quid on the ticket, in order to cover the expenses of the support band? Please, please, book with your heads as well as your hearts: if you can’t make the gig work, don’t do it. As a touring artist I would *much* rather you turned my show down at the first email, than I show up, 300 miles from home and the night doesn’t work and you don’t want to pay the pre-agreed amount at the end because you didn’t know how to make a proper poster. As I posted in a (good) promoter’s discussion thread on this subject recently, one key uplifting thing to remember if a night has gone horribly wrong is: at least you get to go home to your warm house, partner, cats. The touring band looks forward to another night in a cheap motel, or worse on someone’s floor, before having to drive on to the next show.
Venue (especially bar) owners.
Please don’t rip off young promoters and bands by sticking them in a corner unpaid while you rake in beer money from their mates. If you’re using live music to improve booze sales, respect and value that music too. Be picky. Be generous with fees and pay what was agreed. Think about long-term reputation, not just for our sake but for your own. If everyone’s calling you a dick behind your back, chances are it’ll never reach your ears, you’ll just be putting on worse and worse bands. And conversely there is nothing better in this world than being known as a special place to go see (and play) live music. Everyone wins.
If a gig is £8 please don’t fucking moan about it, if you’d happily drink £8 in two hours out after work. I would rather you went to fewer shows overall, were a bit more picky, if it means you’ll go see things you’re prepared to pay properly to see. If you really, truly can’t afford to see live music, the solution is to get involved. The very first method of payment for helping out at any level in the live music industry is free entry. Stick some posters up, do some Facebooking for the promoter or email the artist and offer to help with merch. Nine times out of 10 your help will be welcome. Or start a zine and blag in free that way. We need you guys, not the moaners who think shows should be £2.