Get the lowdown on gig promoters

Blog by Louise Dodgson under Artist Managers, Live

A couple of months ago we conducted a survey amongst musicians and we quite overwhelmed by the amount of comments we received regarding working with promoters and bands’ general opinion of them. For the most part it was on the negative side and although this is probably no new revelation and the impression of greedy gig promoters out to rip bands off is sadly still widely assumed, we certainly thought this topic was something that should be addressed so we could hopefully dispel some of the undesirable assumptions.
First things first, we always have and always will agree that pay to play is a no-no! We sincerely hope that promoters who operate in this way are extremely few and far between these days, and bands and artists are savvy enough not to waste their time with them. Also, it’s a sad fact of life that in all walks of life the world over you will come across charlatans and folks up to no good. The music industry is no different, but there are also plenty of good people out there genuinely trying to help bands and musicians out who run their businesses fairly and ethically.
Putting on gigs may be viewed by some as a cool hobby and in many respects it is, but there are also risks to take into consideration. Hiring a decent venue (occasionally guaranteeing a certain patronage and spend at the bar to be able to do so) and paying a sound engineer for the night can amount to a fair bit if you want to do it right. So there is already an outlay from a promoter’s own pocket before the bands have even been booked. It’s quite right that a promoter and the acts on the bill work together to make it a busy night so the initial costs of the gig can be covered, with hopefully money then left over for the bands playing and of course, the promoter for their efforts. Of course, if you’re promoting as your sole livelihood, well attended gigs and a good reputation is a necessity.
For a lot of promoters starting out, breaking even can be a struggle, nevermind making any kind of earnings for themselves. Money made from shows that do well is conserved to cover the gigs that lose money, and no matter how long you’ve been established, these unpredictable misses will always occur.
So it stands to reason that any gig you book with a promoter requires great communication and a joint effort to make it a success for everyone involved. Of course, a promoter that’s doing their job properly should be pushing the event; it should never be left solely to the bands on the bill. 
That said, arguably the bands and artists performing have direct access to the best pool of people who will want to come and see you live; your friends, family and fans. A promoter can endlessly post on social media, blogs and tout posters and flyers for a night, but unless there is a recognisable name on the bill, it can be very difficult to get people off the street to pay listen to bands they’ve never come across before. Getting a good attendance at gigs, not just from a financial point of view, but also to expand fanbases and make it an enjoyable night for all, is an ongoing task and both parties should make their utmost effort.
Which raises the question that if promoters work to put on well thought-out, unique and interesting line-ups, won’t Joe Public be more likely to come in off the street and take a punt on what should be a great night out? A fair enough point…but then where does this leave the new bands on the block that are starting out and probably not yet at their prime?
If you’re new to the game and are perhaps still to develop a strong set, then it’s unlikely you’ll be selected by promoters for these more exclusive line-ups. How can you build up essential experience of playing live, honing your set and interacting with an audience if you can’t get on a bill? So it can be easy to criticise the ‘4 unsigned bands on a bill’ promoters who regularly put on gigs which from the outside look like they haven’t been awarded much thought, but they are providing a necessary springboard for artists and bands onto the live circuit.
Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right promoters for you! The promoter/band relationship has many grey areas and it is imperative bands do a little investigation and make sure the promoter they hope to work with will be able to provide them with what they need. Chat to other bands you know to see who they recommend. You could even contact bands on previous bills for a certain night to ensure their experience of the whole event was positive before making contact with the promoter.
At the end of the day, promoters aren’t too different to you, the musician. You both have a strong passion for music which you’re keen to share. And in order to do so, you use your own finances, resources and put in endless hours to get things off the ground. Don’t tar all promoter with the same brush, the majority of them are genuinely trying to create a great night or event as much as you! 
So let’s hear from our promoters to get their side of the story. We chatted to gig promoters with a mixture of set-ups; Bugbear Bookings have been long established and promoting is their business and livelihood, Pete from Artful Noise promotes part time and manages artists by day, Stewart from Bad Owl Presents runs on a not-for-profit basis, and Dan from It’s All Happening puts on gigs for the love of it! Here’s what they had to say:
Firstly, when did you all start promoting? 
Tony (Bugbear): 1996
Pete (Artful Noise): I started Artful Noise about a year and half ago and have done a selection of London shows since then.
Dan (It’s All Happening): I put on my first gigs in October 2008 as part of Oxjam Festival to raise money for Oxfam.
Stewart: (Bad Owl): Our first gig was in May 2012.
How did you fund things when you were starting out?
T: It grew gradually so initially there wasn't much outlay. Some money on printing, an ad in the NME, bits and pieces like that.
P: Out of my own pocket!
D: We ensured that our pre-gig financial exposure was low. The venue we used had no hire costs and provided a sound engineer free of charge. The only money we paid out in advance was for promo materials, which amounted to £30-40 for both gigs. The bands were paid on the night from the door money, and then all remaining income was donated to Oxfam. 
S: From our own pockets in the hope we would recoup our costs from the show.
How do you put together acts for a night?
T: We endeavour to match bills as well as possible. Our nights aren't dedicated theme nights as such but we also try to avoid the scatter gun approach certain other promoters use. We like to have acts that compliment each other well on any given show.
P: I'm an artist manager by day, so I am very close to my local gig network in London through that. I keep an eye out on what unsigned bands are playing and primarily pick acts that I like. I also make sure that I pick the right sounding bands. Always make sure that all the bands are of similar style and fan base, as I never been a fan of mixed genre nights as I am not convinced they work for the acts.
D: We receive a lot of emails and enquiries from acts looking to play, so we listen to these and often give these bands support slots. The headliners are usually bands we have seen and loved before, or wanted to see but haven't been able to!
S: We are now lucky enough that we receive lots of emails from bands looking for gigs. We are quite genre-specific with the type of bands we put on so we would usually confirm a touring band whose schedule and type of music met with our own and then add suitable local acts to the bill. We also get in touch with some of our favourite bands to let them know who we are and ask them to give us a shout if they ever want us to organise a gig when they next plan on touring.

What do you take into consideration when selecting a venue? 
T: We’ve been in-house at The Dublin Castle since the start so there's not an issue with that, but we do other things elsewhere on the basis of location, popularity and desirability, as far as the bands are concerned. It's good to put on the odd show in the hipper, more happening places. The Dublin Castle always remains a popular venue for bands and punters alike. Obviously venues need good attendance to sell beer, which is the name of the game after all.
P: Lots to consider. Location - what is its footfall like every day? Where is it situated? Close to station/transport links? Capacity - I am always realistic so never aim big with size, keep it small and ram the place out. What arrangement do they have with promoters? I always prefer a % take of the bar so I can offer a free entry night. Events Manager - making sure I have a good rapport with them. Back line - important I think to have that option, a drum kit at least! Also look at what other promoters have put nights on there, I have a list of promoters I think very highly of, so always check if they have put on anything at that venue.
D: There are a number of factors. We have used a number of venues across London (Old Blue Last, Shacklewell Arms, The Gallery Cafe, Brixton Windmill, George & Vulture), so the venue we use often depends on the bands we are booking. The sound quality and venue location are probably the 2 most important things, but obviously finance plays a part too!
S: For all but one gig we have used the same venue (The Fox & Newt in Leeds) as we love the lay-out of the place, get on well with the staff, find them very easy to deal with and they are reasonably priced when it comes to hiring the venue. The venues only request is that we bring a minimum of 30 people to each gig which is usually not a problem as we have at least 3 bands on each bill which caters for almost half that amount.
What kind of risks have you taken to get established/or still do take? 
T: We have on occasion pledged big guarantees for artists but in the current climate we avoid that like the plague!
P: Taking a chance on acts to play. I don't always go for the most popular to guarantee numbers because I don't think you should. It’s all about the act itself and then just hope we get people through the door.
D: Every gig is a risk. Bands shouldn't be expected to play for free, so they need paying… even if no-one turns up. We put on a lot of free shows, which we know we won't make any money out of, but that's not really an issue as long as we have fun! As with our very first gigs, we still try to use venue which require a minimum outlay so this reduces the risk significantly.

Stewart from Bad Owl Presents show off his facial hair

Our only risk really is on the financial side but, other than the money we pay the bands, we try to keep our outgoings to a minimum so that we don't stand to lose too much money on a night if it all goes wrong. In saying that, we're in the midst of organising our very first 'weekender' for next year's Easter bank holiday which will have a financial outlay of around £1000. Thankfully the venue and the bands don't require paying until the weekend itself but there will be a lot of sweat and anxiety in the lead up to the event whilst we try to ensure we cover all our overheads! We've had a couple of nights where the band providing the backline have pulled out at the last minute which, I guess, is always a risk.

What set-up do you think works best between promoters & bands to ensure a well-attended night? 
T: Bands selling tickets up front is fine so long as it's not the dreaded pay to play. If you say to a band they have to sell 30 tickets then you're basically charging them which is not acceptable. In the end you have to just encourage acts to do their best and if they don't then you don't work with them again.
P: Bands selling tickets up front is a shocking approach and it upsets me that I know it still goes on. I understand the stand point of those kind of promoters – it’s most likely their full time job so they rely on that income. But musicians struggle as it is so to ask for a lump sum up front and pay to play is disgusting in my opinion. I rely on an understanding between me and the act. I promote from my end but do encourage the act to push themselves because at the end of the day they want their fans there to see them. I take a chance, if they don't pull a reasonable crowd or are not seen to promote a bit at their end, then I would reconsider asking them back again.
D: We NEVER ask bands to bring a certain amount of people. I am aware of promoters who tell bands they have to sell 30 tickets otherwise they owe the promoter £200-300, and that is a terrible way to put on gigs. But unfortunately a lot of bands still do it. It is important for bands to promote their gigs to their fans, and it is also important the promoter attracts a crowd. If everyone works together then the night will usually be enjoyable for everyone.
S: As the promoter we feel that the buck generally stops with us when it comes to ensuring people turn up for the event. It does help immensely if the band do spread the word and keep people updated with the event details. At the end of the day, though, it's essentially our job to promote and the bands job to entertain. With being quite genre-specific we only put on bands that we love ourselves so this gives us the confidence that we can bring people along to a night regardless of how much promotion the bands themselves do. We hate the concept of anyone telling a band they must bring X amount of people to a gig or that they have to sell a certain amount of tickets. We're also critical of promoters who tell a band that they can't play any other shows in the area during a certain timescale around their own event. 
We received a lot of comments saying promoters don’t bother ‘promoting’ the gig they’re putting on & it’s all left down to the bands. What are your opinions of this and how do you promote an event you’ve organised?
T: This is not the case with us, we work very hard at promotion. Mainly on social networking sites these days. Flyering only works in a limited way.
P: A promoters role is to promote a gig, hence the title of 'Promoter'. It is important that as a promoter we do everything we can to shout about the show as it benefits us as much as the act. But as I mentioned before, it is also important that the act also put in a little bit of work themselves. I make sure that the gig is listed in as many gig listing publications, both online and print, as possible. I have an extensive list of targets I send the gig info too. Social media is also very important. I have expanded my own social network to allow myself decent coverage to let as many people know about the night. Print posters and flyers for the local area and the venue as well. From time to time, I will also use blogs I know to mention it on their sites, give the gig some press before/during and after.
D: I'm sure that does happen a lot! The promoter should promote the gigs (the clue is in the name!), and the bands should also make their fans aware of it. We use posters, flyers, our blog and social media. If a band we are putting on is playing other London shows in the build up to our gig then we will flyer those gigs and this is usually a very successful method of attracting people.
S: We put on gigs for the love of it and would hope that this is a criticism that could never be levelled at ourselves. We live for music and, even when not sat a computer or out on the street promoting a show, we spend almost every minute thinking about our shows, what may have gone wrong before, what we can do better and ways in which we can get more people to hear about the gigs. It truly is an obsession. 
We promote our shows via the usual media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Ents 24 etc), put up posters in the venue itself and in the local record shops. We have a mailing list that we keep updated and email various music publications with show details. We sneakily hand out flyers at other gigs and to people in the street who look like they might be into what we do. We've even been known to go out armed with an iPod and get people to have a listen to the bands we are putting on!
Do you think all bands should be paid for playing gigs (regardless of attendance numbers) or have their expenses covered? Is this realistic & economical for a promoter?
T: It would be great if we could pay the bands a guaranteed sum but it's not possible. The promoter has no guaranteed income either. Expenses will be covered and more besides if the band generate an audience. It's the only fair way when it comes to small venues and unknown young acts. It's a symbiotic relationship.
P: This is always the tricky one. I can only speak for myself as a promoter who doesn't do it for money but just for putting gigs on for acts I really like. I give bands what I can and that’s usually a reasonable percentage of what I make on the night. I may also agree a fee for a headline act up front, which I have done on occasion to secure an act I wanted. Is it realistic and economical? Depends what your stance is. If you are a promoter that does it full time, then no, but I think you then have to promise a decent night and a great turnout so the acts will benefit from a crowd they wouldn't normally play too. Otherwise, offer a reasonable % of the door to each act.
D: All bands should at least have their expenses covered. Likewise, the promoter should have their expenses covered. Any remaining money should be divided between the involved parties. This is realistic and economical for the majority of gigs, but obviously if a band flies over from Australia for a free entry gig then it is unlikely that covering their expenses will be economical! 
S: This is probably quite an open question and can very much depend on circumstance. We tend not to offer specific guarantee of payment to the bands performing for us, instead building an element of trust that we will look after them as much as possible on the night (we usually offer to put the travelling band up in our house for the night and send them on the next day with a hearty breakfast). As it turns out we have paid every band that has played for us. It might not always be much but we'll try and cover a bands petrol costs at least. As we run not-for-profit, the bands get all the door takings once we've covered costs. On a very successful night, once we've made sure the bands are happy with their payment, we would sometimes hold funds back to cover less successful nights. As it happens we have been very lucky and every band that has played for us has deserved to be paid.
For a promoter on our modest scale it is probably not totally realistic and definitely not economical to pay every band at every gig but, if you're putting gigs on for the right reasons, then this should be your aim. As long as you are upfront with bands, though, about whether they may or may not get paid everyone should be happy. We have a friend whose band were once paid £1.27 for playing a gig. To them this was almost insulting and worse than not being given any money at all.
If a band is starting out, perhaps not at their prime yet, do you think they should be given an opportunity to play a gig?
T: It's best to avoid acts that aren't good enough but this can be subjective anyway. Sometimes you see the germ of something good in a band and book them for that reason, so yes, an opening slot for a young band who haven't quite developed yet is ok but you need the rest of the bill to be A1. Bugbear does have a very good reputation for putting on quality bills as we spend a lot of time reviewing acts.
P: Yes I think it’s important, otherwise how would a new band ever get a gig? I am always more than happy to put on a very new act.

Pete from Artful Noise

It depends on the type of gig they would be playing. Every band has to start somewhere - they might be suitable for opening a 'smaller' gig, and then they could practice their trade in front of a crowd.
S: If a band is not particularly great and just starting out they may find it hard to find the right venue or promoter to put them on but it should be relatively easy and cheap for a band to put on their own night providing they split the work and costs between band members. 
Why do you love being a promoter so much? What’s your favourite aspect of the job and what’s the hardest part?
T: Well it beats working for someone else! I'm my own man and do what I want when I want, within reason. It's very satisfying to attend one of your own shows when everything falls into place; the bands fit together well, sound great through our PA, the audience is good and appreciative and the vibes are positive. You get a buzz out of that. The hardest part is trawling through acts when you’re in need of bands to finish a bill that just isn’t coming together on a Monday night or what have you. And being at the gig when it's dead and half the bands have pulled out can be very depressing.
P: Putting on my favourite bands! I have had a couple of opportunities to put on some of my musical heroes, even promoting a headline show at The St Pancras Old Church in London for Howie Payne who I have admired for years as a songwriter and performer. So something like that makes it all worthwhile. Hardest part, on occasion, can be actually dealing with acts themselves. Just some are not that communicative at the best of times!
D: Because we get to put on bands that we love! It's great to see a room full of people enjoying themselves because of a line up you have put together. It can feel very rewarding, especially when the band personally thank you for a great night. The hardest part is usually getting people through the door, especially in a city like London where there's probably 15 other similar genre gigs on any given night, in addition to all the other great entertainment the city has to offer!
S: The best part of being a promoter is being able to put on bands whose CDs and records you have in your collection and who, were you not a promoter yourself, you would be paying to get into their shows anyway (we actually do pay to get into our own gigs!) It's being able to spend time with the bands before and after gigs and being able to legitimately get all 'fanboy' in their company. It's about making good friendships with band members and the people coming to your shows. Finally, and most selfishly, it's about putting on a great night and looking around at people enjoying themselves and being able to say “We did this". The hardest part is when you work really hard to put a show together and no-one turns up. Even worse than the inevitable loss of money is the loss of face and the embarrassment you feel, both for yourselves and on behalf of the bands.
Do you still put on shows that lose money from time to time?
T: Yes! Every week these days unfortunately, because it's very competitive now and everyone is skint. Too many venues, not enough punters with the cash to attend means we inevitably lose money on some mid-week shows. But we do invariably have kick ass weekend gigs to make up the shortfall.
P: Yes, often! It’s all about the music for me.
D: We haven't put on a show that has lost money, but we've had a lot which have more or less just broken even. There's always the potential for a gig 'bombing', no matter experienced the promoter. Our toughest gig was probably one we did in January or February in West London after some pretty heavy snow! The headliner pulled out on the day due to transport issues, so we went ahead with 2 bands. It was still an enjoyable evening once it all got started, though!
S: Absolutely. And we'll continue to do so. We wouldn't be able to do what we do if we didn't break even from time to time but the way we try to legitimise it by saying that as long as we don't lose more money than we'd spend on a good night out and the bands and the people who have turned up for the show have all enjoyed themselves then we can sleep easy with a smile on our faces and the delicate ring of tinnitus in our ears.


gig promoters, live music, getting a gig, gig booking, bugbear, artful noise, it's all happening, bad owl, gig slots, unsigned band nights, gig showcases


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