Promotion Part 1: Listings and free mouthwash

Andrew Booker 2007-05-14 23:47:14

The first time you come to London to start doing gigs, aged somewhere between 14 and 37, you quickly learn the first indisputable law of gigging in The Big Smirk.

You need to find yourself a promoter.

A promoter, you learn, is someone who books you into playing gigs. Preferably gigs in Camden, because that's where everyone plays, isn't it. You send them your demo, lovingly fabricated in an expensive recording studio (you'd love to do the whole thing on your laptop but, inexplicably, 21st century drumkits and singers are no quieter), and whooopeee!!! they must love it because they call you back a couple of weeks later offering you a gig in three weeks time. Bring all your friends, they say. You think, well du-UH! Of course we will, it's our first gig in London, innit. The gig goes ahead, lots and lots of your friends come, but still you're all nervous because it's your first gig in a strange, vast, scary city, where probably millions of unbalanced weirdos live, so much that you make a total Horlicks of every song in the set (apart from that nice one where the drummer doesn't have to use a click). It is summarily agreed by all to have been an utter shambles... like, an official disaster area, and you slope off back to your Home County, fairly gutted.

The following week, an astonishing thing happens. You absolutely cannot believe who just rang. The promoter. She says you're a great band and wants you to do another gig in three weeks time. How can this be, you wonder, your gig was shite. Probably she just thinks the singer's cute. Weh-hey! Who cares!

You do the gig, your friends come again, though not so many this time because some of them have got exams coming up, one or two slightly unhinged spirits have gone backpacking in the Republic of Uzbekistan, and some of them... well, they saw it last time, didn't they. Even so, this time it goes much better. You go back home happy, several days later the promoter calls you up offering another gig in three weeks time, no surprise now because she did the same thing last month, and anyway this was a much better gig. And so it goes on, until you all get tired of it and jack in the band in because it's going nowhere and your friends aren't turning up any more and you're having to ring the promoter to get her to give you a gig.

It is obvious what is happening here. The promoter's business model is making money out of young wannabe bands and their friends. The revenue is meagre, the outgoings are substantial (venue hire, door staff, sound engineers), but it works.

I don't have much against these people, I've done all sorts of gigs in real music venues in London with stages and lights and PAs thanks to them. However, for the sake of universal truth and openness, if I could change one thing about most of them, it would be that they please stop calling themselves promoters.

Promotion is an activity that increases awareness of a product in order to boost sales. Promotion is carried out by PR companies. Advertising is one form or promotion. Newspaper or web articles are another. So is handing out free stuff in Liverpool Street station at 9am. Sometimes we get yoghurts. Last week it was deodourants. Obviously we all have calcium-deficient diets and we stink. Next Tuesday it will be mouthwash. Always a new brand or new recipe, something we didn't know was available. Eew! Rasberry-flavoured diet coke!

Except for newspaper listings, music promoters don't take any steps to raise awareness of their bands. All they do is give out gig slots and rely on bands to do their own promotion. But to be fair, is it genuinely possible to promote unknown bands? What does it take to get people to go to gigs by unknown bands?

Quick experiment. Open your latest copy of whichever London freebie tabloid comes to hand. Find the music listings section, look at all the band names and zero in on a cluster you don't recognise. I have a copy of thelondonpaper here from last week. Selecting one at random...

Original Cast, Sunset Cinema Club, Once A Thief, Borderville
Double-vocalled indie-rock from Essex with support from Birmingham trio playing ska-tinged indie-punk. Tonight, 7.30pm, £8

I haven't heard any of these. I assume the links are correct, I looked up them up for this blog post. (I like the Original Cast single!) And this is a good listing, because it has a little write-up of what's happening. Notice no promoter brand anywhere, although this was at 93 Feet East, who certainly used to organise their own nights.

So, you've scanned the listing. Are going to go? Of course not. You don't know the first thing about any of them, and although you could Google them as I did just now, when was the last time you Googled a band after seeing their name for the first time in a newspaper listing? What would it take to get you to go to the gig? Probably knowing someone in one of the bands. That, and winding back the clock ten years, maybe.

For that matter, what would it take to get me to go to a gig?

I think back to occasions I've been to watch gigs. Why did I go? In every case it was because of one of the following

So it is possible to get me out of the house and into an audience. In the next blog article, I'll look at ways I might try and get myself to come to my own gig. But first, off to bed... you know, what would really work for me before turning in is a quick swig and a slosh from a small promotional bottle of oral antiseptic pocketed in a central London train station... mmm... ginseng and lemon balm...

Throwing mud at the walls << | >> Promotion Part 2: Target practice