A Few Reasons Promoters and Bands Don’t Get Along

During the interview for his Toad Session I asked Johny Lamb from Thirty Pounds of Bone about the antipathy that exists between promoters and bands.  His response was sort of awkward –  like most bands I presume he’s known a lot of really nice promoters in his time.  But his answer was nevertheless both telling and one I have heard echoed by almost every band I have ever spoken to about the subject: “as a band, promoters fuck you over more than anyone else.”

This, to be fair, is almost certainly true.  I’ve heard awful stories from almost everyone about zero promotion being done, about empty rooms, refusal to pay what was described as a ‘guarantee’, promoters sneaking off before the end of the night, subtracting things like towels, food and beer from a band’s fee and then not providing them, and occasionally asking bands to pretty much rep a whole night for them and even pay the other bands on the bill from the door money.  And there have been countless others I am probably forgetting.

Having said that, since I have become a promoter myself, albeit a little reluctantly and of course at a very small scale, I can promise you that a lot of bands have pretty damn unrealistic expectations of promoters.  ‘How many guest list can I get, where’s our rider, can you provide us with instruments, when do we get fed?’ These questions are valid enough at a certain scale, but the music industry has a very long Long Tail indeed, and the majority of people are futzing about playing gigs attended by under a hundred people, where these sorts of demands just don’t match up with the scale of the money being generated.

The thing is (ignoring the lazy, dishonest promoters and demanding, entitled bands, who will always exist) that neither side’s complaints against the other are entirely unreasonable. The problem is that the sums on one side and the sums on the other just don’t match up.

Now, in Edinburgh (and Glasgow I believe) you are expected to have three bands on a bill, and you can just about get away with charging seven quid if they’re small bands people haven’t heard of, but I personally would feel nervous doing so, unless we were in the Caves or somewhere like that.

I understand that these norms are culturally specific, and it may be different in other parts of the country, and I also accept that even around here they are very much open for debate. If anyone can correct me on any of the stuff below, please do speak up, because I have only been promoting shows for a little while and as such accept that I am very much a beginner.

As a promoter you are expected to do the following:

Hire a venue.  Around here this costs roughly £100.  It’s a hundred for the Wee Red, a bit less for Sneaky’s and a bit more for Henry’s.  You can always use a community or church hall instead, but then you have to hire in a PA and pay the sound engineer yourself which, unless you are well connected, can come to a lot more. These venue fees go down as you build a relationship with the venues and they start to cut you some slack, but starting out, those are on the cheaper side of reasonable around here.

Actually promote the gig. Some of this is free.  Emailing places like The List, The Skinny and blogs who do listings is (or should be) a given. As should setting up a Facebook event page, sharing it to your profile at judicious intervals, posting the event to the band’s own pages and harping on about it on Twitter. Bands can be very bad at helping with this, actually, and it always stands out when a band at least try and contribute. A band shouldn’t be responsible for the promotion of a gig, but it is just good practise to at least make some effort.

It’s not all free, though. Posters cost money to make.  Only about £10/£20 if you stick to black and white, and less if you sneakily use the work photocopier, but they have to be put up as well.  Less regular promoters can do this themselves, but given I tend to put on a couple of gigs a month I just don’t have the time, so I pay a postering company to do it, which is £20-£40, depending on the numbers I ask them to distribute.

Printing flyers also costs, as does getting them out there if you can’t do it yourself. So just simple promotion costs, assuming online isn’t enough, which it really isn’t if you want more than twenty or thirty people to turn up, will set you back about £40-£60, and that’s if you’re really doing it on the cheap.

Provide creature comforts. Touring bands always expect to be fed, and all bands expect to be given beer, but I get the impression that surprisingly few of them acknowledge that it costs money to do this, and this is part of the cost of putting on a gig.  With three bands on the bill, four people in each, say it can cost you £30 just to provide a couple of beers, and more if you want to be a little more generous.

Feeding people is tricky, too.  Touring bands get in, soundcheck and then sit around, and that is when they want to be fed. Taking them to a restaurant – even a chippy – would be financially crazy, so we tend to cook for them at home, but then they only get that after the gig.  And even home-cooked food costs at least £20 to feed a hungry band. More if you want a few beers or a couple of bottles of wine in the house to help them wind down.

Provide kit. This one kind of annoys me. I don’t mind spending money, but I don’t like to ask people for favours.  One band asking to use another band’s amps and so on has happened to me so often I assume it is standard practise, but I have had a lot of drummers ask me if I can source breakables for them.  This is something I hate asking my drummer friends to lend me, but what other choice do I have?

Actually pay the fucking bands. I know a lot of promoters don’t do this, but I have yet to hear a compelling argument why not.  The ‘I didn’t make enough money’ excuse is bollocks, because you are basically asking the bands themselves to subsidise your night.  We pay bands a standard £40, £50 and £60 for the three slots on the bill, and will always try and increase that for touring bands.  The biggest fee we’ve paid a touring band is about £180, and we lost a lot of money that night.  So I am absolutely guaranteed to spend £150 on fees, and usually it’s at least £200, because we usually have at least one touring band on the bill.

And, the sums.  So, for a cheap night (i.e.: no touring bands) my guaranteed outlays are: £100 for the venue, £50 for promotional costs, £30 for beer, £150 for band fees.  If there’s a touring band, you can add at least an extra £50 for fees, as well as £30 (minimum) for extra food and booze.  So, £330 for a cheap night, and over £400 for a lineup where someone has had to travel.

Going back to the fact that I feel uneasy charging more than a fiver to get in, and that means I need between sixty and seventy paying customers through the door before I do anything other than lose money.  That doesn’t sound like much, but I assure you, that’s a lot of people.  I have seen decent touring bands play Cabaret Voltaire to a lot less.  I’ve put on gigs where we got about thirty customers through the door, but between guesties and band members it still felt like a busy, successful night.  Except it cost me almost two hundred pounds.

But let’s look at the last part of that sum again, the band fees.  Now, compared to some promoters £40-£60 for a hometown gig is great, I know.  Lots of promoters try and shirk that responsibility altogether.  But in the grand scheme of things, it’s an absolute fucking pittance, really.

As a Band, What Does it Actually Cost to Play?

Caveats first: I am not actually in a band, so this list will necessarily be incomplete, and may well be slightly off the mark in its emphasis as well.  If you’re in a band and I have left something out or made some other mistake, just let me know.

Travel. This is pretty much the big one, I think.  The number of bands I know where no-one has a car is amazing.  Without this, even playing a hometown gig is expensive.  Imagine you’re first on a bill at a Toad night.  The whole band is getting paid £40 – you could pretty much eat that up in taxi fares getting people’s amps and kit down to the venue and back.  If you’re from as close as Glasgow, which gets treated as ‘local’ to all intents and purposes, then just a return train fare costs you £12 per person, and that’s assuming you can travel at off-peak times, which isn’t always possible.

If you’re playing outside your hometown, it’s even worse.  Our van is pretty efficient, but to get to London and back is at least £200 in fuel costs alone, so when I ask bands from down South to play in Edinburgh, and really go out of my way to offer them £150, which I often know I won’t make back, they are still losing money just getting here. And that’s assuming they have a reasonably-sized car, or know people who can lend them a van.  If they have to rent a vehicle, it becomes a complete non-starter. No wonder there are so many solo acoustic singer-songwriters – at least they can feasibly get the Megabus, no matter how uncomfortable.

Accommodation. This too can be a killer.  Travelodges are great (by which I mean shit, but serviceable), but rooms still end up costing £30-£40 a night, even if you get in relatively early, which isn’t always possible.  And you can maybe try and get everyone in one room, but if you get caught, you’re fucked.  So just an overnight stay in a strange place can cost a band £70, and I’m not sure, but I think that’s low-balling it.

This doesn’t apply to hometown bands of course, but for a promoter, particularly one with a family, finding the space to accommodate bands, and friends to help when you run out of space is a major, major headache.  And if a promoter is anything other than a rank amateur, with all the disadvantages that can bring, they seem to be unlikely to offer to arrange accommodation unless really pushed to do so.

Time off work. To a degree I think bands complain about this too much. If you think of a band as a startup business, then taking time out of your regular job to work unpaid in the one you are trying to kickstart is simply part and parcel of the undertaking.  Starting the record label involved me using unpaid leave, every last bit of holiday and every last bit of spare time I had, that’s just the nature of the beast.

Unless you’re saying it’s just a hobby, in which case the argument about taking time off work to do something you are doing for fun is even less valid.

Where I do have some sympathy, however, is the difficulty of coordination.  It’s not just one person: usually several people have to get the same time off, and that can put people in really, really awkward situations.  I am not sure about expecting financial compensation from a promoter for this, but there are times when irrespective of fees, bands simply cannot play gigs, and both the promoters trying to book them and the bands themselves need to acknowledge this.

Food and drink.  This is a funny one.  A lot of bands say things like ‘well they aren’t fucking paying us, the least they can do is provide a few drinks’.  This is very much true.  But we do pay bands, just… well, not nearly enough, if I’m being honest.  But if you’re asking someone to do something you should at bare minimum cover the cost of your request, and while travel and accommodation do fit under that banner, food and drink do not – people have to feed themselves every day of their lives, irrespective of whether or not they’re playing a gig.

Having said that, eating at home can be beans on toast for a quid.  Eating somewhere reasonably near a venue can be eight quid each for a shit burger, depending on how lucky you get.  These are costs which, whilst I am not sure who I think ‘should’ pay them, add up very fast for either band or promoter. If there’s four of you and you have to eat at a pub or restaurant – or even a chippy, these days – the costs can get up to £40 in the blink of an eye.

And, the sums. If I invite a band up from Manchester and don’t give them a place to crash, what does it cost them? At least £100 for petrol, assuming they can find a big enough car.  At least £100 to rent one if they can’t.  £70 for overnight accommodation.  £40 to eat out, near whatever venue I might have chosen.  So even if we pay them £100, feed them and give them somewhere to sleep, they still only break even by a whisker.  And that’s just covering costs – bear in mind that for the promoter or the band in this scenario ‘breaking even’ still means your actual labour and time have been donated for free.

Basically, it just doesn’t add up.  The scenario I’ve described – getting fifty people along to a local gig in a small venue is pretty normal.  I’ve seen bands on Matador, Domino and Bella Union play that kind of show and actually, if the venue is right, fifty paying customers can make for an awesome gig.  But fifty people means, almost by definition, that unless they’ve managed to cut corners elsewhere, the promoter loses money.

It also means that the band don’t get paid anything like enough to cover the costs of simply turning up.  The only alternative in that case is to cut corners – for the band to play a stripped down, more portable set, if they can, for the promoter not to feed people, not to provide a rider, cut down on promotion costs etc etc etc… and suddenly you can see why there is often so much resentment between band and promoter.

As soon as you outgrow playing for free just because you’re kind of amazed anyone took an interest in the first place, you have to make an awful lot of progress before you get to the point where you can consistently attract enough people for the amount of money generated to really make it fair on anyone.