Following up my last post about recommending awesome things, I want to tie the same ideas into putting on events. The trigger for this was the Antwerp Looping Festival which I played last Saturday night.
A bit of background – the ‘festival’ was one night, 6 artists, in a gorgeous little theatre venue in Antwerp, organised by one of the performers – Sjaak Overgaauw.
The whole idea of a ‘looping festival’ or any other non-genre- or personality-specific festival is fraught with possible marketing pitfalls – if there’s no inherent style of music, or artistic/culturally-thematic link, how on earth do you make it work? What are people coming to, and why? Who are you going to market it to?
If your target audience for such an event is other practitioners, it’s easy. People come to check out what’s happening, encourage each other, swap ideas, check out new toys and hang out. No problem, if it’s marketed as such. We’re far more forgiving when we see it as part of a community…
If you’re putting on as a public facing concert, you need to apply the same criteria as any other gig: ‘Never Settle For Anything Less Than Greatness’. The music world is full of events that are booked by programmers desperate to fill a bill with anyone promising to bring 20 mates to the gig. London pubs are overflowing with REALLY bad acoustic nights, where talented people are buried under an avalanche of mediocrity, in a sub-open-mic-night environment, where the audience are in no way prepared to listen out for the awesome.
The problem with this for the event is that no-one is ever going to turn up unless they know one of the artists. And even then are unlikely to willingly stay and watch the other people that are on. Why on earth should they, if the likelihood is that the stuff that’s on is going to be #balls?
There are exceptions – both Tony Moore at the Bedford and Amity Hill who used to book the Big Secret night at the Ginglik curated a roster of at-the-very-least-rather-good singer/songwriters. I don’t think I ever heard anyone ‘bad’ at the Ginglik. Rarely at the Kashmir or Bedford. I regularly heard people who were actually brilliant. Often before they then broke big (I saw Seth Lakeman play at the Bedford a month or so before Kitty Jay broke out and was nominated for the Mercury. He was amazing. And I first heard Emily Baker, Dori Jackson and Alice Shaw at the Ginglik. Geniuses one and all.)
Both those venues are places that people go (or went) for ‘music’. Not to see their mate Dave play a few tunes, but to see *anything* with the expectation that it would be WAY better than staying in and watching TV.
That’s the job of putting on a gig. It’s what I did with the Recycle Collective, it’s what smart venue bookers do with regards to support acts, and it’s what Sjaak did for the Antwerp Looping Festival. The looping festival idea is a smile on a dog – it a hook to get people asking questions, but it doesn’t mean anything if the music doesn’t work without knowing it’s looping. Music that requires an essay of explanation for us to ‘get it’ works best in academia or trade shows. Public facing events don’t thrive on that kind of ‘subservient sound’ (music that serves a non-musical, technical purpose).
So Sjaak put together an evening of really great performers. A lot of it was fairly dark ambient, experimental stuff. But the venue was comfortable, the lighting was lovely and the PA/soundman combo was pretty much perfect. So the audiophile geeks (of which there were many – two of the artists only had their music available on vinyl!) got a real treat, and the uninitiated got to hear some beautiful soundscapes in a deeply sympathetic setting, as well as being thrown a bone by getting to hear Louis Angelou – a singer/guitarist – and me, playing big tunes. And in my case, talking weird bollocks between songs.
The upshot? Near-unanimous praise, the acknowledgement that the bill was consistent, the event a success, and the distinct likelihood that pretty much everyone in attendance would be back next year, probably bringing friends.
The gig was great in an of itself, great for the artists (I got to hear 5 acts I’d never heard before, greatly enjoyed all of them and made a whole load of lovely new friends), but perhaps most importantly was good enough to spring board into new things, with the expectation in the audience’s mind that whatever Sjaak does next will be worth seeing. That doesn’t come by booking people who’ll bring a few mates. It doesn’t happen by putting on too many acts in the hope of making the posters look like loads is going on. It doesn’t happen by booking a crappy venue – if that’s the case, do it in your house and spend your venue budget on renting an awesome PA. It doesn’t happen by telling people that things are great that patently aren’t great. An artist being your mate is not a good enough reason to expect your audience to sit through their bogus set. Neither, sadly, is the thought they might offer you a gig where they live in return. By all means do gig swaps, but make sure that the reciprocal deal is based on a shared sense of awesomeness.
By all means give me a gig if you think what I do is fab. If you think your friends/audience/whoever will enjoy it, appreciate it and be grateful to you for finding me for them. But do it because that’s good, not because you think I might be able to get you a gig in London. If I think you’re amazing, I may well be able to get you a gig in London. But don’t make our friendship dependent on me watering down my reputation by telling people you’re amazing when I don’t think you are. I’ll book my awesome, you book your awesome, and more people will see more music in more great places and be more grateful for it. That’s good for everyone. For the Microgigs series that Lobelia and I are hosting, there’s nothing required of the artists other than their fabulousness. They may or may not like what I do as a musician. I don’t choose my friends or the musicians I listen to based how much they dig my wikkid bass skillz. That would be very weird indeed.
So keep practicing. I’ll do the same. We’ll all keep chasing the awesome.
In keeping with that, here’s one of the other artists from the looping festival – Ricky Graham. His EP here is fabulous:by