Curating a Live Event: Never Settle For Less Than Greatness.

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:

<a href="">Without by Ricky Graham</a>

18 Replies to “Curating a Live Event: Never Settle For Less Than Greatness.”

  1. man i wish i could make this mandatory reading for all the venues in edinburgh. the music scene here needs SUCH a big kick up the arse it’s fecking ridiculous.

    hopefully i’m going to be working in one of the venues here and will be getting involved in the planned big changes. watch this space.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I’m not sure how interested I’d be in a looping fest. I’ve been asked to organise one before, and it’s just not a way of subdividing music that means much to me… The Recycle Collective was a half way point – a gig that featured a whole lot of looping stuffs (I was playing, ergo, looping), but the music was put together based on the potential for awesomeness, rather than the potential for loopness…

      If someone else puts one together, I’ll happily play it – it’s not that I hate the idea, just that there are more focussed places for me to put my gig booking/promo energy 🙂

  2. Sounds a good gig. Also sounds like you’ve been down one too many piss poor nights.
    On the other hand the expectation of greatness for every band on a bill seems too much. Come on folks need a place to start, acts with the potential for greatness who aren’t quite there yet need occasional slots. And dull healiners who somehow get bums on seats might be dull but we can live with it if it gets a bigger audience for everyone else.
    Personally i enjoy a good folk club singers night, open mic, or acoustic night( with decent head liner and a mixed bag of other acts.) Something great about going to a night with no expectation of excellence and discovering it anyway. ( In the Wrong venue and it can all go wrong and artists would stick more chance building an audience busking i know but right venue and it works.)
    Sometimes the best artists at a festival are the ones not on the bill but jamming in the bar, and sometimes i’d sooner check half dozen bars on a fest fringe to find that one gem that sit and consume a dozen bands the organiser thinks are excellent ( even if they are) .

    1. good points, again. 🙂

      Firstly I think ‘greatness’ is fluid. there are bands and artists assessed as ‘great’ that I find unlistenable, and things I think are great that many others would hate.

      The point about honing skills is a really good one – I think it’s possible to be compelling while being ‘as great as you can be’ – I’ve heard really flawed performances that were also really special…

      Thirdly, what I said about ‘practitioner focussed looping festivals’ could equally apply to folk clubs, and music events within non-music communities (churches, social clubs, youth clubs etc.) – they work because they aren’t mis-sold. if you advertise your acoustic night as ‘the best in new acoustic talent’ and then book a load of fumbling nonsense, I’m not coming back. However if the local pub has an ‘open mic night’ where it’s billed as locals getting up and doing a few tunes, that’s a great community event. It’s not being sold as high art, and I’ll go with the requisite expectations…

      So yes, the ‘greatness’ thing is both fluid and specific to gigs marketed as being about the awesome.


  3. Great post. You’re so right, I started gigging as part of a duo about a year ago, at first it seemed like the most sensible thing to do was to play all of the acoustic nights in various venues/nights around London in order to get heard. After six months we decided it was utterly futile. Sitting through droves of unimaginative, substandard singers, guitarist etc. each week became unbearable. At every gig the band/acts would be different but the songs exactly the same. These nights are built on a business model that doesn’t work because it doesn’t account for the inherent value of great musicianship, it’s a numbers game that works on paper but in reality it’s fatally floored. The problem is that the promoters spend all of their energy promoting the night to artists in order to get them to play, they have a massive turn-over of acts, hence no consistency and little quality control, and a new miniscule audience every week who don’t care the least about the specific night or venue because it’s the same as every other place they’ve been to see their mate play before, none of them will be back, they won’t even remember where it was or who else played, in the end no one wins, not even the promoter or the bar. So we stopped, we spend the time that we used to spend gigging, writing new material, recording, practicing our art, being the best we can, building our website and maintaining important relationships with fans and other musicians we love. We’re so much happier and more people are hearing our music than before.
    As of last week we started our own night at Oliver’s, a tiny jazz bar in Greenwich, each month we’ll play with one, or at most two other GREAT acts, they don’t need to bring a crowd, they just need to be great, and that way the crowd will bring itself! I love Oliver’s and have written a little about it on my blog, if you’d like a read just click my name above.

    Thanks for your wise words Steve, Sorry to have gone on a bit but you’ve touched on a subject that’s riled me for a while. This series of posts has been frequently enlightening and really important in pursuing the ethos of maintaing the integrity of recommendation.

  4. You and Lobelia are awesome! Besides just being really friendly and easy to befriend, your high standard of composition/performance (aka ‘awesomness’) attracted me to your guys’ music and ultimately led me to hosting a house concert with you guys. As someone who’s booked a few house concerts, I couldn’t agree more about making the event as stellar as possible. By featuring musicians that I am inspired by and who really deliver something special, I have been able to build up a really cool little group of folks who trust that when I put on a show, it’s going to a be really fun and rewarding experience. Of course, as a full time musician myself, who loves spontaneously jamming with other musicians, I must be honest and admit that, besides being a big fan of whoever I book, another factor for me is that I love booking people that I think would be fun to play music with. And, as audiences usually like to see musician’s come up with something on the spot and interact w/ each other, I feel it makes the show an even better, more memorable event. Also I like your parting note about practicing. All the things you say also apply to just being a ‘musician for hire’ as well as trying to promote original music. I remember a saying that I heard when just starting out, that’s stuck w/ be throughout my 15 years as a working musician: “Take care of your music and it will take care of you”. The more I ‘chase the awesome’ in my relationship w/ bass/music, the more I get called for fun, well paying gigs that allow me to play great music! Thanks again for always sharing your mind with us all-Good job!

    1. Steve U – you’ve clearly got an approach that works! You’ve also spent years honing your craft, so putting yourself in a situation where your spontaneity is highlighted makes a lot of sense (the new album with Rob is fantastically well done, and great testimony to both of you guys’ ability to wing it 🙂 )

      That’s one of the side effects of being as awesome as you can be – people want to come and play with you. We want to come and do another gig with you because we a) want to hang out again, b) love played c) really want to hear you play again and d) know that there’s the chance some cool new spontaneous music will happen.

      That’s four wins from one gig. A rather good ratio 🙂

  5. Possible to draw up a rule of thumb that applies to all events. Give people more greatness than they had any reasonable right to expect. 🙂 Totally new to gig organising but i’ve no intention of ever booking anyone for a twenty min opening slot i wouldn’t happily pay good money to see do an hour. Next gig i’m going to see i know head liner will be fantastic but knowing venue / promoter i’m expecting 4 students with guitars doing half hour sets to their mates for the first half the night. Prob all worth seeing two songs by. 🙁 Now if bar had decent beer at reasonable price that would be fine as it is i avoid the venue unless head liners are bloody fantastic. City centre bars often seem to go that way.
    On the other hand i know local promoters doing nights i’d happily pay for with no idea who is on simply cos track record is so good.

  6. ‘Never Settle For Less Than Greatness’ should be the motto used by all independent, unsigned and lesser known musicians for everything they do to promte themselves and their music.
    Too often things have a ‘That’ll do’ approach, which never creates a good first impression.
    The problem then, is that one person’s greatness, is another’s ‘That will do’ 🙂
    How can you define a standard that all should aspire to?


    1. Kevin, I think that Steve Thack’s quote says it better than I did:

      ” Give people more greatness than they had any reasonable right to expect”

      that’s easier to quantify in any given situation, I think 🙂

  7. “give people more greatness than they had any reasonable right to expect”

    that pretty much sums up how i felt about seeing miriam jones at your place steve.

  8. “London pubs are overflowing with REALLY bad acoustic nights, where talented people are buried under an avalanche of mediocrity…”

    It’s not just London, that’s for sure. However I’m combating this by inviting and showcasing musicians I feel are great and so far it seems to be working for a venue that suffered from a once horrible open mic night.

  9. Steve,

    HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH ALL THESE BRILLIANT IDEAS????!!!!!  And thank you so much for sharing them, by the way. I’ve been wracking my brain over the past couple days trying to figure out an efficient way forward in booking more house concerts since I’ve got rather brassed off lately at the gig scene here in L.A. (Background: we just did our first house concert early last month in San Diego with good success, but my next attempt at it just blew up in my face last week.) So I found your post here and followed the link to the Microgigs page, et voila! That’s it! Thanks a trillion for a highly relevant and perfectly manageable concept that’s dead-simple to explain to people!!! Many thanks also for heading me off from paying yet another $100+ to sign up for a house concert networking site here in the US that our music most likely wouldn’t have been a good fit for by sharing that information!

    Blessings to you and Lobelia!

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