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Promotion Contenders

Article from Phaze 1, June 1989

what exactly do promoters do, and are they worth the money?

From Live Aid to the Local, every gig has its promoter and, usually, its agents. But what function do these people actually perform, and are they genuinely good news for musicians?

WHEN I WAS IN the Sixth Form I helped stage a concert in the school hall. For one night only, I was a teenage concert promoter. It was hard work. There were any number of headaches — not least the fact that we lost money — but the event gave me an insight into the world of the concert promoter, the unsung figure running the show about whom so many stories (some of them true, some of them pure fantasy) circulate.

John Keenan has been a promoter at various levels for 12 years in and around Leeds. In the early '80s he put on a series of five annual two-day events called Futurama, which included such (as they were then) up-and-coming acts as U2, Simple Minds, PiL, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Cult, Killing Joke, Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen. Since then he has run a number of venues in Leeds and has recently taken over a city centre pub as licensee, turning it into a popular nightly venue for smaller indie acts and local bands.

"The basics of promotion are the same whether you are promoting a little club, Wembley or Roundhay Park", says John. "The principles are that you get your venue, book your act, and get your production together, which is your staging and the PA system. Then you get your tickets and your advertising out, and once you've done all those things, ticket distribution and collection, then it's up to the people to come to the concert.

"If enough people come you'll cover your costs. If more, you make money; if less, you lose money. Those are the basic principles of promotion."

Things are rarely as simple as that, however. In addition to the promoter, there is an integral part of concert promotion known as the "agent". Essentially, an agent manages a band's live career. He finds a band dates and negotiates a fee with the promoter, taking a percentage cut from that. Many bands use the services of an agent because he is likely to know a lot of promoters and venues, and is often in a position to eke out the best deal for a band. And in any case, many venues and promoters will only work through an agent, so going it alone may not be an option.

The role of an agent is sometimes so fundamental that even the choice of support band is taken out of the hands of the promoter. Often it is written into the headliners' contract, and on major tours it is common practice for support bands to pay for the privilege of playing, in the hope that the money will be recouped through future record sales, gigs, and all-round exposure.

So the moment you feel ready to start gigging seriously, sign with an agency. Too often, bands without agents get hideously ripped-off, and can in effect end up paying for their own gigs through charges for PA hire and venue booking fees that they had not anticipated.

John Keenan pinpoints the importance of an agent for a young band. "A promoter is more willing to take a semi-heard of band from an agent than he is direct from the band", he says, "because he knows that if he loses on that band by taking a chance, then if it's a reasonable agent, he'll get a better deal on another band at a later date."

But agents are in business to get bands gigs. And to do so, they will use any means they can.

"Agents are salesmen selling bands to promoters, and they have all sorts of tricks", reveals Keenan. "They could offer you a big name at a cheap price, say as a warm-up date, and you take the bait and then they ask you to take two other bands you've never heard of, or slightly heard of and don't think can do the business. You know they are not worth the fee, but you're getting Billy Idol or whatever so you think: OK, I'll take them. Then your Billy Idol date gets pulled and you're stuck with two concerts you've already advertised for these two bands, and if you pull out you lose faith with your public and they have no confidence in you, and you lose the agent even though he's done the dirty on you. Later on you find that Billy Idol and his management didn't know anything about it — it was just an agent's trick."

And that isn't the only trick agents can pull. Pity the poor promoter that books a band who, the agent assures him, will be having a record out (complete with press campaign and associated general fuss) around the time of their gig. As the day of the gig approaches, the record fails to appear and the campaign evaporates into thin air. This can be particularly upsetting for promoters because, as regional promoter Dave Hall of DNA Promotions says, the timing of concerts is crucial to their success:

"You have to look into what else is going to happen when the band is going out on tour. A lot of the time, if you were to do the band next week it wouldn't be worth doing, but in three months' time — when the gig's arranged for — it should be a different picture. You have to take a risk and hope the record that's coming out is good, that the record company will do the work, and they'll have enough of a profile to pull people in. And that's a very big risk."

DNA is a small promotion company working medium-sized venues with bands like the Mission, the Godfathers, Rose of Avalanche and Front 242. At their level, the work is very much hit-and-miss, and in three years as a promoter Hall claims to have lost around £250,000, with lucrative sidelines in fly-posting and merchandising keeping him afloat.

In an increasingly cut-throat business where promoters can come and go almost overnight, there are few firms more respected than Harvey Goldsmith's Allied Entertainment. Allied's Andy Zweck ponders what sets firms like Goldsmith's (and its nearest rival, Birmingham-based MCP) apart:

"Talent and skill obviously, dedication and hard work — all the characteristics that make anyone succeed in any line of business. After a while it becomes experience and contacts that count. Once you reach a certain plateau you move into a different gear because people know you, but don't underestimate the competitive element that exists in Britain today: it's very tough. There are too many promoters, and the margins are too small. But the good promoters will survive."

Harvey Goldsmith's company is perhaps best-known for promoting major tours by the likes of Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, along with events such as Live Aid, where both the logistics and the quantities of money involved are truly mind-boggling. Yet Goldsmith also works outside the arena circuit, as Zweck is only too keen to emphasise.

"We're not dealing with all the cream at the top of the cake", he says. "We are still out there breaking new acts at the club and theatre level. Right now we've got New Model Army, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Yazz and Bananarama, and we certainly work hard at promoting and building the careers of new acts in the hope that they'll last a long time and we'll be there for the whole of their career. It's a conscious policy of this organisation to develop new talent."

Andy Zweck has no trouble identifying the various circuits available to bands at different career stages, but is equally quick to underline a radical change that has taken place over the last few years. For in a very real sense, the future of live music in Britain lies in places like the Glasgow Exhibition Centre, Manchester's G-Mex, Birmingham NEC and Wembley Arena, since these are the size of venues used by bands touring abroad.

"Just when a band is certain to make the promoter money, they blow out his gig in favour of something grander."

"There will always be the theatre circuit for groups coming up", says Andy, "but the arena circuit will continue to dominate. Twenty years ago people used to spend five years in a Transit van schlepping up and down Britain learning to play before they got a date at Hammersmith Odeon. But now you find young pop stars coming straight from the bedroom to Wembley Arena. The growing-up period has shortened; for some people it no longer exists."

But growing up quickly can have its problems. Quite simply, the strains of launching straight into a major tour can be too much for a young and inexperienced band. Tensions between a band's members can be brought to the surface by the pressure. Or, on a more mundane level, it could be that the singer's voice just can't take the strain of all those dates.

For any major tour, the promoter will take out insurance against cancellation, for whichever reason it may occur. But for small one-off gigs this is too expensive, and the promoter is more likely to just run the risk of the band not turning up.

The fact that more and more bands are moving straight into the big time causes smaller promoters additional headaches. Just when an act looks as though it is almost certain to make the promoter money, they blow out the "small-scale" gig in favour of something grander, and the long-suffering promoter is left out in the cold.

It's true that with a good band, an intimate venue, and a regular crowd, it is still possible for a small-time promoter to make a living. But before today's promoter can take his cut and stick it in the bank, he has to fork out for hidden costs on top of the venue's hire charge, the PA, the lights, the advertising, and the band's fee. Most notable among these unforeseen extras are what's known as "riders". John Keenan explains their significance.

"When I started promoting in Leeds 12 years ago there was no such thing as what they call riders, where you have to buy drinks for the band and pay for meals and whatever else. Now, more and more frequently, you are actually getting riders which cost as much as the flaming fee — ridiculous riders for more beer and spirits than they can consume in a week, and buying the band and crew a two-course meal, which when you add it up on top of your guarantee comes to maybe another £200."

"Riders" can include the daftest things. Van Halen once ordered "huge bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed", Iggy Pop requested a nurse to be in attendance at the end of the show with two cylinders of oxygen, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu gave instructions for sandwich-making. More usually, however, the demands are simply for booze and food.

Dave Hall at DNA views the rider stoically: "We could knock loads of things out of the rider but we don't, because bands lose money on tours and we feel the only thing they actually see is the way they are treated. So we give them mostly what they ask."

But is touring as unprofitable as Hall makes out? Both Zweck and Keenan disagree.

"I think certainly there are bands who go out and play Great Britain and don't make money", says Zweck. "I also think there are many more who would tell you they didn't, who do actually cover their costs. It depends on what level you pitch and how much you spend on production and so on. Certainly it must be possible on the arena circuit to make money. In 2000-seat theatres where there's not so much income, the return for one night must be more marginal in covering costs. As for whether it generates more record sales, I've never seen the statistics but there must be good evidence over the years as to where a band came in and toured and in the following month their record sales shot up."

John Keenan puts it this way. "It amazes me when I see bands who play to full houses all around the country saying they've lost money. But maybe they might have by the time all the hangers-on have ripped-off their expenses and agents, managers and A&R men have taken their percentages. But with a respectable band, even at the level I'm at, most musicians are making £70 a night, and if they work five nights a week that's £350 a week — which is a reasonable wage. If I was a musician starting out I'd be happy with £150-200 a week. I suppose they have expenses like instruments, but it just depends on what luxuries they take, or what they are talked in to taking, or who they have to pay off along the way."

And there are plenty of sharks in the promotion world. John Keenan is happy to recount a recent tale of someone selling tickets in Leeds for an imaginary gig that neither the bands nor the venue knew anything about. Simon Garfield's rock-biz book 'Expensive Habits' details such sharp practices as advance banking of cheques (in which the promoter runs a postal box office which, if a concert is heavily over-subscribed, can make thousands in interest before the promoter has to return the money to the unfortunate fans who didn't get tickets); and that of "rubber walling" a venue by letting in more people than the fire regulations allow.

"There's little scope for that kind of thing now", says Andy Zweck. "The business is very much dominated by professional managers and accountants, and that aspect is very tightly controlled. I have seen little evidence of it, though it may have been a characteristic of a generation ago, in the '70s or whatever. People say that when the Beatles used to play, they got paid a flat fee and the promoter took the rest — well, that's certainly all gone. Promoters work very hard for their margin these days, which is generally, depending on what kind of deal you strike, a percentage of the profits at the end."

If the work is so hard and the profits so slim, why do people like John Keenan and Dave Hall become promoters in the first place? Surely there must be more to it than just a love of music?

Well, Hall refers to his job as "a hobby really", while Keenan enjoys knowing people on their way up the ladder, to be able to reflect on the time when The Cult's Ian Astbury worked humping gear for him, and of knowing U2 when they were still young hopefuls.

"I'm actually acting as a catalyst by helping the band one step towards what they want to achieve and providing something for the public", John says. "The first time I put U2 on there were only 70 people there, but people still come up to me and remember that gig, and it's a good memory if you are into rock music. There's a satisfaction in that type of feedback; music is my life and I enjoy it!"

So the next time you play a gig, spare a thought for the guy footing the bill. Chances are he performs just as hard as you do. But because he works out of the spotlight, he gets little or no applause. Would you be in his shoes?

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Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Jun 1989

Feature by Nigel Holtby

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