The UK Folk Performers' Network
RUNNING A FOLK CLUB OR ACOUSTIC VENUE
Some hints and tips
CLUB OF THE YEAR?
These suggestions have mostly originated with either folk and acoustic club organisers or professional folk musicians via one of the two private email-based forums managed by BritFOLK (the FCO list and the Britfolk list), and also from various public web forums such as Mudcat and uk.music.folk. Many thanks for all contributions - see list below for at least some of the names.
The ideas mainly relate to clubs and venues who book professional or semi-professional artists (even if only very occasionally), but some may be useful for singaround/session-type clubs and other musical gatherings too.
They will also mostly only be of interest to people starting up new clubs and those who are experiencing difficulties of one kind or another, but others may find the occasional thought useful.
Some of the suggestions are in direct conflict with eachother - but that’s actually a good thing - because there are no rules or right answers, only thoughts intended to help stimulate ideas (if you happen to be looking for them).
I’ve tried to avoid preaching, but constantly finding ‘soft’ way to suggest things just takes up too much space in the end, so apologies in advance. But do please note - this is a pick and mix, not a recipe. There is no one 'correct' way to run the perfect club. In spite of my patrician tone, this is merely a list of things that seem to work for some people somewhere, and might be worth a try.
If you can offer any useful information that you don’t see here, or notice any inaccuracies or omissions, please email Tom, and he will respond as soon as he can. (Please credit BritFOLK if you use any of this elswhere).
Mrs Casey Music / Folk Arts England also offer some excellent advice here: including a Guide for New Folk Promoters, and other matters of interest and importance. Hamish Currie also has some great suggestions here, and LeSession too, here.
(You might also want to read my 'Goodbye' article in Living Tradition - go to Page 16, which explains why, in the end, I had to give up touring folk clubs).
"BOFFINS IN THE BACK ROOM" (Dave Parkinson)
It’s no accident that folk clubs are called clubs - though not all folk venues use the word - and not all that do are technically clubs.
Some really are membership clubs, so must have, by law:
2) a set of rules, (see TwickFolk, too)
3) a committee with at least a treasurer,
4) a bank account with two signatories required for cheques,
5) books approved at an AGM,
6) a list of named members (this will form the basis of your mailing list).
Under Common Law the committee is open to unlimited liability if the finances go awry, or there’s a claim for injury or damages against the club. So registration as a company limited by guarantee might be advisable - or at the very least the constitution should make it clear that the officers’ liability is intended to be limited to the value of the club’s assets. Taking legal advice is always a good thing.
One advantage of being a membership club from the outset is that you can offer life membership as a way of kick-starting your bank balance. Ordinary members then usually pay an annual sub in return for a reduced price on the door. Non-members will need to be signed in. If you want to apply for funding (see below) you will need to set up as this kind of club, and you may have to do this if you plan to operate within a social or sports club. Some of the committee may even need to become members (or ‘social members’) of your host club.
Membership clubs are liable to pay corporation tax, but usually only on bank & building society interest. They should make an annual tax return, ticking the ‘members’ club’ category. (They usually don’t pay tax on surpluses from their normal activities, because in law they are merely a group of people ‘selling’ services to themselves.)
Others clubs are effectively (or even actually) run by just one person as a benign dictatorship, with, ideally, strong support from a good team. Although it may seem that there is just one person at the helm, even these clubs are usually run on the membership or company limited by guarantee models behind the scenes. If you really wanted to set up on your own, your best bet might be to become a sole trader, in which case any profits could be deemed income, and liable to income tax.
There are almost no clubs run for personal profit, but some venues are, and the dividing line between a folk club and a folk venue is in any event blurred at the best of times.
A very few clubs operate within arts centres, and a few of them are actually managed by the arts centre, or have some overlap with a local authority or other host organisation.
Some clubs even run as House Concerts, where the rules are very different.
Whichever model is in operation it’s a good idea to gather a good team around you and make sure every member has a clearly defined role.
One may do the bookings, another manage the website, another take care of publicity, another do the chairs, one may be treasurer, one the PA engineer etc.
You will certainly need to agree between you what kind of music you want to present, how frequently you want to have guests (if at all), and how broad your church will be.
In the UK, 'clubs' range from a casual gatherings of friends, who have no interest in ever paying anyone to play, to very business-like concert venues, where professionalism and quality are critical. Most clubs have some element of both 'participation' and 'performance' - but the ratio can vary from 1-99%.
There is a second axis: traditional vs contemporary preferences. Some feel that direct links to The Tradition are the whole and only point of folk clubs, while others are happy to hear any type of music as long as it's performed in a style they feel is appropriate to their event.
It’s a good idea to set out your ‘manifesto’ either within the name of the club - “The Trumpton Traditional Unaccompanied Singing and Storytelling Club” or “Blooz-R-Us” - perhaps, or in a short paragraph on the website and other publicity. This will help you to develop the right kind of audience from the start, and help to avoid future conflicts.
Opinions differ on the use of words like ‘folk’ ‘club’ and ‘traditional’ in the names of clubs (in fact blood is often shed over what they actually mean in the English language)! Some think the word ‘folk’ will appeal to an existing marketplace, some fear it may actually keep people away and use ‘acoustic or ‘roots’ instead. Others are afraid that the word ‘club’ may make people think there is some kind of entry restriction or, worse, that the group will be cliquey. You’ll soon decide what’s best for you.
A nice logo will help get you noticed and can be used on adverts, posters, the website and even the backdrop if you decide to have one.
See below re choice of Venue, and don't forget to check what nights of the week other clubs or acoustic gigs take place in your area and pick a different one. It's a good idea to contact the organisiers too, to make sure you're not stepping on any toes, and perhaps set up reciprocal or collaborative promotional schemes.
One sugggerstion is for 'concert' clubs to link up semi-officially with local 'singers' clubs. A coalition is likely to improve attendances at both, and hopefully aspiring floor singers would realise they have to sharpen up their chops to play on the 'concert' stage...the coalition could be encouraged further with associated or shared memberships.
If there are other folk events operating near you, you might want to consider setting up a conflict calendar to avoid booking events on the same nights.
But first, the dull but essential stuff...
"LAWYERS GUNS AND MONEY" (Warren Zevon)
Licencing is, for now, your Landlord’s responsibility, (if you have one).
This was written before the law changed and "two in a bar" was reintroduced. I'm no longer involved with folk so I don't actually know what's changed - if you do, please email me and i will update this section. TB 2013
He’ll need a PEL (Public Entertainment Licence - which replaced the old Two-in-a-bar rule recently) and a PRS (Performing Rights Society) licence. It may be worth checking that they are in place, because if they are not you could loose your venue in a hurry!
If you use a private house for concerts our information is that you currently don’t need either type of licence, but you may not advertise or charge on the door. Donations directly from the audience to the artists are, however, permitted. (See here for more on house concerts).
If you're not confident that your venue has the right licences, check with your Local Authority Licensing Department. They often list all of their licensed venues on their websites.
If you're using an unlicensed venue then it's your job to get it licensed for your events. This could be a full premise licence or a TEN (Temporary Event Notice) - Again you should consult with your Local Authority Licensing Department.
The venue will also need a licence from the PRS (there is currently a debate on whether clubs and organisations could be allowed to hold a licence for themselves, which they could take with them if they move venues).
PRS is the organisation that collects royalties on behalf writers. They collect on ALL public performances of music regardless of whether the materiel is in copyright or not, on the basis that members can register arrangements of traditional music so all traditional songs and tunes have, or could be, arranged by someone. There is no exemption, even if none of your performers are members, and all only play their own songs.
There are two ways in which this is policed. If your venue is listed as a Concert Venue, then you’ll need to obtain some green programme return forms, and have the performers fill them in, listing the songs they’ve sung and the writers thereof, and send them to the PRS. If it is not listed, then any members who play at your club may use the Small Gigs and Clubs Scheme. Every 50 gigs they will submit a form to PRS, listing their ‘typical’ set for the period, and all the venues where they performed it. So your club may get into the system without you being specifically aware of it. If the venue is not licensed, PRS may visit and demand one (and it will cost more than if you got the licence first). Check with PRS to see if your place is listed as a concert venue or not.
The system is far from perfect, but PRS aim to redress any unfairness through the PRS Foundation.
Health and Safety is also an issue. As the event organiser you have a legal Duty of Care to everyone you have invited into the premises for the gig. That includes you, the committee, the members, the audience and any performers - whether paid or not.
The Health and Safety Executive, the Local Authority Licensing Department and any insurance companies will expect you do have conducted a Risk Assessment, to identify any hazards on the premises. Check that staircases and lifts are safe, that emergency exits are marked and illuminated and that the doors open easily, that all electrical equipment is safe (and PAT tested where necessary), and that performers have their own Public Liability Insurance (any members of the Musicians’ Union members will have cover up to £10 million already).
Any licenced building will have been checked by the police, the fire authority, the environmental health and the local authority licensing officer, so one option is simply to ask to see the documents. However you yourself are responsible for how the room is arranged - the positions of movable items like tables, chairs, any temporary stage, and particularly lighting and PA stands and leads - which can certainly constitute a hazard if not taped down etc. Make sure the exits are not blocked and that there’s nothing to trip over if people have to get out in darkness or smoke in a hurry. There should also be unobstructed access to the bar, the toilets and dressing rooms etc.
Disabled access is another issue. The Disability Discrimination Act requires wheelchair access and other compliance, though this may be waived under certain circumstances. See www.drc-gb.org for further information.
Public Liability Insurance. This is to protect you against damages arising from injuries to the public (see above). Who is responsible for what is, however, a bit of a grey area. Basically the landlord is responsible for the structural items, the musicians are responsible for the equipment they've brought in, and you're responsible for things you've brought - or anything you've moved around - but lawyers work in mysterious ways, so find out whether you yourselves do need to have PLI and if you do, get some, perhaps via Musicians Insurance Services. or Folk Arts England / La Playa. EFDSS also provide PLI through their group affiliation membership. It covers gatherings of up to 200 people. (If you join EFDSS as a club, you'll need to mention that you are interested in the public liability insurance).
Most clubs rely on a door charge for funds, but there are other options.
Raffles are a common way to raise extra cash (one club even raffles the last floor spots on singer nights)!
Others include selling off/auctioning demo CDs, subs from the landlord and grants, such as Awards For All.
Applying for funding is a dark art, but it helps to have a specific one-off project in mind. You’ll need to demonstrate how your project will benefit the community - for example by having the artists do a school or community workshop on the day of their club gig.
Don't apply for money to purchase second hand equipment - you won't get it, and don't apply for money to further fund anything that you’re already doing - you won't get it.
Don't, for example, apply to fund artists fees for a series of concerts on club nights if you’re already booking artists. However, applying for funding to book artists for a festival or a young performers night, for example, could be successful.
You may, for example, get funding for promotion (call it ‘audience-building’) but not fees, or for PA or a portable stage hire, but not to buy the same - though at least one club has applied successfully for the purchase of a PA and portable stage, so it's worth a go.
Buzzwords go in and out of fashion, but it’ll certainly help if you have an equal opportunities statement.
We aim to expand this section with some detailed advice on funding, accountancy, taxation and licensing soon, meanwhile your local council's Community Arts Officer should be able to offer help and advice and act as referee on your application. You may find this website useful.
As well as establishing amongst yourselves what kind of club you want to be, and letting the world know via your name and website, it’s a good idea to develop an actual booking policy and then let potential acts know about it by putting it on your website too (see TwickFolk, too). This should cut down on unwanted approaches from unsuitable artists.
Choosing who to book should not be hard - the folk industry is massively oversubscribed with very good pro, semipro and amateur artists, so it’s very much a buyers’ market. Plus you’re bound to have plenty of people on your personal wish-list. But making sure you have a full room for them to play to might not be so easy. Folk audiences have an unfortunate tendency not to turn out for people they’ve not seen before - even supposedly famous ones!
Big Names should guarantee a good turnout, but almost no-one is immune to the 'bad night' syndrome, so there's always some financial risk. At the opposite extreme there are usually plenty of good local heroes who won't charge a fortune (if at all), but may be over-exposed in your area, and there's no guarantee that the regulars at their home gig will traipse up town to see them at yours. In between are any number of excellent 'main stage' acts, but bear in mind that if they are going to drive four hours each way, to play a new gig, they may want a biggish guarantee. You'll need to sell them hard to your regulars, and do what you can to bring people in from elsewhere as well.
Ask your regulars who they’d like to hear. If you have someone you’re interested in booking, but who they might not be familiar with, play a few tracks on a CD player at the club, and ask for opinions.
Pass demo CDs round your committee and your regulars and canvass opinions, but if you want to be able to make timely decisions consider appointing one person to be ‘artistic director’ (or club booker) to deal with the artists. This person needs to keep both committee and membership on side, but should ideally have the power to take an occasional risk - and know they’ll still have loyal support from the rest of the team (and, ideally, the regulars).
It’s in both the artist’s and the club’s interest to avoid ‘clusters.’ Most clubs have had the uncomfortable experience of booking an artist only to find that he's taken a subsequent booking just down the road - so splitting the potential audience, and making either or both gigs nonviable. This is not usually down to the artist being greedy, it’s more likely to be because he, or his agent, simply didn't realise how close together the two venues actually were, or what the overlap of audiences might be.
This is not actually an easy thing to predict from outside. Some folkies will happily travel 60 miles to visit various clubs on a regular basis, others only ever go to ‘their’ club even when there’s another just down the road. So sometimes it’s ok for an artist to take bookings on consecutive nights in the same town, and sometimes 60 miles is too close.
Different clubs also have different ideas about frequency. The overlap problem is not just about distance but also time.
So if you feel you do need an exclusion zone, decide what it should be, and put that on the website with the booking policy. Tell artists about it, and then police it. Some clubs ask, for example, that an artist will not perform within 30 miles, for six months before and after the gig. List any clubs or venues whose catchment overlaps with yours that you want them to avoid, so there can be no misunderstandings.
Your booking policy should also set out the various responsibilities for promotion, between club and artist (see below for more about promotion techniques). You’ll need to agree at the time of the booking who will do what and when. Some artists assume that promotion is purely down to the promoter, and some promoters assume that an artist’s reputation and publicity machine will suffice to fill the room. But the artist may not be so well known in your area as you think, specially if it’s a first time booking.
If you need posters and fliers etc. also make it clear at the time of the booking when and how many. (And please do use them when they arrive)!
See also section on Contracts below.
Your published booking policy might state how far ahead you prefer to book, specially if you don't list all booked guests going forward on your website. Some clubs only book weeks ahead, others more than a year, so this should help to reduce enquiries for dates that are actually already filled.
You might also tell people what your minimum repeat booking cycle is, again, to reduce wasted calls. (see TwickFolk, again)
There are a number of different fee options:
1) A fixed fee. The advantage of this is that the club keeps any profit. The disadvantage is that you could loose money if the turnout is smaller than expected. A fixed fee does however allow you to book newer artists 'on spec' (assuming you can afford to) even when there is some risk that the turnout might be poor for a first visit.
2) A low guarantee versus a percentage of the door with or without reductions for costs. (NB The artist always gets the higher sum). This should encourage artists to promote, but bear in mind that they can’t promote to people they can’t reach. You can reach more local people more easily than them because you know where the local promotional outlets are, and you will know where the clubs and folk fans are in your area.
3) A door take with or without reductions for costs. (Occasionally an upper maximum is agreed, but this is rare).
4) Passing a hat (surprisingly, this can be the most lucrative if the audience have really enjoyed themselves - but the risk may not appeal to artists who are travelling any distance, or playing your club for the first time).
In options 2) and 3) you will need to agree the door price with the artists, as it will have a direct bearing on their fee - (as will the number of people getting in for nothing). Many clubs choose to keep their door price very low compared to typical charges for other forms of entertainment. Artists may therefore ask for a higher door charge than you are comfortable with, in which case options 1) or 4) might be better.
5) There are in fact a number of other models, some of which are quite complex. Some clubs have a formula that goes something like: first £250 to the artist, next £100 to the club and a split of 80/20 after that. Other clubs (notably the good payers) have a policy of percentage deals only but will often round-up the amount to the next highest £50 rather than calculate to the penny.
Bear in mind that you hold the key to the venue so you call the shots. Only agree to a deal you can live with.
If you have a preference for one fee system over another, make this clear in your booking policy (see above) to avoid any confusion from the start.
If you are booking artists who live in your patch you may be able to get some funds from your local Artists in Residence scheme, assuming there is one in your area.
There are a surprising number of folk clubs who are content not to use any formally signed contract. Frequently an exchange of emails is considered sufficient, though there are plenty who do issue a paper contract, and others who ask for artists to send their own.
This relaxed attitude is probably down to the fact that the folk world is a friendly, casual place, and disputes are rare. And if a guest does fail to turn up, there’s usually no major problem filling the evening.
Misunderstandings do happen though, and the only way to be sure of your ground is to exchange at least a basic contract.
In law a telephone agreement constitutes a verbal contract, but it can be hard to prove terms on either side, so it’s best to get things in writing.
These days many clubs and artists are happy to proceed on just a confirming email. Apart from saving paper, cost and time, it’s easy to have a dialogue to resolve any problems before they become critical.
There are two types of information you’ll need to include.
The gig-specific items can go in the body of the email:
Any standard information can go into a signature or attachment, or even on a page of your website, so you don’t need to keep typing it into every email. How much of this you think is relevant, and which goes where, is up to you - but all of it could be important under certain circumstances.
If you prefer to issue a paper contract, then all the above may be relevant, plus, perhaps, a deadline for its return.
I have heard more complaints from club organisers about agents than about any other single issue.
The general charges tend to be that agencies often expect too much money, an unrealistic cut/door charge/deal, or an impossible rider (that's the non-financial arrangements, such as food and drink, accommodation, transport etc) - and certainly there are some hair-curling stories around.
But bear in mind these points when dealing with agents:
Agents' (and in fact all artists') terms evolve and harden over time. Every incident that turns out to the artist's disadvantage tends to toughen the terms of the contract, and 'artflation' means that prices tend to go up regardless of actual success. Also, agents will naturally apply experience gained with one act to the whole roster - and this will also tend to toughen the initial terms. The longer the agency has been around, then the firmer that initial bargaining position.
Remember that agents (and artists) will usually start from a 'safest/best' position, and - purely for reasons of practicality (folk artists play a bewildering array of gigs) - will usually have a standard 'one size fits all' contract (or perhaps one for festivals, one for theatres and one for clubs - and remember that some clubs might as well be theatres, and some festivals might as well be clubs).
It's also the agent's job (and, being on a percentage, in his/her interests) to ask for the maximum possible fee.
Do NOT take offence at these - they're not aimed at you personally, just designed to prevent a bad thing that happened once from happening again. (I've had gigs cancelled by affronted organisers who took our standard contract as a personal insult, even though, clearly, nothing in the document actually applied to them).
If you really want the act, negotiate. The agent may well explain that a problem clause doesn't apply, and will probably be willing to compromise on the financial deal too. If you're still not happy, just say no thanks and book someone else.
Remember that there are only a handful of specialist folk agents - and even these will be mainly booking their acts in larger venues. Most agents probably don't understand how folk clubs and smaller venues work, so their standard pitch may well seem inappropriate.
If you're really unhappy with the agent's stance, and are convinced that they're not acting in the artists best interests, contact the artist direct. There's no law to prevent it, and acts are often unaware of these problems.