The UK Folk Performers' Network
RUNNING A FOLK CLUB OR ACOUSTIC VENUE
Some hints and tips
CLUB OF THE YEAR?
Note: Almost no-one would consider trying to tick ALL the boxes in this section. (A few people have been upset that I seem to be suggesting they should). This is a list of possibilities, some well-established, some less so. You'll soon work out which will work for you.
There are a number of approaches to promotion, based on the type of club and the habits of the potential audience.
Clubs that have a large loyal membership or group of regulars may not feel the need to do much active promotion, merely tell the audience at the previous event who’s on next. One club actually goes so far as to ask artists not to do any promotion at all, or even list the gig on their website, in case too many people turn up for the size of the room!
But this approach is becoming rarer, and more frequently folk clubs are having to get used to a range of promotional activities.
In general there are two parties who have an interest in getting as full a house as possible, the club and the artist, so this list is broken down into what each can most effectively do.
As life becomes harder in the folk sector, there seems to be an increasing belief among (usually amateur) promoters that (usually professional) artists should help with promotion, or even take full responsibility for it. This is understandable, and certainly a professional musician should be doing everything he can as a matter of course. However, promoters should bear in mind the following if they don't want to catch a cold: Artists provide the art and promoters provide the promotion - the clue's in the name. You are staging the event, you have the entrepreneurial skills, and you carry the responsibility for finding an audience.
1) Never assume that an artist's reputation alone will fill your venue. There are a handful of Folk Names who can do this, and another group of High Profilers who'll do ok, but even well known artists find themselves playing to empty halls on a regular basis. (You may also want to think about the long term future if only established names are ever booked; what will happen when they retire)?
2) Musicians are notoriously bad at promotion and communications - it's actually in their genes. The more talented they are, as a rule, the more disorganised they'll be. A minority are good at business (one classic case is Show of Hands' invaluable advice to artists), but the safe assumption is that all performers are useless at promotion.
3) Only Big Names will have office/management back-up, and agencies only provide very basic support. Most folk musicians are on the road much of the time and have limited resources to devote to promotion.
4) Don't assume that your modus operandi is typical, and that artists will therefore know what you want. Folk artists deal with a bewildering variety of set-ups, from clubs which require no promo support at all (loyal audience or good existing promo machine) to village halls which need hundreds of posters and fliers, radio interviews etc. Some promoters want printed posters or photos, others insist on downloads - either full posters or photos and blurb to make up in their own house style. It's up to you, as the promoter, to find out what the artist can supply, before you agree the deal, and then to issue any necessary reminders at the right moment. Most artists will not have a system, because there is too much variation in requirements (and most will have had bad experiences of sending materials out to clubs only to find they've not been used properly). Blaming the artist because he failed to send posters, or did/didn't offer downloads, cds or whatever at the right time will help no-one. You must decide what you want and make sure you get it.
5) There is an increasing belief that artists mailing lists can deliver full houses. This is dangerously naive as the notes below illustrate. What CAN make a big difference is your OWN mailing list - but even this will only work if the people on it trust your judgement and track record, and if you sell effectively and entertainingly (see below). Simply listing up-coming acts is not enough - you've got to entice and excite the potential audience (and this goes for parish notes as well as mail-outs and fliers/posters).
Artists' websites. Most artists now have their own website, and many also have a MySpace, YouTube or other social networking site too. You can expect them to list the gig with contact details and a link on these - but there’s no guarantee that people who might want to come to the gig will visit that website at the right time, or remember the gig details.
Artists' mailing list. Most professional and many semipro performers have a mailing list. In years gone by this was postal, but increasingly people are relying on emails because they’re quick and cheap, they allow links to websites, and they can even play music (this is ok for artists, who are talking to fans, but not for promoters, who are talking to customers).
Industry advice is to mail your list about once a month, and also if possible to ‘geo-target’ your fans. This means to send additional emails to only those fans within a specific distance of each gig. So fans within, say, 30 miles of Leeds would be alerted to a gig in that city a few days or weeks before the event. This is obviously better than mailing the whole UK when your only gigs that month are in Scotland. Geo-targeting is, however, still very rare in the UK folk world - and most artists developed their lists before geo-targeting, so have no postcode data, which is essential for geo-targeting. Many are also nervous about mailing out more than once or twice a year lest they be accused of spamming.
Bear in mind that an artist’s fans need to like the set-up at your club. If there’s anything that makes them uncomfortable, (from the floor spots to the chairs to the MC to the parking to the beer), they may decide to wait to see that artist at another venue another time. It's certainly fair to say that while there are folk fans who prefer clubs over arts centres and theatres, the reverse is also true. Also, if someone signs up at a club or venue near yours, bear in mind that they may wait to see that artist in the venue they know rather than coming to yours.
Be aware that, even though they are 'fans,' typically less than 50% of recipients actually read artists mail-outs. Couple that with the fact that although the mailing list may contain thousands of names, only be a handful may live in your area. (I had 1,500 on my mailing list but typically less then 10 within range of any single gig - and these were usually the regulars who'd have come to the gig anyway, plus they're as likely as anyone to be busy that night doing something else).
Some artists pass their mailing list round the room during the show, so can add as much as 50% of the audience per gig. But a lot of these people are only signing up because everyone else is and don't actually read the mails when they arrive. Artists who just leave a list at the door will get only 5-10%, so will only build their list very slowly, and only have a handful of fans in each town.
The truth is that - in the folk field anyway - artist's mailing lists are of more use to the artist than the promoter. They're more for keeping fans happy, selling CDs, and helping to make sure you have a few 'trusties' in every audience. Only Big Names, who would have filled the venue anyway, will have enough local fans on their list to make a major difference - though in a small club where 20 is a viable audience an extra half dozen might make all the difference. But in any event...
Relying on an artist's mailing list to bring in your audience is risky.
National Magazines. Because pro artists tend to work on a national scale it’s really only cost effective for them to take out adverts in the national folk magazines - fRoots and The Living Tradition, and possibly other music mags like Mojo (but few can afford the prices). They’re unlikely to be doing enough gigs in one region to justify the cost of an ad in any of the many local folk mags.
Web listings Most artists will post details of tours on national and some local web listing sites like The Music Well, BBC Folk Tour Dates, Tradmusic.com, folking.com, filofolk, folktalk, netrhythms Folk and Roots, Spiral Earth and others. They may also post details on discussion forums such as Mudcat, the BBC Folk and Acoustic forum, uk.music.folk, Footstompin and fRoots.
Other media. Everyone hopes to get a play on the Mike Harding Show or a review in the Guardian, but very few achieve either. But they might be able to tee up a play on a local station if asked, or even do an interview, and they should be able to supply a press pack for local newspapers - but only if asked. Most artists will assume you are doing the local promotion.
Press and promo packs. Pro artists should ideally offer a good press-pack, with a high res photo, some blurb, a blank poster and maybe a sound file or two. Most nowadays have these, plus other useful info such as PA spec, on their website in downloadable form (here's mine for example). The advantage of this is that it saves on costly postage, but also it allows you to cut and paste and make up your own fliers and posters, in a style that suits your club. If you do want artists to send you promo material by post or by email, agree when you’ll need it at the time of booking, and then send them a reminder. (They’re on the road a lot, and every club has a different m.o. - so they may forget. You only have to remember your own system)!
Club mailing list.
Most clubs now have a mailing list, starting with their members (if they have them) and, ideally, including the names and emails of everyone who ever visits the club. Very few can justify the time and expense of postal mailouts, but the best all do a monthly email newsletter. The basic rules are; one, to make the mailout interesting and chatty, so people will want to read it even if they can’t come to any gigs, and two, always to offer an unsubscribe option.
Research shows that as long as people have opted into a mailing list they are unlikely to unsubscribe, and won’t mind getting quite frequent emails because they belong in the ‘nice to have’ box - unlike real spam. So it’s essential that everyone on your list has agreed to be there. Never ever buy or steal contacts from anyone else’s list. You do not need to register under the data protection act for a normal folk club mailing list as long as everyone has joined voluntarily. (Clubs have no need to geo-target because they don’t fly around the country)!
One problem many clubs face is people only turning out for artists they know well (there's all too often something good on the telly). It's been said that there are less than a dozen acts that can guarantee to fill a club, and six of them are Vin Garbutt! (© P Coe). Your mailing list is your best weapon to counteract this. No other medium lets you talk directly to people who've aleady been to your club and liked it enough to sign up, whenever you want to - for free!
Spam filters can be a problem, though. The Topic in Bradford used to call its host pub the C(space)ock and Bottle, for example! You may need to avoid some terms like 'mp3' (call them 'sound samples'), and some filters just block anything from NTL or Virgin or some other big ISPs, so try to use a small company if you can. It helps to have the return email address the same as the sender's - as this is one of the things that spam filters look for.
Normal email programs like Mail and Outlook often restrict the number of emails sent at any one time to 50 to prevent spamming, which either means sending in batches of 49 or using a web-based system such as fanbridge, MailThemPro or reverbnation. These usually get past spam filters by sending mails individually, and also automatically add the visitor's name, which is bit more personal than just saying 'hi'.
Darren Beech in Farnham is even going so far as to set up a Yahoo Group for his current audience, and beyond. The idea is to get all the local folk venues and art centres to invite their folk mailing lists to join it. They'll all then be able to post events to the group, and the group will be able to respond, thus building an interactive opt-in on-line folk community for the Farnham region. Maybe there should be a folk Yahoo Group for every area?
If you do use a normal mail-out programme, make sure you protect the recipients' privacy by putting all the email adresses into the 'bcc' field. Send the mail to yourself, and the rest go as 'blind copies' to everyone else, and no-one can see anyone else's email address. That's just good manners or 'netiquette.'
Industry advice is to make your mailing list your number one priority.
When writing your mail-outs bear the following in mind:
Think carefully about the header - if people are not intrigued, they won't even open the mail. Don't just say - "Cow Pat Folk Club News" - if they're not that bothered at that moment it'll just go in the bin or never be opened. Put something that'll tease them: "Ralph, Jez and The Oysterman" "Is Ruth Notman REALLY as good as everyone says?" (yes, obviously :-), "Throat Singing and Shape Note - compare and contrast."
Be brief*. When most people download their mail they have a lot of spam and junk to delete, plus work and personal messages to read. Yours comes somewhere in between. The regulars will read it, but they were coming anyway. Think about the 'I might go if nothing else comes up in the mean time' people.
Ask yourself why they really come to your gig. For some it'll be company (never underestimate the social element), musicology/folk history (at more trad clubs, perhaps), or to sing or play themselves (but remember that opportunity may be compromised on guest nights) - but above all they'll want to be entertained. Entertainment is, amazingly, a dirty word in some sectors of the folk world - but the truth is that's what it's all about and it always was.
So focus your pitch on things that prove the acts you book will be entertaining. (The main reason people stay away is fear of being bored). Skill on instruments, humour, quality of voices, audience participation, variety etc. should take precedence over biographical details or recording history.
Use quotes/endorsements from other clubs - and if they're not available from the artists website, ring and ask for some (if necessary, make the artist go fetch). There are good reasons West End theatres rely on quotes exclusively. It's cheesy, but it's by far the most effective weapon you have.
The second is this: Clubs have a massive advantage over artists when it comes to building a mailing list. The bigger names, who draw a larger crowd, should allow you to ramp up the numbers, so you can then sell your lesser-known acts to the Big Names' fans - but you'll have to be canny how you do it, because many will only be interested in the one act they did once come to see.
The trick is to compare 'unknowns' with 'knowns' - even if only tangentally. It's always difficult to describe music in words, so a sound-alike is worth its weight in gold. I did very nicely out of being likened to Jez Lowe, Steve Knightly, Steve Tilston and Bruce Springsteen (and later on it was lovely to see new artists being compared with me)!
Don't use clever fonts. Most emails come through in a standard font. Making yours different may seem like you're helping it to stand out from the crowd - but the reality is that most people read emails in a hurry. Re-tuning your eyes to a curvy font when you're geared up for arial is more likely to make you hit the close button than anything else.
Do provide links to artists myspace, youtube and other websits, but don't assume people will click through. You must engage their interest in the few line you have available, and then, with luck, they'll go and have a look at the website. Remember that people are often in a hurry at the computer, specially if they are on dial-up (which many still are).
Don't put images or sound files - they clog up the system and are unpopular, specially if people are checking in on a mobile phone.
Above all BE ENTERTAINING! Add a joke and/or use interesting language. People need to see your mail in the inbox and say - "ooh, good - must read that!"
*Artists emails tend to be longer - and more blog-like, than club mail-outs. There is a good reason for this. Artists are talking to fans, with whom they have a virtual/intimate relationship. You are trying to slide a sales pitch between the noisy demands of a busy day, to people who are only half interested in your club and have, theoretically, better things to do.
Club web site.
Most clubs now have a dedicated website. Some also have a MySpace - which is a quick and free option, with a reliable MP3 player where you can present tracks by your forthcoming guests (but only with their permission). It's VERY easy to 'pull' tracks from upcoming artists' own MySpace sites onto your own. Not many clubs have a YouTube site, but as more artists do, it makes sence to be able to show video as well as play audio. It's also simple to embed YouTube clips into your MySpace or regular website. Twitter and Facebook may be other possibilities.
It’s vital to keep your website/s bang up to date and make sure all the links work - and for this reason it’s best if the club booker is also the club webmaster. Before myspace came along this could present problems if the artistic director was not technically-minded, but myspace is virtually foolproof. It's certainly advisable to keep the website very simple and easy to read. This is a shop window and the wrong place to show off your graphic skills!
Include start times and finish times.
Opinion is divided on how far ahead to go with your listings. Some think that the more advance notice people have the better, others fear that if they post, say, a Martin Carthy gig for nine months hence people may decide to wait for that, and not bother with the intervening gigs. One other advantage of putting all your gigs up as soon as you book them is however that artists can see what you have coming up, and how far ahead you’re booked, so you should get fewer unwanted sales calls. Six months seems a good compromise.
Many clubs only list the names of the artists booked. This is usually not enough if you want plenty of people people to come. It’s nice to show a picture if you can, but it’s essential to include a sentence or two to ‘sell’ the act (even if it’s someone you think is well known - they may not be as famous in your patch as you’d assumed) and a link to the artist’s own site, so people can find out more and listen to some sound clips.
Clubs might also keep a list of sites that they think their potential audience might visit.
Listing sites include: ents24.com, wherecanwego.com (who offer an alert service which will email you details of all the types of events that you like within 20, 50 or 100 miles of your postcode) The Music Well, Spiral Earth Tradmusic.com, folking.com, filofolk, folktalk, netrhythms Folk and Roots, and there are many local and regional listing sites (which you can find on google) too.
Put "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" at the top of your press release. Then write as though you were composing a newspaper article. You want the paper to be able to just cut and paste, and publish it as an article with their own journalist's byline.
Headline: "Blissful Fiddle at The Pepperpot"
Hook: "Local lad, Tom Bliss, legendary folk fiddler and distant relative of one time Master-of-the-Queen's-Music-with-a-"K" Sir Arthur Bliss, returns to Godalming Pepperpot on Thursday."
Body: Always include quotes ("We're really looking forward to it," said concert organiser Polly Porridge, 'Tom's just mesmerisingly good, and so, SO handsome) to make it look as though the journalist has interviewed you. Include a short paragraph about the artist/s and concentrate on things that are universally interesting (like the hook and wooden leg) not those that are only of interest to folkies (like the 96 verse version of Lord Bateman) - unless it's for a folk mag of course. Quotes from other papers won't be used, so 'normalise' them if necessary. Always include links to artists websites in case they want more info - they may even print them if you're lucky.
Event details: "Tom Bliss at The Salt Folk Club, Pepperpot, High Street, Godalming - website, date, time, phone number, tickets price, sales line etc."
Ideally, do a short version of 250 words, AND a longer version of up to 750. If they want more they can research the websites themselves or come back to you.
There's a reporter's technique for newspaper articles which is useful here too: design the text so it can be shortened by simple truncation at any point, preferably between paragraphs, and still make sense.
If you're sending by email, include a LINK where they can download high-resolution (300dpi) photos of the artist/s. Do NOT attach the photo, it may be rejected. If you can't do a link, ask them to hit reply and type 'photo,' then take it from there. .
Write in the body of the email so they don/t have to open a file and/or strip out all the formatting. Remember, journalists are pressed for time and up against deadlines - anything you can do to make their job easier will get you better coverage.
If you're sending by post, use double spacing, keep it to one side of A4 and include the high res photo in the envelope. If you do go onto a second page, repeat the salient details in case the pages get separated.
In either case don't forget your own contact details.
(Thanks to Sarah McQuaid, Dave Hunt, Pete Heyselden and Anahata)
Local (and national) folk magazines.
These are still the mainstay for most clubs, though a number have folded recently, and there is evidence that many people now rely on websites for their information, and only read the magazine though once before putting it on the shelf with the others. The are usually quarterly and have a very long lead time, so make sure you don't miss the listings deadline. Advertise as well if you can afford it, and always send in news, reviews and/or previews - because editors are always short of copy. Local folk mags
There are still quite a lot of good folk stations on air. It’s worth cultivating a relationship with the presenters. Tell them who you’ve got coming up, send in CDs (or ask the artist to send direct) and offer interviews at every opportunity. Artists may be able to send wav files direct instead of CDs.
Its a good idea to keep a list of the deadlines of all the media in your patch, specially the free ones, and check it regularly.
Fliers are a great way to promote gigs. You can leave them on the tables at your own club (at the PREVIOUS event!) take them to other clubs, sessions and venues nearby, drop them off at the local library, museum, stately home, arts centre, theatre, schools, shops, and adult education centre, and anywhere else you can think of! Its a good idea to make your fliers downloadable from your website, so that other people can help with the distribution effort.
A flier swap system with other local clubs is a great idea, and some clubs even band together to produce a regional broadsheet for all folky activities in the area which they all then circulate.
Posters. As with fliers, but there are even more places to put them because they don’t require a table. Again, make them available from your website so people can take them to work without bothering you. you could do a unique poster for each gig and/or a longer-term one, advertising a number of gigs in one hit. This saves traipsing round for every concert.
Telephone message. If any member of the team has an ansafone and a line they don’t use much, how about having a recorded message listing your upcoming events?
One club even goes so far as to ring every regular visitor to remind them that the club is happening this thursday.
Local papers may be more open to a good review than a preview or press release - because reviews are 'news' and that's what the hacks do. So try writing reviews of your gigs and sending them in. It certainly works for Chesterfield FC.
Include web address, phone number, email / snail mail address on EVERYTHING, and encourage feedback. Then respond to all correspondence, even the dumbest suggestions / whinges.
Establish communications with school music departments - specially at exam time, and make contact with like-minded groups and societies. CAMRA, University of the 3rd Age, local history societies, folk fiddle evening classes, folk dance societies etc. Probus, Rotarians and Round Table - people are more likely to come if a group of friends are coming too.
And finally remember that marketing is a two way street. It's not just 'pushing sausages down a drain pipe.' It's finding out what kind of sausages the drainpipe actually wants, and doing your best to provide that brand!
Increasingly, clubs are offering advance ticket sales via websites such as wegottickets.com and ts.com.
wegottickets.com is reported to work well, with very helpful and responsive support, ts.com looks more professional but does offer "secondary ticket sales" (which some feel is ‘touting’ or ‘scalping’).
Both sites (there are others) charge for their services, and you don’t get your money until seven days after the event, but you do get peace of mind beforehand - assuming you’ve sold some tickets!
It's a good idea to offer a seat reservation system, either with a dedicated phone line or just via one of the team. The simplest solution is to agree to hold the seats until a certain time. If they arrive in time they pay and go in, if not, the tickets are sold in the normal way.
Some clubs offer a discount for advance sales as an incentive.
When you book a big act that could sell out the club three times over, make it ticket-only and announce this to your regulars a couple of weeks before putting it on your web site, so they get first reserves.
Door charges vary dramatically across the land from £2 to £12 per night. Keeping the price down does encourage habitual visits, but the evidence is that clubs which charge more still have plenty of loyal regulars. Various pricing models exist, from three-quarters of the price of a seat at the local cinema, to two or maybe three pints of beer. Think about the cost of other evenings out in your area and compare the fun your audience will have in your club with the fun they might have at a theatre or restaurant. Many clubs offer concessions for the elderly and people on benefits etc. If you’re keen to attract a younger audience you might want to consider concessions for under 18s too. You might want to offer a family price as well. Members (if you have them, of course) typically pay less.
Again, approaches differ on who pays. Some clubs have a rule that everyone pays to get in - even the organisers, some have exemptions for the committee, others allow floor singers in for nothing. (Oh, and if the artist IS on a percentage, don't forget to warn them how many people may be not contributing to his fee).