The UK Folk Performers' Network
RUNNING A FOLK CLUB OR ACOUSTIC VENUE
Some hints and tips
CLUB OF THE YEAR?
"LET’S DO IT HERE IN THE BARN!" (Everyone)
Clubs don't have to meet in public places. See here for more info.
This resource is primarily concerned with gigs, where there is a door charge to see at least one main performer. But many clubs run more informal gatherings as well, (indeed some never book a guest artist) and these gatherings take place in many venues outside of the main club movement - specially at festivals. Each has its own rules, procedures and conventions - and there are some very good ideas, and discussions of the issues and pitfalls, on this Mudcat thread here.
It's worth pointing out that there are at least two 'camps,' with considerable overlap between.
One camp tends to favour singing (sometimes unaccompanied is preferred, sometimes accompanied) and these tend to call their events Song Sessions, Singer's Nights, Singarounds, Shanty Sessions, 'Come-all-ye's, or other titles which allude to singing. (If an event is just called a 'Session,' this usually means instrumentals or 'tunes' with no, or very little, singing).
Here people usually take turns, either from their seats or from a 'stage' area, and joining-in is either approved of or frowned upon (though harmonies on choruses are usually de rigeur). An occasional instrumental tune is usually tolerated, but not necessarily appreciated. Which system prevails will usually depend on the majority view, or perhaps the original 'manifesto' of the group, or of a few lead organisers.
The other camp tends to favor the playing of dance tunes - often with a preference for one nationality over others (though there is usually tolerance of the occasional foray into different territory). Here everyone usually plays together, with people taking it in turns to lead off a tune (who goes next is subject to some obsure and sometimes invisible natural laws)! Standards vary from basic/beginner level to very high skills - and often you'll find groups containing diverse abilities playing together.
To stop everything descending into a terrible melée, participants are expected to be aware of 'session etiquette' (here is another - there are plenty more if you Google). An occasional song is usually tolerated, and even admired if it 'fits' with the style of music being played - but you'll seldom hear more than a couple in an evenening, and usually none.
Tune Sessions are usually just called 'Sessions.' (More info here at thesession.org)
A third camp prefer mixed sessions - where you'll hear both songs and tunes in roughly equal measure. These tend to favour musicians joining in to accompany singers.
Open Mics are a relatively new phenomenon. There is often no mic involved (they are sometimes called Unplugged). They operate much like folk clubs or singarounds, but you will hear less traditional material and usually encounter a younger audience.
One important thing to understand is that folk music enthusiasts do tend to split into these various camps, and feel cheated if they find themselves turning up at the 'wrong' type of event. So if you are thinking of starting something up, make sure you get the title and promotion right!
Some of the other topics on this page may be relevant, specially those relating to laws and licensing.
A room away from noise with a door that people must pay to pass through is the basic prerequisite for any folk club that intends to book guests. If you meet in a public bar with free access to all then that's more likely to be called a session or a pub gig than a club.
In an ideal world, the venue would be comfortable, welcoming, have some histortical or other folkie association, offer good real ales and other beers and wines, all at affordable pub prices, provide a free or not-too-expensive-to-hire room; in a safe, accessible and easy to find location, with easy, well-lit and secure parking too! But don't worry - most have to settle for much less, and do fine anyway.
A majority of clubs and folk gigs are still held in pubs, but pubs have changed a lot in recent years and they may not always be the best place for acoustic music. There may be problems with PEL or PRS licences, or new landlords (or new managers - some pubs seem to change management by the month) may not be sympathetic to what you’re trying to achieve and you may need to move on. It’s worth bearing in mind that folk audiences don’t tend to consume much of what pubs exist to sell (one drink on arrival and one at half time is typical), so if the licensee could make more money showing Sky Sports, or running Karaoke nights or selling food, you may need to work hard to keep him or her happy!
Remember that there are other places apart from pubs that might welcome a folk club.
Many meet in social or sports clubs - which often have the advantage of cheap beer, (but may suffer from the occasional culture clash)! (see Membership above for issues on access)
Others use cafes, museums, village halls or small arts centres or theatres, which are usually excellent from an image point of view (but often involve a room hire fee, especially if they need to bring in staff specially).
There are at least three UK clubs which meet in private houses. (There is some information on ‘house concerts’ here).
Some clubs use different locations (different rooms in the pub or even different venues) for different types of gathering; singarounds, guest nights or large concerts - sometimes on a different night of the week, or even using a different name to help with ‘brand awareness’ and publicity.
Whatever venue you choose make sure you think about disabled access and do an occasional Risk Assessment.
Also parking/security and public transport.
SIZE OF ROOM
Obviously the size of the room will limit the number of people you can admit (make sure you know the fire safety limit and stick to it), but a room that's too big can damage a club because there's no atmosphere when it's not full, and so people eventually just stop coming.
One challenge which a lot of clubs face is having small or large audiences on different nights.
There are a few solutions to this.
Obtaining the use of two rooms in the same venue, one large one for concerts, and one small one for singarounds and local guests is one option - though not easy to find.
A few lucky clubs have a large room with a movable dividing wall - but these are ever more rare.
Others have found or made some kind of temporary wall, which they can move to suit the audience size. I've seen discarded office screens at one club, and another had a back-drop big enough to span the room, and so reduce the size. Even quite a small free-standing screen can do this trick - because the idea is only to create a sense of space, not an actual room. (I've never seen a parchute used for this purpose but they ARE big, and lightweight - and fireproof - and I myself use fishing nets in my touring show)! The simplest option is piggy-backed tables, with cloths or posters to help create a barrier.
But if you can't make a screen, it's surprising what you can achieve with lighting. If the lights are localised to the occupied part of the room, it's sometimes possible to create a good atmosphere even in a large space.
The final solution is always to point the chairs into a corner of the room, in a fan shape, (so that the performers are looking into the void, not the audience) and then only set out the number of chairs you need. This works surprisingly well, though it does rule out 'chair singing.'
In any event it may help to 'manage' where people sit - either to 'fill' the room (if you've got nearly enough people but they need to be spread out), or to persuade people into a cosy group near the front.
Look at your chosen room with a critical eye. What can you do to help create the best ambience for the music you’re presenting?
How is the lighting? Are the audience looking at naked bulbs behind, above or beside the performers and getting eye strain? Is it too too bright and devoid of atmosphere, or is it too dark to read people’s lips or see their fingers easily (older people with poor eyesight may specially appreciate good ‘stage area’ lighting). If not, is it worth bringing a few lamps on music nights? (Some clubs bring full stage lighting, others rely on installed spots, other bring small portable spots - even a lone angle poise can make a huge difference!)
Would candles on the tables help? (Tea lights in safe lanterns are a popular choice).
How hard are the chairs? If you always pick one particular place to sit because it’s comfy are others getting numb by the end of the evening? Could you secure some more comfy chairs, either from the landlord or brought in, or failing that, could you supply cushions (as some clubs do)? Hard seats can keep people away.
What is the back wall behind the performing area like? If it’s a bit of a jumble, is it worth making a backdrop to claim the space for your club (and help with what the suits call ‘brand awareness’) and help set off the performers? (I’ve heard a number of performers claim that clubs who use a backdrop routinely get better audiences than those that don’t)
Could you make up some boards with old posters and photos etc to dress the room? (Many clubs do this, and it’s a great way to provide a feeling of history and continuity).
Have a proper listen to noise coming from outside your room (traffic, games machines, muzac or chatter from the bar etc). You may be used to this and not notice, but it could be keeping people away if they it’s spoiled the music for them in the past. If it seems too much, can you improvise some soundproofing, or turn the room round so that the performers are further from the noise (backdrops etc will help if this makes the orientation of the room seem strange), or ask the landlord to help by reducing noise, or move to a different room or even pub - or maybe start using a small PA?
Have you though about providing food? Many clubs do - even a few nibbles can go a very long way towards creating a warm welcome. If you can run to sarnies or a curry or even a full buffet (yes, some clubs do!) it can make a big difference when it comes to people deciding to turn out of a cold night - or not. Often landlords are happy to provide some munchies, either free or for a small sum, while other clubs bring in their own. Once club in Hampshire even goes so far as to have a full sit-down meal in the interval - and it's very popular!
In general, it’s worth remembering that these issues may not be things that audiences remark on or even think about consciously. But they may be a subconscious factor when it comes to making a decision on whether to turn out on a cold night for an artist they’re not sure about. A great room with a nice ambience and a warm welcome will make all the difference.
There are many clubs which prefer not to use a PA, on the basis that they require time, effort (and considerable) cost to set up, they need someone who knows about sound to operate them, and they can create a barrier between performer and audience which many feel is at odds with the very ethos of folk music.
One important issue is that floor singers may not be comfortable performing into a mic, and using a PA for guests but not for floor spots could seem additionally divisive to some (though to others it's the perfect solution).
Many artists are very happy or even prefer to perform unplugged (as long as the acoustic is good), but some insist on having a PA, (some bring their own, others expect the club to provide), and this may be for a number of reasons.
1) Size of room and acoustics.
Even singers with strong voices can find it hard to fill a large room, or one with a ‘soggy’ acoustic for a whole evening (and remember that the audience themselves, being soft, soak up the sound, so what you heard when you tested an empty room will work very differently once the punters roll in). You may find the acoustics fine for a couple of songs in your floor spot, but it can be hard work singing at a big sponge for a couple of hours. A few bad club rooms on consecutive nights, or a throat or other health problem, and even the toughest tourer will soon start to suffer. Also, artists will want everyone in the room to hear clearly, even people at the back who may not be as young as they were, so the temptation to over-sing is always a danger. If you can’t test your room yourself by trying two full spots to a full house, ask your guests for a candid opinion. They’ll soon let you know if they think you do need a PA!
2) Extraneous noise.
Quite a lot of club rooms do suffer from extraneous noise, specially towards the end of the evening, or if the club's in a town centre and there's noise from outside. The problem for artists is that often the organisers have got used to this, and so naturally ‘tune out’ the unwanted sounds. But a visiting guest can’t do this so easily and may prefer to have amplification just in case.
3) Sound Balance.
The human voice and a good guitar are naturally quite well balanced, but if you’re booking duos or bands they may have some instruments which are much quieter than others. One could say they are beholden to find ways to balance these themselves, either with performance dynamics or their own on-stage amplification, but some will ask for a PA to do the job.
So, if you DO find you need a PA, what should you get? Well, first of all, PA technology has improved dramatically in the past five years. You’ll be able to buy some surprisingly small boxes that will produce a wonderful sound for not a huge amount of money if you need to - but you will need someone who knows what they are doing to operate it. FolkWISE aims to provide detailed guidance and workshops on the purchase and operation of PAs in due course.
The basic rule is to spend your money on mics and speakers - they make far more difference to the quality of the sound than mixing desks or amps. Sure SM58 mics are standard in the industry, and good quality for the price - plus every pro artist in the land knows how to sing into them with their eyes shut (literally)! Anything cheaper is probably suspect (whatever the salesman tries to tell you), and never use ANY mic with a switch or a permanently attached lead.
You probably won’t need any effects like reverb or delay (though these are nice to have if you can afford them).
Bear in mind that if you have a borderline room, where you can almost manage without amplification, you don’t actually need conventional mics on conventional stands. One ‘crossed pair’ of reasonable quality super-cardioid mics, set at knee height, can amplify anything from an unaccompanied singer to a full band without anyone behind the front row even seeing them. And even better there’s no mixing required. The mics just take what comes and make it louder, so if it’s good unplugged it’s good in the mix. This kind of mic’ing is prone to feedback if you try to turn up the amp too much though. One solution is to place the speakers half way down the room. The front rows will hear the real thing, and the back rows will get a true facsimile.
But whether you use ‘distance’ or conventional ‘close’ mics, the trick for folk music (which is essentially ‘acoustic’) is only to try to ‘reinforce’ the sound on stage, and not overpower it. The musicians should ideally still be audible over the sound from the speakers. Great sound engineers like Phil Vickers, Graham Bradshaw and their teams achieve this effect even in big festival concerts with large PA systems.
You also need to think about where to position the mixer amp or desk. Many clubs place it near the front or even on the stage, usually because they don't have any long cables. But it's hard to judge the sound in the room from close to the main speakers. Ideally you should use a multicore or 'snake' to take the signals to the back of the room, and set up the desk there.
There are now some blue-tooth devices which allow you to mix the sound on an ipad or similar, so you can stand where you like in the room and control both pa and monitors.
Certainly it's important for the engineer to stay on station all evening. A close-mic'ed PA is not a set-and-forget system - it will need tweaking as different singers and instruments appear.
Finally a word about monitors: If you do have front-of-house speakers you should at least consider offering some on-stage monitors. Many artists will be happy to manage without, but bear in mind that the main function of monitors is not to allow the musicians to hear themselves (though that can be important in a band), but to counteract the rogue bass frequencies that fall out of the back of every front-of-house speaker cabinet. High frequencies are directional, so only travel forwards, while low frequencies are non-directional - so you get more of them behind the proscenium. The only way to counteract the bass-heavy mush on stage and allow for proper pitching and precise playing is to have have monitors with good top and middle responses to compensate.
Make sure any electrical equipment you own is PAT tested - that’s a legal requirement.
But remember you can always hire in a PA, either regularly or just when you need it. It’s an additional cost on the night, of course, but could work out cheaper than buying your own in the long run.
SHOWTIME (literally - for once!)
It’s noticeable that some of the most successful clubs have a well-oiled (but sober - for now!) team of helpers, each with his own job to do, who swing into action to prepare the room.
These will include setting out chairs, hanging backdrops and posters, putting out (and igniting) candles, setting up stage lighting and assembling the PA.
Successful clubs often have a policy of deliberately putting their most smiley, friendly person on the door. Newcomers need to be made specially welcome - specially if they’re on their own.
Some clubs even place their ticket table outside the room so they can welcome people properly and chat as long as is necessary.
It’s a good idea to take time to find out if new faces have ever been to a club before, and if not, to explain the proceedings to them. If they are paying good money to see a professional act they may baulk at the floor singers if they’ve not been warned and reassured - with maybe a brief explanation of the oral/aural tradition.
Some clubs have a policy of making sure that the committee or regulars split up and position themselves round the room. This stops the group from seeming cliquey, and helps to make the place seem full even if the turnout is poor. They can also talk to strangers to improve the welcome and explain the proceedings.
And don't forget to have your mailing list forms on the desk, and invite (aka insist!) every newcomer to sign up.
The most common format is
MCing a folk club is an art in its own right and whole books have been written on the subject (among the best is by Brian Hooper of the Fo’c’sle club in Southampton).
It’s certainly true to say that a good MC can be the making of a club and a bad one the breaking, and anyone new to the game could do a lot worse than read Brain’s book from cover to cover. Twice!
Your job is to decide who will perform (you may want to do this before the evening), start on time, keep everyone on time, give all the performers a suitable build-up without upstaging them, make sure mobiles are off and people don’t make too much noise or otherwise disturb the show, (health and safety may require you to point out exits etc. too), arrange the raffle (assuming you have one), read out the ‘parish notices’ (what’s coming up at this and nearby clubs) and generally make the evening go with a swing. You may need to open the show before everyone has arrived, or not perform because there are too many performers. You may need to explain to a poor performer why they’re not getting a go. You may have to get someone off who is overrunning, and all with a smile.
Some key issues that have been suggested include:
Start on time, even if the room's not full, otherwise you'll never catch up.
Begin with a safety and sound announcement. Pointing out the fire exits is a legal requirement, reminding people to turn off mobile phones, to exit and return only during applause, NOT to eat crisps etc (!), and please not to chatter during the music, is just a good idea if you want a quiet club.
If you have a 'no books' or other development policy announce it at the start.
Avoid 'sudden death' spots at all costs. If you are not going round the room, warn floor-singers in advance of their turn so they can prepare mentally, and get their instruments ready.
If there are new faces in the room make sure you explain what is happening and why. The folk club phenomenon can be challenging for 'outsiders' so it's a good idea to try to break through any barrier. A word or two from the stage, plus ideally a one-to-one chat (with the MC or an 'insider') could make all the difference.
Don't try to be funny unless you really have a gift for it - keep it brief and factual (read up on the guest first, and DO get everyone's names right)! 'Bad comperes drive away droves' apparently.
Floor spots are of course an essential feature of most folk clubs, but there is no law that says they must happen. Quite a few clubs and venues only present booked artists, with or without a prearranged support (and some do different things on different occasions).
One strong case for having floor spots is that they help to bring on new performers, but it’s also true that some of your singers may have reached the peak of their skills some years, or even decades, ago!
Some feel that participation is the whole point of a folk club and that quality shouldn’t come into it, even if some of the performances could put off people who are not familiar with the ‘folk ethos.’ Their challenge will be to explain this philosophy to newcomers and persuade them to ‘buy’ in to the idea, and maybe even have a go themselves and so, with luck, develop the membership.
Others at the other extreme feel that when money is changing hands a certain standard must be met. If they feel they can’t rely on a high standard of floor singing, they tend to opt for featured pre-planned support slots, either from the membership or from up-and-coming local acts. Their challenge is to create a sense of community and loyalty, because they may find that they have a completely different audience for every guest artist - which is fine if they only book well-known names but can be restricting when they want to break in new acts who could end up playing to an empty room.
Most are in the middle and use different approaches on different occasions - featured supports, half and half nights (two lesser known acts in a double bill), a few selected floor spots with one longer support, and various other combinations. You'll have to decide what the ratio of floor spots to supports to paid guests needs to be to keep both your 'performing' audience and your 'listening' audience happy (not always an easy task).
Some suggestions to help develop a good standard of floor singing include:
1) 'Manage' your floor spots, by encouraging new songs from regulars and help to guide them towards where their strengths lie. One way to do this is to have themed events on non-guest nights. Sea songs, or Stan Rogers, or Child Ballads - so people have to work at their repertoires.
2) Help develop local performers with longer spots on singers nights until they are ready for a featured support. Maybe you could organise workshops for your regulars - informal ones from the stronger members, or more formal ones from visiting guests (you may be able to get funding for these).
3) Restrict floor spots to one song each on guest nights (regardless of standard). This is a tactful solution if you have some keen but perhaps less able regulars. Most audiences are tolerant of someone having a go - it’s when they strike up for a second one, in the same key and still can’t remember the words, that patience starts to wear thin! (The regulars in Pete Coe’s club, for example, are mostly pros and certainly all pro standard - but they still only ever get one song each on guest nights). NB if you don’t have enough floor singers to fill the time, go round again - the gap should have worked wonders.
There is one counter-argument to the single song system. It can take one song to settle a singer, so allowing two (or even three) may achieve a better performance in the long run. I know that when I go to a local club to try out a new song for the very first time I prefer to get a good one under my belt first, so you may prefer this approach. (Obviously on singers nights, when there is no paid guest and therefore probably no-one there who's unfamiliar with the floor-singing phenomenon any system will suffice - round the room, turns on stage, or whatever).
4) Some clubs even have rules aimed at improving standards, such as 'no song to be sung twice within a set period,' 'no words or music permitted when performing' and 'anyone forgetting the words more than once during a song must buy the whole audience a drink!'
5) Insist that floor-spotters stay all evening (it’s only good manners after all, but it’s quite common for people to leave as soon as they’ve sung).
6) Warn floor spotters well in advance of their turn, so they can prepare properly. Some MCs seem to delight in surprising people - who’ve either been sitting in a state of semi-preparedness all evening and are now a bag of nerves (after multiple false starts), or are in the loos (or just about to go!) or at the bar, or have switched off and had a few drinks and now can’t get back into the zone (or find and tune their instruments)!
Some clubs have a house band as support, this works well as long as they’re good - and popular!
Others have a tune session for all-comers, either at the start or during the interval.
(And here is a link to Sarah Morgan's excellent notes on how to approach doing a floor spot).
A few clubs seem almost to take a pride in running very late in the evening, and in the days when most folkies were young party animals it was probably fun to still be singing way after midnight. But these days it’s probably best avoided. You may still be firing on all four cylinders, but most guest artists are tuned to an 11pm finish. Their body-clocks start to wind-down soon after. Also, people start to drift away to catch busses or just get home because they're tired. You may not mind this but it’s horribly demoralising for the artist even when they’re all waving apologies and thanks as they sidle out - and it puts a downer on the evening for everyone. An early finish is always best. (If you do have night owls among your regulars who are determined to party until dawn, why not have floor singers or maybe a tune session AFTER the guest - as a very few clubs do)?
Bear in mind that finishing late may get you into trouble with the landlord.
One final point specifically on MCing, which I’ve heard a lot of artists sigh about. It’s really nice if the audience can go away with that last song in their ears. It may be your club, but an MC getting up after the encore always seems awkward. There should be nothing left to say by now and certainly nothing left to applaud.
Why not do your wind up before the encore, and let the music have the last word?
Contributors really are too many to mention, specially as many ideas have come from my observations rather than specific suggestions, but thanks are certainly due to: Jacey Bedford (Birdsedge Live), Pete Coe (Ryburn Threestep), George Papavgeris (Herga) plus Chris Pollington, Anne Lister, Vicki Swan, Brain Heywood, Dave Evardson, Les Barker and Toni Wood (all of folkWISE). And also Gerry Evans (Twickfolk), Graham Dixon (Gregson Lane), Les Worrell (Faldingworth Live), Steve Heap and Alan Bearman (Folk Arts England), Brian Hooper ("So you want to be a folk club MC?"), Hamish Currie (club guide), Jim Hancock (Guestlist), Bryn Colvin (Redditch), Mary Humphreys and Anahata, Terry Walden (Milkmaid), Darren Beech (folking.com), Keith Kendrick (Derby), Alan Hewson (Baldock and Letchworth), Janet Strapp (Redbourn), Andrew McInally (Star Glasgow), Anne Campbell (Levin, NZ), Bernard Hoskin (Acoustic Routes), Bernard Cromarty (Lymm), Bob Bignall (Bromsgrove), Bridget Lely (Norfolk), Bryan Creer (Lewes Saturday), Cathy Judge (Old Down), Bob Chiswick (Doncaster), Chris Bates, Clive Bennett (Seaford), Dave James (Birmingham), David Kilpatrick (Kelso), David Cheffings (Dursley), Deanna Norman (Polaris), Ruth Bramley (Ely), Graeme Willis (Green Man), James Hibbins (Acoustic City), Trevor and Jane Gilson (Fo'c'sle), John Reedman (Chesterfield), Clive Pounceby (Bothy), Jenny Scott (Bacca Pipes), John Adams (EFDSS), Keith Taylor (Cramlington), Martin Smalley (Carrington Triangle), Sue Dewsbury (Gainsborough), Val and Martin Day (Warwick), Matt Armour (Song Loft), Eric Cox (Buddulph), Paul Arrowsmith (Kirkby Fleetham), Pat Smith (Llantrisant), Peter Hood (Red Bull), Ron (Rolling Hills), Sandy Ball (Folk at the Oak), Shanty Jack, (Louth), Simon Goodfellow (Alison Arms), Stephen Edkins (Tamworth), John Roberts (Railway), Chris Flint (Swanfolk), Sarah Dobson (Barnsley), Tom and Barbara Brown (Shammic Acoustic), Sarah Morgan, (Song and Supper), Chris Rockliffe - with apologies to those I've missed... not all of whom necessarily endorse all (or even any) of the ideas above!