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If you are a small touring band in Britain looking to rise through the ranks and into the hearts and minds of your ultimate market you are probably full of enthusiasm, zest and belief in yourselves and just gagging to hit the open road (although there aren't many of those any more in England). I salute you for your dream and assuming you have quit any pretence of normal life, family and security, you have the same fractional chance of getting airborne as the next lot in the knackered transit van heading the opposite way on the motorway. |
I don't offer myself as an authority on many things in this life but one thing we have learned touring with Neil Brocklebank and others over the years is just how hard this small time touring band thing really is. I am also assuming you are an original band and not one of those tribute things going around at the moment. They pretty much get an easier ride because they shamelessly trade on other peoples success and as a consequence are pretty much guaranteed decent money from venues because they are safe. I am assuming you have more credibility than to hitch a ride on someone else's effort in life and that you love your music enough to die for it.
If you are a touring rock band with no distribution deals for your music then you are battling against one of the severest tides in the world in the UK. Neil Brocklebank sells probably twenty times the CDs in the US as he does here because of one simple fact - there is a bigger market and tolerance of original material. And, whether you want to hear this or not, a more positive attitude prevails.
There are pockets of appreciative fans in the UK for original rock music but you'll need to gather them one or two at a time and return to play in that area regularly to turn those two fans into three of four. You might be very lucky and make ten fans and then you're into the law of averages that ten percent of fans actually will buy your music so if all goes well and there's a fair wind blowing, you should sell one CD after a couple of trips to any particular area. Of course if you are lucky enough to have a distribution deal then they will insist that you don't even sell any CDs at shows because that prevents sales over the high street counter and as a consequence - no profit for them. Remember, no one is slightly interested in you if they can't make any money out of knowing you!
The trick of constant touring is to try to bring together pockets of fans in adjacent areas. When you start seeing regular faces at your shows you really should stop playing shows thirty or forty miles apart and try to persuade the die hard fans to make the trip away from their home town. That way you gamble that two sets of fans will gloriously unite in your praise and you become better known in the whole area. Of course you risk alienating some folks who just get pissed off that you aren't doing their local pub any more and you never see them again. This is the supreme ability of bigger international bands. When they play an area, say Manchester and keep yelling at the crowd, "How y'all doin Manchester," what's really happening is all the surrounding areas are making up the crowd. There are maybe fifty from Leeds, a hundred from Liverpool etc. and only perhaps a minority from Manchester itself. People will travel to see a bigger band play.
As a small time outfit you do not have that pulling power so you have to work on bringing folks together. Very hard, but very rewarding when it happens. I have seen people come a hundred miles to watch Brocklebank and we still have what most independent observers would call a modest crowd at shows. But I'll tell you one thing though, it is developing and growing each time we tour. I have seen people from Bury turn up in Ipswich, folks from Bristol show up in Swindon and fans from Banbury appear in Bournemouth. This is due to tactical touring and constant monitoring of what's out there. It may slightly have something to do with Brock delivering a kick-ass show but that's assumed by all of us involved in this journey!
The other big problem area that exists between you and your potential fans are the 'middle men' who will suck the life spirit from you. I'm not talking about record company executives (although don't under-estimate their life sucking power either), I'm talking about venue owners and that most ludicrously named of characters - the promoter. At a small time level, the word 'promoter' should fill you with dread. Do not for one minute think he has an ounce of your best interests at heart. In fact, do not think for a minute he will actually 'promote' anything. He may put a few posters around but he will do nothing but lay all the blame for a bad turn out at your door - even though you may well be based three hundred miles from the venue you are playing and have very little ability to promote your show in that area.
I learned a long time ago to hate shows with third party promoters. Brocklebank's management even stipulates certain criteria in the contracts with venues as regards the promoter. It is hard to believe but sometimes a promoter won't even put up the posters you sent them. We contract that because it may be your only hope of attracting people to the shows, and as a result, breaking even. You do have contracts don't you? I hope so!
Until there is real money for third parties to make, they will do the minimum. When there is real money to make = they will rip you off. You need to be tough but you have to be careful because if you fall out with someone and it's the only decent venue in town you may be alienating your fans - and they are the only important ones in the equation. Remember that ultimately you are dealing with your fans not the industry that stands between them. A venue has to value what you do. You may have to accept a bad deal to prove your capabilities on the first show in a particular town but after that it has to be a two way deal. If it's not, you'll never claw back the upper hand. If you accept no money for a show or unthinkably, pay to play, I very much doubt you will ever right the boat and get a great deal at that venue ever afterwards.
The basic formula is that small venues, pubs and clubs want a band to bring in punters to sell beer to them. If you have a crowd at your show, even a small crowd, you are deserving of a slice of the cake. Don't be fobbed off with soundman costs, venue rental costs or any other bogus overheads the venues may dream up. Agree them all in advance in writing.
Brocklebank has risen through the ranks rather well over the last few years and he is now in a position to call the tune a little. He has a structure around him that includes all the industry trappings and has the product distributed throughout many territories and it has to be said, is doing as well as anyone else in his genre - but we still get back in the tour bus or back to the hotel and shake our heads in disbelief at the attitudes that prevail in the UK as far as the folks who run venues are concerned. The golden rule is nothing is reliable, cast in stone or guaranteed until you are big! Even then I have seen irate tour managers threaten to pull shows to ten thousand people if certain conditions that they took for granted aren't met. It is a constant battle to connect with your fans but never forget it is they who are important.
The UK is a terribly difficult place to get music business done. In our experience it takes five or six phone calls to get anyone to call you back in the UK and then you'll be lucky if it's anything more than "let me think about I and I'll get back to you next week", which of course means you have to call them the next week five or six more times to get them to call you back the week after and say no.
You'll most likely arrive at a gig two hundred miles away to find you've been double booked and no-one had the decency to call you and let you know. If you have been bestowed the great fortune of having a weekend booking somewhere reasonably popular you need to hope to God that no tribute band calls the venue in the meantime looking for a date because the venue people will get rid of you to accommodate them because they make more money for the establishment.
If you are playing for door only don't expect the guy on the door to very good at math. You got a hundred people at your gig paying five quid to get in and at the end of the night you get 375 pounds! Actually at this kind of level I would learn not to care too much about the exact figures because if you're doing it for bottom lines, then quit right now. Touring balance sheets horrify accountants because they don't make any fiscal sense whatsoever.
A good tip if you are supplying your own guy to work the door is to do deals with parties of folks who turn up. If twenty people show up to the venue, especially if they are just cruising around looking for a gig to watch, tell them you'll let them all in for seventy five quid collectively instead of a rigid fiver each and let them rustle it up between them and sort their math out once inside with each other. That way you get the bodies in and the chance of new fans and for the sake of a few extra quid you've got an all round decent deal. Engage people and above all in this game, have personality, you can never have too much of that.
Whatever you do, never agree any down payment against the possibility of no-one showing up. Always remember you are in a two way deal with the venue and if they want to charge you half costs for everything then make sure they accept half risk in case of a turnout disaster. Venues treat bands like crap until you start making some money for them. Venues love bands that play on a Monday night and pack the place. If you can bolster up their bad nights of the week you stand more chance of developing a rapport with the place. You are very replaceable on a Friday or Saturday.
Beware of those venues that just think they are your ticket to success. There are some places in the UK that just have terrible attitudes. "You need them more than they need you," is the way they think. If you get into conversation with those types and you have the feeling that the venue thinks of you as stupid young kids who would sell their souls for any gig, put the phone down and try somewhere else. It will be a disaster, almost guaranteed.
Also be aware of the venue owner who wobbles. He calls you up to suggest you pull the gig because there's football on the TV the same night and then a few weeks later calls you to ask how many people you are expecting. Never positive = just sitting on his ass wanting you to take responsibility. Tell them to honour their agreement and take the risk along with you. Brocklebank had a show cancelled by a very well know circuit venue in Ashton-under-Lyne on the day of the show. A full touring party, a seven ton truck of PA and road crew were turned away because the venue wasn't sure of the turnout. These places are run by people who are not professional at all.
We've been to places that want rock music and spend the whole fucking night telling us the bass is too loud for their neighbours. They should not pretend they have a venue if they haven't got a suitable place. My advice is to keeping playing the way you want it to sound and get the venue to make the decision to stop you when there is a decent size crowd in there drinking all thinking the band is cool. These people who run these places are getting in your way, ironically. They all have day jobs or are on welfare and like the idea of working in an industry by night they once already failed in. They have no concept of what it takes to be successful. They would not die for their cause. They are weak, dangerous people who I guarantee will not be in the same job in a few years.
There is a malaise in this country in every aspect of the music business. The manufactures are pretty much the same. British people hate to see other British people have any success, until of course those people are very successful and then the industry fawns all over them. I have spoken to guitar and amplifier companies in the UK and they all talk a great deal. They'll agree with every sentiment in this article and say they are different but they deep down have no desire to support any home grown talent. No- one has longevity or the foresight to see something potentially good.
Brocklebank has been sitting on a plate for UK manufacturers to work with, but nothing more than lip service to the ideas ever materialise. He now has new guitar and amp endorsements but I am sad to say not in this country. We do not value our own until they prove themselves elsewhere. No one seems capable of making it through hard times or periods that require belief. We salute and thank Rotosound Strings for their loyalty over the years.
So, the trick is to leapfrog from pub gig to stadium show! Oh yeah, that'll happen! There is no middle ground anymore anyway in the UK. Be big, you cannot afford to do reasonably well. That is not an option. No one is slightly interested in you until you can offer middlemen something for nothing. If Brocklebank makes it through into stadia of the world you will understand why him and his management around him are a very hardened, tough cynical lot who are very protective of the empire they have built. It is a brutal journey. We have committed our lives to it in the same way religious folk, politicians and mad professors do. No one's cunning little schemes or negativity will shake us from the cause. We will remember everyone who helped us on our way whilst at the same time we will remember each and every individual that got in our way. We are fortunate, however, we have the basic requirements for success in this game - we are made of steel.
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