Flyering is a vital part of grassroots live music promotion – Dr Emma Webster

Following on from Lord Clement-Jones’ blog post about the Campaign Against Leafleting Bans, Dr Emma Webster’s reply is based on her personal experiences as a flyerer, and on her doctoral research into the promotion of live music (NB all interviewees have been anonymised). In this blog post, she identifies a number of reasons why flyering is a vital part of grassroots live music promotion, including branding, networks, and cost.

The Campaign, in partnership with the Manifesto Club, was launched yesterday in The Daily Telegraph with a number of signatories from the live music and comedy sector, including comedian Al Murray and promoter Harvey Goldsmith. You can sign the petition here.

I would not be here writing this today if it were not for flyering.  A bold statement, but one that is undoubtedly true.  To explain, after leaving university in 2000, I performed in three Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows in 2000 and 2001, which involved an element of promotion through flyering extensively on the Royal Mile.  Flyering is obviously in my blood, as my first ‘proper’ job after leaving university was as a full-time Marketing and Events Assistant for Sheffield’s monthly Headcharge and JuJu Club events.  What this meant in practice was that I was responsible for getting the various publicity materials (posters and flyers) out around Sheffield and beyond.  Sometimes this meant getting up at 5am on a Sunday morning to go and flyer outside Gatecrasher, or going out to the weekly Tuesday Club events to flyer after the club finished at 2am.  Following three happy years working for Headcharge/JuJu – although my flyering duties were passed to someone else after a year of hard slog and bulging muscles – I got a job at Opera North as a Marketing Officer (and one which allowed me to employ people to flyer on my behalf!).  From there, following a few more adventures, I returned to academia to write a thesis about live music promotion, and am now working on Live Music Exchange, all of which I put down to my initial work handing out pieces of A6 paper to strangers.

However, over the course of my doctoral research, I heard time and time again about the difficulties facing live music promoters when trying to promote their events in their own cities, usually around the local authorities’ attitudes towards flyering and fly-posting – the argument being that flyering causes litter while fly-posting can be unsightly and difficult to remove (although fly-posting can be reduced to an extent by the provision of designated spaces, as in Glasgow and Leeds).  I argue, however, that such promotional activities are a vital part of grassroots promotion (for cost reasons but also because of the necessity of striking up personal relationships with their audiences), but as Martin Cloonan has pointed out, the attitudes of local authorities towards such publicity materials – particularly fly-posting – has often been one of heavy regulation and even prosecution.  In one extreme example in Sheffield, a promoter who was in his early sixties at the time received an ASBO for fly-posting!  Indeed, after discussing the possibility that Sheffield City Council were considering a ‘flyering permit’, another Sheffield-based promoter told me that:-

I think [Sheffield City Council] need to show some way of supporting the night-time economy, because it does bring people into the city.  I mean, if you look at Gatecrasher ten years ago, there were bus trips coming from all over the country – Sheffield was seen as the clubbing capital for a couple of years; it was quite a big deal.  And people still talk about the Hacienda in Manchester and things like the Sonar festival … and that’s very much put Barcelona on the cultural map in the last ten years.  So I think you can’t under-estimate these things and I think it is important to support them.

Along with Lord Clement-Jones, I happen to agree.  This blog post will focus on flyering and the reasons why grassroots promoters and their flyers are a vital part of grassroots live music promotion.

Branding

As well as being portable information carriers, the first point to be made is that flyers form part of the promoter’s ‘branding’ of an event through their design and distribution.  The design of flyers, for instance, can be an important signifier as to the nature of the event, and is an opportunity for the promoter to creatively market their event using two-dimensional visual and lexical pieces to translate a multi-sensory experience.  Sarah Thornton’s excellent work on club cultures shows how club organisers aim to deliver a particular crowd to a specified venue on a given night, and that to a large degree, ‘club crowds come pre-sorted and pre-selected’ (p. 22), partly through the design and distribution of the flyer.  When at university, I was certainly not the only person who used blu-tacked flyers on the wall both to decorate my digs but also to show my allegiance with certain events and hence my ‘subcultural capital’ or ‘hipness’.  The design, therefore, is an important means for the promoter to creatively market their events through words, symbols, and colours.

Just as the publicity design needs to look and feel appropriate for the event, so too it should be distributed in the ‘right’ places for the intended audience.  As the following promoter explained,

How do you promote it? I mean, how you promote it is again, there’s some voodoo magic in that. But you know, there’s the very obvious ways that you do it, you know: posters and flyers, and where you put them is more of an artform.

I used to flyer outside The Tuesday Club as I knew that there would be a crossover audience with Headcharge; similarly, I left stacks of flyers in certain shops and bars because I knew that that was where our audience – and potential audience – frequented.  Flyers, then, through their design and distribution, offer a vital means for promoters to target specific audiences, to ensure that they gather the optimum group of people for their event.

The importance of face-to-face publicity

The second point is that for gigs and club nights at the small-scale, if a promoter is able to talk to the very audience that they want to attract while handing out flyers, there is a higher chance that that person will attend than if they simply picked up a flyer.  In this way, the successful conveyance of the information on the flyer is also dependent on the relationship – however fleeting – that a flyerer develops with the ‘flyeree’. To illustrate, the Sheffield-based promoter quoted above also told me that:-

Everywhere you go, you always end up talking to somebody because I’ve been doing it a long time in Sheffield, you know, so it’s the village thing, you know?  People kind of tend to know who I am and know what I do, sort of thing, so a lot of people will come up and ask me what I’ve got coming up and that sort of thing, or generally ask me how things are going – people who wouldn’t necessarily come to the night say to me, “how’s it all going?” and take a flyer and then maybe turn up, sort of thing.

This is particularly important because at this level, the promoter’s ‘brand’ may be more recognisable than the artists’ that they promote and therefore a name on a flyer will be meaningless.  To illustrate, when asked whether their name had become bigger than the bands they put on, a Glasgow-based DIY promoter told me: ‘Well, I think that’s what we’ve always wanted to do, so people can see our name and say, “Oh, they’re putting on a night” and say, “Oh, they’ll be putting on good bands and we could go see [them] . . .”’  From my own experience, I became as much a flyerer as a ‘face’ of Headcharge/The JuJu Club at the club nights I flyered outside – to some people I became synonymous with the events that I was promoting.

Think about it another way.  If you see a flyer for The Randoms, who you’ve never heard of, are you likely to pick it up?  Are you likely to go to the gig?  Now if a flyerer approaches you – particularly one whom you recognise and trust – and you allow them to tell you about The Randoms, about the venue, about the buzz at the last gig, who was there, how great it all was, are you perhaps more likely to go to the gig?  I know I would. Flyering, then, give a perfect excuse to go out and talk to people, as well as being able to pass on the information being given to them in the form of a flyer.  As another promoter told me, ‘It’s like, you go round inside [the club] and you get talking to people, going, “we’re doing this thing next week, it’s . . .”, you know’.

Even at a slightly larger scale, the face-to-face contact can still be important, as illustrated by the following promoter (at the Joan Baez/Jackson Browne/Paul Carrack level):-

I always like to meet people coming in and see people off, ‘cos I always think they’re customers, really.   So if you stand in the door, ‘Welcome’, even if you only give them a flyer saying what’s coming next, whatever, ‘How you doing?’, and they’ll say, ‘Great gig, last one’, or ‘Can you get so and so?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’ll try’.  And then on the way out, I always say, ‘Thanks very much’ and give another flyer or whatever, and ‘Hope you’ll come again, next thing on is so and so’.  So I think it’s trying to keep almost that rapport going, with people who are same as you.

Networks

The third point about flyering is that it allows gives a means of networking among promoters at the grassroots level.  As I point out in my thesis, formal and informal networks between promoters are vital to ensure that the promoter accrues ‘social capital’ in the form of contacts, ‘favours’, and loyalty – vital when you need to borrow an amp at the last minute, or to locate a venue when yours is flooded.  Flyering is one way of forming such networks, as this enables promoters to chat to each other about future plans and any other issues.  In Sheffield, for instance, when I was flyering for Headcharge on the University of Sheffield concourse, this was a chance not only to distribute publicity material but also to catch up on the latest gossip and plans of other promoters who were also flyering there.

The distribution of flyers (and posters) can also offer networking opportunities, as explained by the following promoter:-

Sometimes it’s nice just to go round and chat to people in shops.  I find that once you’ve been doing it a long time, you get to know all the people in the shops, and I find that if you have a relationship with them, they’re more likely to let you have a good poster site for your posters.  It’s also nice to get feedback from them, especially ‘cos some of the shops sell tickets for me as well, so it’s nice to chat to them and see how ticket sales are going.

Career Development

The fourth point, and one which relates to my introductory paragraph, is that flyering is a means for young would-be promoters to be able to try out live music promotion at a fundamental, (relatively) risk-free level, as well as bagging themselves a free ticket for a gig.  As one promoter told me:-

[The volunteer flyerers] do a couple of hours work and they get a free ticket or two, and . . . you just try and give people rewards and benefits when you can, you know … And if they’re passionate about the music and they like what you do, they’ll do it for a while, and that’s it … One of the flyerers for [Event A], he and his mates have now started [Event B], inspired by [Event A], and that’s really nice.  So they see themselves as almost like a junior [Event A], you know, it kind of extends – it’s that family thing really, isn’t it?

In this way, flyering can be an important part of a new promoter’s career development. As covered in the second book on the history of live music in the UK, student unions became an important breeding ground for promoters in the 1960s and 1970s, with the likes of Harvey Goldsmith and Simon Moran both starting out as Entertainments Officers.  I don’t know if those two flyered for their events while in the role (although I would bet that they did!), but certainly at the University of Sheffield while I was there, one of the first jobs a new ‘Ents’ volunteer was required to undertake was flyering for Student Union events.

Cost

The final point to be made is the relatively cheap cost of flyers.  Headcharge, for instance, ordered ten thousand flyers for each monthly event, which cost around £160 in those days.  That’s a cost, therefore, of less than 2p per flyer, which is incredibly cheap.  One promoter I spoke to brought down the costs even further by doing mini sponsorship deals before with clothes shops and bars, where they would contribute towards (or even pay fully) the cost of the flyers.  For promoters at the grassroots, for whom the loss of even £50 can mean make or break, then, flyers are an incredibly cost-effective way of publicising their events.

The case against flyers

But what about the mess, I hear you cry?  As Lord Clement-Jones points out, however:-

Problems with litter should be dealt with through provision of litter bins and other common-sense measures, not by placing restrictions on our civil rights. Leaflets advertising cultural events, an important expression of our community activity, should not be treated in the same way as a burger wrapper or crisp packet.

From my own experience, flyering at somewhere like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is an absolutely vital promotional tool.  The programme for this year’s festival lists nearly 3,000 shows – without some form of personal recommendation, a favourable media review, and/or a flyer presented in a memorable way, it is difficult to know what to choose.  Inevitably this creates a vast amount of litter, and yet Edinburgh somehow manages to tidy up each day, probably because it understands the value of the festivals to its economy and accepts the clean-up as part and parcel of the deal (a report by BOP Consulting estimated that the gross visitor expenditure in Edinburgh for all festivals was £249.36million in 2010).

And what about the environmental impact of flyering?  All that wasted paper and card?  However, if promoters are encouraged to use recycled paper for their flyers; distribute them sensibly and not wastefully; and councils use municipal waste bins that encourage people to separate their litter into recyclables and landfill, this too would not be such an issue.

But what about digital marketing?!  It is true that since my flyering days in the early 2000s, we were only just starting to use rudimentary mass emailing systems, and Facebook and Twitter were but twinkles in somebody’s eyes.  So in this world of social media, why should physical flyers still be necessary?  I refer you back to the first point that I make in particular: that flyering allows a promoter (or their volunteers) to make a personal, face-to-face connection with their potential audience.  While Facebook and the like are important tools for promoters, I argue that the initial face-to-face contact (and subsequent opportunity for persuasion) elicited by the humble flyer is the best way in for promoters at the grassroots level as a means of creating a buzz on the (literal) street.

As a final anecdote, a few weeks ago I was walking past a venue in Oxford when a teenage lad asked my group, ‘Would you like to come and see my band at the Bullingdon later on?’  Now admittedly he didn’t have a flyer, and we ended up not going (due to hunger pangs), but all four of us were so impressed by his spontaneous self-promotion that we genuinely considered going.  Now that wouldn’t have happened on Facebook . . .

Dr Emma Webster

 

 

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