Gig In Your House: National house gig network launched today – Emma Webster

In this week’s blog post, Live Music Exchange’s Emma Webster flags up today’s launch of a new national house gig network: Gig In Your House. Emma has been running house gigs under the name of the Music Inn for four years and uses this post to promote the concept of a database of house gig promoters in order that musicians can plan a tour knowing they have access to accommodation and venues.

Since 2009, my husband and I have been promoting occasional house gigs under the name of The Music Inn; first in our giant tenement flat in Glasgow, currently in our tiny terraced house in Oxford.  For a much longer time, we have put up musicians in our spare room if they have needed somewhere to stay while passing through town.  The musicians are sometimes people we already know, and sometimes they are friends of friends (or friends of friends of friends), but we enjoy meeting new people, occasionally from overseas, and there is often the gift of a free gig ticket or CD as an added bonus, as well as (usually) interesting company and sometimes a new friendship. Sometimes the musicians staying over will also perform a gig at our house, or they may stay over and then return to perform on their next tour.

Sabrina Chap, Oxford, November 2013
Sabrina Chap, Oxford, November 2013

Their tours are often a very mixed bag – there might be a support slot somewhere or a headline slot at a small venue.  One musician, who is also an author, paid for her tour by speaking at much better paid lectures – a cross-subsidy model if you like.  Most of the musicians we know and house are operating at a low level; none of the tours are straightforward in the sense of having a stream of gigs with good guarantees, and most of them see the musicians pretty much out of pocket due to travel and accommodation expenses.

Leaving aside the bonuses for the ‘promoter’, the benefits of the house gig are numerous for an artist who has yet to build an audience outside of their own backyard. As shown by Gerard Moorey in a previous Live Music Exchange blog, house concerts are increasingly seen as a viable and attractive option, both for musicians and audiences. There is (usually) free accommodation, food and company for starters. While the audiences are by definition small, they are likely to be very attentive and warm; there’s the opportunity for the musician to develop a real relationship with the audience – this is essentially a social gathering of friends after all. Financially, house gigs can also make better sense than an ‘unknown quantity’ gig with the vague promise of a door split for which the musician is unlikely to be able to bring in a crowd of their own. At our house gigs we informally suggest our friends make a donation and every house gig we have done for a touring musician has at the very least not seen them out of pocket and has almost always seen them in the black.  Other house gigs we are aware of have a more formalised ticket policy. Some are free. People will also often buy a CD as well as make a donation.

Today sees the launch of a new website, Gig In Your House, which aims to create a more formalised network of people willing to put up musicians and put on gigs in their houses [it should be pointed out that Emma Webster and Live Music Exchange is not affiliated in any way with Gig In Your House].  If a musician is touring and linked in to the network, they would then know that they have a ready-made network (or networks plural – possibly based on genre, taste and sociability) of music-friendly places to stay.   What will be interesting is whether such a network can work using an internet-based Couch Surf model,[1] or whether the word-of-mouth / friend-of-friend aspect is important, for which an internet-based model may well be a little too impersonal.[2]  Even though the gigs are not formalised, there is still the need for a conduit between house gig promoter and performer – an agent of sorts – who is able to ‘quality check’ and act as a filter to ensure the promoter is not swamped by the high number of musicians.  Whether an internet-based service will be able to do this remains to be seen; there are many more musicians wanting to perform than promoters wanting to put them on, and this could prove a large amount of work.

There is also the economic issue – are house gigs ‘gigs with a social element’ or ‘social events with music’? This distinction is significant: if the latter, the promoters are essentially asking the performers to play at a party and so the music is not the focal point of the evening – the promoters must therefore be prepared to be out of pocket by the end of the night.  If the former, the promoter must run the gig as a gig, i.e. the promoter is aiming not to make a loss.  The two types of house gig affect how money is collected – the former type will probably require a minimum priced ticket to ensure that the musician gets paid properly and that the promoter is not out of pocket; the latter may be based on a donation and the promoter should be prepared to make a loss.

David Ward Maclean, Glasgow, October 2009
David Ward Maclean, Glasgow, October 2009

None of the performers who have stayed with us are earning a fortune and they rely on people’s goodwill to help them tour.  A national network of house gig promoters and beds for musicians relies on altruism – selflessness – combined with egoism – getting something for yourself in return. As I have written about elsewhere, live music promoters may be motivated by a variety of factors – money, status, fandom, necessity – and some by what Hans Selye defines as ‘altruistic egoism’, namely whereby ‘the selfish hoarding of the goodwill, esteem, support and love of our neighbour is the most efficient way to give vent to our pent-up energy and create enjoyable, beautiful or useful things’.[3]  House gigs and accommodating musicians is, for me, a good example of just that.

If you are interested, please do check out Gig In Your House so that we can begin to establish a database of Music Inns around the UK, ensuring a few spare rooms in every city.

Emma Webster

With thanks to Jan Webster for his assistance with this blog post

[1] The Couch Surf model connects hosts with travellers to enable the travellers to stay in people’s houses for free – surfer and couch both have online profiles on the sites with which to check each other out.  Similar internet-based models include Tripping, the Hospitality Club, and Stay4Free.

[2] Indeed, an earlier music-specific version of the Couch Surf model, ‘Better Than The Van’, appears to have bitten the dust, although it is unclear as to why this might be the case.

[3] Hans Selye (1976) Stress in Health & Disease. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, p. 33

Live Music 101 #6 – What makes for a ‘healthy’ musical city? – Emma Webster and Adam Behr

Simon Frith’s keynote speech on the social value of music (in the context of European regeneration policy) asked ‘What is good music for a country, region or city?  What is a good country, region or city for music?’ In the latest addition to the ‘Live Music 101’ series of theory-based blog posts, Emma Webster and Adam Behr seek to offer some answers to the latter question, and set out various formulations as to what makes for a ‘healthy’ live music ecology, an examination of the interplay between national and local policy and the musical city, followed by a case study of Glasgow as an archetypal ‘healthy’ musical city.

Simon Frith (2008) posits that for a healthy musical city, six factors are required:-

1. Access to music, including music shops and venues;

2. The right sort of spaces for both the production and consumption of music;

3 ‘Musical time’ [the time to develop as a musician, promoter, etc. – the antithesis to the Live Nation model of ‘post song/video online >> sign promoter deal >> sell out arena’ in three months! (Live Nation 2010, p. 94)];

4. Opportunities for freelance work;

5. An influx and outflow of people [such as students];

6. A blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur musicians.

Brennan and Webster (2011, p. 12), based on work devised within the live music project by Simon Frith, also theorise that there needs to be an ‘ecology of live music’ whereby a range of venues (small, large, ‘professional’, ‘amateur’) must exist in order for new talent to be allowed to develop, as well as an environment in which there can be an overlapping of these ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ spheres. This overlap is important, since it concerns not just the viability of spaces for musical and promotional careers to develop but also for the wider social health of the city and its inhabitants. As Ruth Finnegan’s substantive study of the musical life of Milton Keynes illustrates, a significant number of people use musical activity to negotiate ‘pathways in urban living’ (2007, pp. 297-326) and in forging their sense of identity and purpose within the urban space.

In addition to this, Webster suggests that cities need such networks of musical pathways that are both ‘on the beaten track’ and ‘off the beaten track’, namely those that are relatively easy to find and those that require more effort or are relatively hidden (2011, p. 57). One of the underlying arguments of her PhD thesis is that promoters also play a role in the ‘health’ and diversity of the ecology because they are cultural investors (and exploiters), importers and innovators who both shape and are shaped by the live music ecology within which they operate. Therefore to further add to Frith’s factors for a healthy musical city, a variety of promoters is also required.

Moreover, Behr (2012) notes the interplay of different types of musician, across the amateur to professional spectrum, in open mic nights on different types of night in a variety of venues, which act as a ‘scene’ within the wider music scene, providing a conduit into professional activity as well as work opportunities and a self-identity as musicians for semi-professionals. Easily definable music venues and those at which musical activity is more sporadic interlock to provide a network of entry points for musical activity, for both experienced and nascent musicians.

In research examining the music policies of Sheffield and Manchester in the late 1990s, Brown, O’Connor, and Cohen argue that one of the important factors for a ‘healthy’ musical city is the formal and informal networks that connect active participants, held together with ‘loosely structured, place-based milieu’ which accumulate knowledge and experience and ‘generate and reproduce social and cultural capital’ (2000, pp. 446-7). In other words, the matrix of networks between people and institutions play a vital role in how a city operates, and it is often the case that a few ‘movers and shakers’ – cultural community leaders, if you like – who connect the dots between people in an altruistic/egoistic[1] manner in order to benefit both themselves and the ‘scene’ in general.

Neither is the relationship between public and private, and between live music businesses (promoters, venues, etc.) and other local businesses, always straightforward or non-controversial. Processes of gentrification and regeneration can affect different types of business (and musician) in different ways. Cohen’s study of the development of a ‘music quarter’ as part of a regenerative programme in Liverpool actually put some of the places that musicians gathered out of their financial reach (2007, pp. 204-205). The ‘right sort of places’ for musical activity can depend on what sort of music, and different definitions of what is suitable or desirable:-

Popular music … contributed to the development of these quarters, and to the regeneration process more generally … It had widespread appeal and pulling power and by appropriating urban areas popular musicians, audiences and entrepreneurs helped revitalize them and transform them into distinctive places that generated … a sense of identity, belonging and attachment … Yet at the same time it presented a unique challenge to that process, and musicians were centrally involved not only in the development of these initiatives, but also in opposition to them. Music recordings and live performance events provided a public platform that helped to promote the opposition and mobilize support for it (Cohen 2007, p. 214).

A locality’s cultural strategy is also important, then, although as Frith, Cloonan and Williamson (2009, p. 83) posit, rather than localised ‘cultural policies’, perhaps the most significant state policies for the ‘making and unmaking’ of local music culture instead involve licensing and planning laws, housing and education policies, and employment laws. Indeed, a key aspect of Simon Frith and Martin Cloonan’s Music Manifesto for Scotland, and recent music centred campaigns – not least that which led to the Live Music Act 2012 – is the acknowledgement of the importance of national policy in providing the legislative framework which local and city councils interpret. To this end, Webster also investigated a variety of regulatory, physical and economic infrastructures, all of which impact on the ecology of live music within a locality. Regulations which affect the performance of live music included licensing, health & safety, smoking bans, and noise (external and internal); physical infrastructures related to planning and (public and private) transport (train/bus timetabling and the availability of car parking); while economic infrastructures related to public and private subsidy.  As regards the latter point, Cloonan and Frith (2010) illustrate how even ‘private’ promoters’ profits are reliant on various forms of subsidy – from the state, record companies, commercial sponsors and the sales of non-musical goods, whether food and drink, merchandise or parking spaces.

What Webster found within her three case study cities – Glasgow, Sheffield, and Bristol – was that promoters (and other live music personnel) within a locality therefore have very different experiences as regards the state and regulation. For instance, in Sheffield, many of the promoters interviewed complained about licensing regulations, whereas a more common complaint in Bristol was over noise restrictions, and in Glasgow the complaint was often around the lack of council support for outdoor advertising opportunities. The variability of policy and regulation across the UK was further highlighted by one promoter from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, who, when asked about the impact of noise regulations on her venues, replied, ‘We just ignore them! They never come up and check!’ (anonymised). In this way, local government always works in tandem with national government, the latter providing parameters and a backdrop of what is both possible and encouraged. Within these parameters, local councils can do more, or less, to promote a ‘healthy’ live music ecology. But their interrelation is clear.

There are two good examples of this recently in the UK. The Live Music Act 2012 provided ample scope within the national legislature (for England and Wales) to encourage the provision of live music, by easing restrictions on which type of venue would need provision within their license for live music.[2] Local councils, of course, would still have responsibility for enforcing noise, public health and other legislation pertinent to venues (It is also worth noting that the Local Government Association was amongst the bodies arguing against the relaxing of regulation for live music due to objections about how much impact it argued that live music has on local residents).

In Scotland, conversely, the 2010 Criminal Justice Act removed the exemption from licensing for free events, effectively placing them within the jurisdiction of council licensing but still allowing individual councils to decide how they would regulate free events, i.e. which ones they would bring into the licensing regime. This resulted in widespread concern from grassroots arts practitioners and organisations, and a range of responses from councils:  from full exemptions for free events, exemptions depending on the size of events, and decisions made on a case by case basis, through to kicking the issue into the long grass via a review process. The point is that in both cases, it was broader legislation at the national level that affected how matters played out locally: in the case of the Live Music Act by removing a layer of restrictions that could be applied locally; in the Scottish case by dropping the contentious ball in local councils’ laps.

This type of relationship is not new, but how the dynamic plays out changes over time. As Simon Frith has described, a state policy for popular music during the 1980s, and Thatcherism, was largely a ‘local phenomenon’ (Frith 1993, p.15).

[M]unicipal councils were… concerned to develop alternative policies to Thatcherism but had to operate under increasingly tight political and economic constraints… the pressing economic problem in the cities concerned was how to replace jobs being lost in the manufacturing industry, how to benefit from the growing service sector (ibid.)

By the time of the New Labour government, the export potential of British music and the lobbying power of the BPI had pushed music closer to the political centre, and the New Deal For Musicians saw music as employment for local young people rolled out as national policy.  (However, as Martin Cloonan pointed out, this was not without its contradictions, amongst them ambiguity over the criteria for a ‘musician’ (Cloonan 2003, p.25), and the fact that whilst it sought to develop employment in the, industry based, labour market, it relied heavily on social networks and (sub)cultural capital (Cloonan 2004).) At any rate, it marked a shift towards national intervention in musical career paths.

We are now returning to national policies of cuts and retrenchment, evident once again in cuts to councils’ budgets, resulting in difficult decisions and often swingeing cuts regarding the arts at local levels: a 50% cut in arts funding in Newcastle (Youngs 2012), and 100% arts cuts by Moray council (Briggs 2013), for example. Even potentially beneficial changes, like the aforementioned Live Music Act, mark a retreat from national government involvement in the arts and a move towards ‘localism’. With Culture Minister Maria Miller suggesting that the future security of the arts could be secured by private philanthropy rather than via government subsidy (DCMS 2012), this looks like being the direction of travel for a while yet.

How this plays out in individual cities, then, will have ever more to do with how they deploy their resources in line with the factors outlined above. How they do this will have important and long-lasting consequences for cities and citizens alike.

Case study: Glasgow

Glasgow is often held up as an archetypal ‘healthy’ musical city, albeit often by Glasgow city officials themselves, but also recognised outwith the city. From a round-table session in Glasgow held in January 2013 and hosted by the Live Music Exchange, featuring council officials and live music practitioners, factors for a ‘healthy’ live music city included the following:-

  • Communication between live music practitioners and council officials, from a variety of departments (licensing, fire safety, etc.);
  • Communication between council departments to ensure that while a city council may follow a cultural strategy, the actions of other departments within the local authority do not inadvertently obstruct it;[3]
  • Communication and networks – to an extent – between the various venues, promoters, and other live music practitioners (sound engineers, for example) within the city;
  • A wide range of venues of different sizes to host a variety of artists, operating across the spectrum of activity from a grassroots to an international level;
  • A wide range of promoters of different types (independent, ‘state’, and commercial – see Frith et al (2013) ). In addition, promoters with the contacts and experience to attract major touring acts (in a range of genres) thus placing the city on the international touring circuit and providing the inhabitants of the city with access to acts of international stature;
  • Flexible, multi-use state-run arts venues (including the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Fruit Market);
  • A late-night entertainment zone (in Glasgow’s case, Sauchiehall Street). Also see the example of ‘live music precincts’ in places like Sydney as a possible model in the UK (Fitzsimons 2013);
  • Sufficient distance between Glasgow and the next large metropolis, significantly with an arena (the closest arenas to Glasgow are in Aberdeen and Newcastle).
  • Also of note in Glasgow is that the City Council itself has a significant stake in the ownership and management of the conference centre/arena – the SECC – and in the development of the land around it with the building of the new Hydro arena.

To conclude, a healthy musical ecology, then, is about more than just music policy, and more than simply investment. A range of factors, both musical and non-musical, are at play.



Behr, A. (2012) The real ‘crossroads’ of live music: the conventions of performance at open mic nights in Edinburgh, Social Semiotics, 22 (5), pp. 559-573

Brennan, M. and Webster, E. (2011) Why concert promoters matter. Scottish Music Review, 2 (1), pp. 1-25. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Briggs, B. (2013), Moray council approves 100% cut in arts funding, The Guardian website, 13 February. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]

Brown, A., O’Connor, J., and Cohen, S. (2000). Local music policies within a global music industry: cultural quarters in Manchester and Sheffield. Geoforum, 31 (4), pp. 437-451.

Cloonan, M. (2003) The New Deal for Musicians: teaching young pups new tricks, Music Education Research, 5 (1), pp. 13-28

Cloonan, M. (2004) A Capital Project?’ The New Deal for Musicians’ in Scotland, Studies in the Education of Adults, 36 (1), pp. 40-56

Cloonan, M. and Frith, S. (2010) Promoting business. 14th annual conference of the European Business History Association, Glasgow, 28 August.

Cohen, S. (2007) Decline, Renewal and the City in Popular Music Culture: Beyond the Beatles, Aldershot: Ashgate

DCMS (2012) Press Release: Philanthropy and legacy giving to the arts will help secure its future, says Culture Secretary Maria Miller, UK Government website, 19 November. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]

Finnegan, R. (2007) The Hidden Musicians: Music- Making in an English Town, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press

Fitzsimons, S. (2013) Council Agrees To Sydney Live Music Precinct. website, 27 March. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Frith, S. (1993) ‘Popular Music and the Local State’, in Bennett, T., Frith, S., Grossberg, L. Shepherd, J. and Turner, G. (eds.) Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions. London: Routledge

Frith, S. (2008) Plenary. IASPM UK and Ireland Conference, Glasgow, 12-14 September.

Frith, S., Cloonan, M. and Williamson, J. (2009) On music as a creative industry. In: Jeffs, T. and Pratt, A. eds. Creativity and innovation in the culture economy. London, Routledge, pp. 74-89.

Frith, S., Brennan, M., Cloonan, M. and Webster, E. (2013) The History of Live Music in Britain 1950-1967: From the Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Aldershot, Ashgate Books.

Live Nation (2010) Live Nation investor presentation. Live Nation Entertainment 2010 Investor and Analyst Day, New York, 15 July 2010. Cited in Marshall, L. (2013) The 360 deal and the ‘new’ music industry. European Journal of Cultural Studies, Volume 16, Issue 1, p. 94.

Selye, H. (1976) Stress in health and disease. Boston [Mass.]; London, Butterworth.

Webster, E. (2011) Promoting live music in the UK: A behind-the-scenes ethnography. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Youngs, I. (2013) Newcastle’s 50% Arts Cuts Confirmed. BBC website, 7 March. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]


[1] The notion of ‘altruistic egoism’ was posited by Hans Selye (1976, p. 33) to explain how the motivation for doing something may be as a result of the ‘selfish hoarding’ of social capital – hence a person who appears ‘generous’ in connecting two people together does so in the hope that it will benefit them in the future.

[2] The terms of the act mean that there is no longer a special requirement for a license for live music performances taking place between 8am and 11pm in licensed premises or anywhere qualifying under health and safety legislation as a workplace. Performances covered are those with an audience of up to 200 people for amplified music, although there are proposals to extend the deregulation to audiences of up to 500, and there are no limits on audience size for unamplified music.

[3] For example, in their research into Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter (CIQ), Brown, O’Connor and Cohen (2000) found that while the Sheffield City Council supported the concept of the CIQ and would use its successes to their advantage, council departments such as licensing were actively hindering the efforts of the CIQ. They cite the example of the ‘draconian’ licensing department rejecting a development proposal for the disused Leadmill bus garage site within the boundaries of the CIQ due to the inclusion of a nightclub as part of the proposals, following a period of fifteen years (1980-1995) where no nightclub licences were granted (ibid., p. 445). As they state, ‘This is indicative of a failure by the city to realise the connection between cultural quarter, music industry, the wider scene and the cultural context of the city as a whole’ (ibid.).

Festival headliners – don’t just sit there, do something! – Emma Webster

This week’s blog post is a brief one about festival headliners and what makes for an ‘ideal’ way to close the main stage each day. 

I recently returned from a splendid weekend at a small festival – lots of smiling people, nice weather, good music, and hot fresh doughnuts.  My one gripe was with the headline acts – who shall not be named – neither of which appeared to be ‘ideal’ as headliners.  I will now (briefly) consider why.

Friday’s headliner used a large backdrop on which to project moving images, which proved very necessary as both the movement of the musicians and their positioning on stage was very static (the lead singer was sitting down for the entire gig), and there was no audience interaction whatsoever (that I saw).  The crowd was sparse and I was able to get to the very front ridiculously easily for a headline gig (the implication being that the headline act should be so popular and/or so adept at attracting passers-by – Siren-like – that I should be anywhere near the front). Not so, however.  Saturday’s night’s offering was slightly better in terms of attendance, but little better in terms of entertainment and putting on a good show.  The lead singer – whom I had seen rip Glasgow’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut apart in 2009 – was again fairly static (no lighting trusses low down enough for him to swing from this time) and barely spoke to the crowd.  I ended up leaving early for both bands’ sets, bored as much by the lack of stage craft as by the music.

All of this implies that there is a certain expectation on headliners to behave a certain way, and some of these ways are as follows:-

1.  Don’t play new songs – the audience want the hits;

2.  Do interact with the crowd – a brief ‘this one’s the third track off the second album’ a la Saturday’s headliner is simply not good enough;

3.  Do move around the stage a little – it’s a big cathedral-like space and no matter how many snazzy lighting effects there are, it’s very very dull if you just stand or sit in the same position for the entire set;

4.  Do plan your setlist so that it has dynamic range.

Booking headliners must be a tricky tightrope for festival bookers to traverse, however.  They have a finite budget with which to pay a headline band who will a) attract the punters (unless it’s Glastonbury), b) reflect the sensibility of the festival (demographically, generically, ethically, etc.), and c) signpost the status of the festival to the music industries (if you’re booking The Rolling Stones, you’re probably doing OK, for example).  Unfortunately, the complaints I heard at last weekend’s festival were that it seemed as if the bookers had dropped the ball this year and booked headline bands that they wanted to see rather than who would give a good performance.  One festival-goer complained to me that it was the third time she had seen Friday’s band headlining a festival and that she wished bookers would stop booking them as a headline band, because they simply ‘weren’t headliners’!

What does make for a good festival headliner, then?  Do get in touch with your thoughts!

Bruno Mars and why I left the choir – Emma Webster

This week’s blog, by Live Music Exchange’s Emma Webster, sees her reflecting on her recent experiences as a member of a local rock/pop choir.  Emma’s desire to sing The Beach Boys was unfortunately thwarted by her inability to get over a deep-seated prejudice towards rock/pop choirs, which, sadly, led to her exit.  This piece questions why we join and commit to musical groups in the first place and about the nature of musical participation as a whole.

Recently I joined a local choir.  I was inspired to sing in a choir after listening to The Beach Boys’ magnificent ‘Smile’ album, and so I typed in ‘Beach Boys choir Oxford’ to Google and found this particular group. I had been meaning to join for well over a year but had always found an excuse not to attend, until I finally plucked up the courage a few months ago.

I have to admit that when I saw rock/pop choirs performing at 2012’s GuilFest, a voice inside my head said, ‘Yes that looks fun, but I could never ever be a in a choir like that’.  it just looked too ‘uncool’ even though the singers looked to be getting a huge amount of pleasure from the activity.  And yet now here I was, in a choir just like the ones I’d poo-pooed last year.

This particular choir rehearses in a church and at the first rehearsal I attended there were well over a hundred people there – a large choir indeed! The first couple of rehearsals were fun and enjoyable – I had not sung in a choir since 1998 and loved the feeling of singing in a large group (although the large size of the choir meant that it could be difficult to hear those on the other side of the nave, thereby diminishing the effect of the harmonies somewhat).

We learned songs at a cracking pace, some coming together better than others.  An example of the latter was Bruno Mars’ ‘Just The Way You Are’, a song that I had admittedly never heard in its original format.  For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it’s a fairly saccharine number with a standard chorus and almost recitative-like rapidly-sung verses.  It was these verses that ultimately meant that I slipped away from the choir, never to return.

Having one hundred people trying to sing something originally meant for one can work beautifully or it can sound like (to quote the choir mistress) ‘a bunch of drunks’.  Indeed, there was one bar of music with which I decided not to join in, after getting an attack of the giggles when my neighbour whispered that it was a ‘train wreck of a bar‘. However, while I like to blame my leaving on Bruno Mars and that ‘train wreck’ bar, I am interested in the deeper factors at play, and have been attempting ever since leaving the choir to rationalise my decision to leave. Four factors that I have entertained so far (and the topic is one which I often revisit), are: ‘subcultural capital’ (Thornton 1995) or a lack thereof; over-sentimentality; social factors; and musical factors.

Firstly, then, I am particularly fascinated in what it is inside me that cringes when I see rock/pop choirs performing – where that feeling of ‘I could never ever be a in a choir like that’ comes from – because I think that it is this aspect that ultimately did for my rock/pop choir career.  As someone who worked for a while for a techno music promoter and who was hyper-aware of their precious ‘subcultural capital’, could it just be that I identified such a choir with ‘un-hipness’, with people who would not know a ‘fashionable haircut and well assembled record collection’ (ibid., p. 11) if it bit them on the bum?  Certainly a ‘cool’ friend of mine who is in a band and has plenty of subcultural capital of his own, who I managed to persuade to attend the choir once, described the choir as ‘so uncool it’s almost cool’, in a classic example of postmodern ‘ouroboros’.  That comment probably broke the camel’s back for me, as seeing it through someone else’s eyes in this way made the scales finally fall from my eyes as to what I had involved myself with. While my club promoter days are long behind me, there is still within me a very real desire to maintain my subcultural capital and this choir was doing precisely the opposite (in my mind, at least).

An association with rock/pop choirs with a particular type of post-Diana over-sentimentality is probably another factor as to why I left.  While I don’t own a television, I was certainly aware of Gareth Malone’s various choir programmes, particularly the one for military wives, for which I watched the final programme on BBC iPlayer.  As The Guardian commented: ‘I defy any sentient creature to remain dry-eyed watching choirmaster Gareth Malone transform a few dozen women on a Devon military base into a group able to sing together in beautiful harmony. There are lots of obvious pushes towards the box of Kleenex’ (Freedland 2011).  Rock/pop choirs for me therefore have a (perhaps unfair) association with a particular type of mass sentimentality, with which I personally did not want to involve myself with.

The social factor is also important.  There was part of me hoping that joining the choir might generate some new friendships and widen my social circle.  The nature of rehearsals, however, meant that conversation was limited to a few quick bursts between songs and a ten minute ‘comfort’ break.  While choir members do go to the pub afterwards, I usually found that a) I was so hungry by that point, I needed to get home and eat, and b) I didn’t to go to the pub with people from the choir because, in a kind of Groucho Marx logic, I don’t want to belong to any rock/pop choir that will have me as a member, or, since rock/pop choirs don’t seem to be my kind of thing, people in rock/pop choirs are therefore not my kind of people.  More brutally, I didn’t want to go to pub with the choir people because they didn’t strike me as the kind of people with whom I wanted to hang out.  As Simon Frith concludes in his article on why live music matters, ‘Music is now tied up with people’s sense of self … This egocentric and essentially lonely aesthetic is shaped, though, by an equally passionate drive to share our musical tastes’ (2007, pp. 13-14), and these were just not the people with whom I wanted to share my tastes, musical or otherwise.

The final point is about a clash of ‘genre cultures’ (Negus 1999, pp. 24-30) between the space, the people, and the music. In my (narrow minded) head, music + church = hymns or other religious music, not popular music, and choirs will forever be associated with choristers and Handel’s Messiah.  The rock/pop choir rehearsing in a church therefore obviously interfered with some personal notion of authenticity for the music that we were performing.  Or perhaps there is a smiling bright-eyed earnestness to much of what we were doing (or from what I’ve seen of rock/pop choirs on stage) which just doesn’t work (for me anyway).  What interests me here, however, is that, as an atheist, I have no problem singing a Mozart Mass, but I do have a problem singing a pop song such as ‘Just The Way You Are’.  Could this simply be because the Mass was originally written for a choir and therefore sounds ‘as it should’?  Or could it be simply that I do not like the Bruno Mars song and all its insipid, bubblegum sensibility, particularly when sung badly by a large group of people?

To conclude, I obviously left the choir because of a range of factors and conflicting emotional responses, but ones which hopefully shed some light onto people’s musical choices in general.  As Ruth Finnegan states, musical paths are voluntary, ‘something essentially self-chosen not primarily for monetary reasons but in some sense for their own sakes’ but for which ‘constraints and opportunities – sometimes partly outside the actors’ own awareness – help to draw individuals towards or away from particular paths, or shape the way they tread them’, such as the influences of gender, age, stage in life-cycle, links to various other social groupings, and family musical background (2007, pp. 316-7).

Perhaps if my family had been rock choir aficionados, I would still be there, but, as they weren’t (and find rock choirs as cringe-worthy as I do), the upshot of all of this is that I have a new-found self-awareness about the kind of people with whom I want to participate musically, and, more importantly, I am once again on the lookout for a choir – but only one that sings the music that I want to sing!


Finnegan, R. (2007) The hidden musicians: music-making in an English town. 2nd ed. Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press.

Freedland, J. (2011) The success of The Choir’s military wives suggests we’re losing our taste for malice TV. The Guardian, 20 December. <;

Frith, S. (2007) Live Music Matters. Scottish Music Review, 1 (1), pp. 1-17.

Lewis, P. (n.d.) Bruno Mars: Out of this world! Blues and Soul, n.d. <>

Negus, K. (1999) Music genres and corporate cultures. London, Routledge.

Thornton, S. (1995) Club cultures: music, media, and subcultural capital. Cambridge, U.K., Polity Press.

Vuvuzelas: The new sound of protest? – Emma Webster

Parlaiment Square

In October 2012, I travelled down to London to take part in the TUC rally against the Coalition Government’s austerity measures.  I hadn’t attended a large London protest since the Stop the War rally on February 15th 2003 and smaller protests against the DSEi arms fair later that year.  At that time, I was a member of the Sheffield Samba Band, which formed in 2001, partly in protest at the impending Iraq invasion, and which was part of the wider Rhythms of Resistance network.  I joined the Band after attending another rally in London in 2002 and marching alongside them; I had loved the energy that the music lent to the protest, the way it seemed to galvanise people and kept up the momentum of the protesters.[1]

After a hiatus from active protest, I went on the London march last year and was somewhat surprised to see that samba appears to have been replaced with the monophonic honk of the vuvuzela. My husband and I travelled on a Unison-organised coach and marched with them As well as the usual placards and banners, Unison members were also handing out Unison-branded vuvuzelas, and it was noticeable that other trade unions had also mass produced these horns.

As with many in the northern hemisphere, I had first came across these noisy horns during the World Cup of 2010,  held in South Africa, in which many commentators remarked on the monotony of the noise in the stadia. Whether a goal had been scored or a referee had made a contentious decision, or someone had missed a penalty, the noise was the same – ‘bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’. Indeed, such was the antagonism towards the instrument that sporting events such Wimbledon have since banned the use of the vuvuzela, as have venues such as Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

From what I can ascertain, the first recorded use of vuvuzelas in a protest context in the UK was on July 13, 2010, when protesters with vuvuzelas converged on BP’s London headquarters to protest the company’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Later, activists protesting the proposed badger cull in the UK used vuvuzelas to drive badgers underground, away from the cullers.  Both of these actions could be described as ‘spiky’, as opposed to ‘fluffy’ (more and less confrontational tactics in which the former advocates direct action and carefully planned chaos or ‘dis-organisation’), and what is interesting is the way in which the tools of ‘spiky’ actions are assimilated into more ‘fluffy’ actions, such as the TUC protest.

Not having been in such close proximity to vuvezelas before, I was astonished by the noise they made when played en masse.  It was very difficult to have any kind of conversation or to hear anything apart from vuvuzelas. More importantly for a political demonstration of this nature, repeated efforts by people with megaphones to instigate call and response chants in the crowd were drowned out by the horns. A chant would be started – for example, ‘you say cut back’ – with the response – ‘WE SAY FIGHT BACK!’ – but then, rather than being taken up and spread along the mass of people – ‘cut back’, ‘FIGHT BACK!’, etc. – the chant would die down almost immediately as it got lost under the multi-layered din of the vuvuzelas.  A brass band marching only yards behind us was also drowned out by the sound and even the samba band was having difficulty cutting through the white noise of the vuvuzela ‘orchestra’.

Whilst vuvuzelas are essentially horns and could be classed as musical instruments, it could be argued that they create not music, but noise.  In the context of a political demonstration, the noise of the vuvuzela becomes part of the general cacophony of London, mimicking the honk of car horns in a gridlocked city rather than marking the protest out as something unusual and demanding of attention.  My aversion to vuvuzelas as the new sound of protest, then, is that the sound is continuous, unstructured, monophonic, and discordant.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that vuvuzelas are the perfect instrument for a political protest: I would imagine that the vast majority of people who try it can play it; it makes a loud, satisfying noise; and it enables hundreds of people to ‘play’ together without any previous training or knowledge required.  Unlike the small pockets of live music – whether samba, brass bands, singing, or portable sound systems – which create a hundred little separate protests, both united and separated by the music which marks out their section, vuvuzelas do ‘bond’ the entire demonstration, enabling the many thousands of people who have travelled hundreds of miles to participate, as one voice in one continuous stream from the front to the back in a collective gesture or display of disapproval.

However, what is particularly fascinating about the sound of political protest is the melting pot of musical styles and traditions that make up the aural accompaniment to such demonstrations.  In the 2012 London march, there were brass bands, samba bands, ceilidh groups, soundsystems, jazz groups, drummers, choirs such as the Liverpool Socialist Singers, and a variety of other little musical groups – some rehearsed, others impromptu.  My worry about vuvuzelas is that they drown out this wonderful mix of styles, so that the only sound of political protest is ‘bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’. If the 1990s were the ‘era of the soundsystem’ in political protests and the 2000s the ‘era of the samba band’, will the 2010s be remembered, then, as the ‘era of the vuvuzelas’?

Finally, the day after the death of Margaret Thatcher, I was intrigued by the impromptu celebrations around the country, from public spaces to private homes. Via YouTube, I saw mobile phone footage from The Sheaf View pub in Sheffield, which showed the entire pub engaged in a singalong to ‘The Day Thatcher Dies’ by a local group from the 1980s called Don Valley & The Rotherhithes.  There were also impromptu street parties in Brixton – reportedly featuring a sound system playing music from Thatcher’s reign – and Glasgow’s George Square – perhaps inspired by Mogwai’s song, ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ – featuring Martin Chomsky, the lead singer of Chomsky Allstars, singing ‘So Long Margaret Thatcher’.[2]  And what was the sound of protest in Glasgow? From various YouTube videos taken at the Glasgow party, I heard bagpipes, protest songs, communal chanting, and, yes, vuvuzelas.


[1] I had also always wanted to play samba since first hearing Paul Simon’s ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ (1990).

Live Music 101 # 5: Promoters and risk – Emma Webster

Simon Frith’s Live Music 101 #2 examined the political economy of live music and defined two basic models of performance as a starting point with which to examine the economic transactions between artist, venue, audience, and promoter. In this addition to the ‘Live Music 101’ series of blog posts detailing the themes and ideas that developed over the course of the initial live music project, Emma Webster offers a model of economic risk that includes the promoter, and also defines three broad ticketing (revenue) models the promoter can use in order to recoup their initial investment.

Frith set out two basic models for the economics of live music: musician performs and as a result of the performance listener gives performer money (‘busking’) OR musician is contracted by listener to play for them (‘wedding band’). A more nuanced model to include the promoter would be as shown below, with the economic risk for the artist decreasing from top to bottom. The economic risk for the promoter, on the other hand, increases from top to bottom as the artist’s economic risk decreases:-

(It should be pointed out that if the artist is paying for production costs and in hock to a record label, the model becomes skewed, as it does if merchandise and sponsorship is taken into account.)

Promoters’ risks may not simply be financial, however, as promoters must also deal with personal and social risks including threats to their reputation and/or their own or others’ personal safety. A folk session ‘host’, for example, runs the risk of not being invited back if the sessions they run are repeatedly poorly attended or managed, which may then impact on their reputation among the folk community, while a promoter putting on a free party in a warehouse may even run the risk of being arrested, which may then subsequently raise their status among particular subcultural communities. In this way, then, risk may ‘constitute opportunities for benefit (upside) or threats to success (downside)’ (Institute of Risk Management 2002, p. 2). A promoter using the ‘pay-to-play’ model, may well be taking a low financial risk but potentially risking a high price in terms of reputation and trust.[1] On the other hand, while a promoter using the ‘guarantee plus > one hundred per cent of profits’ model is taking a massive financial risk, they hope to profit in other ways. Australian promoter Kevin Jacobson, for example, allegedly offered Bruce Springsteen one hundred and one per cent of the gross income for his 1985 Born in the USA tour, the argument being that it was such a high-profile tour that it was worth doing for next to no money simply for the international prestige garnered (Coupe 2003, p. 65).

There are also differences within different genre cultures regarding risk; for example, classical orchestral musicians often expect to get paid to rehearse whereas pop musicians generally do not. This also varies from company to company, however, and one event may contain a variety of musicians on different contracts. Scottish Opera, for example, expects its guest soloists to rehearse for no fee and receive payment only for a performance, whereas the orchestra members receive a guaranteed salary (Reedijk 2009).[2] Similarly, crew and touring ‘session’ musicians will often receive a guaranteed fee whereas the artist’s income is likely to be based on ticket sales, dependent on the payment deal.

Promoters therefore deal in different types and levels of risk depending on the type of show and the contract with the artist (if used). To recoup their initial investment, a major part of the promoter’s role is therefore to administrate the transaction between artist and audience (if necessary) and there are three broad ticketing (revenue) models the promoter can use in order to recoup their initial investment: ‘free’ (no door charge but promoter may benefit financially from the sale of other products); ‘donation’ (variable income based on what the customer chooses to pay); and ‘fixed’.[3] A free event potentially carries the most economic risks and must be subsidised in other ways, while a fixed ticket price should garner at least some ticket revenue. Within the ‘fixed’ model, economic risks may be further mitigated in a variety of ways, one of which is to charge a variable price for seats based on seat position, or ‘added extras’ such as ‘premier seats’ or meet and greet events.

[1] See for example, ‘Live and Unsigned Scam?’ (2010).

[2] As of April 2011, however, Scottish Opera’s resident orchestra moved to part-time hours (Miller 2010).

[3] Dynamic pricing – or the ‘airline model’ – is a ‘new’ ticketing model that, while not practised at the time of writing, may soon be in use and may well become the favoured model (Ellis 2011). Using this model, the price of the ticket increases or decreases in relation to the demand for the show.



Ashton, R. (2010b) MU says pay to play is okay. Music Week [Internet], 23 September. Available from: <; [Accessed 6 December 2010].

Caldwell, C. (2009) Personal interview, Glasgow with Emma Webster, 30 September.

Coupe, S. (2003) The promoters: inside stories from the Australian rock industry. Sydney, Hodder.

Elbow’s Guy Garvey: ‘Something needs to be done about promoters ripping off young bands’ (2010) [Internet], 13 October. Available from: <; [Accessed 6 December 2010].

Ellis, G. (2011) In conversation with Matt Brennan and Emma Webster. The business of live music conference, Edinburgh, 1 April.

Institute of Risk Management (2002) A risk management standard. London, AIRMIC, ALARM, IRM.

Jones, E. (2010) Festival headliners commanding huge fees. BBC website [Internet], 19 June. Available from: <; [Accessed 6 December 2010].

Live and Unsigned Scam? (2010) Leeds Music Forum [Internet discussion forum], 22 March. Available from: <; [Accessed 10 December 2010].

Miller, P. (2010) Scottish Opera players looking for cleaning jobs. Herald Scotland [Internet], 6 November. Available from: <; [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Passman, D.S. (2004) All you need to know about the music business. London, Penguin.

Reedijk, A. (2009) Personal interview, Glasgow with Emma Webster, 20 October.


Six Things Learned from the Festival Awards 2012 Conference – Emma Webster

The annual Festival Awards conference was held on Monday 3rd December 2012 at the Roundhouse in Camden, London.  Live Music Exchange was there and brings this report of what was learned about the UK’s festival industry this year.

1.      Mixed messages as to the health of the UK festival market

A recent YouGov report predicted that UK festival attendance is set to further decline in 2013.  The 2013 UK Festival Market Report, however – published in the showguide – was relentlessly optimistic: based on a survey of 11,000 respondents, the Report declared that ‘expectations are high, but the British passion for festivals runs deep’.  The Report then set out to bust five myths, including ‘Bad weather is putting people off’, ‘There’s a recession, people can’t afford to go to festivals any more’, and ‘The market is saturated’.  So far, so positive.  However, the conference programme itself tells a slightly different picture. The 2010 conference’s ‘headline’ panel was entitled ‘Dispatches from the Field’, and featured a panel of three of the biggest UK festival promoters – John Giddings (Isle of Wight), John Probyn (Live Nation UK), and James Barton (Cream) – who spent a somewhat self-congratulatory hour swapping juicy stories about their (very successful) festivals. The 2012 conference, on the other hand, ended with a panel entitled ‘The Festivals Emergency Board Meeting’, featuring Stuart Galbraith of the Sonisphere (cancelled) and Tony Scott of Guilfest (in administration).  Mixed messages indeed, then.

The general mood seemed to be that 2012 had been a very difficult year for both large and small festivals.  Bestival and the Association of Independent Festival’s Rob da Bank posited that 2012 had been a ‘perfect storm’ in which big and small festivals had struggled. Guilfest’s Tony Scott cited intense competition from events such as the Olympics (both in terms of the event itself and peripheral events such as the Live Nation promoted BT London Live events in Hyde Park, and other Live Nation promoted concerts such as Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen), and the weather as the main factors in Guilfest’s demise.

2.     The continued importance of Glastonbury Festival (and the BBC) to the festival sector

Perhaps surprising considering the size of Glastonbury Festival and its pull on customers away from other festivals was the feeling among speakers on ‘The Festivals Emergency Board Meeting’ panel that Glastonbury had been sorely missed in 2012.  The consensus seemed to be that Glastonbury – and the BBC’s extensive coverage – pushed festivals into the national consciousness and that the festival’s fallow years adversely affected UK festivals as a whole.  This is summed up by Serious Stages’ Steven Corfield:-

Not only did we miss [Glastonbury Festival], but I heard a fascinating thing from other promoters, who told me they missed it too … They say their festivals don’t do as well when there is no Glastonbury.  When Glastonbury is on, it’s on the news the whole time, the BBC is pumping it out, and everyone thinks … festivals (cited in Glen 2012, p. 20).

The BBC, then, albeit a public broadcaster, is essential to the success of the commercial festival sector in the UK.  For more on the importance of the BBC to the live music sector, see the three-part series on the history of live music in the UK by Simon Frith et al to be published in March 2013.

3.     Festival promoter revenue and the ‘new bottom line’

In a panel entitled ‘The New Bottom Line’, Chris McCormick – Director of branding agency BluePeg – revealed the festival promoter’s average income, based on an anonymous survey of festival promoters:-

68% – tickets
15% – bars and wet sales
10% – sponsorship
5% – trades and stalls
2% – merchandise

The panel was spent discussing means of increasing revenue that did not necessarily involve a continual increase in ticket prices, including increasing advertising and sponsorship for live streaming, and the use of chip and PIN and RFID technology to allow easier cash transactions.  The latter, however, is currently thwarted by issues with battery and network capacity, infrastructures in which promoters would need to invest.

Two slightly disturbing discussions were over ‘dynamic pricing’ and the afore-mentioned RFID technology (from the previous panel, ‘How to Capture and Retain an Audience’).  Dynamic pricing would allow promoters running the bars to change the pricing of drinks throughout the day, for example, which would mean that they could be sold more cheaply at less busy times of the day and vice versa (one audience member did point out that this may well backfire and anger festival-goers).  The latter – RFID technology – would mean that, if mobile phones are to become the means by which people pay for goods and products in the near future, ticket and consumer data could be directly linked to customer’s social media networks.  This would enable festival promoters to ‘personalise the festival experience’ by offering the festival-goer something ‘you know they want’ as they’re walking around the site, such as special offers based on previous alcohol spend or artist merchandise based on music download purchases.  It may well just be me, but this sounds increasingly Orwellian.  Particularly when coupled with Stuart Galbraith’s remark at the Live Music Exchange, Leeds event in May that:-

There’s already technologies now – softwares – coming in that we’re running beta trials with, where as soon as I get you to engage with me on Facebook – and you opt in – I can then data mine your network.  And, er … So we’ve promoted shows for thirty years and we do market research when we launch a show and  ‘this TV show produced this’ and ‘this newspaper ad …’  And at the top of that list, every single time, is ‘heard it from a friend’.  So for the first time in thirty years we’re actually going to know who those friends are.

Stuart Galbraith & Simon Frith – Live Music Exchange, Leeds (May 2012) – 51’42”


4.     Festivals may now be 365 days-a-year events

Linked to the previous point, and from the same panel, was the concept that festivals are no longer weekend-long events, but are now being seen by some festival promoters as a ‘365 day-a-year activity’.  This is made possible by social media, of course, whereby festival promoters attempt to ‘build an event that lasts all year’ and in which the festival-goer is able to interact with the promoters and other festival-goers via social media to create an online community in which festival-goers contribute to decisions over headliners, etc.  The Head of Digital for V Festivals – Paul Glossop – commented on the difficulties that V faces in maintaining a regular audience, due to the changing nature of the festival’s headliners and therefore identity (Eminem one year, The Stone Roses the next), but promoters of smaller festivals such as 2000Trees are able to connect readily with their audience via their Facebook page.  Through the use of posts such as 2000Trees’ favourite albums of the year and subsequent discussions, the festival is able to maintain its allegiance and therefore identity with certain artists and genres.  In this way, festival promoters are allegedly ‘not forcing sales messages down their throats, just interacting with them as they would with their Facebook friends’.

5.     Social Media and the Facebook ‘dial-down’

Keeping with Facebook for a moment, the elephant in the room at the conference – as pointed out to me by Shambala Festival’s Chris Johnson – was the lack of discussion about Facebook’s recent page reach ‘dial down’.  Reports have indicated that organic page reach has dropped between 40% and 85%, meaning that if a festival promoter posts something on their Facebook page, the number of page posts seen in fans’ newsfeeds has been reduced. This may have been a deliberate move by Facebook, possibly to increase revenue from sponsored ads (‘if you want your fanbase to see your post, you’re going to have to pay for it’), although the company has denied this.  Perhaps social media is not the golden goose festival promoters hope it is, but for the meantime, some festival promoters certainly appear to be investing large amounts of time and money in increasing their social media profiles, albeit using third party software with their own commercial agendas.

6.     What to do when lightning does actually strike

Finally, in a fascinating panel entitled ‘When Lightning Strikes’ about bad weather, emergency planning, insurance, audience safety and crowd management, some bright spark from the audience asked what to do if lightning actually does strike at a festival.  Tim Roberts, Director of the Event Safety Shop consultancy, recommended the following:-

  • Stages are relatively safe if they are constructed from metal frames because of what is known as the so-called ‘Faraday’s Cage Effect’, wherein the metal frame will earth the lightning.  Artists and crew should therefore remain on the stage, although not in high winds in which stages may collapse.
  • Another safe place, for the same reason, is inside a car – therefore evacuating audience members to their cars is a good option.
  • Large tents and marquees are not safe structures, on the other hand, as such structures have a tendency to fall over in bad weather and crush those inside.
  • Personal tents, on the other hand, being smaller, are another good option.
  • Generally, an effective lightning evacuation plan would be to distribute the audience away from central areas and away from large structures.

Of interest in the discussion was that no-one cited any major festival disasters that have occurred in the UK, instead describing the tragedies that have occurred in the US and in mainland Europe.  It appears that disasters in the UK tend to take place in indoor venues such as nightclubs but not – touch wood – at outdoor events such as festivals.  Whether this is a result of the extremely high competency of those who work at UK events, because of UK regulation, publications such as the HSE’s ‘Purple Book’, or the UK climate, is not clear, however, but long may it continue!


Glen, A. (2012) ‘Supporting Stars’. Festival, December, Issue 12. Live UK, London.