The Ecology of Live Music: the evolution of an idea – Live Music Exchange editorial team

To mark the publication of our academic article on the live music ecology [open access, via link], the LMX team is publishing our original discussion notes.   These illustrate the origins of the ideas that inform the article but include points that weren’t further developed (and perhaps should have been). We thought it worth making public—particularly in relation to this topic—an aspect of the academic process that is usually hidden.  Here then are the position papers we wrote before developing the article.

Simon Frith

At some stage—I don’t remember when—we started using the term ‘ecology’ to describe the way we were approaching the analysis of live music. We now apply the term routinely and claim that our ecological approach is what makes our work valuable and distinct.   Is this claim justifiable? There are two immediate points to make here. The first is that ‘ecology’ is a buzz term (like ‘creativity’) – it’s obviously a good thing to be ecological, to talk about the ‘ecosphere’, ‘eco-systems’, etc. Presumably there’s more to our use of this term than vague self-congratulation. Second ‘the ecological approach’ already has a distinct meaning in musicology (or, rather, in music psychology). Eric Clarke has pioneered an “ecological approach” to understanding the perception of music, arguing (to quote the blurb for his book) “that the way we hear and understand music is not simply a function of our brain structure or of the musical ‘codes’ given to us by culture, but must be considered within the physical and social contexts of listening.”  Clarke’s argument is certainly relevant to the study of live music, but it is not the reason for our use of ecological language.

Ecology is the scientific study of the relationship between living organisms and their environment; it is a branch of the natural sciences. The only live music organisation to think in these terms is Julie’s Bicycle, which is precisely concerned with the effects of, say, festivals, on the environment in this sense—in terms of carbon emissions, environmental damage, etc. Our perspective is different: we are interested in the relationship between social organisms (groups of people, social institutions, etc) and their cultural environment (social spaces, ideologies, other institutions, etc), i.e. material conditions which are not just physical or biological. These relations have always the central topic of study for both sociologists and social geographers, so what’s the purpose of claiming to be ‘ecological’?

Bear in mind that we are not taking an ecological approach to music (or music institutions) in general. We are using the term to get at the particular conditions of live music making. There is both a positive and a negative impetus here.   The most obvious characteristic of live music is that it has to happen in a particular place, a particular acoustic and geographical setting. The social context for a live music event thus necessarily involves a physical as well as a cultural environment. The ecological approach here (which is probably not that much different from social geography) thus means understanding the relationship between different spaces and how they are mutually sustaining (whether across territories, as in the case of touring, or within urban environments, as in the case of planning ‘zones’). The space-specific nature of live music is thus a positive impetus to develop an ecological approach. (As it was for Clarke in the context of music psychology.)

The negative impetus that shaped our approach was the rejection of ways of thinking about live music that understand the promotional business in straight market terms or else assume that there are clear distinctions between different music worlds. We call our approach ecological because we want to draw attention to the importance of collaboration and mutual dependency between different businesses (even competitive businesses) and to blur the dividing lines usually drawn between different kinds of music-making and music-makers. To put this another way, we want to show that what seems like irrational behaviour in terms of market economics (putting on or playing at a concert which will not bring any financial returns; charging less for tickets than people are willing to pay; trusting a promoter …) can be seen as quite reasonable if understood in terms of its real-life environment (which has to be understood across time as well as space). Live music is interesting to study because it can only be understood by refusing to accept the usual distinctions of music sociology—between state and commercial interests, between amateur and professional players, between high and low music, between big and small promoters, and so forth.   We call this an ecological approach to emphasise that there is a single environment in which all these activities happen (an environment that these activities themselves shape).

Martin Cloonan

I also can’t recall at which point we first used the term ecology but I’m pretty certain that what we meant by it was some sort of holistic approach to understanding live music. So while our initial research focus was on promoters, we soon found that understanding them and their world meant understanding the key relationships in which they are involved – with artists and their agents/managers, with venues (even if they own them), with ticket agents (ditto), with other promoters (including both adversarial and cooperative relationships), with various regulatory authorities and so on and so forth. It meant asking what promoters need to do to continue to make a living or simply to keep promoting for the love of it.

Meanwhile, the fact that live music has to happen somewhere immediately brought to our attention a whole host of relationships involving regulations which simply don’t apply to recorded music. In the general run of things, if I put out a record it doesn’t have health and safety implications but if I put on a gig it does. Understanding live music ecologically means consideration of such things.

Simon betrays his Marxist heritage with his reference to the ‘material conditions’ of live music, but that is indeed what we are talking about. Simon is right that decisions about the promotion of live music often defy crude market logic in the sense that the profit is not always a prime consideration for promoters or even a consideration at all. But the laws of supply and demand hold some sway. A key moment in many promoters’ careers comes when after making money booking a lot of acts that they liked, they find that in order to carry on being they have to book acts that other people like. The logic of the market dictates that any promoter booking only acts that she personally likes is unlikely make a fortune. Much like record companies, promoters second guess public taste–and the best ones do so ecologically, That is, they look at the bigger picture. They are very aware of the wider world and their place in it. Survival is dependent on this.

Competition plays a key role here and it is worth reflecting that across the Western world at least, only two concert promotions companies really matter: AEG and Live Nation. At the top end of the food chain you may not have to deal with one of these companies, but life is much easier if you do. Interestingly they tend to think of themselves as events organisers and so music does not always have to be their focus. Thus DF Concerts (which is co-owned by Live Nation) can put on both Bruce Springsteen at Hampden Park and the Pope at Bellahouston Park. Logistically these events have much in common and to understand live music ecologically means knowing something about the wider entertainment and leisure industries. After all, pubs remain key sites of live music.

There is much to be said about the fact that a great deal of live music (I would suggest the majority) takes place in venues that were not purpose built for music. To think ecologically I would suggest reflecting on your local town/place of residence and consider the various venues, their histories, what music they put on, who owns them and how they survive. Perhaps, following Ruth Finnegan, we might think of live music pathways, for promoters, musicians and audiences. Or we might think about the huge amounts of public money that have been ploughed in to the Arenas which have transformed the concert circuit in the UK and ask where the money made in these places ends up.

For me, then, to think ecologically about live music must involve some consideration of who is controlling the means of production in a situation where for audiences the ‘product’ means so much more than such a term generally implies. To think ecologically is not the same as thinking economically, but to start with the economy might not be a bad way to begin thinking ecologically.

Matt Brennan

In 2011 IASPM Canada held a conference at McGill University on the theme of ‘Music and Environment’. The call for papers noted that ”in recent academic discourse we have observed a turn towards the ecology of sound, which can imply political advocacy of the preservation of an environment’s sonority”. Martin, Emma, and I did a panel session, and my paper was unsubtly titled ‘The ecology of live music in Britain’. What follows are some arguments from that paper with added hindsight.

The term ecology is creeping its way into the discourse of music sociology, and is loosely used to describe the study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment, and how such relationships can operate in a dynamic system – not unlike an ecosystem. Frith, Cloonan, and Williamson touched on this approach without explicitly mentioning the word ‘ecology’ when they argued, 2009, that one of the necessary ingredients for a healthy local musical culture is a diversity of musical spaces: “the variety of places to play, rehearse and see all kinds of music – rooms, venues, clubs, colleges, universities. Variety is the key term here, variety in terms of size, genre, time of opening, kind of audience, etc.’ (Frith et al 2009).

Emma and I then used this notion and the explicit term ‘live music ecology’ in a 2011 article expressing our concern at the increasing consolidated ownership of venues, agents, and promoters by Live Nation, AEG Live, and their subsidiaries, in which we also discussed the impact of the live music sector’s economic structure on the live music environment:

The growth of corporate concert promotion, Live-Nation style, is bound to have effects on the ecology of live music. If the live music sector is to be sustained, new talent must develop, and for this to happen venues are needed for new ‘amateur’ artists as well as for established professionals. Indeed, live music needs an environment in which the amateur and professional spheres overlap and interact. This is why ‘top-down’ organisations such as Live Nation are potentially problematic: if the balance between venues and ownership leans too far in one direction, then the whole ecology is endangered. On the other hand, the fact that live music is inevitably embedded in particular localities with their own unique set of contingencies makes it difficult for a corporate promoter ever to impose a completely standardised network of facilities. It will be interesting to see if the Live Nation model of promotion will continue to grow – it could [just as easily] collapse. (Brennan and Webster 2011, 17-18)

I therefore agree with Simon and Martin that an ecological approach to understanding live music is useful but I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and interrogate the dangers of using ecology as an analogy. It’s tempting to map concerns about the consolidation of the live music industry onto common narratives of ecological crisis. Consider this familiar idea: creating a monoculture leaves an ecosystem more susceptible to being wiped out by a single disease. The mirror question is ‘if the current live duopoly of Live Nation and AEG Live runs into trouble, will it devastate the British live music ecosystem?’ Armchair science also tells us that different species are linked together in an interdependent chain: if bees become extinct, for instance, it’s not just bad for bees but has serious negative ramifications for the entire ecosystem. The mirror question is ‘if small venues are struggling while large arenas thrive, will the whole system eventually become unsustainable?’

A third ecological narrative is that the introduction of a foreign species into an ecosystem can sometimes wreak havoc on the environment (the negative impact of the North American grey squirrel on British woodlands and native species like the red squirrel is a much cited example). The mirror narrative is that promoters operating at a transnational level may muscle out smaller local promoters with local expertise that has been naturally developed over time.

The question is: do these analogies bear out in practice?  It is easy to leap from an understanding of the fragility of an ecosystem to an equivalent concern for the UK’s live music ecology. But this may be misleading! Our historical research shows us that at the end of the 1950s the music press ran many stories on the decline of the country’s network of variety theatres and dance halls, but we now know this predated one of the most exciting and vibrant periods in the history of British live music. We need to look at evidence without making assumptions and build our theories from the evidence not the other way round.

Emma Webster

The concept of ecology informed my doctoral work, and the term is used liberally within my thesis. My research examined three case study cities – Sheffield, Glasgow, and Bristol – comparing the promotion of live music within each city and exploring how infrastructural factors affect live music culture in each place. Ecology is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment, while an ecosystem is defined as “a biological system composed of all the organisms found in a particular physical environment, interacting with it and with each other [and/or] a complex system resembling this”.

I thought of each locality, then, as a live music ‘ecosystem’ which exists within a wider ecology. Adding to Simon Frith’s formulation of the necessary ingredients for a healthy musical city, I suggested that as well as the physical spaces in which to produce music, a local live music ‘ecosystem’ consists of the networks between people, social groups, and their environment (Webster 2011, 12). A local live music ecosystem thus exists within unique local physical, social, industrial and economic infrastructures, but also within wider regional, national and international frameworks, hence ecologically speaking, the local is inextricably intertwined with a wider ecology. As ex-venue owner Andy Inglis states, “a new venue opening close to an existing one might have no immediate effect in a certain town, for instance, but may have in another, or may take a week, a month, or a year to gradually have an impact, resulting in the existing one closing; it may be the sole factor, or it may be the straw the broke the camel’s back.” (Inglis 2013).

The ethos of the live music project was from the start to research “all kinds of musical event, from orchestral and chamber music concerts to stadium shows and rock festivals, from rap and reggae gigs to acoustic and jazz club nights.” As my research showed, while venues within a local ecosystem are affected by other venues within the local ecosystem and within a wider economic and cultural ecology, the various music worlds may also intertwine within a venue itself (albeit with perhaps little actual overlap at any given event).

My research also found that while venues may be associated with a particular genre, they are by no means tied to it. In one month in 2009, for example, The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, hosted concerts by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Alison Moyet, Runrig, and the East Dunbartonshire Council, the latter featuring 350 school pupils from across East Dunbartonshire singing Christmas carols. In a similar vein, venues may be affiliated with one of the different types of promoters identified by Frith et al (2013) – ‘state’, ‘enthusiast’, and ‘commercial’ – but, again, they are not necessarily restricted to one type (although ‘enthusiast’ promoters are unlikely to promote in very large venues).

Looked at in this way, the discursively separate worlds of classical and pop, folk and jazz, are interlinked via the physical spaces in which they are performed, the audiences who enjoy a range of different genres, and the ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ musicians who perform therein. The Live Music Exchange live music news Twitter feed has taken on this ethos and hence tweets stories about opera, musicals, folk, jazz, pop, rock, electronic dance music – the list goes on. In a similar vein, we publish stories about tiny venues in Bath as well as massive arenas in Nottingham. The Twitter feed includes stories and articles about broader cultural issues, such as music education, the regulation of live music and arts funding (or lack thereof).

That venues and promoters within a local ecosystem are diverse and may share some characteristics but vary widely in others, is part of the reason that each local live music ecosystem is unique. We advocate diversity among the live music ecology because without such variety, as Matt suggests and I have discussed elsewhere (Webster 2011, pp. 237-8), live music in the UK would perhaps be relatively homogenous. As one promoter warned, concerned at the increasing spread of O2 Academies around the UK: ‘It’s like going to, say, West Berlin, and going, “Oh, it’s a Woolworths … Oh, it’s a WH Smiths. Oh, I was expecting something different”’ (Hobson 2008). 

Adam Behr

I come to the use of the term ecology from a slightly different point of origin. Being, as it were, the Ron Wood of the broader live music project I joined the KE project that became LMX, after the conclusion of the initial research project. The term ‘ecology’ was by then a fait accompli so my understanding of it was informed by the outputs of the original project (notably Brennan and Webster: 2011, Frith et al IASPM Journal) and also the proceedings of the Business of Live Music Conference [March – April 2011]

This isn’t to say that I had no preconceptions about how live music operates in a given area. In the very broadest sense – and this allows for all the variants of ‘ecology’, ‘environment’, etc. – it is a system of some sort. It is also a set of relationships – between venues, promoters, artists, agents, local councils and so on, and one way to approach this is to compare the ecological model other ways of conceiving socio-musical systems. The obvious comparators here are Becker’s ‘art worlds’ (1980) and Bourdieu’s ‘fields’ (1993). Becker’s understanding of art as collective activity within a network is clearly relevant to the much touted aspect of ‘interdependence’ within an ecology’, but it’s not clear to me that all of the aspects of an ecological system work to create meaning in the same way as the participants of an ‘art world’.

Bourdieu’s emphasis on competition also has some resonance. A key difference, however, between Bourdieu’s account of cultural fields and our understanding of the live music systems is that not all aspects of the latter are agents. It’s hard to think, for example, of a venue as an agent – notwithstanding that the promoters, musicians, etc. using it are – and yet venues are clearly key nodes in the live music ecology. The point here is that an ecology of live music has a concern for physical space and materiality that ‘cultural field’ and ‘art world’ approaches lack. Further, not even all of the key people who impact and shape the live music ecology are necessarily musical agents (or members of a music world) as such. A local councillor, say, or planning official, don’t have the same relationship to the cultural field as, say, a music critic or awards judge, yet their actions can have crucial and long-lasting consequences ecologically.

All this is to emphasise the material conditions of local music making and to agree that it is impossible to ignore that these conditions are entwined in economic structures. In this way I agree with Martin’s suggestion that we can use economics as a way into thinking about ecology. This means viewing the economic relationships as the system that acts on – and is affected by- the live music ecology, in a manner analogous to, say, the weather and the physical ecology. Politics (local and national) might also be described in this way.

As an addendum, there’s also perhaps a more opportunistic element to all of this. As Simon suggests, ‘ecology’ has become a buzzword in discussions of live music. It’s not just academics using the term but also journalists and, more significantly, policy makers and consultants. Ecological metaphors seem to have become a useful way of explaining academic research into cultural systems to lay readers (part of our required ‘knowledge exchange’ work) and of justifying local and national music investment strategies, whether by state or corporate agencies, to their constituents. It helps that there are, as Matt notes, structural resemblances between the live music ecology and the physical ecology: interdependence, parasitic behaviour, symbiosis an so on.   From this perspective we could say that thinking of live music in terms of ‘ecology’ is also an effect of the material conditions of the people doing the thinking, whether LMX, Edinburgh City Council or UK Music. Such people are, of course, themselves part of the live music ecology, which has the neat result that the concept of ‘ecology’ here is itself ecologically determined!

References

Becker, H. (1982), Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge: Polity.

Brennan, M. and Webster, E. (2011) Why concert promoters matter. Scottish Music Review, 2 (1), pp. 1-25

Frith, S., Brennan, M.. Cloonan, M. and Webster, E. (2010), Analysing Live Music in the UK: Findings One Year into a Three-Year Research Project, IASPM Journal,1:1

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

Frith, S., Cloonan, M. and Williamson, J.(2009) ‘On music as a creative industry’ in T. Jeffs and A. Pratt ed. Creativity, Innovation and the Culture Economy, London: Routledge, 2009, 74-89.

Hobson, M. (2008) Personal interview, Sheffield with Emma Webster, 21 August.

Inglis, I. (2013) Wanted: nine million affluent gig-goers. Live Music Exchange website. Available from: <http://livemusicexchange.org/blog/wanted-nine-million-affluent-gig-goers-andy-inglis/&gt; [Accessed 20 March 2014].

Webster, E. (2011) Promoting live music in the UK: a behind-the-scenes ethnography. PhD thesis: University of Glasgow.

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Ten Things Learned at Venues Day 2014 – Emma Webster

Venues Days on 9th December 2014 was the first of its kind in the UK, gathering together around 120 independent music venue representatives from England, Scotland, and Wales, and around 300 delegates in total to London’s Southbank Centre. It is apparent that small venues are struggling for a variety of reasons, and, as the author of this article points out, ‘It’s time to have a real, honest conversation about how bad things are right now’. However, the organiser of the event – Music Venue Trust’s Mark Davyd – told us that the day was not meant to be a wake, and in general there was a very positive collaborative feeling to the day, albeit tempered by the many stories of venues struggling against noise abatement orders and licensing reviews. As ever, Live Music Exchange was there to observe, so here follow the ten things we learned over the course of the day.

  1. A show of hands in the room indicated that there was general consensus that there should be some sort of national union for (small) venues – an association of independent venues, if you like, perhaps along the lines of the Association of Independent Music (AIM) or the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). As one speaker pointed out, ‘Everyone else in this sector has an organisation that stands up for it – where’s ours?’ It was suggested that such a body could assist with sourcing reliable lawyers, planning consultants, and insurers; could organise mediation sessions between venues and enforcement officers; and would provide a useful network for venues around the country, particularly for venues in trouble. While one delegate asked for a show of hands to vote to see whether Music Venue Trust (MVT) should be the body to take on setting up such an association, it was felt that people hadn’t yet had time to consider the options. As Mark Davyd pointed out, MVT needs to be asked – ‘you collectively need to give permission to someone to set up the group’ – but also that MVT might not be the right body. It does need somebody to take the idea forward, however, and to build on the momentum of Venues Day, so watch this space. Matt Booth from Sidmouth’s Drill Hall highlighted the Live-DMA European venue network as both a model and as a pre-existing network to which UK venues could perhaps become members. Live-DMA was established in May 2012 to represent small and medium sized popular music venues and festivals; it started in France and has spread from Scandinavia to Spain. Live DMA is now an umbrella association made up of ten national networks of venues and festivals, and now represents 1,300 venues and festivals in Europe. Other interesting ideas from the day as to how to assist the small venue sector can be found in this article.
  2. The most surprising (and perhaps welcome) part of the day came when Mike Weatherley, Tory MP for Hove and Portslade (until he steps down at next year’s general election) and founder of the Rock The House competition, told the 300 or so delegates that the government might be interested both in tax breaks (akin to those given in 2014 for theatre production) and in directly subsidising live music venues. For the Musicians’ Union, Horace Trubridge suggested that the private sector (record labels, publishers and festival promoters) should invest in grassroots venues. Trubridge also suggested that venues take a cue from orchestras and carry out more outreach work; to this end, he encouraged venues to establish links with schools to get children into the venues to learn about sound and lighting at an early age. (The idea is also politically motivated: Trubridge feels that children’s parents might be more amenable to music venues if their children are enthusiastic users of them.) Ben Lane from the Arts Council encouraged venue owners to get in contact to see how Arts Council England can help them. While it was unclear what form this might take, Lane was keen for venues to contact him to start a conversation about what kind of financial help might be available. While he admitted that the Arts Council was ‘not the answer to all your prayers’, he said that ACE can help venues to take risks. (A show of hands indicated that the majority of venues in the room had not applied for Arts Council funding before – another delegate pointed out that small venues are necessarily entrepreneurial and may be nervous about funding because it can mean lots of forms, reports and paperwork.)
  3. One delegate asked for live music venues to be recognised as cultural centres rather than as simply businesses. A show of hands revealed that pretty much all of the venues represented in the room subsidise their live music offering with club nights and, as one delegate pointed out, the danger here is that councils will overlook the cultural aspect of venues in favour of their commercial nature if they are perceived as nightclubs.
  4. Another issue under discussion was whether we need an Agent of Change principle – this places the onus on the party who has disrupted the status quo (by moving in next door, for example, or putting on live music); the idea was first mooted in Australia as the ‘right of first occupant’. A useful model as to how the Agent of Change principle could work in practice is contained within the City of Sydney’s Live Music and Live Performance Action Plan, which contains a whole raft of recommendations as to how local authorities can support live music. For example, other recommendations include: designated live music and performance areas such as Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley; education and induction programmes for council staff about cultural policies and support for live music; mediation processes for residents, businesses and venues; and the commissioning of data on the sector, similar to the state of Victoria’s live music census (also see Martin Cloonan’s article for a comparative analysis of popular music policy in Scotland and Australia).
  5. One panel at Venues Day was dedicated to talking about noise. According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, officials apparently received 10,500 complaints against pubs and clubs in 2012/13, 25% of which were actionable and 253 of which led to noise abatement orders. At Venues Day 2014, Lisa Lavia of the Noise Abatement Society raised some delegates’ hackles when she described noise as ‘a hygiene issue’ but later explained that she meant that it could be solved in a similar way to a health & safety issue. (Although as acoustic consultant Andrew Jarvis pointed out, ‘there’s no such thing as sound proof’ as sound will always pass through walls.) Dom Frazer of Guildford’s Boileroom was also keen to point out the subjectivity of noise and questioned how council enforcement officers are being trained as to what is acceptable. Another delegate posited that back street pubs should be busy and therefore noisy (‘quiet community pubs are closed community pubs’) and that noise in the street should be accepted rather than trying to be squashed.
  6. Another of the factors behind venues’ decline is that tour support for touring artists has hugely decreased over the past decade and hence tours are not subsidised by record labels in the same way, but no new investment has come into the sector (apart from via national promoters such as Live Nation, more of which later). Another factor is that while 15-20 UK date tours used to be common, 6-8 date tours are now more common. Agents are now often asked to schedule tours across the whole of Europe in just three weeks, meaning that many venues lose out. When asked why artists couldn’t play two shows if there’s an audience for it, or play five weeks if demand is there, The Agency’s Geoff Meall explained that artists should ‘leave business on the table’, i.e. leave demand in the market and sell venues out rather than playing to emptier rooms.
  7. Musician Jehnny Beth of Savages noted that musicians she has spoken to outside the UK have been telling fellow musicians not to tour the UK as ‘it’s so bad’. In a panel about what makes good venues great, she went on to list such qualities from a musician’s point of view, citing London’s now defunct Luminaire as an example of a really great venue: good customer service; promoters arriving on time and knowing what’s happening; a good PA; clean microphones and cables; help with loading in and out; a sound engineer present before and during the gig; a safe place to store backline; a secure backstage area which is warm, has mirrors, and a place to sit down, away from the soundcheck; sympathetic positioning of branding/sponsorship within the venue – she doesn’t want to play in front of a huge Red Bull sign, for example; signs asking the audience to respect the music and for bar staff to be quiet as well, particularly for quiet acoustic music; and treating all artists the same way – support artists as well as headliners. Her final point was that if you treat artists well, artists will put on a better show.
  8. The elephant in the room across the entire day was that nobody mentioned the influence of national promoters and venue operators such as Live Nation or the Academy Music Group’s network of O2-branded academy venues. Either there has been no impact (unlikely) or perhaps because nobody wants to rock the boat and upset booking agents or other industry figures. The lack of discussion about national promoters and venue operators is in marked contrast to the AIF’s Festival Congress in Cardiff in October 2014 at which James Scarlett of AIF member festival 2000Trees vented his spleen about the tactics of festival promoters such as Live Nation and Festival Republic, in particular around exclusivity deals.
  9. One delegate brought up the issue of sexism within the sector, explaining that as a female musician she gets treated very different to her male counterparts, particularly by sound engineers. In general, a quick analysis of the gender balance at Venues Day 2014 from the delegate list showed that approx. 35% of the listed delegates were female, which is gratifyingly high compared to other similar events (25% at the Live UK Summit in 2008, for example), especially combined with strong female representation at the event both on stage and behind-the-scenes.
  10. The day ended with a scenic two-hour boat trip up to Chelsea and down to Tower Bridge, helped along by a free bar, which was all subsidised by agencies including Coda, X-Ray and ITB. However, as one delegate who refused to get on the boat said to me, ‘But if only all that money could have gone into helping struggling venues …’.

The majority of people in the room raised their hands when asked whether they wanted a Venues Day 2015 so Live Music Exchange will be there next year, hopefully to welcome in the new Association of Independent Venues.

Live Music 101 #3 – Why Concert Promoters Matter – Matt Brennan and Emma Webster

In the third of our series on the theories that underpin our research into live music, Matt Brennan and Emma Webster attempt to define the promoter and how they operate, in an extract from ‘Why Concert Promoters Matter’, originally published in Scottish Music Review in 2011.  The authors analyse existing accounts of live music promoters and offer their own analysis of what a promoter is and does, concluding that promoters may use one or more of three basic models of promotion within rock and pop: ‘independent’, ‘artist-affiliated’, and ‘venue’.

Our first task is to clarify what we mean by a concert promoter.[i]  Dave Laing writes that: ‘the term ‘promoter’ is widely used in the music industry to describe the person or company responsible for the physical organisation and presentation of a concert or festival’, which can be taken as the minimum requirement for what a promoter does (2003, p. 561). Keith Negus fleshes out this definition by describing some of the tasks a promoter may be responsible for, including ‘hiring venues, arranging stages, sorting out public address systems and lighting, employing caterers and security personnel, advertising the show and coordinating the sale of tickets’ (1992, p. 130). The promoter in both of these definitions is the person organising the technicalities of the show, and all that that entails, a view echoed in various music industry guides and industry organisation (National Music Council, 2002) and government reports (Competition Commission, 2007). It is also the promoter who has responsibility ‘for ensuring the safety of both the public and the artist during the course of the gig and for conforming with licensing regulations’ (Music Managers Forum, 2003, p. 23). Added to this, it is promoters who (theoretically, at least) bear the brunt of the financial, social and personal risk of promoting a show; they are the people hiring the acts and the venue for an event in a gamble that may or may not pay off. ‘Promoters take nearly all of the financial risk in organising a tour or concert, usually guaranteeing artists a minimum income from events. Their role includes costing events and tours, and booking venues’(Competition Commission, 2007, p. 13).

From these accounts it is clear that a promoter’s role is simple to define but complicated to describe. A live event happens because someone—a promoter—brings together performer and audience in a given space at a given time, and generally does so in a commercial transaction (musicians are paid to perform, audiences pay to hear them) that the promoter organises and plans to profit from. But the number of things that must happen for an event to take place can be extremely varied (and expensive) and it is this institutional complex to which ‘the live music industry’ refers. The live music industry is the professionalised network that exists to stage a certain level of live music events. It includes professional agents, promoters, tour managers, sound engineers, crew, ticketing companies, transportation companies and so forth. This industry may have little or no bearing on a sizeable proportion of do-it-yourself or amateur live music events that routinely occur in the UK but neither are these events completely irrelevant to the way in which the live music industry works. Even as we become familiar with the money-making strategies of new global promotional companies like Live Nation, the small-scale enterprise of idealistic (and/or decidedly shady) entrepreneurs at a local level remains equally significant for an understanding of the live music sector as a whole.

To return to the clarification of terms, agents are obviously a key profession in the live music industry, and the roles of promoter and agent would seem to be easy to distinguish. Thus Paul Charles of the Asgard Agency suggests that the role of promoter is to promote and produce the show (Charles, 2004), leaving the choice of artist, venue, and ticket price in the hands of the agent, who acts as a ‘valve’ between the promoter and the artist or their manager (Music Managers Forum, 2003, p. 221). This view is echoed by the Competition Commission which argues that an agent’s role includes planning concerts and tours, agreeing the venues where the artist will perform and then appointing a promoter to produce the shows (Competition Commission 2007, p. 13). Whilst such accounts assume that the division of responsibilities between promoter and agent is straightforward, the reality of the situation is much more complex. A promoter may also be an agent (and, indeed, a manager or a performer) and in practice roles within the music industries are continually shifting. For example, managers now routinely book their acts and even put out their records, while record companies are moving into the merchandise market and the record retailer, HMV, has moved into promotion and venue ownership.

The emergence of Live Nation as the largest promotional company in the world has challenged the common-sense definition of a concert promoter even further. Live Nation – a spin-off from US-based media giant Clear Channel created in 2005 – claimed to produce over 22,000 concerts for 1,600 artists in 33 countries in 2008 (Live Nation, 2008b), and is responsible for tours, festivals and other events, using both its own venues and others’ if required. The company also made headlines when, under the direction of former chairman Michael Cohl, it pursued multiple rights or ‘360-deals’ with major artists, acquiring rights to touring, merchandising, sponsorship, ticketing, and broadcast and digital media rights through direct deals with Madonna, U2, Shakira, Jay-Z and Nickelback.[ii] Although Live Nation has now since ceased pursuing such deals (Cohl, who was the driving force behind the 360-deals, left the company in June 2008), its current strategy is developing a one-stop distribution system for the consumption of live events and any related products and services. This distribution system could include tickets, merchandise, albums, or any artist-related product yet to be designed, and is built on the development of a long-term relationship between customer and brand, aided by databases containing millions of customers’ contact details and history of concert attendances (Reynolds, 2007, pp. 393-401). As evidence of its attempts to consolidate its vision of a one-stop distribution system for live entertainment, Live Nation’s most significant announcement in 2009 was a proposed merger with global ticketing leader Ticketmaster, a merger that was finally accepted by the Competition Commission in 2010.

With the rapidly shifting changes in music consumption affecting the traditional roles and responsibilities of the music industries, how does one now define the role of a concert promoter? Are promoters corporate entities? Gig organisers? Rights holders? The image of the promoter as individual entrepreneur does seem to be increasingly misleading, at least for medium sized and large events. These days the ‘promoters’ of such events are likely to be just the ‘rep’ for a promotional company, rather than the person who actually organised the show. As one agent puts it:

The truth is that the promoter is now rarely more than a figurehead. There are teams of people doing everything. In the good old days, the promoters would do the divvy up at the end of the night directly with the manager. Nowadays, the promoter’s accountant will do a 90-minute settlement (usually during the course of the artist’s performance) with the artist’s tour accountant. The promoter will still make sure he does a bit of back-slapping PR with the act, the manager or the agent to ensure he protects his position for the future (Charles, 2004, p. 140).

Comparing previous attempts to define the role of the promoter, it becomes clear that the term is used in a myriad of contexts and can describe a huge range of different functions. ‘Promoter’ is a word freely ascribed to individuals, small partnerships and companies, or vast multi-national corporate entities. One could potentially use a framework to simplify the network of intermediaries that bring together the artist and audience to create a live music event, such as the following (see Example 1):

However, such separate roles are frequently performed by the same person: artists can promote their own gig; an agent may hire a venue and put on a concert of the artists they represent; or, in the case of Live Nation, a company may own a venue, organise the publicity for a concert and have an exclusive rights agreement with the performing artist. Further, given the multitude of live music events that happen each year in the UK, many of which are outside the professionalised live music industry, distinctions between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ blur, even within the event itself. For example, a promoter may use an agent to book a headline band but book a friend’s band as support without going through an agent (or paying a fee). Defining the role of the promoter in a way that can be applied across our range of case studies is not a simple task.

In an effort to explain the complicated nature of the rock/pop concert promoter, and given that promoters are described in a variety of ways and have a wide range of functions, our own approach begins with the premise that the role of the promoter is by its nature flexible and operates within a matrix of factors constituting the structural, the personal and the external. Structurally the matrix might include the following: the promoter’s level of responsibility and geographical remit (a promoter may operate locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally); the organisational scale and structure of their promotional operation; the conventions associated with particular music genres, and so on. The personal level of the matrix, which overlaps and interacts with the structural level, might include: whether the promoter is motivated by commercial or cultural interests; whether the promoter is ‘professional’, ‘semi-professional’, or ‘amateur’; the promoter’s own musical tastes, and so on. Finally, within the external level of the matrix, the role of the promoter will depend on how the other actors who may have a stake in the live music event are involved in the event itself, including the artist, the audience, the technical crew, publicists, record label, venue, agent and artist’s management. It is also possible that the promoter, in addition to fulfilling the role of ‘promoter’ (however it is defined), has additional roles as any one of the actors listed above. In this way, another common characteristic of the promoter—as with many occupations within the music industries—is a position integrated with another part of the business of music (or ‘wearing several hats at once’).

Despite the complexity of the promoter’s role, we think it is possible to categorise three basic models of promotion within rock and pop:

i) the independent model whereby the promoter acts as a facilitator whose income comes via door receipts. The amount of income is based on the share of profits or guaranteed fee that the promoter has arranged to pay the artist, depending on the contractual agreement, and the promoter hires the venue and the artist for the event.

ii) the artist-affiliated model whereby the promoter is linked to the artist in some way (or in some cases, is the artist), and therefore collects income from door receipts and performance-associated fees, whether directly or indirectly. The promoter will usually hire the venue for the event.

iii) the venue model whereby the venue acts as promoter or is provided as an empty shell for external promoters, either hiring the artist for their own event or leasing the venue to another promoter/promotion company. Even in the latter case income will be made from bar takings and catering.

Concert promoters may favour one type of promotional model over another but they are certainly not restricted to it, and in practice will adjust their role from one event to another depending on the particularities of any given concert.


[i]  The research project in which we were engaged investigated all forms of concert promotion. For the remainder of this blog post, though, we focus on promotion in the pop/rock world.

[ii]     Nickelback’s deal is for approximately 10 years (3 cycles) and the rights acquired include touring, tour sponsorship, tour merchandise, tour VIP/travel packages, secondary ticketing, recorded music, clothing, licensing and other retail merchandise, non-tour sponsorship and endorsements, DVD and broadcast rights, fan club, website and literary rights. Live Nation anticipated Nickelback’s financial performance over the term of the deal as earning $700 million in revenue, $60 million in operating income, with a margin of 9% and an internal rate of return (IRR) of 32%. Note that this deal does not include potentially lucrative publishing rights (Live Nation, 2008a).

The fall-out from the Sonisphere festival cancellation continues . . . – Emma Webster

Following on from last week’s post about the demise of Sonisphere, a couple of new points have arisen:-

1) As posited by John Muir in response to my post last week, it seems that the reason for the cancellation of Sonisphere was as a result of poor ticket sales, claimed by The Independent to be because rock and metal fans ‘appear to have opted instead for Sonisphere’s rival, the Download Festival, held at Donington Park in June and featuring Metallica and the return of Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath’. Although I for one would have loved to have seen Kiss and Queen, the loyalty of even the most ardent of Sonisphere fans to their festival of choice would certainly have been tested by Download’s impressive line-up.

2) The same article mentions that ‘Live Nation UK, the promoter of Download, revelled in the collapse of its rival. John Probyn, its chief operating officer, tweeted: “Another one bites the dust”’, suggesting that there is no love lost between the two festivals. It should be pointed out that Sonisphere is jointly promoted with AEG Live, the second biggest live music and entertainment promoter in the world, and owner of venues such as the O2 in London, whereas Download is owned by Live Nation, the largest live music and entertainment promoter in the world.

Much of the large-scale festival circuit in the UK is currently linked in some way to Live Nation: to T in the Park, for example, via LN-Gaiety Holdings, and to Reading and Leeds via Live Nation-owned Festival Republic. AEG Live, on the other hand, are not yet major players in the UK festival market, although they are linked to RockNess, Sonisphere, LED, and Wakestock. This could all change, however, if the rumours that AEG Live are to buy the Mama Group from HMV are verified, thereby allowing AEG Live to immediately gain control of festivals such as The Great Escape and Lovebox, and therefore a much larger proportion of the UK festival market.

3) The third issue that The Independent article raises is that the fall-out from the cancellation of Sonisphere may be much wider than simply a loss of face or money for the promoters – the owners of Knebworth, it seems, were relying on the income from the festival to pay for essential repairs. Knebworth has been a very important space for live music since the second half of the 20th-century – let us hope that this set-back does not seriously affect the venue’s ability to continue. How about someone in the live music industries (Kilimanjaro, perhaps . . ?) organise a ‘Save Knebworth’ benefit show?

Emma Webster