Jimmy’s Liverpool is to close it’s doors for the last time this weekend, not surprising when according to MVT around 1 grassroots venue closes every week, but still sad news for bands, promoters and fans alike, and of course the people who worked there.
There are of course many challenges facing grassroots venues – rising rents, rising fuel bills, unsupportive councils taking idiots who buy a flat next to a music venue and complain about the noise far more seriously than they should, covid closures digging into contingency funds, all set against dwindling audiences.
From personal experience and other photographers I speak to, audiences are down, which isn’t surprising given the cost of living crisis and many of us getting out of the habit of going to gigs during lockdown. In 2019 I went to at least a couple of gigs a month, usually a lot more, post pandemic I maybe make it to 1 every other month, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Of course some gigs in grassroots venues do still attract a good crowd – our own Skating Polly gig at Jimmys exceeded our expectations with a not-too-shabby turnout of 143, which was pretty good considering it was their first time playing in Liverpool. EVOL’s Starcrawler show was also packed, fresh from their well received performance supporting My Chemical Romance.
But I reckon the difference between a good band who can’t fill a 100 capacity venue (for example) and one that can sell out a big room at an Academy / Arena / Stadium is down to Exposure – people can’t like a band if they haven’t even heard them.
Tom Robinson made a good point in one of his BBC Introducing Master Classes: People think that if they could just get their single played on the 6 Music breakfast show, then they would have thousands of new fans. But in reality, he said that even if he was in a position to get your song played, it wouldn’t make much difference – people are busy eating breakfast, driving to work, taking kids to school and the radio is on in the background.
People don’t generally hear the opening bars of a song and immediately join the band’s fan club. The playlist system ensures that when regular listeners tune in, they will probably hear a song they know, to keep them listening. When a new song comes on for the first time, it probably washes over most people, but after 4 or 5 times someone hears it, they start to think “oh, there’s that song again – I must find out who it is” and begin their journey towards becoming a fan.
But to get on the playlist requires a top-flight plugger who has access to the DJs and that can cost around £10K – with only a guarantee the DJs will hear it, not that they will play it.
When the Arctic Monkeys came on the scene claiming to have by-passed the industry and built their fan base on MySpace (personally I think more people discovered them via the traditional media reports on the internet sensation than the internet sensation itself, but then I’m cynical like that!) every band signed up to MySpace and spammed everyone they could, hoping to emulate their success, but of course other than a handful of artists with large financial backing, none of them did.
The current gold rush is TikTok. But once again, according to Bloomberg’s interview with the owners of TikTok, they work with labels to decide what goes viral on their platform.
Some music does genuinely go semi-viral without someone in the industry pulling strings, but it seems to be few and far between.
I bought tickets for Beach Bunny back in 2019 for a show in 2020. It was a 100 capacity venue, and a couple of months later I went to buy more tickets and there were still plenty available.
Needless to say the show didn’t take place in 2020, or 2021, but when it finally did in late 2022, they sold out the 1,700 capacity O2 Ritz in Manchester and the 2,300 capacity Kentish Town Forum in London, yet I don’t think they had any significant UK radio airplay, or mentions other than the likes of this very blog.
The reason they took off so dramatically? My preview in this very blog, obviously 😉 Nah it was down to their song “Prom Queen” going viral on TikTok.
But when I did a bit of digging, it wasn’t just a case of them doing a funny dance or something and going viral organically.
What I found was lots of professional videos with hundreds of millions of views, with a link in the bio to have your own music promoted.
The thing with TikTok is that if someone has been going flick-flick-flick for the past 10 minutes, you need something that’s going to grab their attention in the opening seconds, and hold it enough to make people share it with their friends. As mentioned above, it takes most people a few listens to get into a song, so something else has to grab the attention, So an example of a TikTok with 40 million views was of a girl arguing with her boyfriend and storming off, him finding her towels in the bathroom, runs to the supermarket buying big jars of nutella and other snacks, and finally he’s sitting with his happy girlfriend tucking into her nutella with a big spoon, ending on her hugging him and looking at him like he’s the best boyfriend in the world.
With currently 8.4 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 31 million views of Prom Queen on YouTube on top of these sold out gigs, it probably made good business sense for them, but the money involved in creating promotions like that probably makes it prohibitive for most bands to go that route without serious financial backing.
I much prefer the honesty of a grassroots gig, where bands can concentrate on honing their craft, rather than trying to figure out TikTok algorithms anyway.
So on the one hand you’ve got an ageing audience for grassroots gigs, jaded by covid lockdowns, and struggling to pay their gas bill. On the other, you’ve got a young audience who discover their music via TikTok where bands either get ignored, or go straight to playing big venues bypassing the grassroots circuit all together if they have the money to pay for professional promotion.
It’s easy to blame the media for not supporting the live music scene with gig guides etc, but the media’s business model is to give people what they want, and it would seem that the majority of people don’t want to know about the upcoming music scene. For example, The guardian used to have a “New band of the day” feature, but the only interest seemed to be from trolls. Last year Consequence, with 1.4 million followers on facebook did a “40 new bands you must listen to this month” and it only got 36 likes. I mean, you’d think the bands themselves would have liked and shared the article, not to mention their proud mums! And of course, Bido Lito in the end gathered dust in venues around town before being put out of it’s misery.
Live music is of course booming – when I bought Arctic Monkeys tickets for my daughter’s birthday, there were seemingly 200,000 people in the queue. The new Co-Op arena is the largest in Europe seemingly, I expected some really big names – there was a rumour that it would open with an Oasis reunion – not my thing but would be massive for a lot of people, but so far they’ve announced Keane and 5 nights of Take that. Each to their own and all that, but if these bands can justify a 23,000 capacity venue, there should be no shortage of audience even for most mediocre of grassroots bands.
So what can be done?
To my mind, the only way to reverse the decline of grassroots venues, is to convince more people to take a chance on unknown bands. Of course I had this realisation when I put on my first grassroots gigs in 2006, and I’m still no closer to figuring out how to achieve it!
When a new eatery opens, a lot of people are desperate to try it, despite the fact the food could be horrible and get a 1* hygiene rating in 6 months. A new movie comes out, people hand over their cash even though it’ll be on Now TV in 6 months. A new band comes out – tumbleweed! Bit of publicity, and they are battering their keyboard to get their hands on elusive tickets.
I’ve been boring people with this anecdote since 2006, but it’s still as relevant today. A mate from the west country got me into Addlestones cider back in the late 90s, and people would take the piss as they saw it as a drink for underage drinkers and The Wurzels.
Yet, a couple of years later after the Magner’s advertising campaign – these same people were sitting with a glass of ice and bottle of cider on their table being all fashionable.
The product hadn’t changed (beyond the concept of having ice with it) but people’s perception of it had been radically altered.
Advertising and marketing to me are alchemy, I’ve never understood fashion – the idea of confirming to what other people thing you should do and wear, but it clearly works.
For a more recent example, look at the Prime energy drink. My son didn’t have a taste of it and think it was amazing and desperate to buy more, he was desperate to buy it because of all the hype on YouTube without even trying it. When he did, I don’t think he particularly liked it, and it’s languishing in Aldi’s middle aisle as we speak – but after all, it was just another energy drink with a lot of hype.
Imagine if someone could apply that level of hype to something with substance – namely grassroots gigs. Venues would be packed, and the quality of shows on offer these new fans of the scene would keep coming back and it wouldn’t just be another passing fad.
All it needs is someone with the marketing vision and/or budget and I firmly believe the sector could be booming. There’s certainly no shortage of talent!
I think venues could probably do more as well. Some are amazing, some don’t answer emails, double-book you, and generally make your life difficult.
Putting on our second Skating Polly show at O2 Academy2 Liverpool was a revelation.
Even though it was an externally promoted show, their marketing department went above and beyond to help promote the show. And why wouldn’t they? Their bar sales are directly connected to the number of people attending the show!
As TicketMaster are their sister company, they use their link in all their promotions – and with their famously high booking fees, tickets were nearly £20.
All the promotion we did, used See/Eventbrite which were a more reasonably £16.80. And yet… the Academy sold twice as many tickets as we did!
Obviously small venues don’t have the same resources Live Nation/Academy Music Group have for marketing, but perhaps venues could get together and setup a joint marketing department to promote the shows that go on under their roofs?
Jimmy’s were great, really nice people and a pleasure to work with. however the only real marketing they did of our show was this poster: (Friday 25th in case you don’t make it that far down the list).
Some great shows there, especially Friday 25th 😉 , but if you don’t follow grassroots music (as most people don’t) and you popped into the bar for a drink with a friend, or to see a band you do know, then that poster is just a list of names, that doesn’t exactly scream “you don’t want to miss this show”.
When I was in their bar one day and they played a Queen track, I thought why don’t they play clips of artists with shows coming up at the venue maybe once an hour not to overwhelm people.
Like the radio playlist system, regulars at the bar would get to recognise some of the clips and maybe be persuaded to attend a show, who knows?
Skating Polly in particular, play some of their music videos at the bar and we’d have had a waiting list for tickets.
I don’t profess to have the answers, but surely it’s time to look at trying something different, rather than doing the same old thing and expecting better results?
It’s an issue that’s particularly on my mind at the moment, as I’m working on a couple of upcoming shows.
We felt in the current climate it may be too soon to put on Skating Polly again in Liverpool, which is gutting, but the band have come all the way from outside Seattle, last thing we want is to waste their time on a low turnout. We are however working with the legendary Glasswerk on their Manchester show at Factory.
I’m putting on a gig Saturday 9th December at Quarry.
Opening we have Neon Oracle who played their first show at Future Yard yesterday, and ours at present will be their second show. I haven’t seen them live yet but sound very promising on their recorded stuff.
We have The Webb headlining – anybody who’s seen them live knows what a great show the put on.
From Scotland we have Unholy Frankenstein playing their first show south of the border.
People in the know in Glasgow and Edinburgh know that any project Joe Bone is involved in is always worth seeing, so I can’t wait to bring them to Liverpool.
And I saw Liminal Projects debut show last year and thought they were great, now a 3 piece they get better and better everytime I see them.
It’s got all the makings of a classic night. and yet, knowing a lot of photographers I keep hearing of ridiculously low turnouts at gigs, even for bigger grassroots acts.
How do I convince people to at least have a listen to the bands on offer, or better still take a chance and just turn up?
I could fire out the usual cliches about how the bands will tear the roof off, but that will only excite freelance roofers.
People sometimes say “come and support the scene” as if it were a charity, when in fact we’re doing the audience a favour when you think about it – we’re risking our money to put on shows we know people will enjoy if they take a chance!
Surely during a cost of living crisis grassroots shows should be booming. Just as Waitrose shoppers are popping into Aldi to save a few bob, surely a grassroots gig at £10 is more attractive than an arena show at £50 with matching overpriced ale and booking fees, plus the cost of a pair of binoculars so that you can actually see the band.
Not knowing a band shouldn’t be a barrier these days when you can hear their entire back catalogue and watch their music videos, and even previous live performances just a click away.
If only people were that pro-active, or I could win the euromillions and book Magners advertising agency…