Some towns have it and some towns don’t. Why? What separates a community with a vibrant and exciting music scene from one that doesn’t? Is it just the number of musicians? Is it the inspiration of the surrounding natural beauty, or that there is nothing else to do and winter is long so you play music with your friends in the basement?
Some will tell you it’s the venues that a town has – this draws the musicians out from their hidey-holes like that groundhog in February.
I have a theory about it, and it goes a little something like this: local promoters are the heart and soul of every cool music scene I have ever been a part of, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of a few. Sometimes, often times, it’s a fellow musician who just can’t take it anymore and needs to see a cool show. But just as often, it is simply a music lover who feels exactly the same as that musician and all over town these words can be heard: “Nothing’s ever happening in this town…this town sucks!”
But no matter how many times these words are spoken across bar tables or in jam room basements, nothing ever changes until one person decides they just can’t take it anymore!
It might best be summed up by local promoter and Sour Cat Records owner, Russ Walsh, who says: “Somebody has to. Why not me”
I gave out a questionnaire to a half dozen local show promoters to try to understand why they put themselves through this wringer of a job. I will include some of their answers throughout this piece in order to shed some light.
Someone has to decide to make something cool or something cool never happens. That person is the local show promoter. Local promoters are the ones that throw the shows for no other reason than they want to go see a show in the first place. If you ask them how much money they make, they will often just laugh. I spoke with Rian Malloch who is part of the giant that is The Sound of Music Festival in Burlington Ontario, and he says:
“It’s not easy…it’s not profitable (in the beginning). If you’re in it for the money, get out of the way. If you’re in it to build a community, a culture, and eventually a sustainable living, then find the bands that want to win, the artists that will do anything, and make it happen. Most of us that do this, are borderline insane, but we have a hell of a lot of fun, and hopefully provide some happiness for at least a few people along the way. Seeing bands grow and take off to bigger things is the ultimate reward.”
Now that’s not to say that some promoters turn it into a career – some do this is true – but most don’t, and they’re fine with that. They just want to see a good show happen in their town. And here’s the really satisfying part, if you throw a show and it’s successful, you just might inspire someone else to do something similar. You may think you need to be in a town swimming with musicians but you really don’t, you just need someone who cares enough to make it happen. There are plenty of amazing bands you’ve never heard of that would love to come play a show in your town and it might not even cost that much.
You may find yourself faced with someone saying: “But there are no venues in this town, there’s nowhere to play!”
Believe me I have heard this one a bunch, and the way I hear it, it’s usually followed by a sniffle and a tear. Lack of venues never stopped an inspired local music lover who is dying to just have a show to go to that could lift them out of their humdrum daily existence for just one evening and experience one small drop of joy brought to them by some earnest and honest musicians.
Now I know I have gone way over the top on my description, but I’m not wrong. One good show can start a worldwide revolution. If you don’t believe me, check out who was in the audience at The Ramones show in England at the Round house in July of 1976. Here is a hint, they do not care for bullocks, they may live by the river and enjoy dancing by themselves, and don’t get them wrong they might be pretending.
When I asked the people in the industry that I spoke with “Why do you throw shows?” Here are some of the answers I received.
Mossy of Mossy Gatherings
“I love music. I love to meet new people. I love to bring folks together to enjoy music. I like bringing independent musicians from out of town and help them create a fan base in Owen Sound. It makes me happy to see networking happen and friendships being created among local and out of town musicians as well as among audience members.”
Jim Ansell of The Bleeding Carrot
quality entertainment to those who would otherwise not see those performers.
ALSO, selfishly, to bring performers that I want to see, that otherwise would not be brought to our town”
Ray King of Banding Together Promotions
“Well I definitely dont throw shows to make money, lol. I love being able to learn from the different minds you encounter in the process (both good and bad experiences are beneficial).
I love creating a platform for people who are dying to perform, regardless of what genre is popular. We all crave that rush of the performance. I also started throwing metal shows because my band couldn’t seem to find anyone to book us.”
Lisa Koop of Heartwood Hall
“It’s kinda like being an experience conductor. I love watching people dance and smile and reconnect with one another”
Rian Malloch of The Sound of Music Festival
“I’m a huge music fan, and believe that what we do by putting any show on is support the local economy, provide an escape from day to day life for attendees, and ultimately keep some semblance of sustainability in the music community.”
Look, a local promoter will find a venue, a back yard, a garage, a basement, a hall – wherever someone will let them do it. They will find the musicians, they’ll find someone to work the door and if necessary tend to the refreshments. They’ll find the sound system and lights and someone to run it. They’ll make posters and online event pages and handouts. They’ll get the word out anyway they can. Sometimes they’ll find a place for the musicians to stay. Sometimes they’ll feed them. They’ll help them sell their merch. They’ll do all this and often walk away with little to no money, or as is the case a fair amount of times, lose money. And you know what happens when one person does this? Someone else with a different taste in music goes “Well this was ok but why isn’t anyone throwing a _____ style show?”
And then one of those people does throw one of those shows. Next you’ll see people, especially of the younger variety see a show and think “Man I could do that” So they start a band…..and they suck. But they keep at it and they get better. Then they become popular in the town and others become inspired and start bands….and they too suck, but they don’t stop either and they get better. Then a couple of these bands go play other towns and meet bands who then come play their town. And this continues and they all put out recordings and make videos and throw shows, and then one elevates to a national or international status and suddenly everybody hears about Aberdeen Washington. It all starts with a local music lover, musician or not who just wants to see a damn show on a Saturday in their own town.
Now here is the flip side of this equation, and this is where I have seen my theory born out in front of my eyes several times over. No one gets less credit and takes more heat for shows than the promoter. If the show goes great, you will hear accolades for the performers, the venue and staff, the tech crew but rarely do you hear “WOW! That promoter really put together a great show!” For a bad show however you will definitely hear “WOW! The promoter has no idea what they’re doing!”
And this is where the problem lies when you’re someone who needs a healthy music scene to enjoy your hometown. The promoter who puts the show together has to deal with the bands and artists (which can also include friends and family – don’t get me started) the venue and its management, the sound guy, the door person, and the merch setup. They also need to manage the stage, which includes order of the performers – that can end up being the most difficult part of the night.
As I have mentioned before, I have been very lucky in my lifetime to be a part some very good musical scenes. I watched them grow and I watched them die and in their death I noticed the same thing happen every time – the local promoter gets fed up with being taken for granted and stops throwing shows. They take a lot of abuse from artists, venues, sound people, and often receive little in return as far as acknowledgment.
And here is the thing that most people forget: for the overwhelming majority of local show promoters, this is not their job. This is what they do with their time after work, often at the expense of their personal lives. They do this after dinner, on breaks at work, in the morning before school or whenever they can fit it in to their lives and they often get dumped on by everyone else involved. They get tired, resentment builds up, they get burnt out, even start to feel bitter after a good show when all the hugs and high fives are going around. Then they quit.
Now I can’t tell you how many times I have been backstage and heard people badmouth a promoter because some relatively minor thing went wrong. Soundcheck didn’t start on time or the opener didn’t really get one.
The merch setup isn’t right, we didn’t get our beer tickets (ok I’ll admit I have bitched about this one but I was young, forgive my ignorance) the monitors aren’t right. The bartender was an arse, the crowd sucked!
The next part of this saga is that whenever a local promoter quits and announces they will no longer do shows almost always due to burnout and stress, everyone seems to assume that somebody else will come along and pick up the slack and sometimes that does happen, but often it does not. Nobody else picks up the ball and then it starts. The shows become less reliable and happen less, the turnouts shrink, the venues disappear, less bands form, less artists really get out there. Less people start bands, less music happens and soon before you know it you are right back to “Nothing happens in this town…this town sucks!”
The good news is that at any time, any one of us can help a town create or further a great local music scene, all it takes is the will to do it, and for the rest of us to attend and show a little gratitude.
In closing, if you want to know why some of the local promoters do what they do, here are some final responses to my questionnaire that included the question “Why is it important to you to be involved in the local music scene?”
Mossy of Mossy Gatherings says “It is important for me to be involved in the music scene in my community because I work full time in palliative care and I work with death and dying. Volunteering my time to create gatherings of music, joy, and friendship helps me to keep a healthy balance.”
Ray King of Banding Together Promotions says “Throwing a shows is tiring, expensive, stressful, and at times its aggravating as F*&$, you just can’t keep everyone happy. But… Throwing a show is exciting, its mind expanding, and it’s something we do regardless of the outcome of the last. We just keep doing them (at least I do) it’s really the small things that make this worth it.
But I’d like to give the final word to Jim Ansell of The Bleeding Carrot: “It feeds my soul. Kind of a cliche, but how else would I put it?”
Written by Jaret Koop