Chris Cusack, Events/Venue Manager, BLOC+, Glasgow
The following is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 21st November 2017. NB not all the interview material has been transcribed.
BLOC is a 183-capacity venue in Glasgow that started 17 years ago. It’s a basement bar and is totally independent. The man who started it used to work in the dance music industry and used the revenue to start up a small venue.
Glasgow’s in a funny situation in terms of promotions and live events. It’s a relatively small city and for the number of places it has it’s very oversaturated, I think. Not just in terms of venues but in terms of larger promoters as well. I don’t think that there are many places that are quite so dog-eat-dog. Certainly in the larger shows there’s quite a bit of acrimony between some of the bigger promoters. Fortunately we don’t tend to get involved in that because we’re a smaller capacity venue and because of the avenues we try to pursue. But you do see a lot of it going on around you and it does sometimes push on to you. Glasgow’s a bit of a tricky environment in that respect. At one point on Sauchiehall Street, which is the main drinking street, there were around 13 venues on one street. I wouldn’t say that there were far too many because it’s great to have so much music, but the crowd and the audience were stretched really thin. There was a kind of supply and demand issue. The methodology of a lot of venues deteriorated as the audiences got thinner. As they were competing over a pool of people, proportionally having to fight harder for every return, they became a lot more mercenary in the terms of the contracts offered to promoters. As well as running the venue I’m also a promoter and a musician and I run a small label so I have been able to see it from all sides. You started to get offered much less favourable terms in the hire contracts. It became harder and harder to break even as the promoter, to pay bands. Venues were obviously taking revenue from the bars themselves but they were charging more and more for using the room. Even just charging for the room wasn’t a given but now it’s the norm.
Basically what we did was that our groups had been touring in Europe where the climate’s quite different. And there’s a very very strong underground scene in Europe. The UK – because of London’s international significance and the media and the language – is kind of at the centre of a lot of pop culture, and disproportionately so, and as a result the media and the industry can be quite complacent in the UK. It leads to a certain attitude towards live music that’s different on the continent. In places like Spain, France and Italy, their underground scenes are busy and there’s much more of a sense of community to their underground scenes. People go to see stuff that is put on by promoters to make sure that the scene perpetuates. Whereas in the UK, the onus has changed from, ‘Hey, there’s a band playing, everybody should go and see it’, to ‘Hey, we’re a band, please come and see us’. They’re doing everything they can to get people to come and see them, and they’re begging the venues to let them play.
If you play for one of the big promoters in Glasgow then you’re basically selling tickets for them. You’re selling tickets to your family. You’re maybe given 30-40, maybe 100 tickets to sell and told that you can keep £3 or £4 from each ticket. But invariably if you’re selling a ticket for £15 or £16 then you tend to knock that £3 or £4 off to sell it to your friends anyway. There’s a de facto understanding that you’re going to sell these tickets on the cheap and that you’re going to sell the tickets for the venues. As musicians we stopped doing that; we refused to do that any more. The last time we did it they gave us the tickets and we gave them back and we were never invited back again because of that. That is the model that is used to finance these venues largely. It’s a very British model as well. It’s much much more common over here than it is in Europe.
With BLOC, we were trying to set up something which was very much opposed to that. We wanted to use all the best lessons from Europe to try and see if we can make a sustainable model from that. As a result, we’re a bit of an outlier in Glasgow. We’re considered part of the European circuit rather than the British circuit. We’re free entry for everything. We pay bands from the takings. It’s against our rules not to pay the bands and we will pursue external promoters until bands get paid. We agree in advance for a fee for the band and if the gig goes well then the band get their fee. If it goes really well then we sometimes give them a bit more. All the bands get fed, all the bands get a drinks rider. For travelling bands we either help them get somewhere to stay or we pay for somewhere out of their payment. We provide the venue and the engineer, it’s all free. And if the gig goes badly then we have to take that on the chin. If I don’t feel that the bands are trying to promote the show then I don’t invite them back. There’s an understanding and a mutual respect because we’re not asking the bands to sell stuff to their families. We’re saying to them, ‘We’ll pay you, we’ll feed you, we’ll give you something to drink, so long as you make an effort to tell people and people come along’. Overwhelmingly that is proving to be a very successful model. Although it took a while to establish, the amount of reciprocal goodwill that you get from the bands by investing that faith in them is substantial. It also benefits you in terms of the overall clientele because they feel part of the community, and they feel that the venue is part of their community rather than just a business that is charging them.
The negatives we hear from other promoters who criticise our model is that people don’t have a perceived value because they’re not paying an entry fee. I think that’s a pretty thin way to look at any product. If your product’s good then the value’s in the product, not the amount you’ve paid for it. It’s a pretty shallow way to approach art. With art, the value is in the art itself. I’m not too concerned with convincing the public that if we’re charging £10 a ticket then the band is good. I think what happens is that ticket prices are now putting people off, especially in Glasgow where promoters are struggling to make the guarantees and you’re now paying £15, £18, £35 for shows that used to be half that. Last week there was a show in the centre of the city and the last time I went to see the band the tickets were £8 but they were £18 this time. The support bands that were paying for them were getting £1 a ticket and they were given 30 tickets to sell, which means the band had a maximum income of £30. But because the tickets were so expensive then they weren’t able to sell them anyway. As a band, the process of practising, preparing for a show, travelling, unloading means that the hourly rate for that is way below slave labour. The promoters aren’t too bothered about that because they know that there’s an endless supply of young bands willing to sell stuff to their granny and granddad, knowing full well that their granny and granddad won’t turn up!
Managers and promoters are always horse-trading small acts against bigger acts to curry favour with the agents. But the bigger promoters can absorb any losses on smaller acts whereas smaller venues don’t get access to the smaller bands who are breaking through. When a small band comes through that’s clearly making a big splash and a promotion agency sees that, it’s like flies round shit. Sometimes bands don’t get the best fee because the agent has a deal with a promoter. The band will never know that they are getting half or even a third of what they should be getting paid because the promoter has a reciprocal arrangement with the agent.
It’s not a new development but I think it’s more ruthless than it used to be. One of the new innovations has been that the promotion agencies own their own small venues as well to minimise their losses. In Glasgow, most of the big promotion agencies have their own venue, which allows them to engage in those practices. With their own venue then they may lose on the fee but they’ll make some money back on the bar. There’s a number of venues in the city now which are ostensibly small venues but are really just branches of much bigger companies that are putting on arena shows and that are using those small venues to do favours for booking agents who represent bigger acts.
There’s quite a strong network of people working in independent venues in Glasgow who have respect and good lines of communication with each other. So independent venues, alternative-minded venues like Flying Duck, 13th Note, Nice N Sleazy, BLOC+, Old Hairdressers, Stereo. We all have a pretty good relationship with each other and we can push bands to each other if we’ve got something else on. There’s a lot of cooperation in that respect. Members of staff also DJ in each other’s venues and it’s fostered a bit of a unionisation sort of approach; we are trying to stay competitive with these bigger promoters that are using the smaller venues. Some of the bigger companies are seen as ‘uncool’ and others as monolithic. People know about the international conglomerates that own the venues. But the underhanded practices are usually hidden; the public don’t get to see that side of it, the fixing and the horse trading and the reciprocal deals.
Competition is healthy but there is a point where competition starts to affect the stability of the environment in which you’re operating. Some of the smaller independent venues in Glasgow used to be far more stable and as a result, their terms for musicians used to be a bit more generous. So some venues are charging a higher hire fee and have stopped giving bands beer to save £70 on a night, but it doesn’t make a difference because those kind of margins don’t make a significant difference over the year. For the bands and promoters, however, that £70 is a really big deal because they’re working on an even smaller economy than the bars. The tightening gets passed down the chain. Either the bands are going home with a disappointing take-home or the promoters are going to the cashpoint to take out their own money to pay the bands.