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A Magazine for Sheffield

Independent Music Promoters: Is Sheffield the perfect place for them to thrive?

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Henge performing at Abbeydale Picture House.

Independent promoters are a diverse and fascinating bunch. Where venues are more likely to book bands on tour, with management, agents and PR companies in the picture, independent promoters are out there seeking the interesting and the unusual, and persuading artists (many of whom don't have that machinery) to bring their music to Sheffield.

Since starting my own promotions project, Buds & Spawn, in autumn 2019, I've become fascinated by why promoters do what they do, and what motivates people to take up a side project that can be as stressful as any paid job, but is more likely to cost you money than make you money. In the weeks before the impact of the coronavirus epidemic really became clear, I had a series of conversations with other live music promoters to find out more.

There have been some great strides made in supporting the UK's independent music scene over recent months, with the Music Venue Trust championing and ultimately securing a 50% reduction in business rates for small venues and Arts Council England demonstrating their support for the sector through their 'Supporting Grassroots Live Music' fund. However the conversation about the health of the scene too often misses out a key player - while the bricks and mortar spaces and the young musicians learning their craft are both undeniably important, the independent promoter is a vital link in the chain, creating a vibrant environment for live music to thrive.

Tom Collister is behind Flying Donkey, who have developed a strong reputation for high-quality folk and world music events, booking artists as varied as Lau, Manu Delago and Catrin Finch over the last 18 months. "It sounds funny to say it, but I started out because I love sitting down to watch live music, and couldn't find the things I liked in Sheffield," he said. "I was frustrated to see the artists I liked playing Leeds and Manchester but missing us out."

This has been a clear theme running through my conversations with other promoters - Flick Hoy has just launched a new promotions project, Euporie Live Events, with three Arts Council supported events taking place in March, April and May at Abbeydale Picture House. "I really wanted to bring more diverse artists to the city. If you look at the line-ups for our more high-profile music events and venues, they are dominated by a particular demographic. Bringing three outstanding black female solo artists to Sheffield, supported by talented local female DJs, feels like I'm contributing something that is genuinely lacking at this point in time."

This totally chimes with me, as the impetus for Buds & Spawn was about creating a focal point for people with a love for weird and wonky music and trying to build enough of a core audience to make it possible to bring amazing but undeniably niche bands to the city, many of whom rarely play outside of London.

The DIY ethic is baked into Sheffield, a city with a proud history of making its own entertainment. The fact that there's less happening than in other big northern cities means there's less competition and more space for independents to thrive. But this can be a double-edged sword, as there isn't quite the same live music mindset as there is in cities with more going on. "The difference in the city after dark, compared to Manchester or Leeds, is striking," says Mat Hume from Fourth City. "Everyone goes home after work rather than the streets being buzzing and vibrant. Once people get home, it's hard to get them off the sofa."

Being an independent promoter can be a nail-biting business. Many of the promoters I spoke to talked about the difficulty of getting audiences to buy tickets and commit to events until the very last minute, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety about whether they'll be able to cover their costs. I talked to Sophie from Prole Jazz, who promoted her first show at Café Totem recently with headliners Bunkerpop from Hull. "It was a bit of a rollercoaster!" she said. "I was terrified that no-one would turn up and was really wondering why I was doing it until people started coming through the door. I felt so proud and happy after the show, and now Im really looking forward to doing it again!"

As I'm digging deeper into Sheffield's live music scene, I'm discovering lots of vibrant little bubbles, but also sadly often uncovering bubbles that have burst, or promoters that have decided to go on indefinite hiatus due to the pressures, financial and personal, of bringing live events together. These micro-scenes are often just too small to be sustainable for any length of time as promoters run themselves into the ground or their bank accounts into the red. Although we live in a society where people are happy to spend £3.50 on a coffee or a tenner on a cocktail, live music just isn't valued in the same way, with many people feeling that spending £10 to watch three live bands plying their craft is too much of a stretch.

And the impact of changes in wider society are being felt here too. Taran Ali has been putting on challenging and experimental music events in the city for the past ten years under his Mentholman Promotions banner, often bringing touring European and American bands to Sheffield. "We've been feeling the effect of Brexit since 2016, when the vote took place, with international and particularly European bands not being keen to commit because of the uncertainty," he said. "Even though we've now officially left the EU, it's still not clear whether the extra admin needed to take a band across the Channel will just put bands off coming to the UK at all."

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Talking Gigs

So is there more that can be done to better support Sheffield's independent live music scene? How can we stop these vibrant little bubbles from bursting, and these passionate independent promoters from running out of steam?

Tom from Flying Donkey thinks that gig goers have a role to play: "Sheffield audiences are amazing and truly appreciate their music! But we need a promoter campaign to let people know that if they want to support their favourite promoters and ensure that these events keep on happening, the best way they can do this is by buying their tickets early. It makes such a massive difference to our stress levels!"

"I'd love to see a bit more coordination across the city," says Alistair from TalkingGigs2, the latest incarnation of an established world music promotions group, whose events involve conversations with visiting artists about their influences alongside a live performance. "When there's a few people doing similar things, would it not be great if we were working together and supporting each other?"

Mat from Fourth City echoes this. "As experienced promoters, we're all desperately realistic about what can be achieved, but it feels like there are some tiny small steps that could make a massive difference to all of us, whether it's making time and space for independent promoters to meet up and chat about what's happening, or sharing each other's content. There's so much potential in the city to do more together if we coordinate."

I can't help but agree with this - Sheffield is the perfect size to allow people to collaborate and support each other without losing the essence and personality of their individual projects. The process of writing this article has thrown up a whole host of possibilities for how this might work, and what the knock-on effect could be, not just for individual promoters, but for the health of Sheffield's live music scene as a whole. Let's see what we can do.

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