Not long ago I was listening to The Staple Singers classic When Will We Paid, a piece of southern gospel-tinged soul of the kind that often rings through WHC HQ, a style of music that I find irresistible and sometimes deeply moving. The lyrics are about how the Afro-American population has consistently been paid less and massively exploited, a situation sadly not much changed since the song was written, as anyone who has dug into the context of the ongoing unrest in many US cities will already know. (See for instance this Huffington Post blog on why the Baltimore riots didn’t just start with the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody). However, as I was listening to the song I thought the words could equally apply to the lot of the itinerant musician and the direct experience of Pops, Mavis and the rest of the musical Staples family before they got their break.
Music is magic, it transports us, lifts our spirits and sometimes even makes us want to get up and dance. Music weaves into our lives in unexpected ways, it’s always there and I can’t imagine a life without it and, to be honest, I personally find those really rare people for whom music means nothing, difficult to relate to. To extend this analogy, musicians are magicians conjuring up other worlds with their instruments, putting us under their spell. But in truth, though the magic cast by musicians may in part be due to a natural gift, to become an engaging performer or artist takes dedication and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. For example, to become a guitar player, it takes perseverance learning to bend those fingers into the awkward shapes of those essential bar chords and then a degree of masochism pressing the wires down to the wood. Then once a sufficient level of skill has been acquired, stepping out on stage in front of all those critical eyes and ears takes a particular courage. The next step, creating music that resonates with others or interpreting other peoples’ music in a way that makes it fresh requires yet more from the artist and often a good deal of heartbreak. For these reasons, I have always valued music and believed that musicians deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. As my better half will attest, a large proportion of the money that has passed through my hands over the years has gone into musicians’ hands one way or another. I don’t grudge these musicians/magicians a penny, well very few of them.
When I started the Wild Hare Club over a decade ago, it was to fill a gap as at that time there was very little going on musically in and around Hereford. I’d moved from London where one’s cup spilleth over and the thing I missed most was live music and culture. Rather than just join the bored and boring chorus of ‘nothing ever happens around here’, I decided to put events on as and when it was possible. ‘Human music on a human scale’ was the basic idea and among the principles that I wanted to apply was one that I would try to make the Wild Hare Club a good experience for all involved, valuing both the artists/performers and the audience. To do this meant paying the performer for their time and effort and recognising that musicians, despite all the romantic images of the carefree troubadour, still need to eat and buy new guitar strings every now and again.
For this reason, the majority of Wild Hare Club events have been ticketed with the ticket price worked out on the principle that I divide the costs of putting on the event and divide it by the expected/hoped for number of people who will attend. When putting together the budget for a show or event I have not factored in my time, i.e. looked to make a personal profit and I have not built in a contingency or day-to-day running costs such as website development or equipment purchase. As any business person will tell you this is a totally crap business model and not one that can be truly sustainable.
But then the Wild Hare Club is not really a business but a passion, a means of enabling good things to happen. The Wild Hare Club is made possible by my willingness to take the risk and personally underwrite flat fees agreed with performers and collaborators in advance. Part of the reason that so many high quality artists have agreed to appear at the Wild Hare Club is that they appreciate this approach and know that I won’t welch on the deal – there’s a trust and an understanding about what I am trying to do with The Wild Hare Club. With this in mind, many people have agreed to offer their services for less than they might normally do, but still have a sense that they are being valued.
Needless to say I have come a cropper more than once. Big hits include a venue owner going bust and taking my ticket money with him, me being bottom on his list of creditors, Another time, a now thankfully-gone manager of the Green Dragon charged me for a whole slew of rooms when severe weather conditions meant I had to cancel a Christmas gig at the very last minute. This was despite the fact that many people turned up that night for refunds and stayed for several drinks and that I had bought thousands of pounds worth of business to the venue over a number of years. Stas, my better half, was so incensed at his attitude that she swore never to cross the hotel’s threshold again thus torching that bridge until I learned recently that the manager in question had moved on a while back.
Perhaps worst of all was that earlier this year I had to cancel The Incredibly Strange Film Band show scheduled into The Borderlines Film Festival because I had massively overestimated the appetite for a dress-up full-on event - despite numerous requests for one. Also I had totally got wrong the willingness to pay for what worked out to be a fairly expensive ticket. At £25 it wasn’t cheap but it was still massively subsidised in with Lyde Court having offered the venue for free and a cheap deal on accommodation etc. Indeed, as far as I can work out, the price tag compared favourably with say price of a week’s worth of takeaway coffees, a meal out or a night at the movies, especially considering the quality of who was performing that night. I later learned that I wasn’t alone in having to cancel that specific weekend: all over the country events were being pulled, the third Saturday in the month is always bad – an effect of when most people receive their pay checks apparently - and everyone knows that things are always slow between Christmas and Easter. Added to all this there is ‘the Herefordshire factor’, not something I’ve invented but a notion that comes up in conversations time and time again: put simply, Herefordians don’t like paying for tickets and they certainly don’t like paying for them in advance. This makes putting on live events even harder and explains why, at least up until very recently, so few bands or shows come to Hereford and why, over the years, so many local promoters have given up or gone to the wall. Latest of these is John Hales who has decided to call it a day for the Hereford Blues Club in October with a final show at The Booth with highly-rated American blues band Sari Schorr and the Engine Room.
The last Wild Hare gig done together with The Underground Revolution - the punky reggae party with The Ramonas - was a rip-roaring success in terms of being a brilliant night out those who came will testify and others who have only seen the photos by Richard Shakespeare and Nick Vidal-Hall on Facebook will intuit, but I still lost money because not enough people came. The budget for the show was £1,400, the rough break-down of costs being £1000 for the performers (Ramonas, Irascibles and Reggae Pie), £150 for hotel rooms the headliners, £100 rider (food and drinks), £100 token fees for the designers and £150 for printing flyers, posters and production of a banner. In addition, the Booth Hall provided the PA and helped promote the gig. About 100 people paid to come in (not a bad crowd for Hereford), each paying a tenner and so a grand was taken in ticket money. Consequently, no individual made more than £100 that night and, given The Ramonas had taken seven hours to drive up from Brighton and then given one of the most energetic performances I’ve ever seen, nobody can say it’s easy money.
Unlike some people, I gave the designers of all the great publicity material a small fee each, because way too often, just as with musicians, they are expected to proffer their services for free because they like doing it. Friend, Michèle Noach (cruciverbalist, arkticologist, lenticularist - all are true but one is not real) recently pointed me in the direction of the For Exposure twitter account which posts real quotes from real people who want artists to work for exposure rather than a fee. “If someone is willing to do the job for free, why pay someone?” That pretty well sums up many peoples’ excuses for not coughing up. Well hopefully most nurses and teachers like the work that they do a lot of the time, but I trust that nobody reading this believes that they shouldn’t receive a living wage. Musicians and other artists provide a vital service and so deserve to be rewarded for their efforts with more than a call for an encore.
As anybody who has organised an event – say a wedding or a big party – will know there’s stacks to be got together to make the actual event go smoothly and maybe even appear effortless. For starters, there’s the initial negotiating terms and fixing dates with artists, venues, sound engineers etc., the shitloads of publicity which needs to be done to make sure that the event is actually noticed by your target audience, the nail biting anxiety wondering whether anybody will come and the shifting bits of heavy gear. Then once everyone’s arrived, there’s the hanging around because it’s as Charlie Watts said on being asked what it had been like being with the Rolling Stones for 25 years - 5 years working and 20 years hanging around.
Then the event happens and hopefully it’s really enjoyable for everybody, even for the promoter. However, years of experience have shown me that about 1 in every 100 people through the door, perhaps a bit less at the Wild Hare Club, will get a bit arsey in some way. More often than not, it’s someone who’s drunk a bit more than was sensible or had a bad day. Sometimes it’s the artist (who will probably turn into an angel once on stage) or, as on one memorable occasion, the highly neurotic second wife of the artist who won’t let anyone else speak through the artist’s microphone for fear of spreading some infection. “It’s alright Richard,” Tom Russell growls into my ear, “You don’t look syphilitic to me.” Well that’s a relief then, I was beginning to wonder.
Afterwards there’s the comedown and the sorting stuff out and the carrying of the bass amp down some stairs and getting home and sorting everybody out with a drink or cheese on toast or a cup of tea and falling into bed and not getting to sleep because the adrenalin still needs to work its way out of your system.
Whatever way you look at it, putting on live events is a labour of love.
So why do it? The answer is obvious, I do it for the music or the art but also because it when it goes well it makes lots of people happy and there is nothing better than making other people happy…Right? It is also somewhat addictive and there is always the thought after a good show as to what the next one will be and how it can be done better and that’s it really. It saddens me to say that I really don’t have any musical ability but I can do those things that often musicians find difficult, like get lots of people in the same place at the same time and performers need an audience otherwise what’s the point?
So all of this is to explain why you shouldn’t grudge paying the price of admission, for most small and medium-sized shows nobody really makes any money and quite often the people who put it on find themselves out of pocket.
Musicians and other artists have it tough these days as explained by Bruce Dickinson in an interview with Blabbermouth.
“What's sad, I think, is for the young bands coming up," he said. "'Cause, I mean, how are they gonna make a living? Because, basically, they are being completely stuffed by not so much illegal downloading, although, yeah, that kind of, obviously, goes on and all the rest of it. But the bar is now so low in terms of what value people place on people's creativity and music and stuff like that, and it's just getting driven down into the basement. So it's like the cult of celebrity — you know, those people who have no talent, except being famous and doing stupid stuff. That appears to be more important and have more value than people who have real talent."
And that’s straight from the mouth of the onetime singer of Iron Maiden, so someone not short of a bob or two, and, as it happens, someone who was expelled from my school for pissing in the headmaster’s peas but that’s another story completely.
So that’s about it, but looking through an envelope of old ticket stubs (yes I know) I came across one for Jeff Buckley’s appearance at The Garage in Islington dated 1st of September 1994 and it spurred one more thought. The ticket cost £7 which at the time seemed quite expensive. Well it was over 20 years ago and I was on a pretty piddly wage back then. I remember that I’d dithered a bit about buying a ticket to see someone who was really being hyped up at the time. Could he really be that good? Entering the venue, the level of expectation was high, it was crowded early on and not your average crowd, lots of musicians were there. The sadly departed, Epic Soundtracks, who I’d worked with at Record and Tape was there and maybe some members of Radiohead. I exchanged a few words with the smiling singer while he was adjusting his guitar pedals and waited. Needless to say his performance was one of the best I have ever experienced, his singing of Lilac Wine, the coruscating version of Big Star’s Kangaroo. Afterwards, filing into the warm evening, everybody knew that they’d witnessed something very special indeed. When a few days ago, I told a Greek friend, Yiannis, that I’d seen Jeff Buckley live, his jaw dropped. Had the singer lived longer, he would soon have ended up playing big venues and the tickets would be expensive presuming you could get hold of one. Sometimes you pay your money and for some reason or another you’re disappointed, most often you enjoy what you see/hear and occasionally you get to witness real, deep magic, something priceless. With the Wild Hare Club, I am always looking for the latter and often the performances come close.