Box Office Blues
Andy White was at the Black Box in Belfast the other night, reading parts of his new book, 21st Century Troubadour. There were snapshots of Canadian folk festivals and accounts of the benign tedium of the touring life. But the piece that really swung it was a list of the excuses that German promoters use to explain the lack of an audience at the gig.
It was funny, but clearly informed by some wretched nights and flakey individuals. You could visualise the tumbleweeds on the dancefloor and the hackneyed lines about the weather being too cold or too warm, about Radiohead playing across town or a festival in the next city. Apparently the stock of Celtic strummers rises and plummets like some rogue currency and you wouldn't want to compete with a Corrs promotional shebang, next door, on the same night.
Anyone who has promoted gigs for fun or even for a livelihood will recognise the deeps of anxiety that accompany a slow box office. Much of the time, a bit of enthusiastic promotions and a nose for the local music scene will deliver a reasonable turn-out. At worse, you can badger friends and family, or at worst, 'paper' the gig with free tickets. That's always a risky option because some guy who has actually paid into the gig may realise that he's in a tiny minority.
But concert promotion is never going to be a science and that's one reason why many promoters are often eccentric fellows. If a gig hasn't sold upfront, there's the chance of a dramatic 'walk-up', when the punters may materialize in great numbers, at the last moment. Or they may not. It may depend on random issues such as the X Factor results, a beer promotion, payday or cult following.
Back in his semi-credible days, Leo Sayer wrote a song called 'The Last Gig Of Johnny B Goode'. It was the downside of the rock and roll myth, the night when the crowd doesn't rock. There's a line in it which suggest that "we should have booked the audience, rather than booked the band", which still resonates. I'm thinking about this as I bump into a promoter on Hill Street, who has a gig on later that night. He stammers about the credit crunch and the awful straits of live music. In the optimistic jargon of his trade, "tickets are still available". Which means that he's not sold any. I see the pain in his face and explain that actually, I have a pressing engagement across town...