‘Unfortunately you don’t fit our audience profile’

(February 14, 2015)

It's an issue that consistently reappears - artists refused a gig because ‘unfortunately you don’t fit our audience profile’. That’s such a regular response experienced by so many artists following the submission of an album or a preview CD, it’s a wonder that some of them don’t blow a main fuse in frustration. Although this reaction has been around long before Dylan ‘went electric’, it consistently goes through a resurgence.

The curse of such ill-informed segregation is not exclusive to folk music, but anecdotal evidence indicates that artists in the folk and acoustic worlds seem to encounter it more than most. And besides which, this is a folk music site so that’s what we write about.

The reasons for refusal include a total misunderstanding of the term folk and acoustic music, ‘blanking’ artists not on the venue roster, pressure on venues to satisfy increasingly partisan audiences and venue management lacking the courage to ‘take a chance’ with new artists or those that don’t immediately see that an artist ‘fits the profile’. There’s also the impact of the continued demise of live music clubs and the decline of pubs featuring live music.

Whatever the reason, it seems harder to get gigs and the knee-jerk turn-down is on the increase.

… folk music remains misunderstood

Yes, well, this one has been done to death but the prevalence of ignorance, absence of understanding and pre-conceived prejudice continues. Mention that you’re a folk act and many venue managers shudder – the ghost of Rambling Syd Rumpo and others still hover in many corridors forever contaminating folk with their so-called humour, and the prospect of a bearded yokel braying like a donkey may be a figment of folklore imagination but it remains ‘the truth’ in a great many minds. There’s also the stigma attached to the ‘acoustic’ word. Call yourselves an acoustic act and before you know it you have been bracketed with everyone that ever picked up an acoustic instrument from Nana Mouskouri to The Spinners.

There are also folk venues that still maintain strict rules and consider anything that slides ever so slightly away from the perceived confines of ‘the tradition’ as not folk. The artists that expand and innovate in folk or acoustic music are either misguided or heretics – it’s often difficult to judge how far some venues would push the over-reaction given enough latitude.

When artists get to meet a venue manager the oft-quoted retort to ‘we play folk music’ is something along the lines of ‘our audience doesn’t want to hear songs about dead sailors and deflowered virgins’. There goes pre-conceived prejudice again. Alternatively, ‘we play acoustic music’ still prompts ‘our audience doesn’t like Simon and Garfunkel’ – it’s enough to make you weep.

Incidentally, I don’t have a panacea to overcome this narrow-mindedness but if there is any sort of answer, it has to lie in moving ignorance towards knowledge. There are a huge number of resources online and published that could help educate and inform, at the very least we could all direct these blinkered individuals in their direction.

… cliques, partisans and management risks

The existence of a ‘roster’ is often vehemently denied by venues, then again, others are more blatant about their policies, often citing phrases like: ‘… instructions descending from above’. Whatever the rationale, many venues have their own cadre of recognised, familiar and ‘safe’ artists. Breaking into that clique is like breaking into the veritable Fort Knox. The only time there appears to be a chink in those walls is when an ‘approved’ artist gives up or retires - a true case of dead men’s shoes.

The ‘blanked’ artist is often directed to find alternative venues – ‘you should look for those that take a chance with unknowns’. That’s fine, but if they’re lucky enough to be accepted they’re frequently reduced to accepting an open mic spot where everyone chatters away and doesn’t listen. And this still happens despite that fact that artists submit a perfectly acceptable CD for the management or booking agent to review. The problem from the point of view of an unknown singer or band appears to follow the proverbial parental guidance of ‘don’t go near the water until you learn to swim’. Sound advice but a little impractical.

There are of course, a few venues that encourage and actively look for new artists. These venues usually made their name on their eclectic approach. Sometimes, these free-and-easy venues have specifically ‘focused’ nights with a range of artists from one genre, other times they offer a wide and varied selection with an improbable mix. You’re just as likely to find ‘progressive folk’ rubbing shoulders with ‘soul’ as you are to find ‘rap’ and ‘heavy metal’ bouncing along together. The result of artists being bundled together can, once again, result in performing to a lot of chattering people. Perhaps on the odd occasion something new and different will catch some of the audience at these venues, but don’t hold your breath. The problem for artists is such venues are unlikely to help you generate a ‘following’ because they’re unlikely to allocate you more than one or two songs.

The partisan audience is nothing new but it’s another problem to overcome. Many artists bathe in the security of an avid fan-base. They publish a gig list and your devoted followers will turn out in droves to hear them play. Occasionally, a geographical bias comes into operation but mostly venues are certain they’ll ‘fill the joint’. However, this position of ardent audiences is not the province of many artists. Immediate friends and family might loyally turn out to local pub sessions or maybe to the village hall but beyond that the opportunity for a ‘following’ is down to finding a regular spot or multiple spots on a regular basis. These days, the Interweb offers a wide and limitless opportunity for new and rising artists to spread the word and put their music out there for the world to hear. Unfortunately, being ‘out there’ doesn’t mean anyone will hear and any online success is no guarantee for venue acceptance.

Perhaps the wealth of music that’s now available in the both the real and virtual worlds contributes to the existence of fluid and perfidious audiences that change their allegiances as quickly as people change their socks. Having said that, the folk audience appears to be less faithless than most once a following manifests itself, although at times it can be just as reluctant to accept change.

The subject of management being ‘afraid to take a risk’ with new or different artists is neither novel nor unexpected. However, if a venue makes it clear that a certain night will include the chance to hear something new it’s unlikely their hard-won audience will evaporate just because they’ve decided to take a chance on an artist – the problem is getting the venue to accept that fact.

 The last thing any venue wants to do is see their audience decrease or evaporate because they take a risk with an artist or band. That’s where submitting an accurate recording is crucial. It’s utterly pointless sending a preview CD that’s designed to hook the venue and then despite what the preview sounds like, turn up and play something that’s at odds with what’s expected. That might sound ridiculous but it happens, I know, I’ve experienced it. That’s an approach that not only screws the artist in question it has probably retrenched the management’s mind to avoid anything new.

… continuing demise of pubs with live music

 There was a time when ‘live’ music seemed to be everywhere. Venues dedicated to a single style or open to everything, were a regular occurrence. And then it all changed. Instead of being ubiquitous, live music clubs became rare. At the same time the unrelenting collapse of live music pubs began.

Back in 2013, I wrote a piece titled: “Archaeologists uncover remains of the last pub in England” in which,I discussed the inexorable closure of public houses and venues that major on live music quoting the words of the song: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

 The demise of what used to be called ‘a cornerstone of the social heritage of England’ is hastened, not only by the falling numbers of pub-goers, ever-diminishing audiences, and the sheer cost of making a living out of running a pub. It’s exacerbated by ever-increasing rents applied by avaricious and perennially myopic landlords, the mendacious propaganda of greedy property developers and perhaps most tragically, because many music pubs continue to make it hard for artists to break into their schedules.

 There’s also the continued de-humanisation of pubs. Along with the demise of what used to be called the traditional pub comes the decline in pub audiences wanting to listen to music. Start playing in a music pub or bar in many countries and those present shut up and listen, or break into song and people join in. Not such a universal response in this country. Do that here and you run the risk or arrest or a fist in the face. Even in pubs that state they offer live music, the volume of discussion frequently increases in line with the volume of the band, which begs the question - why are they there in the first place?  It also prompts the question ‘Why would I play in a pub if nobody is going to listen?’ So increasingly, artists don’t – and who can blame them?

…. music may not die but venues might

Smaller independent venues usually fail because a potential audience no longer wants to take the time to frequent them. And if you’re one of those that do use them, help to make them work. Talk to the owners and managers. Tell them what you would like to see at their place, even suggest artists they may care to hear, and perhaps offer them an album to hear. And while you at it don’t forget to contact the artist, their PR agent or their label and tell them.

In the broadest sense the continued existence of live music is not the responsibility of one side over the other. Venue management and owners have got to allow for innovation and experimentation – and that includes breaking traditionalist boundaries. Audiences are highly unlikely to head for pastures new if they don’t like one artist, especially if you make it clear it’s a trial. If they do, then you actually have other problems. Artists should recognise that venue managers are busy. So if you’re new to any aspect of the folk acoustic world don’t expect a half-hearted approach to work. You have to break through the ‘background noise’ and make them sit up, pay attention and listen to your promo-CD, and one try is not going to work. Try lots and often, and then try again.

In the words of Luke Kelly, poet, musician and one-time Dubliner, for whose words and music I have an enduring love and respect: “For what's done is done and what's won is won. And what's lost is lost and gone forever.”

Perhaps we can hope there’s a glimmer somewhere in the gathering darkness that will work to the survival of small live-music venues and the continued emergence of new artists. Possibly, the dwindling number of venues will realise that to take a risk is not necessarily terminal and give new artists a chance.  And maybe, just maybe the ‘knee-jerk’ refusal will evaporate in favour of a good listen and thoughtful consideration. One can only hope.

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