“Caveat Emptor” – A cautionary tale about music promoters

In recent times I’ve become increasingly aware of individuals setting themselves up as “festival and music promoters” who in my opnion (I’m being polite here) lack skills in making such events viable. Of course this is I suspect a minority, as there are many great, experienced professional promoters, but as the old saying goes “You couldn’t make it up”

What follows is a cautionary tale…

Pesky details…

A friend of mine was asked to find acts for a festival and started to leverage his contacts to ensure that the event had the best available artists. Anyone in the music business will appreciate that professional artists will usually be booked up during most weekends, so its important to book well in advance. In this instance he only had two months to help out this promoter, who had left it to the last monment to secure musical entertainment. Organising musicians is a bit like herding cats at the best of times, but those of us who love music mostly enter into such activities out of love for music promotion rather than financial interest.

My friend’s alarm bells began to ring when the promoter started ducking answering basic questions that any booker and/or artist would ask in such a venture. Lets be clear, we are not talking about forensic detail here, but rather common sense considerations for appearing at a festival. I know from running Music for the Head and Heart showcases how important it is to define expectations which of course is standard business practice in any industry including the music business.

The main website for the festival looked great on the surface but had no actual detail about what was being offered at the event. The homepage suggested “75 classes and activities” as well as “music” would be available, but I still can’t find any actual details of who or what will be appearing on the weekend! There are also no previous festivals of this name, so no momentum from days gone by to ensure good audience attendance. Of course its possible that people will flock to this first time event simply through word of mouth, but in my opinion that would be highly unusual…

Checking online for promoter’s credibility and experience

In this internet era its easy to check the credibility of any business online and for musicians its essential to check how and what you will be paid for your own peace of mind. The first alarm bell rang when the promoter was shifty about confirming in writing to artists rates of pay. He’d confirmed verbally to my friend, but ducked putting anything in writing to artists who were interested in playing. This does not inspire confidence and now the real danger is that my friend the booker could be left having to deal with the financial aspect of paying the artists, especially as artists were asked to invoice after the event had completed!

The second alarm bell was when I looked into the financials for the company which claimed to have been trading for 7 years and had run a series of events. The reality is that the company had only been incorporated in March this year and had zero trading history. The head of the company also was misrepresnting himself on business social media in this respect stating he’d been owner of this company for 7 years.

The third alarm bell rang when I looked at social media for this guts promotion business and found very little activity and/or engagement.

If it looks like a duck…

As the old saying goes “If it looks like a duck, has a beak and quacks like a duck, its probably a duck”

The lesson here is to scan for what I term “the elusive obvious” Its possible that a weekend festival could be really successful and attract a lot of exhibitors and artists without any contracts, marketing and promotion, but in my experience that would be a first. The reality is that any event, even if its an evening, never mind a full weekend, needs a great deal of work and attention to make it happen. In this instance neither is in place. As the saying goes “fail to plan, plan to fail”

These days many people are still apprehensive about attending any events even outdoors, so its crucial to make such opportunities attractive and that means giving detailed content on what you can expect

Good manners make for good outcomes

I come from a background in business and appreciate that we can all have different opinions, but good manners are always useful for good outcomes. When a promoter asks for help and then adopts a “don’t bother me I’m too busy to talk to the likes of you” approach, then that;s not good manners or good business.

In this instance the promoter has lost the goodwill of my friend the booker as well as all the artists who were willing to support the event. Its a perfect example of self sabotage and I note that one of his previous business concerns was dissolved in days gone by. Its a shame and a missed opportunity as this character managed to wonderfully snatch failure from the jaws of success. He would have had (note past tense) a host of different well connected artists promoting his event for FREE, but is too unaware to grasp the opportunity.

The lesson in all this is to define expectations and although we may agree to disagree, its always those pesky details that are important to ensure the success of any venture…

STOP PRESS – The terms and conditions for this festival have this clause

“If X festival is cancelled in its entirety due to any unforeseen circumstances for example covid related lockdown, Ink Events Ltd has the sole right to reschedule the event or issue partial total refund or NOT ISSUE ANY REFUNDS

Note “any unforeseen circumstances” is pretty vague and most people will not dig into the detail here. To not issue any refund is highly unusual. Two words spring to mind-

Stop Press!

The Terms and conditions have now been amended. The event has now been flagged as “sold out” but still there is zero mention of any actual workshops or musical artists. The promoter when questioned becomes extremely defensive. Make of that what you will…


Unsurprisingly the event is now cancelled, according to a post on FB, BUT the event is still live on the promoters site and shows as “sold out” They now promise a return for 2023. Its a masterclass in ineptitude and a perfect example of how not to promote events. Here even basic elements were never in place for this to be remotely viable. CAVEAT EMPTOR!

Playing and attending gigs/festivals during covid?

I recently asked the question about how people felt about playing and attending live music events in this covid era, after reading about the covid spike online

The number of coronavirus infections across the UK rose by an estimated 1m compared with the previous week, with figures in Scotland at a record high, data from the Office for National Statistics has revealed.

I’m also seeing a lot of local events pulled due to artists having covid and was surprised that some indoor events was still going ahead when covid remains a real issue. Yes, its true that there are less actual deaths, BUT there are still a lot of people unable to work for periods of time from being really unwell. With the news about Russia, covid seems understandably be taking a back seat and of course without testing its very difficult to accurately determine the extent of the problem.

One of the indoor uke festivals I used to attend is flagged as being sold out and I immediately remembered how at the best of times there was a lack of space in most playing rooms due to the nature of how the theatre was constructed. This problem is further problematic when the audience demographic is vulnerble to covid, in close contact and in an indoor environment with a lot of singing. One of the posters online commented the following about another similar event that reconfirmed my concerns.

The Isle Of Wight Uke residential was apparently a Petri dish.Apart from artists coming back and having to cancel work I have one Uke group member who came back with it to accompany another hospitalising condition.

Of course its 100% personal choice what people decide to do in this covid era and I’ve seen total polarisation of views. I know of one artist who defers to David Icke as an authority on covid rather than WHO advice, which I find (I’m being polite here) very strange… Another friend I know played a gig his band had played many times before pre covid and within 48 hours four of them went down with covid. My hope is that in time some normality will return to live events and festivals, but for now personally I’m in favour of a certain amount of caution.

Are we seeing a downturn in UK niche music festivals?

In recent months I have noticed what looks to me like an increasing downturn in interest for niche music festivals. I was lucky enough to attend the 29th Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival where I was doing some video recording for one of the main acts. I’d been to this festival many years ago and it remains the biggest niche festival of its kind in the UK. Like many niche festivals, it has a central stage and then different satellite events in the local town of Colne. There were some great bands, including The Wolves who I filmed, but I was genuinely surprised that there was not a much bigger audience for this premier UK festival.

I have blogged a lot on the niche ukulele festivals and how these are also declining in recent times. The longest standing “Ukulele Festival of Great Britain” is no more despite suggestions from some enthusiasts that it would return. Other smaller events have taken a pass on 2019 due to financial considerations and there appears to be a definite trend for such events. The UK is saturated with events called “ukulele festivals” and when the same performers often appear, it’s inevitable that there will be casualties. Some rely extensively on assistance from Arts grants and I’m now seeing crowdfunding attempts to help with financing Many of the remaining ones rely on sticking to the same formula, which will have financial consequences. 

Steve Heap, chairman of the Event Industry Forum and general secretary of the Association of Festival Organisers, commented that the industry has been “swamped” with new festivals.

“More and more of these events are cropping up, and more and more people are realising that, if they want to go to festivals, they can go to one relatively near to home,” he says. As well as the number, the nature of festivals has also changed dramatically, with greater focus on the “experience” of the event, rather than just headline acts. “More and more festivals don’t depend on the big act,” Heap says.

As he says “more are cropping up” BUT often these quickly disappear as well…

Inevitably with niche festivals, there are not many “main acts” to choose from, so organisers are forced to either have the same acts at each event (the public may then just choose on geographical considerations) or try to create “the experience” This is a delicate balance of maintaining predictability and creating something new so these events still attract audience interest. 

As a lover of music and especially niche music, I’d love to see more live music opportunities, especially for artists playing original material. I’ve sponsored artists and events previously, literally putting my money where my mouth is, but from what I see, there’s a real problem in the UK as audeinces shrink.

Brexit is not going to help matters as Arts funding is tougher to get and the public is more wary of how they spend their money. I suspect this trend will continue and the old model of niche festivals is in need of a reboot. I don’t pretend to hold the full answers to this problem, but my hope is that a new model will emerge that sparks greater public enthusiasm for attendance.