Promoting Events and Festivals in a 2.0 World

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by: David Jennings

It’s been a while since I posted one of the future scenarios that got cut out of Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll the book, so here’s the fourth in the series.

The premise is that social networks, customer relationship management and audience profiling will converge, creating new opportunities for obscure and niche events to develop a good audience.

As with my earlier TV listings scenario, this one is presented in the form of a fictional interview. I must thank my friend Eric Namour, who, among a wide portfolio of jobs, is half of the London experimental music promoters [no.signal]. Eric took time to have lunch with me and explain a bit about how he works and builds relationships with performers and audiences. The speculative projections from his experience, and any lack of plausibility in them, are my responsibility.

The photo is of Tony Conrad performing at one of [no.signal]’s biggest events to date last summer, and is licensed under Creative Commons by Yeled.

How did you get into this line of work, and how have you seen it change?

Live performance is the arena where you get to see an artist evolve before your eyes, as they experiment or improvise. They interact with the audience, and there’s an adrenalin rush you get from being in that moment. You don’t get that from recorded media, and there’s a demand for it: I don’t think it will ever go away. So that’s what attracted me to working in this field, and what I’ve tried to do throughout is create the right circumstances where that chemistry between performer and audience can happen.

What’s changed is the way I engage with the audience, and, to a lesser extent, with the artists. When I started — I just ran things as a hobby for the first couple of years while I was building my profile and reputation — I had a web site, an email list of not much more than a thousand people and, of course, bags full of handbills and flyers. The artists and bands I’ve put on have always shared a fairly experimental approach, but they don’t all belong to the same genre, so I’d be sending out a thousand emails for each event knowing that a proportion of the recipients probably wouldn’t be interested in it, and might even be irritated if they got several such emails in a row. But I had no more sophisticated means of raising awareness of the right gigs to the right people. Now I can be more subtle, and that means I can also get a much greater reach, because there’s less risk of the spam-irritant factor. People can still opt in to get alerts or feeds of all my events, of course: that’s my core audience, and if they weren’t personal friends before, most of them are now! But a much larger number find out about the events using the matching and recommendation features in one of the social networks. If I’m putting on a show by an artist, and you have listened to that artist a fair bit, or tagged them, or even just shown an interest in a similar band, that show will be displayed on your personalised listings page. You can set the sensitivity of that page, so that it only shows events featuring your favourite artists or alternatively makes more adventurous and tangential suggestions. I’m depending on the adventurous people to make a living, because if I only sold tickets to the people who count my artists as ‘favourites’, I wouldn’t sell out a broom cupboard!

There’s always been a combination of ways that I programme which artists and bands I’m going to put on. Sometimes I find them; sometimes they find me. That is, sometimes I’ll just come across bands or have someone recommend them to me, and I’ll decide I want to get them for a gig. I’ll use the Net for doing my homework on them, but, to be honest, when it comes to approaching them, I like to do that face-to-face where I can. To do my job well, I have to develop a close relationship with the artist. If I treat them well, I get a better performance out of them. That’s the theory, anyway… But the other advantage of that is that it helps build my reputation among the artist community, and that gets me word-of-mouth referral business from other bands who want me to promote their gigs. I know a lot of promoters have been using the social networking sites to get testimonials, reputation ‘points’ and suchlike. I have a presence on those sites, of course, because you have to, just like you had to be listed in the old industry directories, but I’m a bit sceptical about the reputation ranking systems they have, and a lot of my clients are too, I think. People have sussed that it’s possible to get a high rank quickly by doing mutual exchanges of positive ratings, even among people who are strangers to each other. Then everyone who’s in on the exchange gets a higher ranking. But I’m not marketing myself as Ms Ultra Popular, so I concentrate on investing time on the personal touch with a smaller group of artists and contacts. I find that way I may get fewer referrals, but they’re better suited to the kind of events that I might actually want to get involved with.

The other big thing that’s changed is audience profile matching. People who come to my gigs can opt to share their musical profiles with me. I don’t get to see at an individual level what bands they listen to or what other gigs they’ve been to, but if I can get an aggregate profile of all the people who came to one of my gigs, then I get useful ideas about what other bands these people might like to see. Sometimes I’ve discovered bands I didn’t know about this way, and then put on successful gigs for them. This data is also really useful as a matching mechanism between artists and promoters — because a lot of artists have aggregate profiles of their own fans nowadays, which they source through the social networking sites. There’s a service that can overlay the artist’s fan profile on the audience profile for my gigs, and show how well they overlap in terms of taste and so on. If it’s a good fit, then there’s a good chance I may be the right promoter for them and they might be the right band for me — though all the other reputation and service factors, and the chemistry of the personal relationship between us, also come into it.

I will admit there’s one thing I’m slightly worried about with this profiling, though. As well as getting the aggregate musical taste, some service providers are starting to offer aggregation of gender and ethnic data, so you can tell whether your audience is 60% male, 40% female, or whatever. Then, if you’re getting any public funding — which is necessary to support some of the festivals I do — the funding agencies are starting to look at measures of the ‘diversity’ and ‘social inclusion’ of your audience, and even set targets for it. I know they have the best of intentions, but I don’t like the implications of social engineering of audiences for music.

How do you persuade your audience that your events are worth attending?

Well, as I said, I’m reliant on adventurous people to make up my audience, people who are curious to try out new music and new bands. I have to assume that the majority of my audience for any gig may not be very familiar with even the headline act — in many cases the publicity material for my gig may be the first time the music fan has heard of the artist or band. So providing a quick means for people to find out about the artists and audition their music is very important to me. We provide a self-contained portable multimedia package for every event: you can view it on the web, but also share it between portable media players. I try to include a brief bit of promotional copy that expresses what’s great about this band, and possibly links them to other, better-known bands, to help put their work in context. I also discuss with each band which of their tracks or clips I should include, plus links to extended biographies, reviews, further audio and video that are on the Net.

The idea is that it’s easy for people to take these e-packages and share them with their friends to spread the word-of-mouth and encourage them to come. We want people to include our gig in the calendars they keep on the social networking sites to coordinate with their friends. By making the gig into a social event and a meeting place we get a better atmosphere and a bigger turnout.

In the old days we used to give out handbills that said "£1 off with this flyer". Now we offer discounts to people who send us a ‘trackback’ from their blog, to show that they’ve publicised the gig on their site.

And we keep an eye on the statistics to see which of these publicity and exposure channels gets us the most interest and the most ticket sales.

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