Should we promote our own concerts?

27th May 2015 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 6 comments

There’s been quite a lot written lately about the need for musicians to ‘be their own promoters’ and organise their own concerts. In the face of declining opportunities for classical music, many musicians have embraced the idea of putting on their own concerts and starting their own festivals.

My own professional work has always been a blend of invitations and own promotions, dating back to the days of Domus when my chamber partners and I played in our own portable concert hall (the story is told in my first book ‘Beyond the Notes’). I’ve always been involved in starting things from scratch and making things happen.

However, I never had any training for these entrepreneurial tasks, and I never felt  suited to doing them. I learned on the job but found it arduous and ridiculously time-consuming – and I still do. And I’ve long recognised that there are many musicians who, for whatever reason, either can’t or won’t promote their own concerts. None of us was trained in the administrative, legal and financial knowledge needed to put on public events and charge money to attend them. As soon as you broach these matters you can get into deep water; you need expertise to negotiate them safely. What happens, for example, if a member of the audience trips and breaks their ankle at your concert, or has their handbag stolen from under their seat as you play? What if someone has a fit, and you haven’t provided any First Aiders? What if a hired piano falls through the budget staging you couldn’t afford to improve? What if your fellow musicians won’t play without being offered a fee you have no idea you’ll be able to pay?

Although I see why people think we should put on their own concerts, I also think it’s unfair that we find ourselves in this position. Nobody would expect, say, Roger Federer to have to raise money to pay Rafael Nadal to come over and play him in a tennis match. Nobody would expect him to have to print posters and leaflets for the event, and then drive around town distributing them, tying them to railings, and writing constant updates on social media. He wouldn’t have to find wages for everyone involved in making the match happen and then spend weeks trying to get the press interested. Nobody would expect him to pay his own money upfront to hire a venue and then wait months to see whether the ticket income will repay the costs.

I have some young musician friends who recently went out on a limb to promote an enterprising classical series with educational outreach and commissions of new music (all of which is exactly what we musicians are always being told we should do). They did fundraising, hired a concert hall and paid a PR agency to do the marketing. But the unusual programming and the new works turned out not to attract the audiences they needed. The sponsorship money, such as it was, didn’t cover the costs.

After it was all over, they found they had made a substantial loss. When the bills were paid, they had to pay the shortfall out of their own pockets (surprise, surprise: the only people prepared to be flexible about getting paid were themselves). Not only had they worked for a year to promote these events, and not only did they make no profit, but it actually cost them money to put on their own concerts.

Their experience is not unique.  Hiring a ‘quality venue’ and publicising an own promotion can cost thousands of pounds upfront. You may get it back; you may not. You may even make a profit, or what appears on paper to be a profit, but it won’t begin to repay you for the time you’ve spent on the administration, fundraising, publicity and so on. No musician can afford to do that more than occasionally, if they can afford to do it at all. And all of this is incidental to the actual work of practising and rehearsing the music itself.

So when I hear all this talk about how we must bite the bullet and organise our own concerts, I feel very conscious of how few of us will succeed in doing so. We don’t become musicians because we’re good at spreadsheets and technical specifications. We become musicians because nature has given us the gifts to master musical instruments, and because we want to share our music with other people. It’s all very well saying that we must learn to become promoters, but some of the best of us are just not equipped with that entirely different range of skills.

6 Comments

  1. Pinakin

    In effect, people are suggesting that you run a business as well as play music to a very high standard. Apart from the fact that most business fail, that seems like an impossible task. I feel for the young musicians that you mention but on the other hand one could say that they didn’t do enough market research to see if people would be willing to attend their concerts in enough numbers to listen to the pieces they had chosen. But the point is that they should not have to do market research, put up posters, worry about first aid, etc. and should be given opportunities to just focus on the music.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      I agree, but the question is: who will promote them if they just focus on the music? Promoters and agents are mainly interested in making money, though thank goodness there are some idealistic enough to take a risk. The problem facing many musicians is that there doesn’t seem to be enough public interest to guarantee that enough invitations (or money) will come their way. That’s probably not the fault of the music, or the musicians, but a wider sociological reality. What should classical musicians do in a climate which focuses on other kinds of music? I don’t think anyone knows the answer.

      Reply
  2. Ivan

    In my field (traditional jazz, and only semi-professional) the risks are smaller perhaps, but all you say holds true. There are quite a few self-promoted concerts but they do not make money. By the way, you have kept very quiet about your birthday. We hope it was a good one.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you very much, Ivan – yes, it was a good one! I wonder how you knew about my birthday?

      Reply
  3. James

    I have just finished reading the biography of the great John Ogdon, and he didn’t seem to have a problem getting concert dates (even when he was very ill). This does seem to be because his agent(s) promoted him. It made me think that the acquiring of a good agent is something that all players and ensembles should do in order to save themselves from precisely this kind of trouble. Perhaps that is easier said than done?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      James, it is easier said than done. Many musicians would love to have an agent, but can’t find one prepared to take them on. Agents, however idealistic they may be personally, are in business to make money. They work out how much they are likely to earn from any given musician, and whether it is worth the effort of building up someone’s career. John Ogdon was obviously a huge talent, the celebrated winner of the Moscow Piano Competition – any agent would have jumped at the chance to represent him – but he also had an intriguing personal history which probably made him easy to promote even when he was not at his best, and you can see the same today with artists whose ‘back story’ is an explicit part of their public image.

      Reply

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