Using unknown talent to draw crowds doesn’t work

This evening I popped into the mac on my way home to catch a bit of Little Sister‘s free gig. This Tuesday Tunes is something the mac started running last year and it’s a neat idea, putting on local musicians in the courtyard. In fact it’s where I first saw Little Sister play.

Here’s a pic Fiona took before I got there.

There weren’t that many people there when I arrived at 8pm. It was cold, the sun was low and, to be frank, there just aren’t that many people in Cannon Hill Park at 8pm on a Tuesday, especially after a fortnight of 4 day bank holidays. On a Saturday afternoon there are loads of people there - it’s crowded with families and couples and singles and all sorts enjoying one of Birmingham’s finest parks. But unless I’m mistaken there’s no free music playing on a Saturday.

For the record, the mac are generally pretty good at this stuff. The Little Sister gig I saw last year was fairly packed and the art market I did with them at Christmas was timed for maximum traffic. Their mis-step today just reminded me of much worse.

When I was doing the markets as TTV Pete I occasionally was invited to take a stall at what appeared to be a prestigious event. More often that not it turned out the venue had thought it would be nice to have a craft market which they could use to drive traffic on an off day. The logic being people don’t come here on Sunday afternoons so let’s put something on then to draw the crowds.

This never works.

The best market I did last year was Art On The Railings at Artsfest. It worked because the artists were given pitches on the main pedestrian route between the main stage and the centre of town. That was where the crowds were and we worked them.

People don’t seek out art and craft markets, especially ones they don’t know. As the Moseley Art Market found, and as Handmade are finding, it takes a long time to establish an arty market and even then the crowds are not a sure thing. But if you put an arty market where people are actively planning to go they do appreciate it.

Similarly with music by unknown musicians. We already knew Little Sister so we made an effort, but most people don’t know them. They’re not going to draw a crowd and, sadly, “free music” doesn’t have enough value to make people curious. They need to already be there. I’ve seen Little Sister work a large crowd and they’ve got the skills. But they can’t bring that crowd.

I think the problem lies with the aims of the organisers. Someone is tasked with increasing attendance numbers, or arts engagement statistics or something and, with the best intentions, they ask some local artists or musicians at the start of their careers if they’d like a bit of exposure. Sometimes they’ll be a fee, sometimes there won’t and sometimes, with the markets, they have to pay themselves.

When few people come to the event on a day when few people normally come to the venue the organiser scratches their head and either, if they’re nice, apologises or, if they’re idiots, blames the public for not being interested in local talent. And the artists and musicians head home wondering why they bother.

And this is why I think it’s a problem. When someone who is on salary puts on a minor event on an off-peak day that doesn’t work, they’re generally okay. It’s an experiment and part of their job is to experiment with new avenues for audience engagement and such. But for those they invited to perform and trade, a significant amount of time and effort has been wasted. And because these artists are at the start of their careers they often don’t realise they’re being had, at least for the first few times. The tragedy is the organisers don’t realise they’re doing anything wrong.

I’m doing fewer markets this year, partly because I want to explore galleries and workshops but mostly because I got sick of setting up and sitting there all day with barely a punter. If I’m doing a market I want an honest answer to the following:

Are you using me to bring people to your venue? Or are you using me to add value for people who are already coming to your venue?

This isn’t an ego thing. It’s a realism thing.

2 Responses to Using unknown talent to draw crowds doesn’t work

  1. alyn morris says:

    i think the problem is the mac does not understand it’s audience yet. they are doing good thing’s but the planning is quite wrong. i went to the mayday celebrations which were busy (they would be, the sunday of the bank holiday). it’s trying to be to many thing’s at once and not quite achieving any of them. the park is always busy on weekends and i think they realise that (ie family orientated) but the whole place needs some sort of direction rather than coming across as a jumble sale (ie see the trouble it’s had with it’s website).

    rant over, i wish it well and hope it carries on, the recent exhibitions there have been good.

  2. Jeff Stuka says:

    Disagree to a certain extent with your conclusions, Pete.

    1) Certain bands/sellers will relish any opportunity for a performance/sale space regardless of how little response they get. It’s not always easy to get any kind of attention, particularly if you’re starting out and the experience gained from a tough gig is part of the learning curve that people need to go through to develop
    2) the more experienced people invited to do stuff, yes there is an aspect of picking a good subject to achieve certain aims, but it’s not necessarily the fault of the organisers for inviting people along if it fails to produce results. You can’t blame organisers for believing something has worth, even if they have a secondary motive behind artist selection. At least they believe in you. They could choose someone else!

    I think the problem is more related to a public indifference to art and live music (which you have pointed out). I’d agree that a certain naivety exists amongst the organisers of events in that “if you book them they will come” and that certain events could be better timed and better publicised but I would rather things happened with poor results than not at all. Van Gogh wasn’t appreciated in his lifetime but the small patronage he had left a legacy that is still important today. Most organisers of events are doing it for positive reasons and though it may not work as well as everyone involved would like, I don’t think they should necessarily be blamed if it doesn’t work out