Hire the hall, pay the band and hope for a meagre profit: Continuing our series on creative businesses, Jason Nisse talks to David Jones, joint managing director of Serious Speakout, promoters of jazz and new music
Tuesday 31 August 1993
Serious Speakout was created with the merger of my business, Speakout, with Serious Productions, which was run by the two Johns, John Cumming and John Ellson.
We were the competition for artists such as Anthony Braxton (the avant garde saxophonist) and we realised we were the only people who were regularly putting that sort of concert on.
The Johns are more into the jazz scene whereas I come from a rock and new music background - the first concert I put on was Supertramp at my school in Croydon in 1973. We work pretty much with the music we're interested in, though I've always been advised that you shouldn't do that.
We pretty much do everything. The classic way we work is to hire the hall, book the band, pay the artists, promote it and hope we get our money back with a meagre profit. By and large, rock bands are pretty self-contained. They bring their own PA (personal address system) and book their own hotels.
We tend to do a lot more for our artists. We often provide instruments or a PA - we work very closely with Richard Nowell Sound Services, a company we've been involved in since it was set up.
This may sound like boasting, but we have a good reputation for way we treat our artists. Keith Jarrett (the jazz pianist) came to us because he was dissatisfied with other promoters. One had put him on at Drury Lane and not realised that if you put a grand piano on a raked stage it will tend to roll into the orchestra pit.
We don't get a lot of strange requests, no Smarties with the red ones taken out. Ivor Cutler (the poet) asks for herbal tea and a Victorian lampshade, Oscar Peterson has a rider in his contract that he wants fresh orange juice and an ashtray in his dressing room, Chick Corea wanted boiled distilled water, which took us ages to find. We finally got it from a chemists in Holloway.
The bottle of water was carted around from gig to gig and nobody saw anyone drink it.
There is always a financial risk, but we try and minimise that by mixing up our spread of artists and balancing the more entrepreneurial concerts with ones that are funded by organisations like the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network, where they take the financial risk. With the CMN we suggest artists that they might want to fund.
This autumn we're doing four out of their eight tours though it's not always that high a proportion. We also have a strong relationship with the South Bank Centre, which uses us to promote music in the area where jazz and new music crosses over.
A lot of our artists cannot be put on unless there is funding or sponsorship. In London it's OK, because in a city of 8 million people if you care passionately enough about a project you can usually get an audience.
But outside London it can be hard and you need to work with people who have the same passion and interest. That can be hard to find and we often find ourselves going back to the same people and venues, like the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
The risks can be massive, though if you are putting on an artist such as Keith Jarrett the financial risk is high on paper but with a performer that popular you can be pretty sure the concert will sell out and you can make the money back.
If you are putting on a performer like Oscar Peterson, and he falls ill (as he did prior to a recent concert we promoted) you end up paying for the hall and everything else related to the show, though you obviously don't pay the artist's fee. The costs can be enormous, running into many thousands of pounds.
Artists can be paid pretty much what they ask for and the promoter is willing to pay. In the summer, when they are on the festival circuit, artists will get massive amounts; it depends on what the artist or manager wants to ask. Then again if an artist is on the road and had hired the band, he might play for quite a small fee just to keep the tour chugging along.
We have a relationship with about 20 or 30 artists worldwide who come to us when they want to play in England. We tend to work with the more intelligent end of artist management - in my experience most managers are egotistical and don't tend to serve their artists at all well.
We also initiate work, suggesting people our artists might want to work with. We're currently working on a commission for the London Jazz Festival next May in which the Latin musician Hermeto Pascoal will work with an all-British band.
The greatest satisfaction is working with people who you've helped bring up, such as Michael Nyman. I first put him on at the ICA in 1978 in front of 60 people. We put him on earlier this year at the South Bank and 2,500 came.
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