Dance to Your Own Beat: Becoming a Promoter

Our music editor talks us through her experience of running gigs and clubs, and a host of key players on the Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool music scenes share their words of wisdom

Article by Tallah Brash | 01 Sep 2017

Becoming a DJ or putting on your own gigs is a dream for a lot of people. It’s something which initially seems utterly unattainable, but it’s actually quite an easy thing to do. Success rates may of course vary, but the basic premise is simple. Get some friends together. Hire a venue. Make some flyers. Dance to your own beat. The important thing to remember is everything starts from nothing.

In 2006 I was going through a bit of a ‘What am I doing with my life?’ crisis. I was 24, I’d dropped out of Uni (architecture is tough guys), and had bumbled about working in retail for the past four years. I was not where I wanted to be. I joined Fresh Air, Edinburgh University’s student radio station, as a non-student member and everything slowly but surely started falling into place.

I very quickly found myself helping out on the fundraising team and before I knew it I had booked a big John Peel night at The Bongo Club and it was bloody great – I loved organising it all and meeting the bands, and seeing the pay-off on the night was a total thrill. I ended up putting on Metronomy at Cabaret Voltaire as well (nine years ago), also for Fresh Air, which was a great way to learn the ropes.

While at Fresh Air, I met my now excellent friend Craig ‘HP’ Neilson, who like myself was a non-student member. He got up at a general meeting one week to tell everyone in the room that him and two of his pals were putting on a night – This is Music – at Henry’s Cellar Bar. I weaseled my way in and a few weeks later found myself DJing one of their nights. We called it a day a couple of years ago, but I was there right until the end.

Through This is Music I ended up DJing a weekly night at Cabaret Voltaire called Sick Note. Every week was like an episode of Skins – it was a raucous affair and the bookings courtesy of Nick Stewart (Sneaky Pete’s) and Solen Collet (who was Cab Vol’s booker at the time) were second to none. I ended up on some insane bills playing with the likes of Little Boots, The Big Pink, Miike Snow and Diplo. DIPLO. What!? It was crazy.

Over the years I’ve met a lot of people wanting to get into events/DJing and they all ask me the same questions. What should I do? How should I do it? There’s no simple answer unfortunately and not everyone’s path will be the same. As the famous Nike slogan goes, ‘just do it’. It will be terrifying, like throwing a party at your flat when you told everyone to come at eight and nobody shows up until nine. Start small and work up. Get to know your local scene. Go to gigs/clubs. Join a society. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Talk to people. It can be awful, but if it works it’s the greatest fucking thing ever.

I no longer actively promote gigs/clubs, so I've spoken to some people who do – hopefully their stories and words of wisdom will inspire you to do your own thing.

Tom Ketley, FLY Club and FLY Open Air festival, Edinburgh

"I was a student and lots of my pals were DJs. We felt like there wasn't much on for folk who liked good music regularly and saw that the promoter who ran Fridays at the venue was moving – an opportunity – so I called the venue, we arranged a meeting, came up with a plan and essentially went for it." 

Words of wisdom: "Just go for it. If it fails because nobody turned up then don't worry as nobody was there to know how bad it was! Also think about the venue side, they need you as much as you need them so don't be scared. No club is full seven nights a week so if you see that one night they are closed or empty, then use that to your advantage and tell them that you would like to give it a go then and try to fill the place = business for them and you.

"Second bit of advice is that it's not as easy as just making a Facebook event. You really need to have a good base crowd coming from friends, friends of friends, DJ’s friends, and something unique, like music that people want to hear that they perhaps can't at home."

Nick Stewart, Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh

Words of wisdom: "It's vital for clubs to take on new promoters with new ideas, so I'm always open to good club proposals. I definitely don't need to hear from another gang of boys wanting to put on another house and techno night with X guest from X Berlin club and label; sincerely, there is enough of that around Edinburgh and it's not why I started running a club. I always want to hear something new, especially from people who feel like the music they love isn't well represented in clubs.

"Networking matters: the best way to get my ear is to come into the venue often. It's our regulars who end up being our DJs, gig and club promoters, and even bar staff. It's not a nepotistic thing, it's just that I can see who the biggest music fans are because they are here all the time, so they have my ear first.

"As for gigs, we make sure we're a cheap place to hire. I think the freedom to fail is important, a lot of the best promoters have had plenty of flops in their careers, especially at the start, so we like to make it easy for promoters to run shows here and learn the ropes. We're happy to help when we see them put their whole heart into it. It's also really easy for bands to hire the venue themselves, just get in touch. Finally though: we hate seeing promoters giving bands a raw deal, just don't do it. No 'Pay To Play'. Bands: just don't accept it!"

Hannah Currie & Aileen Lynn, MILK, Glasgow

"We met when we were working in a student bar in Glasgow and clicked instantly because we loved going to gigs, and we both did a bit of music writing. Through hanging around the scene and making it very obvious that we wanted to be involved (but sadly lacking the musical talent to play in a band), we were given an opportunity by Flat 0/1 in Glasgow to launch a night there and we just poured everything into it – from branding to booking to promo, we obsessed about every little detail.

"Our main aim was to create a really fun night out – at gigs we'd always be left wanting to continue partying after the bands played so we amalgamated the live music and club elements to keep the party going!"

Words of wisdom: "For us it's always been about keeping it super inclusive, fairly small scale and really accessible/cheap – we welcome everyone, we never set unrealistic goals, and we never aim to make money out of it. You've got to love doing it – if you're excited about it, that catches on.

"Rope in everyone you know for the launch night, take loads of photos of people enjoying themselves to make everyone who wasn't there a bit envious, and treat your bands, DJs and audiences like mates. Another really important thing is to be creative and find your niche – what's missing out there that you can provide?"

Adam Skirving, Spiral Oh, Glasgow

"Spiral Oh evolved out of putting on shows for friends' bands in Glasgow. After having such a good time curating those shows, Spiral Oh was created as an outlet to invite other bands in Glasgow and from around the UK to play."

Words of wisdom: "Book the bands you're excited about, not because they have a buzz about them. Book your friends. Do it to enjoy yourself and don't get too wrapped up in profit."

Emily Wylde & Rachel Watson, Ghost Girls Society, Glasgow

"We first met just over a year ago after creeping on each other on Instagram! We got together and decided that we wanted to work on a creative project, which started out as us sharing our illustrations online. Over time we began taking on commissions from bands, clubs and events. We started sharing playlists of music that we were enjoying each month, which in hand led to us planning our own night.

"We’re a year down the line now and as well as having our Ghost Girls night, we’ve been a part of some really cool events such as ‘Mon The Women’ and Vegan Connections."

Words of wisdom: "At the beginning we put together a detailed plan together before approaching venues, a playlist of the music we wanted to play and some of our artwork which would inspire the visual aspects of the event. Marketing is simple as everything we do is very visual and we already have our brand set.

"We love the freedom that we have with it; we just want it to be about having fun, doing what you want to do and expressing yourself. Our advice would be to stick to your guns and create a night that is unique and fun, and don't be too apprehensive as you'll learn and improve as you go."

George Maund, Cartier 4 Everyone, Liverpool

"Cartier 4 Everyone began in summer 2016 out of a desire to host under-represented DJs, with an inclination towards emerging styles of club music found globally and online. At that point I'd been working on the bar at a city centre venue for a good while, and was fortunate enough to have some sway over booking policy. Up until then, the only clubnight to tackle this disparity between an over-represented white, straight-acting, cis-male bloc of DJs – and essentially everyone else – was Witch Beach, hosted by Queen of the Track.

"Their residents –Alec Tronik and Faux Queens – were among my first guests: very keen music fans and selectors of music you still won't find anywhere else in the city. On top of that, Meine Nacht (a team of young women operating parties in out-of-the-ordinary settings) also made me feel that much was possible, and to be ambitious – audacious even.

"I've been going to nightclubs since I was 15, have been in and out of DIY guitar bands playing every kind of venue conceivable for over a decade, and been making my own electronic music all the while, so in a way C4E was a long time coming. Witnessing Deep Hedonia and Upitup work challenging programming into their bookings was inspiring, too.

"I wanted Cartier 4 Everyone to occupy a prime time slot, so as many people as possible were exposed to the concept and the sounds – the last weekend of every month; pay day. The nature of the premises meant that it had to be free entry, too. I was afforded the benefit of the doubt and thanks to the skills of that first flurry of DJs we hosted, it's been a fixture in the calendar ever since. I'm lucky to count these co-conspirators as the de facto C4E residents and among my best friends.

"It's grown to be a community of like minds. I'm driven by how it can only continue to open up to more people, while still remaining intimate enough to feel like a group of friends. Cartier 4 Everyone has called the Kazimier Garden and its Rat Alley back room (of sorts) home for over a year now, and it remains an honour and unique sensation to look around and see the core crew surrounded by a crowd that gets what we're all trying to do."

Words of wisdom: "The most important thing is to foster an attitude of inclusiveness. Take the notion of a safe space policy to heart. This is more important now than ever; it is where dancefloor-oriented music has its origins, and should be held up as a defining characteristic of the nightclubbing experience for all. I'm not suggesting that this is something we get right every time at C4E, but it is what our ethos and driving mantra can be boiled down to.

"Other pieces of advice can be condensed into Baz Luhrmann-style soundbites: find your niche; settle on an aesethetic; ponder the nature of the clubbing environment (soundsystem, light, smoke, security, bar); be open to collaboration; be ready to hand the baton on; be more than just aware of your audience; be subversive; keep listening and loving; don't get into this for financial reasons; wear earplugs."