Conveyor Belt Gig Culture


Written by Suzie McCracken
25 Sunday 25th March 2012

The conveyor-belt gig is an odd breed. If you grow up in any UK city apart from London, it is, relatively speaking, easy enough to start a band and get some gigs where you will be treated fairly no matter the calibre of your musical output. If you grow up in London this process is slightly complicated by the need for a few connections and a little bit of business savvy in getting a spot on a bill in a decent venue.

But for those who travel through London when touring, often their only option is to play a show in one of the numerous venues that specialise in a four to seven band line-up, and treat you like utter crap. As a Belfast native, I’ve spent the last three years travelling to these bars to see musicians from home play to, well, just me. This world of gigging plays host to sub-par promoters, shoddy financial ethics and a climate of nonchalance in respect to a musician’s welfare.

What is perplexing is how this system is allowed a continued existence in a place otherwise characterised by excellent promoters like EYOE and Upset the Rhythm. It’s understandable that companies like these aren’t interested in upstarts, but is it not about time that the conveyor belters start taking notes?

Wye Oak play a well promoted gig at the Monto Water Rats.

I talked to musician Chris McCorry, who when I ask him how many bands he’s been in replies “I honestly couldn’t count, more than ten though, easily” (currently he’s in Morning Claws & Before Machines). Not a bad count for someone still in their twenties. All of his bands, although popular at home, have never had a national audience and thus Chris has fallen victim to this gig culture countless times over the years.

When I asked him about the impact of these shows on the musician, his face is heavy with disappointment and exasperation at the state of things. “If you have a gap in your schedule on tour, you’re losing money anyway so it’s better to play a show and lose money than sit in the car park all day, but at the same time you have to wonder what it does to your soul.”

Of course, it’s doesn’t just have a psychologically exhausting effect on people. Financially, it can cripple a band. Money better spent on recording time in a studio is invested into flights, petrol and accommodation (if you’re not sleeping on a friend’s floor or in the back of the van). The pressure to play the capital at all is perpetrated by a strange myth that it’s the place to gain exposure, but the reality is that unless you’re being organised by a real gig promoter, there isn’t much of a plus to serenading the big smoke. One of the more sinister culprits is the Monto Water Rats in Kings Cross. Although venues like The New Cross Inn, Dublin Castle, The Bull and Gate and the Cross Kings often have a similar set up, I’ve never seen a band be more underwhelmed than after a Water Rats stint.

“There were four bands on the bill when we played, but on Saturdays they have seven bands on and the gig starts at three in the afternoon. Who the fuck is going to go to that gig?” says Chris about the Water Rats. Not only is there next to no promotion done, but curation is also seemingly irrelevant. When it comes this aspect of the conveyor belt gig, The Brixton Windmill shines. Although it’s equally as possible as these other venues to see the Windmill host a very poorly attended gig, there is usually a thread of similarity stretching through all the bands on the lineup. I’ve seen the Water Rats host dad-rock outfits followed by electro dance acts.

The Windmill also prevails in its fairness, splitting the door tax between bands in a amicable way. However, at some of these shows you will be asked on the way through the door what band you’re there to see, and this tally is there to judge how the money should be divided up. Chris argues that this practice “completely subverts the concept of a support act,” one of the most useful tools any band can harness in gaining exposure and new fans. Good promoters will find a better known local band to support a touring ensemble, but if each person announces their allegiance on the way into the venue, then no matter what impact the headliner had, there will still be no money for them to pick up before that six hour drive to the next city.

It’s important not to confuse this situation with well-curated and thought out all-day metal fests and other genre variations. These gigs do often see fifteen bands on the bill, but the promoter is passionate and has invariably promoted it to the best of his or her ability. When the promoter works for the venue, passion is often non-existent.

The fact is if people turn up, they make money. If people don’t turn up, they don’t lose money because they’re not paying the bands anyway. It’s not so much that these promoters are bad, they just don’t care. In an industry that completely runs off the passion of those involved, this attitude is completely unacceptable. Even if as a band you do manage to pull a decent amount of people in, inevitably the atmosphere in these venues is vacuous. I’ve seen bands do their worst shows in these situations, and everyone, audience included, leaves utterly despondent.

So, is there any light on the horizon for touring bands entering a London postcode? “I think one of the problems is not just the promoters, but the fact that people are willing to play for free. People approach it as a way to get exposure, but you should value yourself more than that,” says Chris. It sounds like the language someone uses to try and get a girl to leave her asshole boyfriend. “Ha ha! It does. It is pretty much an abusive relationship”. 

Do you think these gigs have any positives? Ever been to a badly promoted show that has infuriated you?

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