MUSIC and food have been partners in pleasure since history began. These days they are increasingly coming together in the name of business, as restaurateurs use live music to draw in diners.
Those who get the formula right say the cost of the musicians is significantly outweighed by increased takings. And the knock-on effects of getting an establishment known and generating goodwill are indisputable, if difficult to measure.
Paul Whittome, owner of the Hoste Arms hotel in Burnham Market, Norfolk, spent £14,000 on live music last year – a hefty investment, to which he can attribute an extra £55,000 in increased takings.
Robert Jackson, owner of the 80-seat Sacher’s Brasserie in Leamington Spa, says business has increased 40% since he started offering a mixture of jazz, blues and light classical music 18 months ago.
For Whittome, music is an integral part of the offering at his 15-bedroom, 17th century hotel with its three restaurants and art gallery. He planned for music when he bought and renovated the property three years ago, and at that time spent a substantial sum on sound proofing. He has a full music licence, so he is permitted to employ groups.
Jackson introduced music as a strategic marketing ploy. It was a way of building evening business at a town centre restaurant that had always been regarded by local people as a daytime venue. He does not have a music licence, so is restricted under his liquor licence to two musicians at a time.
“Before we started doing music, evening trade was quiet even on a Saturday because we couldn’t get the message over that we were here in the evenings. Now people come in during the day, see posters for the music and return in the evening,” he explains.
Although both Whittome and Jackson now have their formula right, it has taken time to find out exactly what is most appropriate for their clientele.
At the Hoste Arms, Whittome ran classical music evenings for the first year, but switched exclusively to jazz after a conversation with some of his top-drawer customers.
“Lady Douglas-Home and Lady Fermoy were in here and I asked them if they were coming to the classical evening that week. When they said no, because they thought it was boring but they were coming to the jazz instead, I realised where I should be concentrating.”
An added bonus of moving over to jazz was the enthusiasm of the musicians. “I found the classical players tended to be prima donnas, whereas the jazz musicians play for pleasure, so they charge less and will travel further,” he says.
Booking the right musicians is something that takes practice. Whittome says that for the first year about one in every 10 bands he booked were not up to scratch. In the second year it was one in 20, and this year there have been almost no mistakes.
Part of the art is going to see a group play – and insisting that the musicians you see are the ones you get. “When we first started we would book a group, only to find that several of the members had changed when they came to play for us, and they were not as good.”
Whittome pays an average of £120 for a group, more if they are well known. Among the bigger names on his schedule are Kate Williams (daughter of John Williams), Jack Purnell and Mike Radford of The Kinks. Whittome finds Norwich the best local source of talent, but adds people are happy to travel 60 or 70 miles to perform. A retired music enthusiast in Burnham Market acts as his recruiting agent.
Jackson had to search for musicians for Sacher’s Brasserie at first, but as word has spread around the local music fraternity in Leamington Spa he now has people approaching him. He pays £40-£60 for two musicians and books his schedules four months ahead.
They usually play once a month, fortnightly if they are particularly popular. Jackson watches the reaction of diners when he is assessing a band, and pays particular attention to the way the musicians interact with the audience.
Both Jackson and Whittome emphasise that, like any new promotion, it is important to give live music time to take off. “Initially, it wasn’t obvious whether it was working and whether the added expense was worth while. But now I am very pleased with it and intend to stick with it,” says Jackson.n