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Live music – getting it right and maximising profit

14 October 2011
Live music – getting it right and maximising profit

Live music can pull in the punters on a good night, but beware, the wrong kind of music can put your customers off and send them to your rival down the road. Selwyn Parker tells you how to get your tills singing

When the crowds flock in to enjoy live entertainment, it's an operator's chance to broaden custom and impress a new branch of clientele. But get it wrong and your head will be banging for all the wrong reasons. Everyone has a musical opinion, so as much as it's possible to appeal to one demographic, you could be be isolating another. But don't pull the plug just yet. Find the perfect pitch and everyone will be singing along.

"You have to understand where you're going with live music and where you want the business to be," explains Steven Walter, managing director of Cheshire-based booking agent Genre Music.

And that usually comes down to achieving the right match between act and clientele, plus some diplomacy. "A good agent is a communication bridge between owner and musician," Walter adds.

The good news is that it's a buyer's market for live music. Declining consumer incomes in real terms, competition for the entertainment dollar, falling revenues at some pubs, and upheavals in the music industry at large have all combined to drive down the fees of most acts.

"I've seen a decline in bookings," says agent Eddie Buggy of Caledonian Music based in Shott, a village between Edinburgh and Glasgow. "And I've certainly not seen an increase in booking fees. I know bands that are doing gigs for the same fees they got four or five years ago."

However, in the South agents report a big resurgence in live music in recent years. Rutland-based DG Music says that live acts continue to "excite, enrich, inspire and motivate" patrons as well as bringing them together.

A STORY HAPPENING
Walter agrees: "If a venue has good music, it means there's something going on there. It's another reason for going, a story happening."

And the story can happen more affordably these days because marquee performers can be hired at lower rates than they attracted in the noughties. Walter adds: "A lot of big acts are making themselves available for paying gigs in smaller venues for £1,000 a night." He cites Supergrass and soul singer Beverley Knight among the major attractions who are guaranteed to boost revenues at a new launch.

Technology has also cut booking fees. Because of its storage capacity, the laptop means that a one or two-piece group - two guitars or piano and guitar, for example - can now produce the same sound through the use of backing tracks that would have taken a four or five-piece band to belt out a decade ago. Result? Many live acts these days consist of (cheaper) solo performers.

DIFFERENT VENUE, DIFFERENT MUSIC
Just as diners prefer chefs wearing toques, music should be appropriate to the nature of the venue, say agents. In sit-down establishments such as restaurants, patrons want background music that is generally provided by a pianist or vocalist playing understated melodies, at least in the first part of the evening.

Pubs are different again. The music can be more "in your face," says one performer. But not too much since most pubs - community businesses in particular - have a broad clientele of men and women of all ages. For those venues, agents recommend groups with a wide repertoire ranging from the sixties to today to accommodate all tastes.

Typically, pub managers considering the introduction of live music request a jazz band mainly because they like jazz. But this can be a mistake, cautions Walter: "A lot of people don't like jazz bands. What most pubs really want is a vocalist with a nice blend of songs. Music is a very emotive subject and people have strong likes and dislikes about it. The key is to book entertainment that is audience-friendly. It's all about establishing the venue's customer profile and fitting the entertainment to that. You won't please all the people all the time, but you have to make sure you please those you want to please."

In short, there's a limited market for clubs such as Ronnie Scott's jazz club in Soho.

Proving Walter's point, when Dundee staged a blues festival in early July, the Bellhaven-owned, music-free Globe pub near the heart of the city had one of its busiest weekends. "People came here to get away from the blues," explained the manager.

HOTELS BEWARE
With their more distinct clientele, hotels should choose live music with great caution. For instance, "a Sunday night jazz band may work here," thinks Mark Bodley, new general manager of Newbury Manor hotel, part of the Heritage chain. To help differentiate the hotel, he's considering introducing extra live music on top of the set-piece occasions, such as Christmas for which he hired a local pianist because local patrons appreciate it. "The pianist is not, however, the event," he says.

Newbury Manor may also experiment with Moroccan music to highlight a North Africa-themed night. "Everything should revolve around the quality of the food," says Bodley.

Increasingly, upmarket hotels are looking at live music to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. Helen Hipkiss, public relations and marketing manager at the Forte chain's Lowry Spa Hotel in Manchester, which features a pianist for Sunday lunch, believes music lifts the general tone. "I'd like to book more acts in the public areas of the hotel," she says. "I think it adds to the atmosphere."

It can also fill bedrooms. Earlier this year the Lowry staged a concert of experimental piano music - at the request of a local group of enthusiasts - in the £2,500-a-night presidential suite whose furniture includes a grand piano. "The performer was a German pianist and it sold out," reports Hipkiss.

THEMED RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Meanwhile, the rise of the themed restaurant or bar is changing the game by requiring music to match. Gusto's Italy-nuanced outlets, owned by Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts' Living Ventures group, feature the jazzy, swing sound made famous by the Rat Pack, while its Blackhouse chain includes easy piano. Once again, music serves to differentiate the outlets in a highly competitive high street.

Whatever approach is taken it can take time for word to get out - plan for up to six or eight weeks before the till starts singing. Even with disciplined marketing, patience is required.

At the end of the day, it's all about economics. The venue must, for instance, be sufficiently big to accommodate enough patrons to make a profit on the act.

National Trust-owned restaurant-hotel, the Five Arrows in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, is looking at developing a function room out of a ruined barn after a successful experiment with a singer in its main restaurant.

"We found the restaurant wasn't really big enough," explains restaurant manager Duncan Murray. "So we're going to consider using the barn, which will mean we can charge more money."


NEVER ON A SUNDAY
Regardless of the nature of the venue, what works on Monday probably won't work on Friday. Live music should be adjusted to the day of the week.

The Living Room venues, owned by Orchid Pubs and Dining group, have fine-tuned their offering over a decade. What works for them is a low-key pianist/vocalist in the first half of the week and a guitar group with a fuller sound on Fridays and Saturdays. It's widely accepted that most establishments should revert to low-key music on Sundays.

KEEPING THE PEACE WITH A SOUND SYSTEM
Breaches of noise levels can be expensive because of the risk of losing trading licences, albeit a relatively rare event. This is why agents recommend the installation of sound-control meters that flash warnings when the music hits illegal levels.

If the band doesn't tone the music down, the power to their instruments is automatically cut off. Just as importantly, the monitor provides an objective measure for you to refer to if nearby residents make complaints about the loudness of the music.


HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU HIT THE RIGHT NOTE
Choose music your patrons will like - rather than something that necessarily suits your tastes. The wrong kind of music will drive customers away.

Listen to the music before booking it - ask for CDs, tapes or, if the act's big enough, look for it on YouTube.

Be patient and market well in advance - it can take weeks for the word to get around, and for people to make a change to their entertainment habits.

Sell the act - book well in advance and use posters, flyers, social media and word-of-mouth.

Book residencies - regular gigs before the act will help drum up trade for the main event.


OPERATORS BRACED FOR HIKES IN THE COST OF RECORDED MUSIC
Hikes to the charges made by music licensing firm PPL could price many businesses out of using recorded music at functions.

While fees used to rise in line with inflation, PPL has told hospitality businesses that feature DJs or play recorded music at dance functions and events they can expect a 25% increase as early as next year, with further hikes to follow.

British Hospitality Association deputy chief executive Martin Couchman says the cost can vary wildly dependent on venue, but it could increase by 15 times in some cases.

"The PPL's intention is to bring the rises in over three years at 25%, 50% and 100% starting from next year," he says. "There are also issues about what happens if you can't count the number of people at an event. What do you work on? Capacity or something else?"

The move could mean a traditionally low cost form of entertainment is beyond the reach of a large part of the industry.

A consultation is under way and those that have any suggestions can email Martin at: martin.couchman@bha.org.uk

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