Monday 8 April 2024

So how does a music pub work?

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with one of the local publicans in High Barnet. He had put on a live band and the turnout was rather poor. He was asking whether I thought that putting on music was a good idea. I actually get asked this quite a lot. People who are unfamiliar with the way music works, often think that if they put a band on, lots of people will turn up, they will have a great nght and the pub will make lots of money. The truth is rather more complex. Firstly, you need the right genre of music for the pub.  Oddly you can have two similar pubs, next door to each other and music will work amazingly in one, but in the other, it won't. If a pub is going to get into music, if they want to do well, they need a clear strategy. There are three popular models. all of which work well.

The first is the proper music pub, which has a proper stage, lights, a sound engineer, a promoter and employs decent bands that want to be paid. Punters are charged an entrance fee.  To do that, you need a proper business plan and some serious investment. Many such pubs provide equipment for the band, if required, which negates the hassle of getting gear in and costs of ULEZ etc. If you do it well, it can transform your pub. My band has a residency at The Dublin Castle in Camden, which does rather well being a music pub. We get paid for our efforts, the promoter makes money and the pub is full. In the case of the Dublin Castle, the pub has hosted music for decades and has a pedigree. When lockdown hit and the Dublin Castle's future was at risk, music lovers from the Madness fan club community put their hands in their pockets to keep the pub going. That is how loved it is. Generally, the landlords of such pub have a commitment to the local music scene and understand the dynamics of it.

The second model is where the pub has space and regularly puts on bands on various nights, in the main bar, free of charge. The band generates extra turnover and the band gets paid out of profits of extra beer sales. Typically to pay a band £250 the pub would expect to sell maybe £1,400 worth of extra drinks. That's a couple of hundred pints at £7.50 a pint, so you'd need 50 punters having four pints to cover the band fee. A five piece band would be putting £50 each in their pocket. They'd be expected to bring equipment, such as a PA system and backline (drums, amps, etc). There are some great examples of pubs that do this well. The Wishing Well in Edgware have built up a loyal following doing all manner of such gigs. Again, the landlords of pubs operating this model are generally music lovers who enjoy helping musicians get heard. Arrangements are usually a little less formal.

The Third model, is more sporadic, but they put music on more sporadically and the pub is not primarily known as a music pub. Sometimes, this involves using a function room and working with promoters for certain nights. Some publicans see music as a thing for quieter nights. Many Jazz clubs etc, run on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings, when the pub would otherwise be quiet. Often the publican will let the promoter use the space for free and let them keep any cash that is generated. Some pubs start this way, then get a bit greedy when they see successful promoters making a decent bit of cash. They don't see the work that a decent promoter has to put in. They also forget that the reason they got music in was because the pub was empty. It tends to be a cash driven thing for the landlords, who don't really have a passion for live music, but want more punters through the door.

To run a successful music pub, the landlord needs to either understand the way all of this works, or have someone on the team who does. Building a pub up to the status of the Dublin Castle either takes years or a lot of cash to build a profile. Having said that, music can transform the fortunes of a pub in a short time, if it is managed properly. A great example of this was The Chandos Arms in Colindale, which put music on fairly regularly, with Jazz on a Sunday Lunchtime and a folk night on a Monday and other regular events at the weekend. The former Landlady took a failing pub and transformed it to an award winning community pub. She was a musician and also had experience of music promotion, so had the right CV to do this.

The Bohemia in Finchley is also doing well hosting a Jazz night put together by the rather wonderful Jazz musician Ed Bentley. Being a well respected Jazz musician gives Ed access to some great musicians and this is a sure way to build an audience.

Another great little music bar is The Boogaloo in Highgate. This has all sorts of different events, comedy, quiz's etc. I rather like the Gospel brunch on a Sunday, featuring Americana style bands. The bar is owned my music royalty, with the Pogues having a hand. 

As someone who has promoted and played my fair share of gigs, most recently with the Mill Hill Music Festival, I have seen frst hand how both good and bad pub gigs are operated. I am always shocked at how rude and unpleasant some pubs can be to artists. I recall turning up to one gig at the appointed time, to be told that there was an 'overrunning' Irish wake and that we couldn't set up until they had stopped boozing. Later the landlord haggled about paying us as we'd not played for the agreed time, as he hadn't let us. Sadly, that pub is no longer open. Generally venues that look after artists, tend to generally be more successful.

If you are looking to put music on, there are certain rules that I think are worth following.

1. Pick a  genre of music that is suitable for the venue and the area. Make sure it is compatible with the patrons of the pub.

2. Work out how much you want to invest in music. Having in house gear (that works) makes putting on music easier. You will also need to invest in promoting the music. Work out how you will pay the bands and what is a reasonable number to break even etc. 

3. Don't expect it to be an overnight success. It can take a while to build up a reputation. 

4. When you engage a band, you get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with a young and up and coming band. If you engage artists that aren't particularly brilliant, don't be surprised if the reaction is lukewarm.

5. When you are engaging bands/artists, try and envisage what sort of audience will show up for them. If they contact you, ask to see live footage of gigs. Don't be too worried about poor sound quality, phones do not produce studio quality recordings. Do however see how they engage with the audience. If there is no audience to engage with, that might tell you a lot about the band.

6. Keep an eye out on what else is happening on nights you put music on. If there is an important football match, etc. This may affect the size of the crowd. You really need to understand the audience and what makes them tick to be a successful promoter.

7. Don't be disheartened if you have a bad night. We all do. DO however try and work out what went wrong.

8. Be aware that bands rarely have any real clue as to how many people will come and see them. You are the promoter and it is your job to get people down, if you are doing it properly.

Putting on music can be a very rewarding experience. If you do it well, you can make some cash doing it, although to get to the Harvey Goldsmith league of multi millionaire promoter is as hard as being the next Rolling Stones. It is primarily something you do because you love it, if you can make a living then all the better.


And whilst we are on the subject of music, my band, The False Dots, have a new single coming out on the 19th April. Here is a little taster. We also have a gig this Saturday at The Bull Theatre in Barnet, with The Silencerz. It will be a great night (Tickets available here).

No comments: