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Show of Hands - Tips of the Trade
by Tom Robinson -
Issue 24 November/December '97

Steve Knightley of Show of Hands Phill Beer of Show of Hands

Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are very clearly treating Show of Hands as a serious musical project rather than just 'Steve and Phil doing some folk gigs because they need some money!' They are professional musicians who have chosen to work in the folk scene - perhaps not the most obvious choice to make a living, but one which can work, given the right approach.

The folk scene in many aspects is unique in the music business, with its mixture of amateurs and professionals working alongside each other. Over the years there has been considerable debate about this. What is quite clear is that for many performers, the best path to follow is as an amateur or 'semi-professional' with a day job to provide the base income. Just because you can sing or play well doesn't mean that the correct route is to become a full-time professional musician.

When the step to working full-time is taken, to be successful, people have to realise that they are entering the music business and have to play by some different rules. Many succeed in remaining available and working at all levels within the folk scene, but the need to earn their whole income from music needs some change of approach.

For Show of Hands, that change came at the end of '93 with a fifty-date tour supporting Ralph McTell. Phil and Steve had just done Cambridge Festival where they acquired a bit of a reputation - Ralph is an artiste who has enjoyed major success and is full of stagecraft wisdom. After about eight gigs Ralph said "Look, tell me to mind my own business if you want, but when Phil is doing a solo, you look as if you're not interested - show that you are into it - watch him! Or else, step back out of the light so as to make him the focus of attention." Ralph reckons its about being generous on stage - he knows he doesn't always get it right himself but said "I think I know what works because I've been watching people do this for 30 years".

That advice proved to be invaluable and ensuing conversations with Ralph led to a framework of valuable tips for any aspiring professional musician.

  • Take your own sound system and your own engineer. No compromise. It's got to sound good - it's what people are paying for. So even when we were only on 80 fees we had our own sound engineer.
  • Be honest about the range of your material. Construct the set accordingly. A lot of songwriters think because one song is about Jacqueline and the next about Angela that they're different songs but if it's the same finger picking type of chord sequence, it's the same musical experience for the audience. Group your material into categories and have different category songs follow each other.
  • Don't get too wrapped up in your own performance. One night Ralph told me "you were more moved than moving"
  • When you've finished your last song, walk in front of the monitors and take a bow. The applause will double because you're crossing into the audience's space. People like that - it's good body language.
  • People don't want to hear you talking about money or referring to your material as 'merchandise'. It's songs. It's music. And don't let people see you talking about the fee, the money or expenses even if you're dealing with it yourself. Just try to keep that separate. Conduct yourself with a certain dignity.
  • No post mortems after a show - absolutely forbidden. Any problems - save it until the next day. Have a nice time and celebrate by all means. But everyone will be too vulnerable, wound up, elated or depressed for post mortems.
  • Treat everyone with politeness. It's a small world full of people with long memories. Don't make enemies.
  • The single most important thing he told us was "Stop doing endless gigs and start doing tours. You've got to start working in set periods. Give the tour a name. Try and have a new album available to go with it. Try and make it a distinct event." What we do now is either tours, festivals or special events. It changes the way you think about working and how you structure the year.

A big problem facing any folk artiste is what to do with recordings. Major labels are not interested unless they see a potential for large sales and even the best of the specialist labels struggle to get really effective distribution. There appears to be no "right" way to do it - at any one point some artistes are moving away from record companies to their own labels, whereas others move in the opposite direction

Working with an established label can certainly help to raise the profile of an artiste, but if they think that a record deal is likely to lead to fortune as well as fame, then the relationship may well end up in tears. Record companies have their own business costs and if they manage to effectively sell a good quantity of albums from anybody new or outside the narrow echelon of well known artistes, then it is likely that any significant profits would be eaten up in promotional costs.

In the sense that no majors would come near what they consider to be 'Folk music', Show of Hands found it very easy to bypass the normal record company channels and they do rely on selling their albums at gigs. " We've also decided the 'home taping killing music' proposition is fundamentally flawed. Making a tape for someone is an act of affection and commitment to the music - so we encourage everyone to tape our CDs and spread the music around. As we're not manufacturing cassettes of the new album, on this tour we're contemplating giving away a free blank cassette - like, 'From Show Of Hands with love' ..."

Making a CD yourself and selling it directly at gigs obviously increases the margins to a level where it makes sense for somebody to come specifically to gigs to sell the albums. This is worthwhile for Show of Hands particularly when they manage to get 200-300 people in a venue, maybe even more.

Gigs & Accommodation
Another cost which weighs heavily on a touring musician is accommodation. Simply adding hotel bills to the fee isn't always the answer as it can render too many gigs uneconomical. Staying with the organisers can have its drawbacks but it is an aspect that can work, given enough attention. "We do have these 'safe houses' scattered throughout the country where we can stay. One friend's got a little priory near Norfolk - places like that can be tough!"

At some stage the successful artiste has to make decisions when playing smaller gigs may lead to pressures from larger promoters who see a need to make an appearance at their venue more exclusive. A common clause in contracts runs something like "the artiste shall not perform within a radius of 30 miles, six weeks prior to and six weeks after the engagement". This can make it difficult to retain a commitment to smaller venues. Leading up to their Albert Hall concert Show of Hands found a novel way around this problem.

"When we were planning the Albert Hall show, the backers didn't want us to do any regular shows in the six months preceding it, but meanwhile we still had to earn a living. So we thought we would organise a 'workshop' tour - purely acoustic, non participatory, for up to fifty people in unusual settings, A complete illustrated guide to what we do for a living: the cello mandolin, guitar and the cuatro ... tempos, keys, set lists, why Phil plays certain solos ... the whole thing, right down to our choice of strings.

We managed to structure it in a fairly detailed way so it was like a trip through the instruments, (their capabilities and how we use them.) Then we asked people we knew to find a pub back room - perhaps a Friends' Meeting House, converted chapel or even a (big living room) - and sell tickets for about 5-6 pounds".

"They had to act as the box office and collect the money - some were good at it, some weren't so good. We did about 22 dates - and filmed one of them. The beauty is that any night of the week is fine because you're not working to club or weekend nights - you can work geographically around the country. It was really successful and we're going to do it again. It means you're earning and touring although you're not publicly out and about. The other thing is you rehearse and routine about half a dozen new songs by the end - it's the only time Phil and I really rehearse."

"For regular gigs we now don't charge a fee - its all done on percentages. Say, for example, a fan lives in Chester and complains that we never play there. We ask if he or she can get hold of a hall. They say they can hire the local Union Hall for 25, which seats 300. So we say, "Right - we've got the PA, lights and the mailing list. You just act as the box office contact number, publicise it locally - and we'll come and do it. Cover your costs, pay yourself a percentage and we'll take the rest." We work all over the country on that basis".

"We now have about 30 or 40 people who originally booked us at their local village hall or folk club and now they're hiring bigger places. If you have an agent they can come between you and those types of relationships. If we want to go and work at Port Isaac Lifeboat Station for a 50\50 split and raise 600 for the lifeboat - some agents would be unhappy about that. If it's a festival, obviously, we charge a flat fee."

This approach sounds like a recipe for dealing with some people who couldn't promote the proverbial brewery piss-up but this has not proven to be the case. "Most of them are real supporters who'll involve every friend and relative they can possibly get because they don't want to have a bad time. They look after you feed you and so on - The last time we had anything to do with big time promoters we were slapped round the face so efficiently we almost had to admire the way it was done".

"This promoter said I want to put on a gig for you guys up in the North West. Give me your list of local names and address and I'll mail them to promote it. So we gave him our 500 - 600 names and he found us this gig upstairs in a pub ... He'd sold about 140 tickets at 8 to all our regulars that had been on the mailing list. They were expecting a concert, but there were no seats. He said no, it's not that sort of venue. So they all crowded in, we did the gig - and it was a very unpleasant experience: not the concert we'd been led to believe. The agent says "You've grossed about 880. My built-in profit is 200. Trips from home, phone bills, mailout charges, tea and sandwiches and so on. 80% of what's left ... here's your 260." And we drove away thinking ... so that's how you do it: we were really impressed ... by the sheer barefaced cheek of it all!"

"That night Gerard said "Do you want to deal with people like that or do you want to have a nice life?" Nowadays no-one is feeling ripped off and everybody's having a nice time. People are feeling involved, they've created an event: it's more community-based. Gerard is crucial to defining this way of working - thinking laterally and actually empowering people."

Sound Systems & Lighting
"One of Phil's early axioms was, we must have our own PA and sound engineer. We'd hear all these other bands whingeing about their sound. How can a four piece acoustic group go to a festival situation without their own sound man? I don't understand that mind set."

"Even when we found a good PA - like The Boat Race in Cambridge - we took ours in and it's always easier and quicker. At festivals we take our own effects rack and mikes and Gerard completely retunes the PA for our set using our graphics. The PA crews are delighted - it's less work for them. We do the same in Spain and Holland - there are some really excellent PAs but we just prefer the comfort of being self-contained."

"A problem is having to hump your own PA cabinets but we are lucky as we have a sponsorship deal with HZ in Somerset and their stuff is really light. The only downside is putting away mics and leads and all that stuff. But now we're employing someone to do all that because what Phil and I need to be doing after shows is getting out there and meeting people.

"Attention to detail about lighting is something we picked up from Tom Robinson. We now carry both a P.A and a basic lighting rig for village halls and non-lit venues. Where they've actually got a lighting rig, our man is competent enough to focus it and do all that sort of thing. The speakers are small and four of them out front is as loud as you would ever wish to be. Plus two for foldback and one big bass bin which chucks out a lot of bottom end."

For all this it might sound as if you need a truck to tour but for Show Of Hands "it's a VW Caravelle. Fantastic. There's only two rows of seats then all the back for the gear. There's Phil, me and Gerard in the band, plus Will doing PA and lights ... the fifth person is Vaughan who's doing our merchandising as his own project. About two years ago we asked him to run our mail order and now he's not only doing that but sending out stuff to radio stations and (licensee?) record companies - doing all that distribution side of it.

Do It Yourself!
Too many bands just sit around waiting for a big record company to discover them, waiting for 'The Deal' as if that was salvation and redemption. "I always say to people, forget it - honestly - just write your songs and go perform them. If anyone from a record company is interested, it's them who will be buttonholing you at the end of the evening. If you have to drag them in, cultivate and persuade them to like you, you're already on a loser. Just do what you do and hope that it happens."

"Releasing an album on your own label, there's still the chance of a cover version or a film soundtrack. Somebody could hear it - I've seen that happen. But these sorts of event come to you from outside your own control - you can't legislate or plan for them. Meanwhile you've still got to be doing something to earn a living.

We're in a situation where we're trying to build, develop and spread the word without relying on this injection of luck. The other thing of course is that - if it does happen - we own the rights to every note. After much agonising and argument we bought back the rights from our last record company so now we own it all. So that's what I say to people. Do it as well as you can, and own it all yourself."

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