When you spend a bit of time going to gigs, especially smaller DIY gigs, it is inevitable that you get to know a few promoters. Often they are on the door or running around the venue sorting out issues or perhaps acting as compere. Leicester has many of these characters, some have been doing it for years, some only dabble occasionally, but all have one thing in common… a passion for what they do. One such DIY promoter is Tony Ridley of Strangling Vinyl Promotions. We sat down for a chat with him to see what goes on behind the scenes and what drives a normal, sane person to enter into such unpredictable realms.
You can always tell a muso from the off, partly by the obscure band t-shirt they’re wearing, but also because within minutes of meeting them the conversation has turned to music. Tony is one such person. “Music means everything to me. It’s such an emotional connection. I love so many genres and rather than it being phases in my life they’ve all run side by side, ranging from Techno & Breakbeat to Old school Indie & New Alternative to Grunge & Hard Rock.”
Where did it all begin though? Where did young Tony develop his musical pedigree?
“I’m from Bradford in West Yorkshire but when I was 13 we moved to a village in Cambridgeshire called Ramsey. The nearest town of note was Peterborough, 30 minutes drive away! It was a bit of a culture shock but as it turned out it a thriving local music scene for such a tiny place and started watching the local alternative indie punk bands. I remember accidentally seeing a band called Jacobs Mouse in a field in Cambridge when I was 14 and it changed everything for me. The music was so urgent and raw, it just connected with me. The same summer my sister took me to see the Wonder Stuff at Aston Villa Leisure Centre. The support were Neds Atomic Dustbin who were a fast indie guitar band. I remember crawling on my hands and knees through people’s legs to get to the front to dance. It meant everything to me. I must have seen Jacobs Mouse and Neds Atomic Dustbin about 20 times each over the next couple of years. It was those two bands that shaped my passion for music.”
I’m sure many of us can relate to such introductions to music, that point in your life where it suddenly means more than anything, that time you heard a song for the first time and your life was never the same again. “The Prodigy have always been a highlight for me” Tony tells me. “In my prime I used to pride myself on my dancing ability at their shows! I remember at a Reading festival in the mid nineties having a bit of crowd watching me and my mates. I’m sure it’s because we were such great dancers.”
If you want proof of Tony’s dancing ability you don’t need to go far. He can often be seen attending gigs as well as promoting them. He’s just a music fan who has taken his obsession to the next level. “It’s like a drug, as well as the bands I already follow, I love checking other ones out. I’m old school, I try not to research bands but go on my gut. I get such a kick out of discovering that new favourite band and hearing them for the first time.”
We’ve established that the passion for all things musical is strong in Tony, but how did it end up moving to the next level. How did he get into promoting gigs? “It was a complete accident.” Explains Tony “My favourite band as a teenager was a post grunge band called Jacobs Mouse (beloved by Kurt Cobain and John Peel). I was lucky to live in the area they started gigging. Anyway I saw the lead singer Sam had a new band called Machismos and asked if they were coming to Leicester. Sam wondered if I could ask around to help them get a support slot. The Soundhouse were a great help and it naturally changed to me arranging my first gig with the Machismos headlining. That was about 3 year ago, about 70 people came, I made a profit, got very drunk and the rest is history!”
Getting the headliner in place can come about by fate, a chance meeting, being in the right place at the right time, or perhaps just the straight forward method of contacting an old favourite band and asking them if they want to come play in your area. Once you’ve got your headliner sorted, the next problem is getting the right support act in place to complement them. How to you go about this?
“I tend to have two schools of thought. Firstly I’m liking the double headers at the moment so I try and think of a national band that in my head works musically and ethos wise with the headline act and see if I can pitch them together. It’s not always possible budget wise so I’ll think of at least one Leicester area based band as standard on a bill but sometimes two. Sometimes local bands approach me as they are fans of the headline band, that’s ideal. I only keep to one rule on the bills that I do, and that’s only ever put bands on including supports that musically I like. It sounds counter-productive but I don’t put bands on just because they`ll sell tickets.”
A risky option, as a local band with a decent following can bring in a large chunk of crowd. But that crowd may move on after watching the local band, or worse still decide to stay and get chatty during the next band!
Of course choosing a local support band is never easy. Sure, there are plenty to pick from but aligning their style with the headline act, making sure they’re available and trusting them not to pull out limits the choice. As a DIY promoter do you wish there was a broader, more musically diverse local pool of acts to select from or does Leicester have enough to offer?
“It’s all just individual interpretation but I think Leicester has more than enough to offer. There are so many great bands in the area. I often go to gigs almost as much for the supports as the headline act, I’ve never understood people that just turn up to a gig before the headline act. Is great seeing local bands on the way up and see how they develop.”
There’s an important aspect about putting on a DIY gig we haven’t touched upon yet and that’s the venue. Without the guaranteed use of a venue, the DIY promoter must ask around. Fortunately Leicester has plenty to pick from but capacity, cost, availability and quality all come into the choice.
“When it comes to sorting a venue it’s a bit different now I’ve got a few gigs under my belt. It’s subjective but I just try and match venues to how I want the gig to feel and if the venue suits the band. You imagine the gig when planning it and it just naturally fits certain venues in your mind. I think we’re blessed with some great venues in Leicester so I’m quite lucky. I tend to book my gigs quite far in advance so don’t normally have problems with availability but it can happen and I’ve had to pass up certain bands I’d like to book as it’s not been possible to coordinate dates, although that’s rare.”
If sorting out the bands, dates and venues isn’t enough to do, there is accommodation, travel, feeding the bands and riders to take into account. “You do have to consider a lot of conditions when booking bands. Not sure if I’m lazy or clever but I look to include in my fee that the band covers their own travel and hotels etc. It’s always nice to give them a warm welcome, decent meal and drinks though. I remember early on a band asked me for a set of towels and I thought that was outrageous, what a wally, it’s standard and the least of your worries. I’ve been asked for a few quirky things but a bit like a stag do rules, that stays between me and the bands!”
Getting the headliner in place and organising the support acts and venue is just the functional side of organising the gig. There’s also an emotional side to it. The anxiety, the stress, the nerves but ultimately (hopefully) the joy. I ask Tony what he finds the most stressful part of putting a gig on? “Almost all of it” Tony laughingly admits. “I’m learning to cope with it but you live and breathe a gig more than you should and you over analyse every day. I love the idea and planning of a gig, I tend to arrange my gigs directly with the band members themselves and have less interaction with agents than other promoters I know. That’s great as you can chat more openly about the music and concepts. It can change when tickets go on sale and you start worrying about how much money you could lose. The worse thing that can happen is when bands just don’t want to announce or push a gig, they have that direct relationship with their fans so if they aren’t on board promoting the gig that’s a major problem. More times than not it turns out okay. I always get nervous a couple of hours before a gig, don’t really know why but once I’m at the venue and the bands turn up its great fun. I revert back into fan mode then and I`ll be down the front at my gigs dancing with a beer rather than watching from the back.”
We’ve heard what goes into putting a DIY gig on and we know what compels such people to do it. But aside from the monetary rewards, which for the small DIY promoter are pretty small or non-existent, what is in it for them? I ask Tony a question to bring our conversation to a conclusion. What are your aims as a gig promoter?
“I have four aims:
1) Get drunk and have a great time.
2) Try not to lose too much money.
3) Only ever put bands on I genuinely love .
4) Hope that in 10, 20 or even 30 years’ time someone sits in a pub talking to a mate and says “Do you remember that great gig?”
So next time you’re contemplating attending a small show take a little time to consider the time and effort that has gone on behind the scenes. The stress, the worry, the harassment and the financial concerns that the promoter has gone through to put it on. And if you enjoy it, find the promoter and thank them, let them know their effort was appreciated. And try to remember to tell a mate 10 years into the future about it and make Tony’s aim come true.
Strangling Vinyl are bringing Leicester Skating Polly & Soeur on 29th July at The Cookie, Cud & Echolocation on 21st October at The Soundhouse, Frank and Walters on 4th November at The Soundhouse and Pop Will Eat Itself on 12th November at Dryden Street Social.