Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With : Andy Rossiter

Andy Rossiter is the founder of Brighton-based promotions company and record label Love Thy Neighbour, which has booked touring artists including Snapped Ankles, Soccer Mommy, Public Service Broadcasting and Bastille.

With over fifteen years’ experience in live music promotion and venue management, Andy gives tips on how to get your events off the ground, and offers an optimistic outlook on the music industry’s resilience in times of uncertainty.

Tell us a bit about how you set up your promotions company Love Thy Neighbour.

I launched it after a venue that I was running got shut down because of complaints from our neighbours about noise problems. That was back in 2011, but I’d actually first started promoting around 2004 when I lived in Southampton, which was rubbish as no bands ever played there. It was a case of if I wanted to see bands, I had to drive or take the train to either London, Brighton or Bristol. So me and a friend thought we would try to get these bands into Southampton. We didn’t have any kind of career aspirations or anything like that – it was purely because we had nothing better to do. If we lost less than what it would cost us to go see the band in another city with train travel, buying beers and getting food, then we considered that a success.

I did that for a few years, mostly booking post-rock stuff, which is what we were into, then from that I fell into venue management. A venue owner in Southampton bought a venue in Brighton and I positioned myself to get a job there as I knew Brighton pretty well from going to university there. They were losing loads of money on it, so eventually a group of us came together and bought the place off them. We ran that for a year before it got shut down, which is then when Love Thy Neighbour started. At that point, I didn’t know if I wanted to carry on with music. But I decided that I would and I’m still here now.

Was there much of a base of people wanting to go to gigs in Southampton?

Southampton is a big city so, yes, in theory, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. In terms of promotions we would just tell our mates and put a few posters up. It was all pretty basic. The general gig-goer at that time mainly wanted to see britpop or metal bands, but we wanted to book something a bit different. There’d be about thirty people who would come to our shows regularly, then every now and then we would luck out and a band might bring a load of people. Financially, it definitely wasn’t a success, but it taught us a lot and we had some great nights. I was in my early twenties and felt like I was at the centre of something, and actually a few people from Southampton have gone on to do bigger things; Kate Price who now runs Stereo Sanctity, a PR firm in London and a guy that works for Beggars Banquet.

What was the first show you put on, and was it a success?

It was a band called 65daysofstatic. I saw them at Truck Festival in 2003, and I’d had a few beers so had the confidence to go and chat to them. I said that they should play in Southampton and they said that no one had ever asked them to, so I was like, “I’ll put you on!” and six months later I was putting on a show and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I remember receiving their rider and thinking “What the hell is this?”. That show definitely gave me a false idea of what promoting was like because all of my friends turned up and my sister came, and my friends’ friends came. We brought about one hundred people to The Joiners on a Tuesday night, so we thought, “Wow, this is easy!”. Then, for our second gig, we lost loads of money. Looking back, we were probably over-charged by the agent because he could sense we had no idea what we were doing, and it was a boiling hot summer’s day so no one wanted to be indoors. But by that point we’d already booked four or five more shows down the line, so we had to carry on. We did that for six years.

Was there a point where it felt like your hard work was paying off financially?

We put on a show that was listed as NME’s ‘Gig of The Week’ and after half an hour of opening doors there was a queue outside, and I remember feeling physically tired from stamping everyone's hands. It sounds really stupid, but back then we never correlated the amount of money it cost to put on a band vs. the ticket price. We just thought that we couldn’t charge more than £5 or no one would come, so we never really made much money. Certainly not enough to live off.

A few times, we got to a point where we were kind of breaking even, but it was quite difficult to persuade people to come to Southampton. And because Southampton is a big university town, we’d have to build a new audience every year as people left and new students came in, which was good for getting to know loads of people but made it hard to sustain a real audience. I got to the point where I was working really hard at promoting, had a full-time job and was DJing on the side to get by, and I felt like I was just treading water. That’s when I decided to go back to Brighton.

Did you have much knowledge about musical equipment and tech beforehand?

Absolutely none. I remember the sound engineer moaning at us because we had one band with a right-handed drummer and another with a left-handed drummer and it never even occurred to me that that was a thing. The guy I was doing it with played guitar so he knew a bit about amps, but literally every single term that there is: backline, rider, advancing a show – that was completely new to us. After our first gig, the guy who ran The Joiners sat us down and went through the basics. For our second show, we got a rider from the band that said they wanted cigarettes. I was going to go out and buy them, but he was like, “No, give that to me” and crossed out a load of stuff before sending it back to their agent. I didn’t even know we were allowed to do that.

I did Business at university, so I had a basic idea about budgeting and marketing, but that was it.

For someone wanting to put on a gig but not quite sure how to go about it, where should they start?

The live industry has professionalised quite a lot from when I first started in 2004, so I’d say the first thing is so draw up a rough idea of what your budget is. Think about how many people you can realistically bring in, and how much you would need to break even.

I remember ringing The Joiners for the first time and babbling down the answer phone saying “I really want to put on a gig!” and being completely incomprehensible. I had to ring them back and explain what I was talking about. But the thing is, venues are always looking for new people who will bring new audiences. You never know who is going to become the next big promoter, so it’s just a case of being honest with the venue. Email them a short description of what you’re wanting to do, how many people you’re expecting to turn up, who those kinds of people are – i.e. students or an older crowd. Find out how much they’ll charge you for using the space.

In terms of riders, a band will send you a technical rider (drums, bass amps, any musical equipment) and a catering rider (food and drink). When you’re first starting out, most bands will just be happy with feeling like they’re being looked after and a few beers. So the technical rider is the most important one to pay attention to – make sure the bands are able to bring amps and drum kit, and ask if the headliner is willing to share. Make sure you’re as clear as possible in communicating who should bring what.

Then you need to send out an advance, which is essentially a fancy word for making sure people know what time they need to be at the venue and who’s bringing what. For a small show, you can send that out a week before. That’s basically it, running a live show doesn’t take huge amounts of know-how. A lot of people working in music start out by putting on live shows, because I think it’s the easiest area to get into and is good for meeting a lot of people.

How easy was it to find your niche in terms of the bands you book?

At the time, in Southampton, it was really easy because there weren’t a huge amount of promoters. The bands we put on were considered “weird”, but looking back, they were just anything that wasn’t either laddy indie or metal. So if any band fit that category people would tell them to get in touch with us. But we weren’t really thinking about it, it was just music that we liked.

Brighton is much more competitive, but the booking policy is still pretty similar – music that I like. I feel that if you’re not putting on stuff that you like then why bother? You may as well do any old job. Brighton does have a lot of promoters but we all have slightly different audiences. My bookings now are fairly aligned with the Radio 6 Music-style indie.

How important is branding in this line of work?

It’s really important. And that can be in a visual way, but it can also be on a people level. With Love Thy Neighbour, there’s three of us and we try to be at every one of our shows so that there’s a face to the company. Even on larger-capacity shows, I’ll work on the door. That’s not what you would necessarily think of as branding, but I think it’s a really important part of Love Thy Neighbour’s identity.

I’ve always used the same artist for my artwork, and I have templates so there’s a sense of cohesion, which is really important when it comes to standing out in a crowded market. If you’ve worked hard to think about who you’re booking and connect to those audiences, then you want people to know that it’s your show just by looking at a poster.

What does your day-to-day work entail?

A lot of emails! I only work on Love Thy Neighbour part-time as I have a full time job as a lecturer, but we meet up in person once a week (pre lock-down) and a lot of it is just listening to music. Then it’s keeping in touch with agents, keeping on top of ticket sales and which shows need a bit of a push, and also being aware of who’s doing what. I did have about fifty shows coming up, so I try to keep on top of knowing what those bands are doing – who’s got a new single out, who’s releasing a video, etc, and sharing that through my channels.

It sounds really business-like to say, but I don’t tend to listen to music that I know is already promoted by someone else in Brighton because I know I’ll never have a connection with that artist unless it’s something that I really really like. There’s only about ten bands that I listen to that I don’t promote, and everything else is either stuff that I promote or it’s artists that I know haven't played Brighton before. That’s because I genuinely really like the music that I put on and I really enjoy discovering new artists. That’s always been a big part of it for me. When I was getting into music as a teenager, I loved finding new bands that no one else had heard of. It’s part of my nature.

How do you go about finding new bands?

Often it’s just down to recommendations. The other two people I work with are in bands themselves, so we chat about artists that we like and share new music. Then I get suggestions either from agents or other artists, and I’m also in an email list with other promoters around the UK where we share ideas. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and hear an artist on the radio that hasn’t played Brighton yet, and occasionally I find new music through Spotify playlists, but I still find that the best way is hearing about it through people that I know.

As a promoter, finding new music becomes your life, so there’s never a moment when I think “okay, now I’m going to try and find new bands”. You’re just constantly aware of it.

What’s the toughest thing about working in the live music sector?

Losing money. I manage a few artists as well, so I see that other sectors don’t work on the same kind of gamble that promoters do – they get paid a salary. Sometimes you’ll put on a great event and, for whatever reason, people just don’t turn up. And that can be for as simple a reason as it’s a really hot day and people would rather be in the park. Other times you time it wrong and the band just aren’t that well known yet, but had you waited a few more weeks it might have smashed it.

On top of financial uncertainty, you’re working really long hours. I’ll start work at 8am on emails, and then if I have a show in the evening I won’t get in until 1am. And you can be doing that for days at time. You’ve got to be careful because it can take its toll on your mental health. You need to make sure you know what your personal boundaries are.

Do you think the live music sector will have to adapt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, or do you think it will eventually fall back in place?

After lockdown, our income went to zero practically overnight. Our audience uses us as a way to find new artists, so now that we can’t do that for them through live events, we’re thinking about how we can provide a service, whether that’s through playlist curation or limited edition releases.

We’ve been having the discussion about doing live streams, but every time I’ve watched one I just get bored. I don’t feel that the live stream replicates live music very well. I’m sure that at the end of this, there will be some platforms that do quite well and some brands that smash it, but I don’t think that’s me. For me, shows are about seeing people and being in a busy room among your tribe. You can’t get that through a screen.

One of the acts I manage did a Zoom call where she didn’t play live but she just hung out with fans, showed them some new artwork and that worked really well because there was a level of interaction, and I think interaction is what people are craving right now.

When I entered the music industry everyone thought it was the end because Napster had just started. They thought that no one was going to buy music anymore and everyone was predicting that record labels would become extinct. There’s always been challenges for the music industry, but it always seems to survive. So if you’re just starting out and are worried about that, then I’d say not to be, because it will find a way to adapt.

Finally, what are some of the changes you’d like to see in the music industry when it starts up again?

I’d like to see the big organisations that make a lot of money off of music to actually invest in grassroots. Particularly in the live sector. You’ll see venues talk about the time when Coldplay or Adele played their room, and that’s good from a branding perspective, but in reality they would have had one night where that artist played and they had a good bar take. That’s not enough to sustain your whole business, but companies like the major labels are making a lot of money off of those artists long term. If they were to donate a percentage of that money to the grassroots every year, it would make a huge difference to the stability of live music. It would help develop the next generation of potential festival headliners.

On a government level, I’d like to see more support for artists. A universal basic income would be good. A council could give an artist enough money where they could say, “Okay, for this period of time you don’t have to work, just go away and make a great album”. Because at the end of the day, Brighton Council, for example, makes a lot of money out of Brighton’s music scene. People travel here, spend money on hotels and in bars and restaurants.

Rent relief would also be really helpful for artists. The point in time where an artist goes from having a full time job and the band is a thing they do on the side, to the band getting signed or going on tour is a tough period, because an artist won’t have an income and probably won’t break even. Many bands end up moving back home with their parents at this period of their career, so some investment from councils at that level would make a huge difference.