Gig economy

There’s an arts uprising going on in Liverpool with La Violette Società, where the acts get equal billing and a fair share of the take

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Some people love massive gigs – sold-out stadiums, thousands singing along to a globally-known star, the feeling that you’re part of a massive shared experience.

Some of us don’t. Many of us don’t really have the option, with mega-gig tickets now costing eye-watering amounts. A good thing then that organisations like Liverpool’s La Violette Società are out there, bringing affordable, accessible art to the people of their city, and supporting artists with something to say.

Held every two months, on a Tuesday night just before payday, it’s now a fixture for a loyal following of Liverpool gig-goers, with 130 punters turning up each time.

The event was first held in 2016, put on by Violette Records, a record label set up in 2013 by Michael Head, along with Matt Lockett and Paris-based artist Pascal Blua, primarily as a sustainable vehicle to release Head’s music. Formerly the frontman of The Pale Fountains and Shack, Head was once described on an NME cover as “our greatest songwriter”.

The goal with Società – called the Social by the team – was to be a regular live event with a difference, ripping up the “small band, medium-sized band, headliner” format. The principle is equal billing and share of the take, along with there being no set format – meaning spoken word and poetry along with music. Oh, and emphatically – no guest list.

Lockett says: “Our approach and motivation is focused on the art, the artist and the audience. We’ve never been in it for any other reason. We’re not naïve – we have a shrewd understanding of how the world shifts and how money brings options. I can’t speak for other promoters and what their motivations are, but we talk to artists and our approach doesn’t seem to be typical. Neglecting the talent is unsustainable.”

Colleague PJ Smith concurs. “The idea seemed simple, logical, equitable and different – audiences would come to see act A, leave the venue talking about act B,  armed with a book or t-shirt by act C.”

The first show was held at the Buyers Club. Gigs have since been at Shipping Forecast, the Magnet and 24 Kitchen Street before arriving at current base Studio2 at Parr Street.

Smith says: “The set-up was perfect for what we wanted to do – chairs, tables, couches and candles, a separate soundproof bar and a great sound engineer, Morgan.

“The staff are really helpful and it feels intimate without being too packed. We could fit more in but 130 is busy but comfortable.”

It didn’t fly straight away. Smith says: “Initially ticket sales weren’t great – we were close to packing it in. Booking one of my favourite songwriters, Carwyn Ellis, and have less than 20 people turn up was a bit demoralising. Then, and we wish we knew how, attendances started to increase. Our last eight events have completely sold out in advance.

“I think people like regularity and they’ve grown to trust us now. I know loads of people who buy tickets without having heard of anyone on the bill.”

Twenty-two gigs have now been held, including London, Glasgow and St Ives for one-offs.

Another thing that sets the Social apart is its suspended ticket policy, allowing those who can spare a fiver to buy a ticket online for someone less fortunate.

The suspended tickets have helped recent gigs sell out, with community groups and individuals benefiting. All this helps provide the sort of positive, supportive and friendly vibe you’ll struggle to find in a big arena.

Lockett says that whatever the price of a gig is, some people will find themselves excluded. “Their priorities are such that they just don’t have that spare cash available to enjoy live music or the arts.

“It is more important to us that our events are inclusive, and access to disposable income shouldn’t be a barrier. We’re not socialists and we’re not a charity – we’re just into mutual respect and inclusivity.”

Multi-instrumentalist Neil Grant, aka Lo Five, has performed at the Social and attended as a punter. He says: “It feels like the artist’s main considerations and the quality of the evening have been taken into consideration before profits or ego-stroking. It’s run pretty much as a co-operative, everyone has equal billing, all profits are shared equally after running costs are covered – plus, it’s about showcasing excellent local music for a discerning audience.

“The punters who come along to a Violette night know what they’re getting. That’s why people buy tickets in advance without having heard of any of the bands playing. If you asked most artists what their ideal kind of gig would look like in terms of setting and playing to a receptive audience, I’d say it would look very similar to a Violette night.”

Grant also vouches for the artist being supported. “In other places I’ve rarely been paid for playing – it usually all goes to the headliner, venue or promoter, if you can find him. Violette are fully transparent with running costs and takings. Shame to say it, but it was actually a shock to be recompensed after playing Violette – it’s novel to be treated with that kind of respect.”

Although the Social idea seems not to be replicated in other cities thus far, Lockett says there’s nothing stopping anyone. He says: “We hear too many people griping on about the state of live music in their city. It’s a tough one but griping does nothing and the change starts from within – buy the music, get out there and pay to see artists, support them, spread the word, use social media for the good.

“It’s a simple template underpinned by some simple values. We’d help anyone who is interested in working hard to stage La Violette Società in their town or city – it could effectively work as a franchise if people wanted that.

“Trust your instincts, invite artists who excite you, treat people with respect, work hard, be honest, listen, believe in yourself and don’t ever give up.”

It should be said, there remains a healthy small venue scene in most northern cities. Yes in Manchester’s Charles Street, a multi-floor venue including a 250-capacity gig room, was opened last September by ex-Gorilla and Deaf Institute alumni.

In Leeds, music writer Andy Peterson says the Hyde Park Book Club, a 150-capacity venue in a former petrol station, is starting to follow the all-conquering – and now expanding – Brudenell in attracting sought-after artists. “The key for both is diversity,” says Peterson.

HPBC is a coffee shop by day, and runs open mic, spoken word and art exhibitions too. The spaces are there – it might just need people willing to pull things together.

Grant says: “I think we’ll start to see more events like this with smaller venues popping up around town, which makes it easier to put on a night without making a financial loss.

“It’s also easier than ever to promote a night thanks to social media and I think a lot of artists are questioning the usual formatting of gigs too. A night can be anything you want it to be.”

Grant believes the event is doing a genuine social good in Liverpool.

“There’s kind of a camaraderie and mutual respect that I’ve rarely witnessed at other gigs, probably because those artist-audience boundaries are broken down and people are more familiar with each other. It’s a bit like a social club, and the suspended tickets are a simple act of consideration that’s indicative of the Violette ethos.

“I was talking to one fella who said it’s his one night out a month. He wasn’t bothered about going to other gigs because there’s no consistency to how the night’s going to pan out. That doesn’t happen with Violette – it’s always good.”

For more information about events see

Got the look

Imagery is important to La Violette Società. Co-founder of Violette Records Pascal Blua creates unique artwork for each event, helping to make each happening distinctive, and building an identity for the project.

Blua says: “Our objective is that they are visually timeless and about people. There is an individuality and a poignancy to every image which reflects on the importance and love we attach to these events. We want them to be eternal.”

Lockett feels it is a differentiator. “I think it is probably striving to consistently achieve this standard that creates a brand in the minds of people. We’re proud if that’s the case. There is so much bad artwork out there that it just makes us think: ‘Why do they bother?’”

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Interact: Responses to Gig economy

  • Clive
    17 Jun 2019 21:04
    This is great, but again not novel. The Klee Music Acoustic Nights at 81 Renshaw Street Liverpool have three performers who draw straws at Soundcheck for order of play. After a set each, they perform two tracks as a trio and then do a cover of each other’s songs! This is a format that is totally unique at the moment!

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