Blog: Laura Holmes

The Sheffield live music promoter reflects on how her work has changed over the last 12 months

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As a new independent promoter starting out putting on niche gigs of weird and wonky music in Sheffield, I was super-chuffed to get some funding from Arts Council England at the end of 2019 to accelerate my plans. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that the Supporting Grassroots Live Music funding wouldn’t actually end up paying for any traditional live music experiences at all.

The first gig of the project was due to take place in July last year, with the intricate and absorbing soundscapes of V Ä L V Ē (led by composer and bassoonist Chlöe Herington, also of Knifeworld and Chrome Hoof) filling the haunting space of Bishops House, a 16th century half-timbered house and museum in Meersbrook Park, Sheffield. But as March’s lockdown dragged into April and then May, it became clear that the pandemic was going to have much bigger consequences than just delaying my plans for a couple of months.

I was acutely conscious that the money that I had been given was there to support the artists and music industry infrastructure (venues and staff) that I loved, and that admitting defeat and simply handing the money back just wasn’t going to cut it for me. After a period of regrouping (and pulling in a freelance project manager to do the work that I just couldn’t get to with my three kids at home 24-7), we devised a new plan that would provide work to the same artists and technical team and create online content for audiences to enjoy at home. Since 20 October we’ve hosted two livestream events, with two more to come, premiering films made by our artists alongside live chat and audience interaction. A long way away from my original plan, but during this testing year, I’ve always felt that something is better than nothing.

Some of the headline artists we had planned to work with (such as Liverpool’s electronic art-rock experimenters a.P.A.t.T. and the unique nine-piece progressive marching band Perhaps Contraption) were already accomplished filmmakers and created new live sessions and lockdown videos for our audiences. Where musicians haven’t had these skills, and particularly for our local artists, we have hosted Covid-safe live session recording days using the same professional lighting, sound and filmmaking professionals that were due to work on the live events.

 I spent many weeks agonising over whether the online events should be ticketed

The trickier bit has been providing support to the venues. If we’d have been going ahead with in-person shows, they’d be getting the hire fee plus the bar sales, which is a reasonable amount of money even with niche audience sizes! Where we’ve been able to host socially distanced recording days, we’ve done that within one of our partner venues so that they still receive the hire fee. And for each livestream show, we’ve gathered donations for the venue that should have been hosting the live gig (in the original plan!) through our Scene Champion tickets – £5 from each ticket goes direct to the venue.

Which brings me on to the thorny issue of tickets. I spent many weeks agonising over whether the online events should be ticketed. I think, up until the pandemic, there was an expectation that online content should be free, as surely it’s cheaper to make and distribute? One thing I’ve learned during the last year is that this definitely isn’t the case. Not only are artists having to put significantly more time into making digital content (so much more required than turning up at a venue and plugging in), but the preparation and production time needed is also significantly increased.

I do think perceptions have changed over the last year and many more people see the need to support artists, even if they are watching online. We ended up going for a hybrid model – everyone registers for a ticket in order to watch, but there are free tickets available if you are low or no-waged (as times are hard for so many), and there is the option to add your £5 Scene Champion donation for the venue if you can spare a little more. So far, we’ve raised over £400 for venues from our first two live streams.

I’m not going to lie – it’s been a tough year. And learning all these new skills (basically, how to produce and present a TV show) with successive lockdowns reducing my available time to almost zero has been like learning to juggle with both hands tied behind my back. But there have been some real gems – audience members who struggle with live gigs (due to tinnitus or autism) feeding back how much they enjoyed the experience, the headline artists and local acts talking about future collaborations, reaching audience members across several continents, and the opportunities to work with and learn from other promoters that wouldn’t have arisen if we’d just been turning up at each other’s gigs.

There’s no way I’d want to replace the live music experience with online events or livestreaming in the long term. But there’s absolutely no doubt that my approach as a promoter will be forever altered by this experience – I’m already thinking about ways that the lockdown learning can be used to build upon the live music experience in future: increasing reach, improving accessibility and finding new avenues for collaboration and learning. On the whole, the continued support of audiences during these less-than-ideal times has left me feeling hopeful, but I can’t wait until we can dance, sing and grin together in a sweaty basement once again.

Buds and Spawn presents the third online show on 25 Feb, featuring nine-piece art-punk marching band Perhaps Contraption and Captain Avery & the Cosmic Triceratops of Intergalactic Peace, legendary stalwarts of the Sheffield festival and party scene . Tickets are available from Scene Champion tickets for this show will collect donations for the Abbeydale Picture House #saveourvenues crowdfunder. The final Buds & Spawn show in this series will take place in April with artists being announced soon.

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