The London Unsigned Music Scene

Posted: March 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

What exactly is it like doing a gig in London as a small unsigned band? Are there some cool venues in London and do many people go to see these gigs? How do I get a gig in London?

Lots of questions for bands who would like to get started gigging in London. So what’s the scene really like? To answer that question first I will compare it to say gigging in a smaller town (dare I say Newcastle or Manchester!).

In Newcastle for example there are only a few “rock venues”; the most famous one being Trillians. You can go there to meet some like minded rock people and check out any unsigned band you want together. And because of this Trillians has a good “walk in crowd” that go there, buy drinks and watch bands play live. As a band if you are reasonably good, committed to your cause and gig regularly you can attract like minded “walk in” fans by playing here.

Lots of Venues but no Walk in Crowd

There are loads of venues playing live music night after night in London. There is absolutely no shortage of gigs to go to (and indeed play) in this vast city. There are thousands of bands based in London and the amount of talent out there is humbling to say the least. The great thing about this is that no matter what your niche or micro niche is, you will eventually find your type of music being played somewhere out there.

Another live gig somewhere in London

The downside of this is that there is no centralised rock or live music scene like you have in smaller cities. And so you don’t find a walk in crowd in most small live music venues in London. Indeed the only place I can think of that has a random walk in crowd is the Blues Bar in London.

Bring Your Own Audience

So if there is no walk in crowd then who is going to watch you?

The people you bring to your gig of course! This is pretty easy when you are starting out as a band as your friends and grandma are curious to what you look and sound like on stage and you can draw in a large crowd. In fact scoring your first gig is pretty easy if you just want to get started. Send in a demo of you playing live in your rehearsal room to show you are capable and that can cut it.

If you are looking to get paid, that is not easy. Typically for the first 20 paying fans (who pay £5 to enter the venue and see your band) you get no share of the money at all. But you do get a cut after that, so guest number 21 will earn you £1 and with that logic 30 guests will earn you £10. So if you have bought 30 guests to a gig you can buy the band a round of beers wahey!

After a few dozen gigs bringing audiences to gigs becomes harder. The typical gig consists of you bringing your own audience, the other bands bringing their own audiences. With the very worst promoters there is very little crossover in genre, one moment the funk band has loads of people cheering, the other moment the rock band is on stage and all the funk fans have dissipated. This factory cattle grid set-up means people come only to see their friend’s bands then leave straight out of the venue for cheaper drinks somewhere else. The bands you meet, the crowds they bring…it is all a random mish mash. Given that it is also too loud to actually talk to others, networking off other crowds makes it more difficult. Another reason why this group exists!

Did I mention that some venues actually ban you from playing at their venues again if you fail to bring a minimum quota of an audience? The Bull & Gate are one of these culprits that banned my band in 2006.

Pay to Play

Some promoters like Surface Unsigned and Emergenza commit the ultimate sin in the live music scene. They hand over the tickets for bands to sell in a Battle of the Bands type gig. This is essentially pay to play and no band should have to pay to go on stage. This is a terrible practice and you should avoid this one at all costs. Exactly how it works in detail is highlighted in this fantastic post called The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle.

Is there a scene anywhere then?

This random empty mish mash and lack of a scene is not the case everywhere. Indeed the lack of a scene represents London in general anyway, lots of people…very few personal connections….water water everywhere not a drop to drink as they say. But at University music socieities things are different, you already have a circle of musicians and bands. Students get to know these bands slowly and a sort of scene builds up with regulars attending. The same goes for open mic nights that I blogged about earlier.

So there you have it. London does have a huge music scene that is for sure and you could gig here loads. But if you do that, don’t expect audiences to be there for you automatically. Do everything you can to engage those who are actually paying attention to you on stage and for god’s sake get their email address on your mailing list if you’ve caught their attention!

Attention to your music is precious, don’t take it for granted. And that goes for gigging anywhere in the world, not just London.

And most of all…don’t forget to have fun 😉

  1. Hi atul, really enjoyed this article it speaks many truths I am an unsigned act and gig regularly in london and mostly to no one 😦 the fact is that a lot of the blame goes on to the promoters who just expect the bands to do all the work and to take none of the profits. It is a shame that so many of the promoters i contact immediately ask me to put money down and some have even asked me to bring as many as 50-100 people, which at the beginnings of a “career” is simply ludicrous. But there are good venues out there with good promoters one of the best nights I have seen for a crowd in a random area is The Fix @ the boogaloo on a monday night! Always packed even though its in highgate at the start of the week. This clearly shows that it is possibly to pack out any venue if the bands and the promoters do the leg work! anyway rant over… 😛 check out my music if you get a chance maybe even come to a gig??? xox

  2. MXR Effects says:

    Great to get in inside look into the London music scene. Us Americans need to hear more about the avante garde music scene in London.

  3. Atul Rana says:

    Hi Duncan, I did check out your’s pretty cool and so many thanks for recommending The Fix. Will watch out for it.

    @MXR Effects, I was inspired to write this post after an American friend suggested doing a tour in London. So I thought it was best to tell it like it is before they invest all that money coming over here!

  4. […] The London Unsigned Music Scene […]

  5. Ryan says:

    I tried to find a contact email for the owner of this blog but alas I couldn’t so here will suffice!

    I’m 17 and have been on the UK music scene for about a year and a half now. I can see where your post comes from, totally, but the thing is, if your band wants to succeed and make it ‘big’, then paying to play and prepaying for tickets is the only way to do it (unless you get spotted by a huge label talent scout or something!).

    I agree Surface Festival and Emergenzea(sp?) are awful rip-off merchants – they make thousands a year, because the only way your band goes through a round? is with audience votes. so the winners always are the bands who brought the most people, in turn, they have to play the next round and bring more people to progress to the next round, etc. etc. with the ticket prices also going up £1.00 per show.
    So yes, that’s awful – you get nothing out of playing these competitions unless you finish in the top 3, and considering there’s thousands of bands entering each year? that isn’t really going to happen.

    HOWEVER, pre-paying for tickets with the RIGHT promoters is a VERY effective and PRODUCTIVE, INTUITIVE way of playing to new people, and building a strong fanbase. If you are asked to bring say, 30 people to a show (I put on shows now in professional London venues such as Relentless Garage and Islington O2 Academy, so this is about as low as I can go!), as one of the opening supports, then you’re guaranteed that every other band on the lineup has had to do the same, so you’re playing to a crowd of like-minded people who obviously/hopefully are going to be liking what they hear from your band and will check you out!
    This is the way the music industry works, you’ve got to spend time having to work in this way, in order to build a loyal fanbase big enough for YOU to be the headline bands, who actually get paid just to have your name on the lineup!

    In my eyes I see it as bands investing in themselves, because essentially that is what it is.

    Likewise with tours, bands even at the biggest level, need to pay thousands to get on a tour as a supporting band to a big headline act – what do they get out of it? PROMOTION.
    It’s an investment into their music and the band itself – if you’re out on tour with a big headline act, if people like what they hear from you, then you have new fans. New fans? then hopefully soon it’ll be you headlining and other bands buying on to play with you guys.

    It’s sad, but this is the reality of the music scene in this day of age. If you have a label, then they pay all this for you (notice Twenty Twenty have supported Saturdays, The Wanted, Big Time Rush, Mcfly all since they were signed…?), if not, then you as a band need to decide whether you’re in it for fun, or if you want to make it as big as possible.

    • Atul Rana says:

      Hi Ryan,

      Sorry you couldn’t contact me, I have amended that and now my contact details are on the blog so thanks for pointing that out!

      I am cool with the idea of bands marketing themselves and making an effort to bring as many people as possible to gigs; and being given tickets to sell in the right context isn’t a bad idea provided you can return unsold tickets and there is no pressure to sell the tickets like Emergenza put you under. They say “you don’t *have* to sell tickets but the more people you bring the more will vote for you to be put through in the next round”, which essentially means you have to bring a lot of people and there is pressure in the band.

      The risk should not be borne by the band in the beginning. As for the big acts who run tours, that’s all part of an overall strategy…making a loss on a tour can be offset by download/CD/Merch sales. Which is not something starting out bands can afford! It’s a tricky chicken and egg situation, but I guess it boils down to survival of the fittest and ones who cut through the sharks survive to tell the tale and make it.

  6. Sorry Ryan but I think you’re wrong. None of this pay to play bollocks NEEDS to happen, It does happen because naive young people are willing to do crazy things when presented with enough glitter to blind them from the turd hiding behind it. As long as there are fools to be fooled, there will be someone fooling them.

    If a band is big enough for it to be a promotional advantage for you to tour with them then they can afford to pay you. If they can’t afford it, they can’t be that big.

    As for being forced to sell 30 tickets, that’s lazy promoting. Do not encourage it. More often than not at these types of gigs people will come for their band and go somewhere else afterwards. They haven’t been encouraged to come for the gig, they’ve been encouraged to come support one band. The bands will often see a tiny tiny amount of money from these shows too, while most of it will go to the promoter.

    Of course, I do think bands should still take an active role in promotion. I’m sure part of why these schemes exist is because some well meaning promoters and venues had their fingers burnt by bands who made no effort to bring anyone, show up on time (or even at all) or promote the show.

  7. Chris says:

    As a promoter across the UK, nothing bigger than 300 cap venues in London, I have to say that I’ve never gone in for making bands peddle tickets or even the classic “who are you here to see” and you get paid after 30 people deal.

    The reason is simple, if you only put on bands that you really like and believe in as a promoter then you should pay them the respect they deserve as artists and at the very least ensure that they aren’t out of pocket to play a show. In return it’s reasonable to expect that bands want to be seen and will do a fair ammount of self promotion anyway. However, as you’ve said, there are a lot of good bands in London (no including those who travel in to play) looking for shows, equally there are a lot of not good bands. It can be just as hard promoting as it can be being in a bad. Ultimately, if you persevere and you;re good enough things will come good.

    Obviously, people promote to make money, however, I’d always be willing to take £30 less in gate receipts if I really thought that a band were great. Having put on numerous free entry shows which only ever lose me money this isn’t empty rhetoric, the truth is, yes in all liklihood you’ll play a lot of terrible gigs. A lot of the time to nobody unless it’s a better attended/ genrally better promoted venue like The Old Blue Last or Proud but would it be any different in any other town/ city on a Monday night? In London, there is a much, much better chance of playing to an interested audience of 50 or 60 people who just happen to be in a venue on a Tuesday then I’ve found in many places.

    In a non critical way, venues to avoid when you’re starting out on a weeknight are some of the well known but smaller ones, such as 93 Feet East or Water Rats. Great venues in themselves and fantastic to play on a weekend but a struggle to fill on a week night purely because they don’t have the best footfall.

    Anyway, I liked your article and it’s got a lot of fair points.

    • Atul Rana says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for the comment and really good to hear it from a promoter’s point of view as well. I agree that it is way better in the start to fill up a small venue than have a large one empty! I have been through both experiences and prefer the small venue option. Also it is more intimate anyway and you got more control on the sound.

  8. Chris says:

    *larger venues like 93 feet east or water rats
    (amongst many other sleepy typos!)

  9. Some things are the same wherever you are…

  10. Chris says:

    Hi, I run an internet radio station, and welcome any unsigned bands wishing to get their songs played on air for free. Feel free to contact me for more information.
    We have listeners globally.

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