Pet peeves about promoters

The gist of my last blog entry was that people who run spoken word nights usually work harder than the artists who perform in their feature slots and that the principle that you shouldn’t have to work for free should be as true for them as for the people they book. I still stand by that – people who run spoken word nights are unsung heroes who don’t get enough love (apart from when people are insincerely sucking up to them to try to get a slot) or money. In the interests of balance, however, here are some of my pet peeves about spoken word promoters:

Promoters who give wildly inaccurate finishing times on their publicity. We all know that in poetry and spoken word the published starting time is a work of fiction and accept that an open mic advertised as starting at 7 probably won’t really get going until 9, but if it says it ends at 10.30 and it doesn’t actually end until 12, I’ve missed my last bus.

Promoters not saying if the venue offers food or not. This may seem trivial, but, as someone who frequently goes straight from work to venue, half the time, I end up performing on a dinner of a packet of crisps and a pint of cider; the other half of the time, I stuff down a horrid supermarket sandwich en route, only to discover the venue serves mouthwatering food when I get there.

Promoters who try to emotionally blackmail you into coming to their night, by implying you’re a bad friend or (even worse) aren’t doing enough to support poetry if you don’t attend. Oddly enough, all the worst offenders amongst my circle of acquaintances run nights that I cannot physically get to, as I don’t drive and their venue is inaccessible on public transport.

Promoters who expect you to bring lots of your family and personal friends with you as audience when they offer you a slot.

Promoters who aren’t honest with you. I once sent my CV to a guy setting up a new night who immediately started raising all sorts of bizarre concerns about why I might find the venue difficult to get to. It was obvious he just didn’t want to book me, maybe because he didn’t like my poetry (which is fine – chacun a son gout, and all that), maybe because of my age (which is also fine in some circumstances – if I were starting a night aimed at 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t book me, either), but I wish he’d said so, rather than making obviously fake excuses.

Promoters who assume that if you don’t live in a city, you must be amateurish and crap. I’ve encountered this one a couple of times lately (and it may also have been the problem with the guy above – but, obviously, I don’t know, as he wouldn’t tell me). Oddly, it’s always provincial promoters who have this bias. I’ve never known an urban promoter give a shit where you live, but promoters in small towns sometimes have this starry-eyed view that anyone with a London, Bristol or Manchester postcode must be exciting and cutting edge and anyone without one must be the bastard child of William McGonagall and Patience Strong.

Promoters who offer me a slot at the bottom of the bill below some kid who’s only been doing spoken word a few weeks. And, yes, I know that the fact I care about this makes me only one step away from demanding baskets of kittens in my dressing room and squawking “Don’t you know who I am?” at waiters, but it’s really started to bug me.

Promoters who seem to be operating a policy of booking every other spoken word artist within a 100-mile radius for a feature slot except me. Especially when they insist on telling me they’ve booked a mutual friend every time they see me. (This sounds like it’s a passive-aggressive comment aimed at one person, but, sadly, it isn’t).

But most promoters are not like this (apart from the food thing – they all do that). Most spoken word promoters are lovely. And compared to the grief that they often get from artists, these complaints are very small.

Pounds, pence and poetry

‘There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either,’ Robert Graves once famously said. With spoken word often now hailed as the new rock’n’roll, though, is it still the case that poetry is never going to be a moneyspinner? I frequently meet shiny-eyed young people who are attracted by the glamour of performance poetry and who seem to think that it’s going to be a fast-track route to fame and fortune.

But, then again, I am also surrounded by poets and promoters who grumble a lot about how hard it is to keep going, about how every day is a struggle to juggle their art with their day job, about how in the YouTube, Spotify, Pirate Bay economy everyone wants something for nothing and about how it’s harder and harder to convince people that poetry is a product worth paying for. Plus, poetry has long been notorious as the ultimate self-expressive art form that has more practitioners than punters –  poetry “audiences” are often more attracted by events that give them a chance to get onstage and have their work heard than they are by the chance to listen to someone else.

This question is of particular topical importance to me, as I’ve just resigned from my day job, because I want to concentrate more on my poetry. There is no question of my not getting another day job, alas – I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t have a partner or a family to support me – but the idea is to get one that is closer to an urban centre where the action is and/or leaves me more time to produce, perform and promote my poetry. I may be deluded in taking this step (several friends and family have already told me I am, in no uncertain terms), but I am sick of being pulled in too many directions and if I am going to continue to feel underrated and overlooked, I at least want to feel I have done everything in my power to change the situation. Also, I have a book coming out later this year, which has also made the question of “How easy is it to get punters to part with cash for poetry?” pertinent for me.

Should spoken word audiences pay to see poetry? Well, why not? Most spoken word nights with internationally known headliners charge between 5 and 10 quid, which I know is still going to put it beyond the reach of some people on benefits and low incomes (I was long-term unemployed when I took up spoken word, so I REALLY know), but is a tiny fraction of what you’d pay to see a world-class musician or actor, and not even the most vehement class warrior argues that gigs and cinema tickets should be free. Also, promoters have to cover their costs some way and if they don’t charge, they won’t have money to pay their featured artists. If no-one can earn a living from it, it will become a hobby career open only to affluent middle-class dilettantes funded by the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Should performers always be paid? I still accept unpaid gigs occasionally and frequently accept bookings where my travel/accommodation expenses exceed the fee I’m paid. That’s largely because I am a childish, approval-craving attention whore, but it tends to be mostly when I know the promoter is struggling to break even themselves. Does it make me look like an amateur who doesn’t value her art? Am I allowing myself to be exploited by fatcat promoters? Am I making spoken word look unprofessional? Is it one of the reasons why I am not taken as seriously as poets who issue “I won’t get out of bed for less than 50 quid” declarations almost from the day they take up spoken word, when they’ve barely got together enough poems for a set?

Because let’s not forget the promoter in this equation. Yes, some do take the piss, but many are working unpaid themselves or even find themselves out of pocket, once the overheads have been paid. Sometimes it’s because they have no business skills and aren’t running their night in a professional enough fashion, but often it’s because they are the meat in the sandwich between audiences who are reluctant to stump up cash, artists who sometimes see a paid set as a chance to test out unrehearsed, weak first drafts of new material, and venues who charge to be used, gazump them at the last minute in favour of a more lucrative music booking and/or constantly hassle them to get their audiences to spend more at the bar. At one gig I headlined a while back, the promoter split the door takings 50:50 with me. He hesitated, “Of course, I could give it all to you….but, to be honest, I probably put more work into tonight than you did.” And he’s probably right.

For those about to slam…

Some (probably worthless) advice on slams for beginners , from someone who’s watched a lot of them and won a few.

  • Don’t start your set by saying, “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before/my boyfriend has just left me/my dog has just died.”  Audiences are usually prepared to be supportive and generous to a slammer who appears nervous, inexperienced or in some kind of emotional pain, but they aren’t usually impressed by slammers who actively try to cultivate the sympathy vote.
  • If you didn’t know that and actually did start your first slam appearance with “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before”, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did most of us.
  • There’s this thing called “etiquette”. Listen respectfully when the other slammers and any feature acts are performing (if you’re too nervous about your own upcoming slot to really listen, at least try to look like you’re listening). Do not: chat to your friends, check your phone or go outside to buy a drink/have a smoke during other people’s performances, loudly criticise other people’s performances, turn up late and/or leave early so you miss the other acts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (e.g. you’ll miss the last train home if you stay).
  • Do try to chat to the other performers in the breaks and at the end. You’re at least as likely to impress the spoken word community and get offered other opportunities by your offstage conduct as by what you do onstage.
  • Don’t try to chat to them before they’ve performed, though. Many slammers need space to get their head together and run lines before they go on, especially at major slams. And don’t do it in an ultra-ambitious, networky sort of way – just enjoy the experience of getting to know people who share a common interest.
  • Some slams are very eclectic, while others have a marked house style. It’s often (but not always) the case that young, urban audiences prefer intense, confessional and/or political poems about serious topics, like identity politics, while provincial and literary festival slams with a slightly older audience are more likely to favour Pam Ayresey-style light verse. If you can, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what kind of poetry goes down well before you decide whether to enter that slam or not.
  • If you do choose to enter a slam where everyone else is doing a different style of poetry from you, don’t expect them to experience a Road-to-Damascus moment where they realise they’ve been doing poetry wrong all their life and that you are a far superior poet to them. And don’t throw a strop, complaining they’re all Philistine idiots who don’t understand what real poetry is/all cliquey snobs who only vote for their mates, if you don’t win.
  • The biggest difference I’ve found between audience judges and “expert” judges is that audiences often want you to sound exactly like every other spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and if you don’t, it confuses them and they penalise you for it, while “expert” judges want you to sound different from every spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and will reward originality (often to the bemusement and displeasure of the audience).
  • If you do win, don’t think that automatically makes you the new Kate Tempest. If you don’t win, don’t assume you must be shit and there’s no point ever entering a slam again. Judging is always going to be somewhat subjective and on another night, with different judges, it might have gone a very different way.
  • The audience and the organisers will have forgotten who did well and who did badly within approximately 24 hours. They might remember who won, but you can’t even count on that. But slammers never forget – they’ll still be rehearsing their keenly felt grievances about the judging three years later.
  • It’s gutting when you don’t do as well as you think you deserved to do, but try not to be an arsehole about it. Congratulate the winner as sincerely as you can. If you can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, “You were fantastic and deserved to win” at least try to muster a fake smile and a noncommittal “Well done”.
  • Having said that, if you have lost it and thrown all your toys out of the pram, it’s probably not irredeemable – most of us have behaved badly on isolated occasions. Just try not to make a habit of it.
  • Stay off social media if you’re sore, though. A churlish remark made in the heat of the moment, on the night itself, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, is much easier to forgive than one that your opponent has taken the time to type out on Facebook the next day.