“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” reads the illuminated sign by artist Nathan Coley above the old post office in Folkestone. Much as I hate to contradict him, on an otherwise quiet Sunday night, directly across the road at the seaside town’s Quarterhouse venue, something is most definitely happening. The small performance space, a three-year-old black box covered in white tubing on the outside, has been chosen as the place where dance act Hot Chip will launch their UK tour — chosen not by the band but by the fans.
Unless you’re a tribute act or Level 42, Folkestone is normally well off the touring trail for live music. Hot Chip last played here as support to Athlete back in 2004. They’re here again because a new way of booking concerts — “self-organisation” — could be the future of the gig business.
It was conceived by the Songkick website (five to six million visits worldwide per month) that scans the music collection on your computer or phone and tells you what gigs are coming up by bands you like in your area.
“We’re already helping people to get to concerts that already exist, and now we’re starting to get them to create concerts that they wish existed,” Songkick co-founder Ian Hogarth tells me.
His team have recently opened a second site, Detour, which allows fans to pledge to buy a ticket for a forthcoming concert which will only take place if enough people commit to it in advance. You authorise your credit card to be used but no money is taken until the gig is confirmed.
They’re still tinkering with the format but in Hot Chip’s case, Detour proposed one gig in Folkestone, York or Stoke-on-Trent — whichever town reached the desired number of confirmed attendees the fastest. What happened next showed the power of a few dedicated initial fans.
“The three places went along at roughly the same level for a couple of days, then Folkestone just exploded,” says Hogarth, 30 and a former DJ, who had the first glimmer of this idea as a teenager growing up in London, frustrated because the American rappers he and his friends adored would never visit on tour.
“The fans got a local radio DJ to talk about it, the music section of the local newspaper picked it up, and 12 hours after that it went completely viral and sold out.”
It doesn’t just work for single gigs. Sheffield folk duo Slow Club are currently looking for five cities out of a proposed ten to book European tours next month. The beauty of the system is that the most passionate fans get the gigs, making for an electric atmosphere at shows that wouldn’t have happened without the energy of the attendees.
From the business side of things, there’s less risk for the bands and promoters —most of us will have been to one of those mildly depressing concerts, booked by overly ambitious groups, where the venue’s upstairs section is closed or a curtain is drawn across the back end of an arena. Detour also avoids the sour taste left by some concert-going experiences, which force you onto extortionate secondary ticketing sites when they “sell out” suspiciously quickly, or charge you an admin fee for printing your own ticket.
“When people really love something they will step outside their comfort zone a little bit to support it,” says Hogarth. “Pure fan-to-fan marketing is the kind that will succeed in the future. It’s a sincere thing, something being so genuinely good that people become evangelical about it, and it costs promoters nothing. I think this could be how concerts work in the future. That’s what we’re hoping for deep down. It does a lot of positive things for bands and fans, and also ensures that the bands can make as much money as possible.”
At the Hot Chip concert, 460 fans are dancing right to the back in a sweaty set of almost two hours. One gig-goer is so enthused that she’s trying to kiss anyone within a 10 ft radius. The band seem thrilled to be doing something new.
“A lot of our favourite shows have been in smaller venues,” keyboard player Joe Goddard tells me. “People’s faces are right in front of you so it’s immediately obvious when they’re enjoying themselves.”
“It would be nice if this does start to change the way tours are organised,” adds singer Alexis Taylor. “It’s good to get out of the big-brand venues sometimes and go somewhere that has character.”
Hot Chip agree with the wider thinking that bands today need to make up what they’ve lost in album sales by working harder in the live arena — but it isn’t easy.
“It’s definitely the case that we don’t make money out of selling records any more, that’s indisputable,” says Goddard. “Playing live is the bread and butter of our work — but even that’s been hit by the global recession.”
So a system where they know they’ll never be playing a half-empty venue, or can afford to visit a country where they didn’t even realise they were popular, would certainly help.
“It’s currently more of a crystal ball game, using your gut instinct to choose what towns to visit. It’s inefficient,” says Hogarth. And his concept doesn’t just mean more gigs in cultural backwaters. There are plenty of great acts who haven’t yet been able to come to London, he says. The first Detour gig was in XOYO in Shoreditch last December, a first European visit for San Francisco electronic band Tycho.
The concept of crowdfunding already works on websites such as the consumer deal hub Groupon, the funding platform for creative projects including films and computer games Kickstarter, and music sites Pledgemusic and Sellaband, which have helped to provide fan financing for albums by Ben Folds Five and Public Enemy.
The keenest among us don’t seem to have a problem agreeing to pay for something that doesn’t really exist yet. When it comes to Detour, it’s not so much a case of “If you build it, they will come” as “If you come, they will build it”. As Hot Chip proved in Folkestone, a little faith can produce wonderful things.
Crowd-fund the music
From Martha Wainwright in your living room to a backstage pass, musicians are offering all sorts online to raise money for their albums
€30 Ticket to a private show in Jeannine Barry’s backyard (sellaband.com)
$100 Your name and picture flashed on stage beside that of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison at a Rascals concert (kickstarter.com)
$100 Custom magic scene terrarium hand-built by Datahowler (“Includes living plants that have to be cared for minimally”). (kickstarter.com)
€150 A song written about you by Please Be Frank (sellaband.com)
$500 Your favourite song performed by Paula Cole and dedicated to you on YouTube (kickstarter.com)
€788 Unlimited use Public Enemy backstage pass for three years (sellaband.com)
$1,000 Strip poker with Daniel Bedingfield and friends (pledge music.com)
$2,500 Your name in a Ben Folds Five song (pledgemusic.com)
$5,000 Ben Lee’s original album cover oil painting (kickstarter.com)
$20,000 A concert by Martha Wainwright in your house (pledgemusic.com)