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Lab report 2007-2009: how to run an improvised music club

On the eve of our highest profile event, with 13 events behind us, this might be a good time to reflect on the stuff I’ve learned (and am learning) about running a space for improvised music.

I’m indebted to those who have told stories of, and given advice on, running no- or low-budget ventures elsewhere. My thanks to Mike Hurley (Fizzle, Brimingham), Lin Zhang (Grind Sight Open Eye, Edinburgh), Hugh Metcalfe (The Klinker, London), Paul Harrison (Classic Anxiety Dream (RIP), Edinburgh), Phil Morton (Frakture, Liverpool) and John Russell (Mopomoso, London) for their cautionary tales and hints & tips. In particular, I’d like to thank Bruce Coates (FrImp, Birmingham) and Stuart Revill (Safehouse, Brighton) who gave tangible, concrete pointers about the dos and don’ts of such a venture prior to, and just after, the very first Stet Lab in November 2007. I am also grateful to Alex Fiennes and Martin Parker (directors of the, by comparison, more ambitious and grander dialogues, Edinburgh) for their advice. Many things I’ll be saying here are derived or adapted from the suggestions and practices of these people and their organizations.

Thus the first piece of advice…

if it ain’t broke

I’ve said in the past that, regarding my guitar playing, I don’t have a single original bone in my body. The same would apply to how I try and run Stet Lab. Almost everything we’ve done comes from someone / somewhere else. Guest plus jam-session formats comes from Fizzle; a ‘safe’ testbed for new improvisers—Safehouse; prioritizing audio recordings—dialogues; etc.

Stuart Revill said that there’s a surface appearance of freewheeling looseness with Safehouse when, in fact, it is tightly controlled. Phil Morton said that there’s enough chaos in the music so the organizational aspects should be as structured as possible.

Keep the day-to-day operation of your club, and the stage management of the performance, as professional and efficiently executed as possible so that, on the night of the performance, the music can fly in all dimensions.

the mission

After the bruising January 2008 Lab, I drafted the mission statement to clear this up with everybody and anybody who might want to be involved in Stet Lab. (I even felt a need to articulate what Stet Lab was not.)

This statement was partly inspired by the guidance document that Safehouse used that Stuart Revill showed me. Although the Safehouse guidelines were created for a slightly different purpose from Stet Lab’s mission statement, it’s good to be clear about the long-term objectives of your club. Having a clear mission helps decisions about what’s important and what’s not. It also clears up with your collaborators, and especially with your short-term allies, what you need from them and what they can get from you.

…And, just as importantly, it will remind you why you’re doing what you are doing, helping you through the setbacks and low points (of which there will be plenty).

[Incidentally, the tug-and-pull I experienced during, and immediately after, the January 2008 Lab was partly as a result of two ventures, one by the Quiet Club and another by Tony Langlois, imploding. Stet Lab was originally going to be sandwiched in a week between those other monthly events, offering a newcomer / jam-session niche between the two more tightly programmed entities. It was an odd experience resisting the pull of two forces trying to invest Stet Lab with the dreams of those defunct projects.]

scene building

the improvisative: selling a verb

Most clubs or regular events are promoting, and riding on the recognition of, names (of performers, bands, songs, genres, styles, etc.). They are, in short, selling a product—an object (or near enough to one that performed music can ever become). Stet Lab has a problem in this landscape in that we are largely in the business of selling a process (and not one that you can necessarily take home with you). This can be a difficult thing to promote, and I’ve fallen back on largely meaningless and/or misleading terms such as ‘improvised music’ or ‘free jazz’. Stick in there, and I think that you can cultivate an audience who recognizes practice as the focal criteria.

[Of course I’d be lying if I said I did not have allegiances—in idiom, in tradition, and in practice—I do, but I want to stress the possibility of trans-cultural meetings and creative (mis)understandings. However, I will have to plead guilty to the charge of exercising a (*ahem*) contingent form of bias since, as a no-budget event, most of the visiting performers are my friends and/or colleagues.]

…But other factors keep getting in the way. I’ve been disappointed, for example, in the New Music™ vocabulary that dominates Stet Lab. It’s as if it—the post-War, European and Euro-American quirks, habits and reflexes—signifies some kind of musical neutral ground. I wonder, especially when first-timers hit the stage, what compels people to disengage their non-New Music™ idioms and traditions—their other identities—when confronted by an open improvisative context. (I’ve never discouraged someone from playing the blues, to sing a song, and I’ve often queried musicians afterwards about why they did not.)

I also feel we missed our opportunity in engaging the broader musical community (and with improvisers from a more overtly idiomatic position) in Cork after the juggernaut that was the January Lab. I’ve mourned this, and tried to rectify it on occasion, but I have no plans to address it… for the moment.

guest artists

Here’s my (partial, situated) characterization of Stet Lab’s home town. The local scene is too comfortable for my tastes. Everyone has their place, and, for me, what passes for improvisation has a smell of a celebration of transcendental vanilla identity and social statis. I want difference and dissent and newcomers and outsiders and visitors to permanently infect the performances at Stet Lab.

I also don’t want a space in which newcomers to improvised music (performers and audience) get intimidated (i.e. ‘know their place’); I want it to be welcoming (although, I worry that I too might be subscribing to a notion of middle-class, transcendental upward mobility).

One more piece of advice: don’t overload one event with guest artists (don’t do the January 2008 Lab). If you do that, you run out of steam real quick, and you can lose sight of the space for newcomers.

[We’re currently not in a great financial situation in regards to guest artists. Currently, we pay door money that can range from €10 to 120 for the guest artist. Ideally, I’d like to move to a situation in which we can guarantee a fee (even if small) for the performers, but this is not going to happen until we transform Stet Lab into a formal organization, and we gain some kind of external support.]

gender makeup of Stet Lab

Difficult issue to crack. Bruce Coates and I have had long discussions about the ‘macho’ aspect of much improvised music. I suspect that (as Phil Morton has pointed out), the ‘old boys’ network’ that underlies the small (if scattered) tribes of improviser-musicians is also partly to blame.

Stet Lab had been doing reasonably well until June 2008, but… sorry, no magic pill, but it doesn’t get solved without a lot of work. Acknowledge it and address it.

student population

Music students of a formal educational institution have, for better or worse, been the single largest minority in the Stet Lab-verse. They are curious, adventurous and, by-and-large, unafraid of failure. They are, in many respects, the perfect model of an improviser.

The College Student Syndrome, on the other hand, does sometimes hang-around the Lab like a albatross when dealing with bureaucrats and funding bodies. The presence of student performers can also, for reasons that I’ve never been able to understand, intimidate other (rookie) improvisers. (Can someone please explain this to me?)

However, I agree with Mike Hurley that it’s good to have students involved, and as UCC is AFAIK the biggest single employer in Cork, I find it weird that funding bodies would avoid us for that reason.


inside and outside

Minority interest musical practices can be prone to cliques. Especially in a small town, the in crowd know each other, and this can be intimidating to newcomers.

Bruce advised me that you should try and recognize people, learn their names, greet them at each event if possible. There’s no magic pill, but you need to open this social space up without removing the possibility of connoisseurship (you want, perhaps, to create an environment in which newcomers can develop connoisseurship).

…And examine your prejudices: avoid the expectation that your audience come from certain classes, identities, genders, ethnicities, races, nationalities, colors, shapes or sizes. (No, I haven’t fully learned this one either, but, as per Franziska Schroeder’s excellent suggestion, I’ve recently distributed posters to Cork’s language schools….)


Having a regular space and a regular time and calendar spot helps, but you still need to find your audience. Here some potential routes: flyers, posters, press and online resources.

Flyers: This I learned from Bruce: Go to every ‘compatible’ event in town (left-field jazz concerts, experimental music festivals, talks by visiting improvisers, etc.) and flyer everyone who comes out the door.

Posters: I have no idea how well this works. I have only three concrete cases where the poster caught someone’s attention, and of those, only two came to a performance.

Press: This divides into press releases and listings. Again, I know of only one case in which someone came to a Lab because of a local listing (and we’ve never seen him since). Press visibility, however, may help any future funding application, and can persuade visiting (and local) artists that we are at least serious.

Online resources: This, to some extent, is circular. The more press releases and listing that you can get online, the higher your google ranking; the higher the google ranking the greater visibility you have… You may also consider some of the usual, legit SEO optimization tricks.

However, I don’t know if this brings new audience in, but it’s a good way of keeping in touch with your existing base. This is especially important for last minute notifications of changes such as when a venue shifts you around…


Looking for, and finding, a suitable space for improvised music ain’t easy. Especially, if you want a jam session model, you want a space that is relatively informal, perhaps intimate (concert spaces can scare the newcomer to improvisation). I’ve also gravitated towards a small- or no-PA situation since it helps train those of us who have greater resources in terms of volume to be sensitive to the quieter voices, and it greatly reduces setup time (again, a significant issue in jam session contexts).

Here the Stet Lab check list:

  • Reasonable acoustics for unamplified instruments.
  • We’re allowed to charge at the door, and, in order to charge at the door, we need…
  • …a separate room from the main bar/public area.
  • Free of charge (or at least low rent) since we don’t make enough to pay the performers nearly enough.
  • Access to a bar (helps to keep the vibe informal—session-like).

Audience tend to come to off-the-wall, out-of-the-ordinary events if they know when and where they are held. You greatly increase your chances of holding on to your audience if your event occurs at the same place at the same time (currently, in our case, the second Monday of the month at 9 pm), so keeping things running like clockwork helps.

Here’s another thing that I learned from Bruce: check the booking with the venues, then double check maybe a week prior to the event, and then check again a few days prior. In the brief period in which the Lab has been operating, we’ve had almost every conceivable venue problem: double bookings, mysterious disappearances of the booking, bookings on the wrong day, venues that suddenly decide to charge us rent, venues that lose their music license, and, most spectacularly, venues that get torn down. Having a contingency plan is handy (as we’ve resorted to the University concert hall), but you will lose a significant portion of your audience every time you resort to it.

get a team

I don’t do this alone, and I couldn’t (probably wouldn’t) do this alone. A very, very big thanks to all the Stet Lab (ir)regulars, past and present. In particular, Veronica Tadman and Kevin Terry presently, and Eoin Callery in the past, have served this enterprise well beyond the call of duty. I’m also grateful to Anne-Marie Curtin and Nicki Ffrench Davis for their help in the early days when Stet Lab was the odd-ball offshoot of the Cork Music Collective (RIP).

The events just would just not have happened, and the Lab have likely imploded in the first few month, without them.


…beware of people who talk-the-talk, but don’t turn up; people who (a) say that they would be involved if only such-and-such (the person with the vision gets the job), (b) want to run before we can walk (suggest some whizz-bang, spectacularly time consuming addition to the monthly event), or (c) people who say something is easy, but will not commit to doing any work. I recommend that you see if people are willing turn up every month, help in a low-level, low-key way, before asking them to start their grand plan. Alternatively, ask them to execute their grand plan for, say, three months before going official or public with it (a test run to see if they have the long-term stamina to keep it up).

You need to make judgment calls, weighing the amount of time needed to execute a project vs. the benefits given the long-term aims of your club. (For example, video documentation would be nice, but no professional improvising musicians that I know can turn (even indirectly) video into income of any kind, and it is enormously time consuming to edit and process on our part.)

It’s often good to remind people that there’s nothing wrong with ‘just’ being an audience member or ‘just’ a performer. You really have to be committed to the enterprise, and get a big, big, big kick out of witnessing improvised music (sometimes bad, often indifferent, only on occasion spectacular, although always fascinating) every month for you to labor behind the scenes of an entity like Stet Lab. Getting something like the Lab running is mostly unglamorous drudgery, time consuming and frustrating, and that’s (understandably) not for most people.

is it worth it?

am I club-runner or performer?

John Russell told me that he set up Mopomoso partly to give himself a space to perform. It’s taken me almost a year to come to terms with this, but there’s similar motivations for continuing with Stet Lab.

Early on, I felt I needed some curatorial (and ideological) distance between my own take on improvisation, performance and music, and Stet Lab’s ongoing practice. To that end, I removed myself from performing as part of four Labs (January to April, 2008), but I’ve since decided that such curatorial ‘objectivity’ doesn’t much make sense, and I need remind myself that I define myself primarily as an improviser-performer, and only by necessity am I a club-runner.

congratulations, you’re a club-runner

Whether you would want to organize a regular improvised music event depends on what you’re looking to gain from it. Stet Lab, for me, is partly a long-term scene-building exercise; it is, at times, a place of research into the pedagogical, sociological and political dimensions of improvisative practice; an excuse to bring over practitioners whose work I am excited about; and a place to play.

Good luck, and let me know of your experiences and please share your stories.


  1. Posted February 2, 2009 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    “…The presence of student performers can also, for reasons that I’ve never been able to understand, intimidate other (rookie) improvisers. (Can someone please explain this to me?)…”

    Inhibitions tend to arise from a lack of communication. Accordingly, it’s a good idea to have a talk with all of the performers involved beforehand. See what the musicians are willing to share, what’s meaningful to them, and whether they actually listen to each other. That last one’s important. In open discussions, I can quickly determine who has really done their homework. After a while, one’s training at conservatory or whatever is irrelevant. I’m more interested in what a performer can contribute, in real-time, to a given ensemble.

    Hope that makes sense. Thanks for posting this essay.

  2. Posted February 2, 2009 at 2:30 am | Permalink


    Thanks for the comment.

    Yes, that does make sense… but I was trying to make a parallel point.

    I wasn’t very clear in the article, but what I wanted to say wasn’t that there were problems on-stage, but that the other (rookie) improvisers would be reluctant to go up there in the presence of formally educated musicians. We’d often not get as far as a real-time musical meeting between those groups…

    I’d never encountered this phenomenon until recently, and I’m curious if this is specifically an issue with Stet Lab (or with Cork, or with Ireland). In my experience, in other improv spaces (in other towns, in other countries), there would be the narrative of the ‘self-made’ musician that would act as a counterpoint and complement to the formally educated musician. With Stet Lab, it’s almost as if that rhetorical / ideological / cultural alternative doesn’t operate here.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comment, and thanks for reading.

  3. Posted February 2, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi Han,

    A couple of responses…

    What did you mean by ‘bruising’ about the Jan 08 ‘juggernaut’ StetLab? I didn’t realise if it hadn’t gone well… then again I was downstairs on door for alot of it I think… there’s clearly a story there but I think it’s weird to mention but not explain.

    In my opinion rookies who might be interested in improv are put off by students due to their own fragile egos, because students are getting formal tuition and the perception is therefore a) that they may be significantly ‘better’ and make the rookie look bad, b) that they may criticise (albeit silently) the rookie’s less developed playing styles c) that they are going to be coming from a place theoretically that you can only get to by going to college and therefore there is no point (sic) in trying to get involved. (It might be worth noting that when I entered UCC to study music is exactly the time I stopped performing for good having played keenly and naturally all my life til then. I remember in particular a fellow student dropping into me during one of my last practise sessions saying (I’m sure she didn’t mean to be unkind, though I’m equally certain she didn’t mean it as a compliment) “I’ve never seen anyone play like that before!”.)

    You don’t mention the change of day from Thursday to Monday I think that’s very significant and worth talking about for the potential club-runner who might read it.

    Think that’s it,


  4. Posted February 2, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Hey Nicki,

    What did you mean by ‘bruising’ about the Jan 08 ‘juggernaut’ StetLab?

    I didn’t mean much more than the “tug-and-pull I experienced during, and immediately after, the January 2008 Lab”, and that the event didn’t adhere to Stet Lab’s purpose.

    As I said, sans mission statement, that was perhaps due to a communications breakdown between myself and Tony, but that event only half-heartedly encouraged newcomers to play (despite delegated the curatorial duties to Tony, it was I who had to run around trying to engage people to perform), nor was there much pro-active interaction between old-timers and new.

    My feeling was that the old-timers were there to perform with each other, and any engagement with the newcomers was, at best, an afterthought. Stet Lab isn’t supposed to be an “exclusive space for performers and practices already catered for by existing clubs, venues, festivals and concert series”. (Besides, although I consider myself a club-runner by necessity, I have no interest in being a promoter for someone else’s music.)

    Additionally, and I don’t know if these comments were recorded in the Cork Music Collective minutes, that was also the point at which Stet Lab became something a little ‘scary’ to other members of the collective. After all, the January ’08 Lab—its participants, its audience—didn’t exactly give David Backhouse, who performed after it, a wonderful time (or a fair chance).

    In my opinion rookies who might be interested in improv are put off by students due to their own fragile egos…

    Wonder what the solution might be…

    You don’t mention the change of day from Thursday to Monday….

    Necessity is the mother of invention. We could get a venue for free on Mondays 😉

    Thanks for the questions and comments!

  5. Veronica Tadman
    Posted February 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    This is a valuable and eye-opening insight into how much work goes into Stet Lab.
    On the Publicity section of the article: It all boils down to consistancy: we have been getting alot of publicity in the local newspapers and online websites, I agree that it may not be drawing in the majority of punters but if we were to pull the plug on these valuble forms of publicity then people will forget about us – after all we’re not exactly a ‘mainstream’ event. It could just happen that one day a group of friends might be at a loss as what to do one monday and because they have seen regular articles in the press, that they may decide to take a look; it is then a domino affect with a hint of marmite: either love it or hate it but they’ve experienced it and will talk about it cosequently widening out the population that know about Stet Lab.
    As for posters, well I think that they work as reminders and have a sub-conscious affect on people.
    I had a French guy call in Opus2 before Christmas enquiring about the ‘Saxophone gig’ advertised in our window… it was the Stet Lab poster that he was referring to and he was disappointed that he wouldn’t be in the country to attend ‘the gig.’

    If there are worries about publiity, may I suggest a survey should be drawn up so that we can find out where to focus our efforts from the findings?

  6. Posted February 5, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I suggest a survey should be drawn up so that we can find out where to focus our efforts from the findings?

    Veronica, that’s a great idea. Hint: would you like to draw one up?

  7. Posted February 10, 2009 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    This is one of most thoughtful and though-provoking articles on the topic I’ve yet seen. Thank you so, so much! Cheers from Athens, Georgia.

  8. Posted February 10, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink


    Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading. (My guess is that you’d have a story or two to tell…)

  9. Méadhbh B
    Posted March 10, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    This is interesting, and insightful, indeed it is not easy to co-ordinate events, especially on a regular basis. I am one of those ‘newcomers’ you spoke of, can I just say that people like me are not to be ‘feared’ or judged or whatever….I merely put it on the (very) long finger to get involved…Personally, I have felt (in my little experience) that these process-centred music events/gatherings are very exposing of oneself, perhaps I am reading into it too much, maybe I should just be more ballsy? I have been playing music for many years (not that that matters..), so have a certain ‘performance’ or ‘composition’ background I have grown accustomed to. I am an avid listener of music, so we can rule out the notion of me being a music-nazi…I went to a sound walk put on by Frakture in Liverpool 3 or 4 years ago, I will always remember it. I am rambling, and looking forward to tonight….perhaps I’ll bring the old fiddle….

  10. Posted January 19, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Go to every ‘compatible’ event in town (left-field jazz concerts, experimental music festivals, talks by visiting improvisers, etc.) and flyer everyone who comes out the door.

    An addendum: a good strategy (not just for clubs, but also tours and other events) is to swap flyers with other performers, ensembles, organizations, etc. Distribute their flyers in exchange for them distributing yours.

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] already done that elsewhere so no, not […]

  2. […] to all who’ve supported the Lab. Here’s hoping the next three years are just as fascinating. [Some thoughts from the midpoint (2009)…] This entry was written by Han-earl Park, posted on January 27, 2011 at 6:32 am, filed under gigs […]

  3. […] BTW, some of my observations about running this space around the half-way point of my tenure as curator are at ‘Lab report 2007-2009: how to run an improvised music club’. […]

  4. […] Han-earl Park, January 30, 2009: ‘Lab report 2007-2009: how to run an improvised music club’ […]