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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.