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The Ups and Downs of Being a Teenage DIY Promoter in a Quiet Town Outside London

The typical story of a matted haired 17 year-old from Guildford, trying to do anything but read Frankenstein for his A-Levels.

03 June 2015, 9:55am

All this week on Noisey, we’ll be falling arse-backwards into the state of UK music in a special series of articles about scenes outside the capital: from club closures to brain drains to free parties to local legends. Follow all the content on our Fuck London hub here.

If you're not minted, then Guildford, national winner of "Britain in Bloom", is coated in the acrid stench of despair. Its inhabitants are, by and large, incapable of anything other than commuting to their offensively remunerated city jobs, bringing their children up in a manner to which they become immediately and indelibly accustomed, and, for the younger generation, falling out of shitty chain bars with an aggression fuelled by a mixture of boredom and intense privilege. And, importantly, it is a black hole of culture, emblematic of the barren wastescape that London's satellite towns represent. The two major cultural attractions are a theatre in which you're almost guaranteed to find a two-bit production of a minor Noel Coward play, and a municipal arts centre shilling £35 tickets for BBC comedians whose smugness, if properly harnessed, could provide a valuable source of renewable energy.

What the place does have, though, is a surprisingly large cabal of young people who really, really like hardcore. They gravitate to Guildford from surrounding towns like Basingstoke and Aldershot - a fact that, incidentally, has nothing to do with ACM, the local music school, which provides a retirement home for music industry 'professionals' who weren't quite good enough to survive doing the jobs they teach about. Instead, they come because the town offers a great, small independent venue called The Boileroom, and a couple of pubs that won't frown on them the way the landlords of their rural locals do because they ordered anything other than Black Sheep.

Back in 2006, though, when I was 17, Guildford didn't have a music venue at its cultural epicentre. Then, I was a matted haired young lad, working in a Costa concession in my local Waitrose, and trying to do anything, anything, but read Frankenstein for my A-Levels. The local scene seemed like it was at its peak, populated by the sort of slightly off-kilter people who are likely to be tutted at in the street but would completely lose their shit if you dared criticise where they live. They were, in other words, exactly the sort of people you want to hang out with. To me, it seemed that the best way to do this was to build it, and they would come. I decided to learn how to be a promoter.

The first challenge was finding a venue - because back then, Guildford had nothing of the sort. It did, however, have a rehearsal space, the innovatively named Backline. I never worked out who owned Backline, but it was run day-to-day by a straggly man who lived in a Transit van in the carpark, who had the air of someone who smoked enough weed in their younger days to render them incapable of forming proper human relationships anymore. The main room could hold about 30 people, and there was a second, smaller 'green room' in which rehearsing bands could hang out between renditions of their self-indulgent jazz-funk epics. I'd practiced there a few times in an ill-advised band about which I'd rather forget, and decided that this was the best (or only) place in which to begin what was a short but entertaining career as a teenage promoter.

Backline wasn't safe. You would catch electric shocks off virtually every piece of electrical equipment in there but, most importantly, it was an almost indescribable fire hazard. The main room was covered in blackout curtains, ostensibly designed to prevent fires. The problem, however, was that the curtains weren't flame retardant, meaning that a single lighter spark could turn the place into a towering inferno quicker than you could say "Excuse me, what's the number for the fire station over by Ladymead?". Still, the owners seemed keen on welcoming the hordes, offered decent rates payable after the show finished, and basically let us do whatever we wanted during the night. So in we trundled.

Image via TV is Better

The next challenge of promoting in Guildford was talent booking. Pretty much all of my friends were in bands at this point, and I could easily put them on as an excuse to hang out. But the real pinnacle came when I finally managed to secure Meet Me In St Louis. If you're not a hardcore kid, the life-changing possibilities of MMISL might not be immediately apparent. At this stage, touring constantly but having not yet decamped to the States to record their first and only album, the band were unstoppable. I first heard them on a hand-copied CDR on which there was one track, "I Am Champagne And You Are Shit" which, then, was probably the most exciting thing I'd ever heard.

For a start, their drummer (pictured above) was incomparable, fitting kicks in at utterly unexpected junctures, effortlessly moving between time signatures, and providing a base for brutal, stop-start guitar patterns. But they weren't just a chin-strokey post-hardcore band. What made Meet Me In St Louis great was their pop sensibility; they had rhythmic chops like no other, but they also knew how to write an undeniable chorus, and how to build melodic progressions up to strange but incredibly hooky conclusions. At that time there were few bands in the country to match them, and when they played for me, even in a shitty room under the arches of a railway station, vaulting across the stage as if it was their first or final show, it was clear that they would keep a place in the hearts of fans long after they split up shortly after.

The final challenge for my health and safety free gigging empire was alcohol. Backline didn't have a licence, I was underage, and so were most of the crowd. I remembered an article in the NME in which Franz Ferdinand talked about running parties in Glasgow. They had got around licencing restrictions by running alcohol raffles, so I just stole their idea wholesale. I found a book of raffle tickets and asked my of-age friend to buy a few crates of beer. We set up a table in the entrance hall, sold tickets - and, miraculously, every ticket won a beer. We made a small fortune, shilling alcohol to about 150 kids every show. The only hairy moments came when, on two occasions, the police turned up, tipped off about large gatherings of young people by the railway tracks. Mostly the atmosphere was convivial, but once someone was punched, right in the face, outside the venue. Even then they never came into Backline, so our mini valhalla continued to function unhindered.

Soon, though, Guildford began to change. Later in the year, a fully fledged venue opened in the town. The Boileroom is one of the best-run independent spots in the country, owned and managed by Dom Czopor, a singularly dedicated woman who, despite various unfairly pitched battles with the council, has run a wildly successful business for more than half a decade now. But when it opened, the Boileroom was really up against it. There was a pillar in the middle of the front row, obstructing the view of the stage, and they were struggling to get young promoters in. So, sensing an opportunity for expansion, I jumped at the chance to run some nights there.

I think I promoted four nights at the Boileroom. Some were just good silly fun; we ran a Christmas show at which a good friend of mine got so drunk on stage that he thought it a good idea to dive into the drum kit unprompted at the end of his set, after completing the festive cover I'd asked each of the bands to play. But the turning point came when I booked Youthmovies - the first act I'd put on who had a booking agent.

Boileroom in full swing. Photo by Rob Blackham.

I had no idea how to work with agents. They are commonly thought of as the ultimate bottom feeders in the music industry, and with good reason. Theirs is an arcane art, one that us mere mortals cannot ever hope to understand. But I persuaded the agent that they should play Guildford on 29 September 2007, along with their tour support Adam Gnade. Little did I know, at the time, how difficult booking agents are to deal with.

The first problem was advertising. I didn't realise that promoters were required to contribute towards the national advertising spend for touring bands, so that was the first unexpected cost. But the rider was the main issue. Youthmovies' rider was certainly not extravagant - beers, whisky, crisps and dips were in abundance, but nothing outrageous. In total, though, the food and drink added up to near £100. Not knowing any better, I duly went out and bought the whole thing, presuming that if I didn't provide four tubs of hummus, the band would immediately leave without playing.

In reality, of course, the band were shocked that they had been given their whole rider, and exclaimed that this was the first venue on the tour that had provided it. Even then, though, I had massively overestimated the demand for an Oxford math rock band in Guildford. We sold very few advance tickets, to the point where I ended up stood on the High Street handing out laserjet-printed flyers to bemused passersby.

That was the end of my promoting career in the "Britain in Bloom" winning town of Guildford. I rapidly realised that doing it professionally was not something that I was prepared for - instead, I just wanted to book my friends. But a couple of years booking shows proved to me a few things about the place that I grew up in. First, there will always be a sizeable group of people in any town who want to see live music. Secondly, there is usually a pretty big, even if secretive, pool of talent that's happy to provide it when encouraged. And finally, if you have enough blind ambition, you can get 150 kids into a 30 capacity firetrap under the arches of a suburban railway station under the premise of a beer raffle. And, at that age, that was enough for me.

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