This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Photos by Vincent Gallagher.
In a recent interview featured in the Manchester Evening News, clubbing magnate and Warehouse Project founder Sacha Lord-Marchionne reminisced on his early days as a promoter. He recounted how he "paid a cleaner at [University of Manchester halls of residence] Owens Park £20 [$30] and a bottle of whisky for the skeleton key" in order to distribute flyers throughout student halls. He went on to describe "a constant chase between me and security" that lasted for years.
Having worked at student halls in Leeds for over a year, I'm in a position to tell you that the situation is still just as ludicrous. You have one main promotions company who have a contract with the university, meaning that—officially—only they can promote events in the halls. Then you have a cluster of rival companies successfully paying students who live there to plaster the walls with their own promotions.
On top of all that, you have a constant influx of chancers breaching security in the thick of night to promote events. And, between all three warring factions, two very tired security staff armed with a trolley and a nervous fear of Blu-Tack. The result? Thousands of flyers turn up on site every day during term, and nobody really knows where they come from or how to stop it. I'm sure it's much the same kind of situation in the halls of any party town university throughout the UK.
Students are bribed with pizzas, drink tokens, and free tickets to see their favorite DJs. As the flyering gets more competitive, so the stakes are raised; one particularly popular promoter turned up one day, completely unannounced, and provided the entire workforce with a free curry each. The next day, flyering efforts redoubled. There's probably a micro-lesson about incentivization in there, but I'm too busy wiping bhuna off my hands to preach it.
Promoting clubs here is big business (there are over 1,500 students living on this site alone, all with disposable incomes and a ferocious appetite for drowning themselves in booze and attempting to move their limbs to music), and a cutthroat one at that. If a poster is put up, it's ripped down almost immediately by unseen phantoms moving in the shadow of the night. In its place, there will be 200 more, and nobody will know where they came from or how they got there. And this is relentless, on every poster board, and in every corridor, and under every door. It's getting tense.
Flyering in halls, the university states in its code of conduct, is not tolerated without specific permission. However, the situation has become so extreme that the administration has been forced to take measures to combat the illicit promotions.
These include the installation of the kind of student entrances HMP Belmarsh would be proud of, and locked notice boards (your poster in one of those costs you between two to four guest list spots and a few drink tokens). Problem is, as soon as these were locked up, people just started sticking posters on top of them.
Robin Gibson co-ran a couple of student club nights in Leeds between 2008 and 2013, before moving on to Bristol. I spoke to him about the age-old art of making students look at posters.
"We promoted mainly using printed material, but towards the end, with social media thrown in there too, we'd spend up to a month promoting each event," he said. "We would print 10,000 flyers for each event and aim to post most of them through people's doors in halls.
"Gaining access was difficult. The trick was to make friends with people who lived there to gain access and go under the cover of night, as the security are already dealing with all sorts of other shit—usually crying girls or lockouts. Free tickets usually had to be given, too.
"We really struggled with posters; if you put up a poster it's taken down and ripped up straight away. A combination of security guards and competition in the city did that. Leeds is an extremely competitive environment when it comes to promoting nights; it's pretty much a saturated market.
"It's not just posters getting ripped down. Promoters would go onto public forums on Facebook and say what they thought was wrong with your flyers, your event and how theirs would be a more enjoyable night."
It's also not just clubs that are being promoted. Over in the more lucrative world of laughing gas, trading rivalries have resulted in more than ripped up posters and passive aggressive forum posts. In a shocking (for Leeds) turn of events—dubbed a "violent turf war" by local media—a vendor was brutally attacked by men masking their faces with balaclavas and wielding baseball bats.
"It happened again a couple of weeks later," says Jordan Pow, head of the Nos Boss company the vendor was representing. While a driver was out for delivery, he was targeted by men in balaclavas: "They threw bricks through every window," says Jordan. "As our driver opened the door to make a run for it, they legged it."
Nos Boss' dealers now drive with in-car CCTV and take security guards along for the ride.
"Nobody is really allowed to flyer on-site, apart from that one company," confirmed Scooby and Julian, two security guards working at the halls in Leeds. "We've had massive problems. It has reduced slightly since the arrival of the big gates, but I still have to walk around with a shopping trolley to pick them up. I'm not joking!
"The company with the all-important agreement are supposed to remove all the other flyers, but they don't. We just have to try and keep on top of it, but with the volume coming in it's an impossible task. Most of the flyerers come from inside now—they're approached by the companies and offered work."
I do feel for the security who are caught up in all this—there are only so many Skibadee Birthday Bash flyers one can tear off a wall before breaking out in hives. So when I spoke Tom Buxey, Managing Director of major players FYI Marketing, I was glad to hear his outline of a different strategy for marketing directly to students.
"We get them involved in the event by offering sets to aspiring DJs, stage management, and artist liaison opportunities," he told me. "Many become ticket reps by selling to their network of friends and promoting the event at the same time."
Tom and his colleagues at FYI must be doing something right: their hugely popular Jungle Jam night just celebrated its 10th birthday.
Jack Chatwin, a first-year music production student currently living in halls, described being approached in his first week in the city by promoters who offered him a post selling tickets to a popular student night. "They just knocked on my door and said that I could sell tickets," he said.
However, the competition was fierce—Jack stepped out of the game after only selling a measly two tickets. "It helps if you're an attractive girl," he added.
Last year saw angry media student James Barford-Evans spearheading a campaign to ban flyers from his halls of residence and all other parts of the Leeds campus. Not only did he argue that the posters are "highly irritating," but also "a big waste of natural resources." He has a point: I've never seen any evidence of the hundreds of thousands of flyers that turn up at the halls I work in being recycled. Any suggestion to address that issue is quickly met by initial interest and concern from management, and then forgotten even quicker.
Other students, such as third-year Josh Julien, believe we should encourage such activity. Around the time of Barford-Evans' campaign, he told The Tab Leeds: "Pretty much all of the flyerers are students, so banning flyering will affect students the most."
This sentiment was echoed by William Wade, city manager at Voodoo Events, one of the largest student events companies in the north. He was quick to point out that promoting club nights as a student could land you a decent job after uni, explaining that he's "been in it for four years now" and telling me: "I've built my way up from the bottom being a flyerer to having an awesome job, bro."
It could be argued that it's a sorry state of affairs when graduates look forward to getting on the career ladder as a sort of professional litterer. Mind you, I suppose that's better than an unpaid internship or a zero-hour contract.
So I guess the question is: will the introduction of social media marketing techniques, adopted by the vast majority of club nights, eventually spell the demise of all this comical nonsense? Perhaps. But if the flyer fever in Leeds is anything to go by, it's not going to be any time soon.
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