The business of live music

Arts Marketing: An International Journal

ISSN: 2044-2084

Article publication date: 21 October 2011



(2011), "The business of live music", Arts Marketing: An International Journal, Vol. 1 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The business of live music

Article Type: Editorial From: Arts Marketing: An International Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2.

This paper introduces a special issue of Arts Marketing on the business of live music. It explains the context of the issue " a conference springing from a research project and outlines both the neglect of the live music promotion business in academic research and the reasons for promoters’ importance as an object of study. Various issues in the live music business are highlighted: music as a service; the live music ecology; live music and technology; the value of the live music experience.

The papers in this issue of Arts Marketing were first delivered at a conference on The Business of Live Music held in Edinburgh University from 31 March-2 April 2011. This event was organised to celebrate the conclusion of a three-year AHRC-funded research project, directed by Simon Frith and Martin Cloonan, on the history, sociology and economics of live music promotion in Britain since 1950.

Our original aim in putting this project together was simply to get a better understanding of Britain's live music sector. We were interested in all kinds of musical event, which we approached from a variety of academic perspectives. We wanted to understand live music both phenomenologically, as a social event and aesthetic experience, and institutionally, as something shaped by legal and state regulations and economic and marketing strategies. And we wanted to know more about the people involved, the promoters, venue managers and impresarios who bring live music to the public. Our research was thus organised around these questions:

  • How is the live music business in the UK presently organised and how has it changed over the last 60 years?

  • How do promoters understand the live music experience that they seek to persuade audiences to enjoy?

  • What values are attached to live music by its various publics?

  • How does live music fit into the overall organisation of the music industry (broadly defined), on the one hand, and the leisure economy, on the other?

  • What effects has state regulation and policy had on the promotion of live music?

Our starting point was ignorance (and we quickly realised that we were even more ignorant than we had thought). Popular music studies almost always equate “the music industry” with the record industry (see Williamson and Cloonan, 2007). There is surprisingly little academic work on the post-war social history of British music (the best such history, Nott, 2002, stops in 1945). And the business of promotion " how it works economically, as an occupation, in terms of risk and market management " is rarely studied in business schools. Music festivals, for example, are more often treated in terms “event management” and visitor attraction than as centrally important components of the music business (see Chris Anderton's paper below). In 2008 we therefore recruited a post-doc researcher (Matt Brennan) and a PhD student (Emma Webster) who have spent the last three years interviewing promoters at all levels of the business (and from all decades since 1950), going through Melody Maker, Music Week and numerous other national and local music magazines and newspaper pages, exploring the Musicians Union and other archives, reading Parliamentary papers and musicians’ biographies and autobiographies, participating in and observing gigs and venues, attending festivals and promoters’ trade gatherings and, in general, immersing themselves (and us) in live music culture.

The results of our research will be published in three volumes (Brennan et al., in preparation). We need three volumes not just because live music is such a rich research topic but also because to understand the business of music from a promoter's perspective is to call into question much of the received wisdom of recent British popular music history. We got an idea of what is at stake here from an early project experience, when we unsuccessfully submitted an paper to an academic popular music journal. One of the dismissive peer reviewers suggested that we had, in effect, gone native, taking what promoters told us at face value when “everyone knew” that they were, by and large, untrustworthy, shady and crooked!

How and why “everyone” knows this is, of course, the interesting research question, an effect of the kind of deals promoters necessarily have with performers and audiences, as well as with other musical entrepreneurs " agents, managers, broadcasters and record company executives " and state regulators. Shane Homan's paper below gives a good sense of the remarkable range of interests and negotiations involved in the contemporary Australian live music sector, while Steve Waksman's account of Jenny Lind's first US tour provides fascinating evidence of how long ago modern promotional strategies were established, with their combination of trust and trickery, risk and passion.

From a British historical perspective three aspects of the promotional business are particularly significant. First, to understand live music promotion is to understand the economics of music in terms of the provision of music as a service rather than as a commodity (this is apparent in all the papers in this issue). It is true, of course, that recording and the record industry have been central to British musical activities (though this may be true only in a relatively limited historical period " from the late 1950s to the late 1990s) but even at the height of the record industry's economic dominance most working musicians made most of their income from selling their services as live performers rather than from the royalties on record sales. They were therefore more reliant on promoters (and the business of promotion) than on record company A&R departments.

Second, promoters and promotional companies have to be understood ecologically, in terms of their place in complex network of musical relations across both place and time. On the one hand, the live music business is essentially local (events have to happen in a particular place and time) but promoters are continuously dealing with people outwith the locality " for musicians in all genres making music for a living must involve touring. To describe live music in Britain is to describe live music circuits. At the same time, while promoters’ immediate success depends on the takings on the night (more money coming in from the audience than going out on the performers, venue hire, etc.) their survival in business terms depends on continuing trust relations " with performers and their agents and managers, with audiences and fans. A money-losing gig can therefore be highly successful in cementing good relations between a promoter and an act at the start of a major career and in establishing a venue's regular clientele. On the other hand, making music for a living only describes a minority of the live music makers out there: in the live music sector the line between amateur and professional music makers (and professional and amateur promoters) is blurred (and may relate to different stages in a musician's or promoter's career " as is clear in Paul Long's paper on the significance for British music history of student promoters).

Third, the history of the live music sector (just as much as the history of the recorded music sector) must be related to technological change. This is most obvious in the relationship between amplification and the architecture of live music venues, as discussed in Robert Kronenburg's paper here. But the role of technology in the organisation of ticketing has been just as significant economically. In the last 50 years the economics (and economic importance) of ticket selling have been transformed by the telephone, the credit card and, now, the various forms of digital communication.

When we first started thinking about live music research, in 2006, it was still assumed both within and without the academy that the live music sector was in itself economically unviable, that concert promotion depended on state subsidy, record company support or various forms of commercial sponsorship (see Frith, 2007). Since then it has become equally commonplace for media commentators to reflect on the decline of the record industry and the rise of the live music sector and the latter has certainly become far more interesting to policy makers and academic researchers than it was five years ago. This was apparent in the number of papers submitted to the Business of Music Conference (far more than we could accept) and the interest the conference attracted both internationally and from a variety of disciplines.

The papers in this issue of Arts Marketing reflect what is becoming an increasingly interesting research area and have been chosen because they reveal what is, for us, one of the most interesting aspects of the live music business: this is a sector which is clearly commercial, in the sense that to survive promoters must be adroit dealers in the market for musical service and aggressive in sales tactics (hence their reputation as somehow disreputable " they are, after all, promoters). But, at the same time, the service they are selling, a musical experience, is valued not commodity terms but as something both transient and intensely authentic. Nick Wilson's paper here on the historically informed performance movement is an entertaining and pioneering account of the discursive contradictions of commerce and authenticity in a particular music genre, but the contradictions here are touched on by all the contributors to this special issue. They lie at the heart of the festival economy describer by Anderton; they inform both the student union activities described by Long, and the selling of Jenny Lind described by Waksman. And if musical audiences are not just consumers, nor are they just listeners " by gathering together in collective enthusiasm they are also potentially disruptive. Live music audiences interest the state in the way in which record buyers do not, and promoters have to take account of such state interest, as Homan shows here most graphically.

What everyone agrees " promoters, performers, audiences and people like us studying promoters, performers and audiences " is that music is not just paid for and consumed. It is also something that potentially inspires, arouses and changes people. And if promoters don’t understand that then their business is short-lived.


Brennan, M., Cloonan, M., Frith, S. and Webster, E. (in preparation), The History of Live Music in Britain. Volume 1 1950-1967: From The Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Volume 2 1968-1984: From Hyde Park to the Haçienda. Volume 3 1985-2009: From Live Aid to Live Nation, (to be published by Ashgate)

Frith, S. (2007), “La musique live, ça compte …”, Reseaux, Vol. 25 Nos 141-142, pp. 179-201 [Translated as “Live Music Matters” in Scottish Music Review 1, 2008]

Nott, J. J. (2002), Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Williamson, J. and Cloonan, M. (2007), “Rethinking ‘The music industry’: towards a new paradigm”, Popular Music, Vol. 26 No. 2

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