Starting a Folk Club


You don't actually say what type of club you intend to run, although you talk about booking guests so I guess you are looking to make it into a concert club.

We see a lot of clubs as we travel round singing for a living and I also talk to a lot of organisers when I'm wearing my other hat, as a folk agency person. I also run a successful occasional concert venue up here in Birdsedge (West Yorkshire.)

It seems to me that the most successful clubs know what their audience wants.

I get organisers who say they've tried booking guests but always get a better turn-out for singers nights. Well, it's obvious what their audience wants, isn't it?

Other clubs try to book guests but decide they can't afford the fees for well known acts, so they employ people who are willing to come out and do a gig for thirty quid. They don't charge much on the door and the general perception seems to be that folk music is not worth paying for.

Other clubs seem to strike a happier balance, they book well known guests, build up a regular audience and then are not afraid to try up and coming names, or guests touring from abroad who might not have a household name in this country yet. They may or may not incorporate singers nights into this format.

One of the best folk clubs, though only small, takes great pains to make sure its audience feels welcome. They have a core of committee members, but they consciously decided not to sit together like a clique. They spread themselves through the room and make sure at least one of them talks to new faces to the club.

Yet another club (one of the biggest) has an excellent system of marketing via a mailing list. Long before most of us knew a PC from a CD, the organiser not only had everyone who came through the door sign in with a mailing address, but the organiser kept a record of which performers they'd come to see. So anyone who was a fan of one particular performer would be targeted with an extra mail shot when someone of similar ilk was appearing.

I can't recommend mailing lists too highly. They are our main marketing tool, both for Artisan as a group and for the Birdsedge venue in general.

If you're going to do it, do it right. Make sure you get some funding in place (lottery grants are available if you go about it the right way.)

My feeling is that the venue (and its comfort level) is also very important. Pub rooms are the traditional way to go, but Public Entertainment Licenses can be a problem. If your selected venue hasn't got one, you are up the creek without a paddle before you start until the present law is changed. Really good pub function rooms with comfy seats are good. Personalise it with a club banner and some decent stage lighting. If you have a club PA make sure it's run by someone who really knows how, not by someone who thinks he knows how.

Personally I like Village Hall venues because they tend to be a little more comfortable than most pubs. If your hall hasn't got a bar license you can tell your audience to bring their own beer if they want to and possibly get the village hall committee (there is usually a fund-raising committee) to do a tea/coffee/baked goods bar before the gig and during the interval. The hall keeps the refreshment profits (thereby fostering a good interdependent relationship between the club and the hall) and you get an audience who've enjoyed a big slab of home make choccie cake in the interval.

A note on food in general: Clubs that do food in the interval always seem to be really appreciated by the regulars who know that the organiser or pub landlord is happy to do something a little extra for them. The pub landlord at the Otley folk club always makes a big tray of sandwiches to pass round gratis in the interval. The most popular item being the tray of bread and dripping! (Yum) It costs very little to do but is really appreciated and helps to build a loyal audience. Food for sale is also good, especially if some of your audience comes straight from work.

Re ticket prices. Don't start off by undercharging. If you value the music then your audience will too. Charge enough to be able to afford good guests with names that will draw. You can either opt to vary the price according to the price of the guest, or set an average price and even out the highs and lows - though some performer deals will be in the nature of a basic price against a percentage of the door, in which case their contract will stipulate a minimum door charge of (say) six or seven quid.

Advertising: Obviously advertise in your local folk magazine, but you can also get lots of free advertising by making good contacts with your local paper and making sure you send them a good write up and excellent photos on a regular basis. If they don't have a folk column, offer to write them one! There are lots of other places to get free advertising, too, from flyers sent round to other clubs, to teletext and the internet.

Incidentally, I don't know if it's still available, but about ten years ago Brian Hooper from Southampton wrote an excellent little booklet called "So You Want To Be a Folk Club MC" which cost (then) about three quid. It detailed all the pitfalls of running a folkclub night from starting late to having a little too much beer. It had a whole (hilarious) list of how not to introduce the guests. It gave thoroughly excellent advice in a very readable and funny way.

ISTM that the key element in this whole wildly-meandering debate we're having is the charging of an admission price. An informal session of people sitting around playing or singing is subject to no influences other than the preferences of those involved and those inherent in the environment and is therefore exempt from what I'm about to say.

But once you start charging people money to get in the whole thing changes. There is then an obligation to provide people with what they will accept as value for their money. Note that I'm not setting any qualitative standards for what they might regard as "value for money": that will vary widely. But there are certain things which help to ensure that they do interpret the content of the evening as such; reasonable comfort, being able to hear the music without straining or filter out the noise of prats yacking behind them, being able to see the performers without craning their necks, access to refreshments and these days, for many people, a smoke-free environment (and I have no vested interest in this latter :)

We've had a load of very, very useful advice regarding running a successful folk club from a wide variety of viewpoints but I don't think so far there has been one put *exclusively* from the point of view of the professional. Yes, Jacey has put hers excellently but she was also commenting as a promoter and agent and so wearing several hats.

For what it's worth, here's one pro's idea of what constitutes a good working environment. I am not talking about concert halls here, I am talking about folk clubs which book professionals either on a regular or occasional "event" basis. Yes, I do play arts centres, festivals and concert halls much of the time but I have never moved away from folk clubs and never will and I still play dozens every year and have been doing so for a long time so I think I can claim to be speaking from experience and knowledge and I certainly speak with a fierce loyalty to folk clubs.

  1. A reasonable admission charge. There is nothing more painful to a pro than for a club to have agreed a fee and then having to watch them scrabbling desperately counting the pennies to try to meet the agreed fee. For god's sake, let's have enough confidence in the quality of what we offer people not to treat it with contempt when it comes to assessing how much is worth paying for it. We've been having this debate on a regular basis since the early 70s. There is no mystery to the fact that the most successful clubs are those which also charge a decent admission price.
  2. A reasonable sound reinforcement system. People don't have to use it if they don't want to but these days more and more performers are using instruments which require some form of amplification such as electronic keyboards, electric bass, guitar effects etc. And when you have a tin whistle player trying to compete with an accordion, bodhran and two guitars, sound balance can become crucial to the audience's enjoyment. PA does NOT have to be loud, it doesn't magically turn the music into Not-Folk, it is merely a tool to do a job and if used as such can make all the difference. If you book professionals on a regular basis it is worth investing in a house PA. If not, find out if the artist requires PA and, if so, hire one in and deduct the cost from the expected door take when negotiating fees and percentages.
  3. Some form of lighting for the stage/performance area. Having the performer in the same light as the audience does not enhance atmosphere, it diminishes it. The ability to increase the light on the stage and reduce it a little in the rest of the room instantly focuses the audience's attention on the performer and is a direct signal to the audience that the performance is about to begin. Saves the MC having to roar for attention. There is a truism in theatre - if the audience can't see your lips move, they can't hear what you're saying. Which is why theatres spend a fortune on lighting; it's not just there to make the actors look pretty.
  4. Advertise, advertise, advertise. There is absolutely no sense in booking someone like me and agreeing to pay me money then not telling anyone about it, complaining that I didn't draw an audience and you've lost a fortune. I'll do my best to make sure that the gig and contact information are listed on my own and my agent's websites, I'll get there on time with decent strings on my guitar, knowing all the words of the songs and having done the advance preparation to give as good a performance as I'm capable of. You do the best you can to let people know I'm on and then if nobody comes you'll know it's my fault and not book me again.

Running a folk club is not doing anyone any favours, it's providing a service. If you charge an admission price and hire a professional performer, you are engaged in a professional activity whether you like it or not. It's in everyone's interests if you do it successfully and doing it successfully means doing everything you can to ensure that anyone who would want to come knows about it in advance, that every paying member of the public who leaves at the end of the night feels that they have had value for money, that their participation was appreciated, that you're glad they were there, that you care what they think and you want them to come back again. *Everything* should be targeted to that objective.

Writing off a professional's essential requirements as them being elitist or wanting pampering or special indulgence is just about the most destructive attitude you could take. Yes, there are some in the folk world with inflated egos but they are very, very few. Try reading the riders to some performers' contracts in other areas of live music and you'll soon realise that folk professionals are, on the whole, just working musicians who try to be reasonable and cooperative and care passionately about what we're doing. None of us have contracts which contain demands like a bowl of M&Ms with all the red ones taken out or wine chilled to an exact temperature or large bunches of red carnations or Thai food or hot towels or bowls of illegal substances or several bodyguards or chauffeur-driven limos from the airport or ......

I love folk clubs. There is nothing like them anywhere else. And when I play in a folk club I feel a deep responsibility to give the very best I'm capable of. And most professionals feel the same. We don't need special indulgence or to be treated like superstars; if we wanted all that crap we wouldn't be playing the kind of music we do and we wouldn't be playing in folk clubs. But if you hire me to do the job at least accept that part of the expertise you're paying me for is the knowledge of what I require to do the job and try to provide me with adequate tools. That way, if I do my job properly, we'll all have a good night and we'll fulfil our joint obligation to the people who paid to come in - they'll leave feeling it was worth their while coming and they'll want to come back again.

And that, after all, is surely the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

Me and my friends took over a very old folk club which had been running down.

Don't believe those who tell you they will do all they can, turn up every week etc etc... they won't. The people who handed over the club to us promised to come and support us nearly every week: they have been once. I'd like to think it's because we filled the place weekly when they were getting 9/10/11 each week. They didn't seem to like it and sat in another room until it was their time to play, then left promptly after they finished. They never came again.

Next, if the club was running low on audience in the folk department; open it up. We booked local rock bands but asked them to play acoustic, we asked guys who'd always been in bands to play solo, we had blues, we had country stuff from America, Tex-Mex, R&B, we had The Skiprats (a rockabilly band) we even did book the occasional rock band and it went down well. We had the Bushburys on and then had Eddy (the front man singer/songwriter) come the following year. Of course we still have time for such as Keiran Halpin etc in the folk vein. We found we got a bigger regular crowd because of our eclectic booking policy, though not everyone came every week (we'd have needed a small concert hall). Pick people who have a local following who probably wouldn't normally go to folk clubs. You may lose one or two unenlightened souls who complain 'it isn't folk' but you'll pick up more at the other end.

Finally, have a maximum booking fee... quote it whenever people who want bookings get uppity about a fee and stick with it or you'll soon lose money. Of course, everyone has different ideas on how to run clubs... this worked for us and we are thriving.

Get a really superb MC - someone with a lot of character, audience rapport and ability to make people laugh and feel welcome. It is even worth paying someone to do this. The more you charge at the door, the more important this is. Ideally, the MC should be part of a resident band, or be able to play a short and lively set him/herself. The best situation is to have an audience who will turn up, whether they've heard of the guest or not, simply because the MC and/or resident act will guarantee a great evening of entertainment. This also gives an opportunity for less well-known guests to get work.


I'm not being facetious, but what is it you want to do?

Some clubs I've experienced only want a singaround with no guests - some only want to see concerts.

Some want to see concerts but hate/love floor spots.

Some will only come to see unaccompanied performers singing traditional material.

Some will only come to see bands who perform no traditional material.

Are you putting it on so that you can book acts that you want to see in the area & which you feel other people will want to see? Are you putting it on to make a profit (cackles of ironic laughter from all other folk club organisers)?

Are you putting it on as a public service?

What other folk events are in your area (clubs/concerts/radio programmes/pubs with music/morris teams)?

I ask because I think you've got it the wrong way around at the moment - you say "Probably the second thing is achieving a balance of acts which will appeal to the biggest cross-section of the populace as poss." If you want to do that - don't put on folk music! Or even better, put on folk music and call it something else!

So the first thing you need to know is - what sort of evening are you trying to put on.

Only then should you think about the rest - once you've sorted out exactly what it is that you want to put on, THEN you can market it and sort out how it functions on the night etc.

If you're passionate about what you put on - you'll communicate it. If you're putting on a wide range of acts for other people's benefit, you may have difficulty maintaining the enthusiasm.

I've just made my first visit to Steve and Mary Dickinson's 'Everyman' Folk Club in Saxmundham, which has a longish room with a bar at the back and no PA. I don't think anyone even bought a drink during the music, or if they did they were very quiet about it. The audience listened attentively and it was quite clear that any talking while people were performing would not be appreciated. Don't think a no-nonsense policy like that put people off - the place was full, they advise booking or buying tickets in advance, everyone is made to feel welcome and the standard of floor spots was excellent (I modestly exclude myself from that judgement) which seems to me always a good sign.

Well it's always a bonus to have a well-behaved audience. My only concern would be whether the landlord would continue to support the venture if drinks aren't being sold during the music.

Seriously though, I've either run or co-run seven clubs in my time and the secret seems to be to get a hardcore of regulars who'll come out hail or snow and share the workload. It's invariably too much for any individual mere mortal. Teamwork is always more effective anyway and I've run nice clubs in rough pubs where the two "audiences" never met. Quality always more important than names and some of the most committed acts I've booked have been talented youngsters just starting out (and they always bring a crowd with them). Always best not to impose your tastes on audiences unless you have a genuine feel for what they'd like. Don't expect to make money (but try not to lose it either). Raffles work, especially if you can open them to the whole pub (so don't make the prize a John Denver album, better a bottle of Grouse). Get a good compere (Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding and many others did this). Bloody hard work and relatively thankless.

Committees are sometimes great, sometimes a pain. You need to hand pick people you can work with initially and people who don't mind putting in the effort. Have a separate catering committee and an advertising person you can trust as well as door people and a couple (at least) of regular, good MCs.

My advice would be to ensure that the Landlord/Manager of the premises, where you intend to meet, is accommodating you for the 'right reasons' and isn't just seeing at as a way of making an inevitable 'fast buck' during the first three or four weeks - only to 'evict' you when the 'novelty value' wears off and numbers 'level out'. Ensure that the premises have adequate licensing otherwise you can come unstuck (usually an hour or so before a gig that you are bound to lay out money for - whether it takes place or not)

Also - Take your phone off the hook on Sunday afternoon when you are watching Footy - you will be inundated with calls canvassing bookings.

From what I know, it's quite normal for all sorts of clubs to book expensive acts as a treat from time to time, and subsidise these evenings with profits made on resident's nights, raffles, or from nights when you book low-cost local acts. Don't feel that every evening has to be self-financing.

Well, Dave Thackeray - I bet you never realised what a variety of views your initial enquiry would provoke.

I'll revise my initial advice:

  1. Either have a PA or don't. If you do have one, either play music during the break or don't.
  2. Either allow smoking or don't.
  3. Actually I'll stick to the original advice here - nobody has yet suggested that they can't stand good MCs

I think that those of us who stuck our necks out to offer advice were basing it on our own experience of what works and what doesn't when you run a club - and on the commercial pragmatics of keeping it viable and keeping the venue happy as well as the audience and guests. Clearly there are differences of opinion on several matters which is fine because nobody wants every folk club to be the same as every other (do they??).

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