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Gary Stephenson

Anyone who has ever booked any kind of proper gig knows that it can be an arduous, uphill task. Even in the first stages of planning, fragile factors can shatter at any moment. There is no certainty, no guarantees and in many cases, no budget. Even if one manages to nail down the initial setup of what looks from the outset to be a great line-up, if bodies are not in the building on the night, someone, or more often everyone, loses out. In a digital age where Wi-Fi has taken over Hi-Fi as the mainline for music consumption, most folks are quite happy to see the men and women behind the music doing their thing in the comfort of their own homes. In short, it has never been harder to start out in the live music booking biz.

The 21st Century promoter has to pull out all the stops to get people involved in live music. Musicians also have to share this role more than ever and the dark art of crafting cohesive, successful gigs is certainly a joint effort of endless juggling. Scarborough is a small town at the end of the line that is peppered with talented musicians, but they are so vastly different. The days of towns rallying round their local bands seem to be over as we knew it in decades previous. Genres become more finite and segmented through digital exposure to a saturated landscape, in-which just about anyone who plays an instrument is in a band. This carves up audiences into fractioned factions. What is a promoter to do to get everyone together? Focus on a few accessible safe-bet acts? Take more chances with fringe bands? Mix originals, cover bands and acoustic acts together? Genre pander? Put on themed DJ nights? The answer could be all-of-the-above and one-such upstart promoter seems to be doing it well round the town. Let’s pick the mind of the new Event Manager of Apollo (Scarborough’s eclectic new live venue) and the man behind BTH Promotions… Gary Stephenson.

Fletch: Gary, you are known for not only booking cool gigs round town, but also for sitting on the drum throne for the mighty Ante-Inferno. What is it that drives you to be immersed in the promotional aspect outside the band you play in? I see you are studying business management.

Gary: I initially got into this as a late teen. It was basically a hobby for me on the side, due to my love for seeing extreme band line-ups in Scarborough, and an absolute distaste for what our music scene is usually cracking out. We have been overrun with the open mic and cover band scene of late, and I believe live, original music has been devalued. I worked DIY for many years, usually focusing on metal band line-ups and rock events. It kind of snowballed from there. More recently, I have landed a job managing 2 of Scarborough's main venues, one of which is a purpose built, live music venue, so that's great. I basically have free reign to put on whichever shows I see fit. I admit, when I first got into this game, I had very little vision or knowledge, other than a love for doing it, and a want to see Scarborough's music scene improve. Over time, I realised if I got my act together, I could actually make this into a viable business. (That's where the business management course came in!) Since then, I have started up a music festival in North Yorkshire, dedicated to heavier bands. We – me, and the backer for Apollo & Mist Bar – have also started looking into holding a huge, full weekend music festival for North Yorkshire, which will hopefully come to fruition in 2019. We have lots in the pipeline, so hopefully by the time I leave Scarborough, I will have accomplished my goal and the music scene will be in a much better state than when I started.

Fletch: Before you started working with Apollo, your BTH Promotions was primarily for original bands. I realise that working in-house with a venue that has bills and staff to pay requires a different battle plan and there are more than a few professional-level cover bands and tribute acts around to get bodies in and dancing. Do you think these audiences can be brought together eventually? I’ve seen it happen on occasion.

Gary: Yes, we have already started to put on original bands with the tribute acts at our big events. This way it ensures local, original acts get to play to a huge crowd (usually around 200+ people) it also saves my sanity. It sometimes doesn't sit right me that I have to focus on "Whatever brings in the most money". It was also the easiest way to gain a following for the venue. We probably wouldn't do very well if we opened and instantly announced a 4/5 figure band booking without gaining a following for the venue first. We have some huge, original acts on the way now though!

Fletch: For such a small seaside town, there are many talented musicians around, but they all seem to be completely different. I can’t name two original Scarborough acts that really match up on the same bill. I see this as a good thing, but from a promoter’s standpoint, I imagine it can be challenging. This is where a great vision and venue come in to bring it all together under one roof in in a harmonious way. Do you have a clear vision, or are you playing it by ear? I suppose it is a bit of trial and error…

Gary: This is the most frustrating part! Finding suitable local bands for certain events. If I do an all-day band line-up these days, I usually just stick the lot on. Luckily there isn't much genre bias in Scarborough. We're a good bunch!

Fletch: You’ve got some killer out of town, bigger acts booked up for 2018. One of which, I am excited to be sharing your bill with, Electric Eel Shock from Tokyo. I for one think it’s awesome that you are adding locals to these bills, because more and more I see bigger bands bringing their own support, which kills the whole prospect for up-and-coming bands to test their metal against seasoned touring acts. Many promoters will just leave it to the incoming package these days.

Gary: I always try to make sure I can include local bands into the bigger events. This job isn't just about improving the local music scene, I'm pretty driven to helping out the bands here as much as possible. I also supply acts with designs, bookings, anything they might need a hand with, basically. I actually have a media/management business in the works, which should come to fruition soon; offering bands & artists recording & practice facilities, and a lot of management/PR aspects.

Fletch: You are in a band and also a promoter, so I would be interested to know your take on this. It seems to be a modern norm for promoters to ask a band to guarantee a certain number of people upon first appearance at their venue – even if the band has never played in that town before. This always seemed ridiculous and it signified to me that the venue was desperate. Experience has confirmed my suspicions. I’ve never had a bad gig at a great venue and you’ll notice that the great venues know how to introduce new bands to their crowd, because they HAVE a crowd. To me it seems that you have the out-of-town new band open for a couple of bigger locals in a similar genre, the problem is solved…

Gary: I never ask a band to guarantee me anything. I try to do as much research as possible into a band to make sure they would go down well at a certain event, and they are safe knowing there will be a good crowd for them. That's another downfall for some Scarborough bands. They play so much, locally, that they kill off their pulling power. If you can see them every week for free at local pubs, why would people buy a ticket to see them at a bigger event in a purpose built music venue? I have a hard time getting this through sometimes. I'll always pick the bands that work the hardest and show a good level of self promotion. There are a lot of good bands in Scarborough.

Fletch: Gary, thanks for your great local gigs and your hard work in helping keep live music of all kinds alive in Scarborough. I look forward to playing and watching your future bills and it is great to have someone young, ambitious and switched-on bringing in and showcasing the good stuff. Any exciting announcements in the pipeline?

Gary: Loads in the pipeline, some of which I have already spoke about. I can tell you about a few acts that we are trying to bring to Scarborough, some of which are already confirmed. Such as Bad Manners, Basshunter, Martin Kemp (Yes, the EastEnders guy!) I am basically trying to cover all genres, whilst pushing up the ladder. I also have a zine/magazine type deal coming in Summer 2018. I've had all my events for the past year photographed and reviewed in preparation for it. A year in review, if you like. I would like to get this into a bi-monthly release. Focusing on gig coverage, reviews, photos, band features, advertising, upcoming events etc. My view is to leave Scarborough at some point in the future with bigger ventures in mind.