Ragged Music: Edinburgh Fringe Festival August 2011
In July of 2011 Gary Boast and I were approached by Alex Dunedin from Ragged University to request help in coordinating a programme for the month of August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dunedin had procured two venues for the entire month and wanted someone with a musical background to help him in providing an organisational approach that gave the artists not just a platform to perform, but the assurance of support throughout the process. The philosophical ideal of Ragged Music was very simple; inclusive approach, self-led development, and sharing knowledge within the music community.
Boast and I were based in Manchester and were not familiar with the venues we were working with in Edinburgh, nor had either of us attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before. Dunedin educated us on how the festival operated and expressed the importance of a stress-free experience for the artists as one of our primary goals. Boast’s role in the initial programming of the festival was invaluable – his methodical and practical experience as a drummer and sound engineer shaped the approach with which we planned the event.
Our first step was to define our requirements and the artists’ needs so we could begin to advertise timeslots. It’s one thing to have a space for performers, but an awareness of the environment and available resources is paramount to a successful event. As musicians ourselves we have attended countless venues where overwhelming technical information was provided at the last minute, posing complications for set-up and turning our focus from performing to organizing the space. We knew that if the artists arrived and experienced no logistical and practical issues they could concentrate entirely on what they were there for: performing their music.
We liaised directly with the venues to get their specifications and ask questions that our personal experience had taught were vital to a smooth-run performance. It was important to our goal of artist comfort that we be as prepared as possible well in advance, in contrast to the standard ‘unsigned’ performance where the artists usually do the information gathering. Obtaining these details ourselves was key as it allowed us to set the scene and any restrictions prior to artist engagement, ensuring they could direct their energies to developing their show.
After one week we had successfully filled the entire month with over 30 artists for our first venue. We had a huge range of acts; reggae, solo acoustic, duos, rock, electronic. The highly engaged and driven artists were offered multiple performance slots as we wanted to represent those that really took their art beyond their craft alone. I personally spoke to each act to explain the Ragged Project in detail and reinforce the overview that we had given of the events. This was a hugely rewarding experience as I realised quickly this was quite unusual – contact is usually initiated by the artist and often on the day of the event with all previous correspondence taking place via email.
After working with the artists and programming the calendar for a full month, the venue manager returned from his holiday. We had previously been working with the assistant manager during our initial planning stages. We learned at this time that a key piece of information was not given to us at the very beginning: the venue was not able to have full drum kits during any performance. Although percussion could be used in a restricted way this was a huge disappointment at the time as we knew this could potentially be a deal-breaker for a number of the artists being able to perform.
I contacted the artists and explained the scenario to them. A handful dropped out as they felt their percussion was integral to their performance, but to our surprise most acts who used drum kits adapted their approach and stripped back their planned performance to accommodate the restriction. We set aside the disappointment at losing some of the acts and re-engaged the advertising process, very quickly filling up our calendar once more. The final draft was submitted to the venue, and after checking out the artists on offer they approved the work we had completed so far.
Once that step was completed we were presented with the superb opportunity to programme another event within the fringe festival. Alex Dunedin asked us if we would be able to take on the additional venue and repeat our process. We drew on the acts which had shown the most drive and rewarded them with a second slot at the new venue, then once again advertised this new opportunity via classified advertisements online. The slots for the second venue filled up even quicker than the first, and soon we were celebrating that we had coordinated the entire festival with multiple music events throughout the daytime and evening.
The next (and arguably most important) stage was to present logistical details to the venues so that they were armed with as much information as possible, ensuring the events ran smoothly. This involved a breakdown of each acts’ requirements; number of members, roles in the performance, instruments to be used, microphones required, etc. I had obtained the majority of this information at the beginning but quite a few acts had not fully established their needs at that time. The second round of communication proved to be exceptionally useful as a number of amendments were made at that time, further contributing to our efforts to make everything run as smoothly as possible.
The coordinating of the calendar relied on this information by allowing us to prevent changes between acts that are drastic. A duo with minimal stage requirements wedged between two eight piece bands can make the coordination on the ground incredibly trying on the venue, and the performers themselves. Taking into account the acts that pulled out of the event, this often led to a complete reshuffle of the calendar and necessitated further contact with the acts to explain the changes and the reasons behind them. Initially, response to these sorts of alterations can be quite negative, but I had built a good rapport with the artists due to our frequent contact thus smoothing the way for easier understanding of the situation.
One of the best decisions I felt we made was our approach to equal opportunities for the artists. We wanted to ensure that each act got the same length of time to perform and the response to this was positive overall. There were a handful of performers who required a more in-depth explanation as they felt that they should be the ‘headline’ act. This is a counter-productive approach in grass-roots events that fall outside of an artist’s own promotional work (for example a tour that has been planned specifically to promote them).
The final stage of the planning was to travel to Scotland and to see the venues first hand myself to see if there were any additional ideas or potential problems that I could identify. Meeting the staff at the venues was a very positive experience and it allowed us to solidify the working relationships we had begun remotely.
The visit became particularly important when it highlighted a significant problem for our eight-piece Reggae act who would not physically be able to fit on the stage itself, despite reassurances from the venue that this would not be a problem. The issue was not the space available to perform, the idea was that the band would perform on and in front of the stage as suggested by the venue. The problem was something that many musicians encounter at intimate venues; audience members damaging equipment. Particularly in venues selling alcohol, using the guitarist’s amplifier to rest your beer on is not an acceptable thing to do! I discussed this with the bands likely to be affected by this and they decided to take responsibility upon themselves to plan on coordinating the crowd in the event of a large audience where this could be a factor.
At this point I was feeling concerned, not just with potential issues such as this, but with overloading the artists with information. All they want to do is perform, a list of instructions and requirements can often feel not just alien, but interfere with their focus and that was the last thing we wanted.
The initial plan was to not just coordinate the operations for the events but also to be present for the entire month and be a support to the acts and Alex Dunedin directly. As the festival drew near it became clear that was not going to be.
All of my work for the festival had been completed in my spare time as I was employed full-time elsewhere and needed to maintain my responsibilities for my personal musical commitments, particularly the charity band I was a part of. Shortly before the festival began a perfect storm of complications arose at home and traveling would prove to be an impossibility. No matter my desire to see the job through to the end in person, I could not–and would not–in good conscience leave behind my one year old daughter who had just fractured her leg. Nor could I leave my partner to move us on her own, first into a hotel and then into our new home due to the sudden uninhabitable circumstances in our previous residence. In the end I endeavoured to make myself available at every possible moment to Dunedin to assist in any way I could in between moving boxes. He was confident that the work we had already completed had him well-informed enough to coordinate with the artists and staff at the venues and maintain our plans.
My role remained purely a voice at the end of the phone. I was on call all day and night to support any unforeseen issues. This was not a requirement as Dunedin did not want to disrupt my own situation with my work and family at the time, but the job we did was very important and being available to provide support made a huge difference to the implementation of our plans.
Very quickly we experienced issues such as artists pulling out on short notice, turning up on the wrong days, revised specifications changing but artists not informing us ahead of time, and the venues running behind and shortening performance time
Each scenario that we experienced taught us very quickly the potential for reoccurrence in the days following and once again the communication stream between myself and the artists resumed in an effort to prepare them and us for all eventualities as they occurred.
The first scenario we experienced was artists pulling out on the day of the event. This meant either we left the slot blank (not an option) or filled it quickly from our current roster thanks to the frequent contact and information gathering. Luckily, the support we received was practically instant and those that were local to Edinburgh quickly jumped on the opportunity for another performance.
The most common occurrence from the outset was misinformation. Dunedin relied on my access to the planning documentation so he could double check what was happening daily. He didn’t have time to work at a computer as he had four venues split across the entire day for the whole month. This meant that when artists started turning up at the wrong times he would use my information to diffuse any issues and try his best to appease anyone who was upset. This happened surprisingly often. On multiple occasions the venues previous events that had been scheduled separately from our efforts had run over considerably, requiring us to smooth over the understandable frustrations of our performers. The worst example of this was an artist we had who travelled from Europe to perform at the festival and was very excited about working with us. He was a well-known musician who had performed with a variety of established acts for many years – at the last minute the venue decided to close early due to noise complaints, and his set was cut in half.
This continued for the full month, some days quieter than others, but an incredible amount of changes and issues occurred daily that required us to be constantly on alert and ready to adapt at a moment’s notice
I have never been more humbled by fellow artists than I was during this festival. The approach and adaptability was not just because of their experiences prior, but testament to their main goal: they just wanted to be heard and they would take on problems head first to achieve that.
Our primary goal had been to showcase as many local artists as we could, while providing a positive experience for them. To that end Dunedin treated the performances like a busking event and passed the hat around, giving us the opportunity to help the artists financially as well.
The lessons I learnt personally from the venues really gave me insight into the other side of events that I had only experienced as a performer until this point. I had never appreciated just how much they juggle themselves, and often with limited resources and restrictions imposed on them. Yet they continue to offer up their creative spaces for people to fill. This is sometimes driven by profit, of course – they have a business to run. But when driven by a love of art it means that despite the difficulties experienced they will carry on regardless, the same as the artist themselves.
This also highlighted the gulf between artist and venue, often filled by a promoter. When parties involved are motivated for the wrong reasons there is a lack of trust which can tarnish the entire event. But when the goals are aligned it is a richly rewarding experience that we want to take part in again and again.
One of the shining moments for us personally was when the second event that we programmed was given an award near the end of the festival. Unfortunately we were not credited with programming and coordinating the event and the venue themselves did not extend any thanks for our work. This is why I have not named those that we worked with. The purpose of this article is not to praise and criticise directly – but to give an insight into what we experienced. The many contacts made over the course of the planning and event continue to work with Ragged to this day, and that is the first step towards a positive change in how the grass roots music industry works.
This was our first attempt at putting into practice the ideals that we shared and seeing how different it felt to everyone involved. We learned many lessons that have stuck with us as artists and coordinators that we have carried forward into our later endeavours, and I personally reflect on our efforts with fondness, despite—or perhaps because of—the fast pace and stress we operated under. In the end our festival was successful and we all came through unscathed, professionally and personally. (And my daughter started walking shortly after she recovered!)
Daniel Zambas – Founder of Ragged Music
[email protected] – copyeditor