Has Wakefield Music Reached Extinction (Part 3/4: Audiences)

What happened to Wakefield Music? From an emerging and varied Indie scene looked upon with envy by other “B-towns” and much larger cities alike and announced as the countries third best musical city (PRS) to now, just five years later and a city on the brink of absolute musical extinction.

In the third of four pieces, we look at one aspect in the ever narrowing circles of decline that have driven this deeply sad situation: Audiences

We could have great venues and amazing bands but if there are no audiences, what are we left with?

There’s probably a philosophical discussion in there somewhere. Is an art gallery an art gallery if the doors are locked? If Harry Rhodes strums a guitar chord and no-one is there to see it, does it make a sound?

Audiences have declined at Wakefield music shows over the last 5 to 10 years but it’s not alone. This was partly explained yesterday, with reference to bands. The absolute core of a music scene audience will be the other bands; it’s true in any city. But as those bands age, the individual members can give less to the cause. I am exactly the same, I go to less gigs than I did five years ago. We can’t expect pity attendance and pity purchases of records. We need new audiences.

Quality of audience beats quantity every time. The whole industry is built on that idea now. The current craze for special edition boxsets is aimed at hardcore fans. Sale of one £50 boxset generates as much income as around  90,000 Spotify streams.

Yet streaming is all about return custom and developing a strong audience base. Why sell a physical product once and get paid for it once? A label streaming its services through Spotify or YouTube can charge (albeit a very small amount) over and over again. Building audiences that stay with you is what the music industry is all about today.

It should be no different for venues or collective scenes / cities.

So as a starter question; who are Wakefield’s audiences? There simply aren’t any, right? Not true. I agree they can be hidden and hard to find, but let me give you an example.

Unity Words is a spoken word event that takes place monthly in Wakefield. Now, a few years ago Spoken Word didn’t exist in Wakefield. The audience was approximately zero. I had the pleasure of working with A Firm Of Poets in presenting a few of their shows. They grew their audience over time, and now have a monthly residency, drawing audiences from across Yorkshire AND BEYOND. For a free show on a Wednesday night. In Wakefield. How’d they do that?

They took their time to understand who the potential audiences were, built shows they would like, branded them and marketed them creatively and went for it. They didn’t simply put a show on and expect people to turn up. The response to the first of these articles about ‘Venues’ has created some great discussion. But the main gist of the response is “put on more gigs!”

It’s the default gut response of any promoter.

“No one is coming to gigs anymore” – “Put on more gigs!”

“Young people aren’t interested in music anymore” – “Put on more gigs!”

“I’ve lost my socks” – “Put on more gigs!”

Ok, but who is going to come? How are you going to tell them about it? Are you sure that is what that demographic is looking for? How are you going to encourage them that coming to your show is more worthwhile that watching Netflix or spending time with their family? What is your plan?

Unity Words is a credit to Wakefield because it created an audience where there supposedly wasn’t one. It’s now developed to offer that same audience a chance to perform on stage during the events. They are mentored and in 2017 even have the chance to appear on an album. Not only have they created an audience, they are turning them into the new wave of performers. There must be something to learn there, right?!

I love audience data. I’ve seen two years of data for music venues in Wakefield. I’ve met other venues across the whole of the North of England and spoken to them about how they collect it, what they do with it, what it means and compared it to ours. I’ve attended workshops and seminars that show how audiences can be segmented and how those segments can be attracted through how they are approached and marketed to. I find it fascinating.

Wakefield music is still stuck in that, “build it and they will come” mentality. We’ve built it, they aren’t coming. And in the mentality of repeating the same mistakes and hoping for a different outcome.

What are the biggest audiences in Wakefield? For gig attendees it is 35+, white, male (though only about 60% from my experience). They are interested but infrequent attenders to events. They go to what they know. Audience Agency segment audiences and the most prominent in Wakefield is the ‘Trips and Treats’ group which, as you’d imagine go out now and again for a specific trip (say, to Yorkshire Sculpture Park) or a treat (Theatre tickets for your birthday).

This is common in a lot of cities like Wakefield. What we lack are many of the other groups who have a high proficiency for cultural engagement, with wide tastes and broad interests.

We can’t alter the population we have. Changing their attitudes takes a long time. I tried to make a big difference when I brought The Cribs to Wakefield and learnt something very interesting.

As part of the deal, we paid The Cribs extra to play a matinee show. The tickets were a third of the evening show price. Adults could attend but only in the company of a child (U18). Naturally, I expected loads of teenagers and the reaction I was hoping for was for lots of 14-18 year olds to experience a ‘big gig’ in their hometown and then start to follow it up with other shows.

Instead, I could probably count the number of teenagers on two hands (maybe a few more than that…). Instead, the audience that was interested in this were families. Many kids got to experience their ‘first big show’ but it was mainly those aged 5-11.

What does this tell us? A massive audience in Wakefield is families. Just look at The Hepworth’s massive events. Thousands of people, almost all families (from what I have seen). I programmed the music section of The Hepworth’s 5th birthday but it was out-sold pretty much 2-1 by the Baby Rave the next (Sunday) morning.

Why are there no music shows aimed at families? Is it because we as a city don’t know how to do that? Or we simply aren’t aware of the make-up of the city, of the potential audiences and prefer to just do what we (think we) know without giving it much thought?

I took the wrong (or a different) lesson from The Cribs show and instead focussed on getting the older teenagers involved, despite evidence suggesting that audience didn’t exist. For the two years since then I’ve offered free tickets to the main Long Division for 16 & 17 year olds. I did less than 20 across the two festivals. I also offered £10 (instead of £25) for the full Saturday to 18-21 year olds. I sold less than 50 over the two years.

The other big aspect here is marketing and with regards to the above I accept our marketing budget and skills are low. But I got Wakefield College in as a sponsor, we promoted through them. I have spoken at their industry day (to music tech / performance students) for three years, promoting the free ticket and offering work experience, but… 10 free tickets a year. Awful.

So, finding potential audiences is one thing but getting their attention is another. Cross venue and city wide marketing is something I am a massive advocate for and have been trying to push such schemes through my positions on various steering groups in the city. A cultural city guide with a website and app companion and a budget to properly maintain it and create up to date content.

I proposed venues chipping in together for full page city-adverts in magazines like The Skinny, where Wakefield is not even a footnote but other venues wouldn’t take the chance, or didn’t have the cash. The lack of support from local press is poor but will not change. Rhubarb Bomb did its bit for a while and is still trying now, but who else is writing about these things (and not asking for a fee to do so)? Again, it’s a young person’s game. If we had aspiring journalists in the city, there wouldn’t be a problem.

The idea that has been floated for at least ten years is still one of the most relevant – we desperately need poster barrels as they do in Leeds. Anyone who has promoted a show in Wakefield has realised there is practically nowhere to put up posters.

I feel the problem is partly lack of knowledge of how to market. I’m no expert, though I do know the ill effects of not funding it properly.

One last example (I’m sure we all have loads):

I did a talk for We Are to young people about the stuff I do. Afterwards a young chap came to speak to me. His dream was to combine live music and pizza. I offered advice and kept in touch. He ran a stage for me at Long Division. He then set up his events company – Pizza For The People.

He’s done two shows now. The first featured Mush, Night Owls, Cactus Knife, La Bete Blooms and Trash. It was £9 a ticket at Duke Street Studios in Leeds. The second featured Cowtown, Team Picture and Party Hardly at Wharf Chambers for £7.50.

Ryan and his team got over 100 people to each of those shows. In one fell swoop he has blown anything I could do in Wakefield clean out of the water.  He’s done an amazing job.

Meanwhile here in Wakefield I couldn’t even get to three figures for Gang Of Four for the opening show of the city’s biggest music and culture festival, in a venue with a historic connection to them. Yeah, it’s not the proper line-up but come on. 89 people.

So, I’m no expert. But I do have data!

The fix to this problem is financial investment (and that is what killed Gang Of Four, a lack of it). We need a better skillset in the city. We need co-operation on marketing. We need an appreciation of the time it takes to build these plans and follow them through.

But most of all we need to accept what we’re doing isn’t working. Yeah, a university would be great, but we don’t have one today. One is coming, but it will take quite a long time.

We need a fresh approach now . We need to find new audiences. They can be young people. They can be people who don’t usually risk coming to Wakefield. They can be locals who simply don’t know what is going on. They can be the existing audiences of other art strands, like Theatre or Visual Art.

I know I have done this with Long Division, but it’s not consistent over a calendar year. In fact, I think Long Division is the largest marketing exercise that Wakefield music has ever seen but I do feel that most people didn’t really get what it was achieving and how it could be built upon. No-one seemed that interested in taking advantage of this 1500 strong audience I had the power to place anywhere, to show anything to.

We need a long term vision because no venues, no bands and no audiences leads to the final stage of extinction – no interest – which we’ll look at tomorrow.


See Part 1: Venues here.

See Part 2: Bands here.

See Part 4: Interest here.

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