Recently, we talked to Graham, the managing director of Blueskies. Blueskies is an artist management service based in York. It aims to pick up amateur musicians with talent, give them paid gigs and a push towards becoming able to promote themselves, and make a living out of their music.
They run open mics every Sunday at The Mount, Tuesday at the Spread Eagle, and alternate Thursdays at Monroe’s with a few other events thrown in at various times in the year. These are mostly acoustic. Sat in the quiet comfort of the Walnut Tree, we got to know a little more about how he helps promote musicians in York.
By Lizzie Shannon
How would you describe Blueskies?
It’s a collaboration; it’s a team effort. We’re building a team of individuals. About roughly four years ago, we started with one musician and a broken guitar, or perhaps actually in the case of Jimbo Doomface, one guitar and a broken musician, bless him. But we’ve progressed from that; we’ve evolved through our open mic nights.
I now stand behind the open mic process, which they sort out themselves and so they can have as many as they want. That was the short-term goal: to create a stable space for musicians of all kinds, and a place where I could find new musicians coming in that we might want to work with. So, the main part of that first goal was to find paid gigs and I deliberately aimed to work with struggling musicians.
Jimbo Doomface covers Radiohead’s Street Spirit
via the Blueskies YouTube channel
So would you say your main aim is promoting musicians or giving them the independence to do it themselves?
The main aim is to empower musicians, and hopefully if anybody becomes successful they will kindly back on us and support us, because Blueskies is a business and it has to be sustainable. It’s sort of like a bellows process, and as the musicians get a bit higher, we try to get a bit higher, so now we’re working with Staxtonsbury and I’m trying to negotiate with other festivals but it is hard because it’s multifaceted on every level.
I was thinking about how I would explain it to other people and, if it’s not too prosaic, I’d describe it like working with snow. Each artist, genre and venue is an individual snowflake that I’m trying to put together to create a blanket of sound… though maybe that’s too poetic. But it’s difficult to structure or compartmentalise, and the more you try, often the more it falls apart. So I try to create things they can converge around, and that’s what I’ve been doing, recently, in particular, the 4th December event that will pull the team back together and also will be a charity event for a homeless charity, SASH.
To what extent has Blueskies helped musicians so far?
Well, without trying to be coy you’d really have to ask the musicians what they think. From my side, I’m actually very frustrated. I feel like we’re where we should have been after six or seven months, or a year maximum, and here we are over three and a half years into the project. But the slight difference with Blueskies is that I’m not doing it full time, solely for my living. It is a business. I’m funding it while other people provide time, skills and material, but I’m willing to wait until the end to see if I get anything back.
What is the next phase for Blueskies?
The next phase is effectively this CD/DVD that we’re going to do with the live recording 4th December. We will have capacity to record a large number of musicians and create hard DVD copies for them. We’ll have Blueskies artists to do all this and hopefully it will pull some other musicians in and, at the same time, we will feed in information about Staxtonbury, because even now we could start with applications for bands and solo artists who want to play at big events. But the CD, the prospectus CD/DVD is the next stage for these musicians.
We’ve been at it far too long. We should have been at this stage years ago, but I didn’t have the skills around me. If I look at where we started, and each time we died and were reborn, risen from the ashes and each time we’ve found new people and got a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, and people are beginning to understand what I’m trying to do. I’m not a musician. I don’t have a musical background. I’m just a commercial guy. I just like live music and people didn’t understand what I was trying to do because it’s totally different from anything else, or that’s what they tell me. It’s nice to sit here and think you’re unique but I’m sure there’s someone out there doing it faster, stronger, smarter than me because there always is.
Edna Sulejmanovic & Richard Bracknell
via the Blueskies Youtube Channel
Recording by Andy Precious @ Welly Creative
When promoting music events in York, I myself have had difficulties. What difficulties have you faced and what’s worked for you?
Well it’s a love affair. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love it and it’s the nature of these things. You’re right about promoting things. There are so many different platforms to promote everything and, if you don’t use them, you’re not sure whether you’re not reaching people but, to use them, you need twenty-five different people to manipulate them all.
What works for us best in the end is word of mouth, but you have to create that word of mouth by awareness. So, I would say we’ve experimented with a number of different things on social media on various other platforms, flyers and posters, but undoubtedly the things that have worked best for us were the use of Staxtonbury festival, because that’s a focal point, it’s got a website and people can really see that and secondly, flyers. We went around York and handed out loads of flyers.
After that, every event needs a USP [unique selling point]. It’s quite hard to create an original USP and, even if you do, people don’t necessarily understand what it is. So, you need a USP that is actually a derivative of something people understand, and that’s what works. Cheap drinks, free entry or some other side to a function like that. But, word of mouth is the best in the end but you have to create your own base. It’s a huge community but it’s also tight knit in the sense that when you promote something, you’re actually nearly always promoting it to other musicians and it’s getting out beyond that. That is phase three for Blueskies, to get our consciousness to the public. We need to connect to the wider audience.
How do you pay your musicians?
Well, all that happens is, with the open mics, they do a performance sheet, and all the money comes straight out of the bar and they sign that performance sheet for the bar for their records and all the money goes to the musicians. When I’ve done paid gigs, what we’ve done is had a revenue stream which came from other gigs that we were doing and we were paid and I would take a percentage of that and put that to one side and use that then to fund events that we would put on. And, you know, we try to charge entry on some of the events. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t.
Do you take any profit or are you just a self-funding business?
Not at the moment. It’s a loss making business at the moment. Up to May this year, we were doing really well, and if I’d been able to carry that on I would of turned a profit this tax year. The tax year ending this April, we nearly broke even, and if we’d carried on with that structure for another twelve months, it would have been profitable in this current tax year. As it happens, because that revenue stream has been lost, then we won’t. However, there is another one coming on stream. It may not be until January but it’s happening and that should generate a revenue stream for us. Also, getting a little bit of sponsorship from Staxtonbury this year should help promote the musicians.
Other than that, it’s money from me or what we do, for example, at Monroe’s where we get a percentage of the bar takings, but I feed that back to the sound engineer and the musicians because the sound engineers are struggling for work as well. If we take money out of it, it won’t grow, we need to put the money back in, and to be fair, most of the money they get paid, they buy drinks with anyway, so money goes back over the bar. If any money goes out of the gates, I want it in the pockets of the musicians at this stage, because at events like that you are only talking about people walking away with £15/£20 at the end of the night, at best.
When we do the paid gigs, where we’ve got an audience to entertain, an individual musician might get £80/90 for their two hours work, depending on how much admin we have to put in – Laura will obviously have her percentage – what we’ve got to do in terms of posters and transport, whether the venue has a PA, all that stuff that impacts on what we do. So we will have a revenue stream coming on the beginning of next year, but we don’t have one particularly at the moment. Monroe’s is an attempt to build one again from nothing.
Is there anything you’d like to plug while we’re here?
Yes, I want to plug Staxtonbury, the dates are Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th July 2015. Three stages, about 70 acts, 5,000 daily capacity. It’s at a place called Staxton Manor Farm, which is ten miles away from Scarborough down the A64, just a bus ride. They do free camping and free parking included in the tickets, and last year’s tickets for a full weekend, if I remember rightly, were £42. So, what we want now is acts, bands, solo artists, duos, and duets. It’s primarily a covers event, but they do have some original elements to it these days. Anyone interested is to apply at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want people to apply for that because we’re going to be running a series or events at The Mount, at The Spread Eagle, and at Monroe’s to qualify for Staxtonbury. It’ll be bigger than it’s ever been from our perspective and we have five or six slots to fill.