Throw your own club night with this 9-step guide to being a music promoter
© Danny Seaton
From booking DJs to plugging your nights, there's a lot to learn. Promoters in charge of three pioneering UK club nights – The Blast, Wigflex and Meine Nacht – share tips on how to get started.
Club promoters are in many ways nightlife's flesh and bones. They're the brains behind your favourite nights out, many pushing club culture forward by providing a platform to some of the scene's greatest DJs and fresh new talents. But starting off is no mean feat – in a climate characterised by competition and venue losses, putting on parties comes with a distinct set of challenges and risks.
To find out more, we hear from three promoters putting on parties across the UK: Tom Hoyle, who heads up Bristol bass conglomerate The Blast; Breakwave, whose night Meine Nacht takes over secret and unusual locations in Liverpool; and Lukas Wigflex, head honcho of eponymous and long-running Nottingham club night – and soon to be festival – Wigflex. With decades of experience between them, in various types of nights spanning across the dance music spectrum, they run through all you need to know about throwing your own club night from scratch.
1. Find your niche
Before starting out, work out where the gaps in the market are, and what you can offer that will make your party distinct:
Tom Hoyle: We had a group of friends who were all into different music, but there weren’t many club nights around at the time that catered to audiences who wanted to hear multiple genres at one event. On any given weekend we’d usually have to choose between a selection of nights, each of which only catered to the tastes of part of the group. So we thought why not bring it all together.
Breakwave: I wanted to start something that would stand out and set my night apart from what already existed in Liverpool. At the time, there was no existing party that hopped between locations, certainly nothing taking place outside of the ‘club’ environment to my knowledge in Liverpool. I never imagined that it would pull off, but three years on and Meine Nacht is going from strength to strength at the forefront of Liverpool nightlife.
2. Secure a venue that works for you and your night
Getting the venue right comes with its own challenges: finding the right location, nailing the sound system, all for a price you can afford. One piece of advice is to start at a safe, small position and get the basics right, then build up from there:
Tom Hoyle: Start small and pick a venue you like yourself and that your friends would be into going to. It's far better to have a little venue packed out and vibing than it is to try and fill a huge space and end up with it half full. It is also much less risk to start small and work up to doing larger events and bigger lineups as you gain experience.
Lukas Wigflex: One big thing I’d always look out for is to try and use clubs and spaces that share the same ethos as you and value what your party is about – beyond the numbers that you’re bringing in. There are a lot of venue owners or managers that are just looking to make a quick raise and take advantage of up-and-coming promoters; try and find out from other promoters what they’re like to work with.
But don’t also be afraid to break the mould. Beyond clubs, holding a night out in unusual locations – supermarkets, warehouses, you name it – may be a challenge, but the reward is an approach that sets you apart from the rest:
Breakwave: Owners of these spaces are often difficult to convince – the relevant property owners don’t always have artistic vision. It takes tenacity to build the relationship and a lot of trust between us. There are loads of hidden hurdles to overcome, months of planning for each event which is so much harder than turning up to an existing venue created for the purpose. But I think it’s worth it as it provides the opportunity for my audience to get up-close with artists they admire in a space that they will probably never visit again.
Lukas Wigflex: I go into every new space with an open mind and try to imagine it pitch black with the smoke machine turned up to 11, and whether people would be comfortable getting their freak on in the setting. Turntable feedback is usually the main challenge we come across sound-wise as most of the DIY spots just aren’t equipped to deal with this. We’ve used everything from actual bread cobs to packs of bog roll to deal with this, [but have] moved onto the MasterSounds TRBxM turntable isolation units and Isonoe feet nowadays and they work a treat.
Once you've found the right venue and you’ve got all the tech, how important is it to have a working knowledge of speakers, sound systems and turntable set-ups?
Lukas Wigflex: I’d say it certainly helps. I’ve learnt plenty over the years from just being immersed in it, so I guess as long as you’re keen to learn and understand the value of knowing how everything works you’re off to a good start. From a purely practical level, you want to be able to do sound checks yourself just to ensure everything sounds how you want it to.
3. Book the DJs, or establish your residents
It takes time, effort and a creative mind to stay ahead of the curve with your booking policy. Make sure you’re keeping things fresh and interesting, whilst also supporting the scene’s up-and-comers:
Breakwave: I am constantly on the lookout for new and upcoming talent. It’s a mixture of established artists and artists that are breaking through – this is something that is really important to me and will be prevalent on the Meine Nacht record label, due to launch in April 2019.
Having a rotation of resident DJs can also both help get your night off the ground, and build the musical identity of the night further:
Tom Hoyle: Having a strong team of residents is vital in so many ways. They help build the vibe at the events, sometimes having to play to quiet rooms or tough crowds very early or very late into the night. Sometimes when a headline act is running late they have to step in and hold it down to a peak time crowd. They’re basically our support team, our soundings board, and the backbone of the night.
Lukas Wigflex: Splashing cash on a headliner and putting an event up on Facebook isn’t always going to guarantee a successful party. When we started it was just residents and we charged 99p on the door. Build something solid with good residents and a great music policy and the rest will follow.
But also, DJ if you’re a DJ. Not only might it save you money, and allow you to steer the musical direction of the night from behind the decks, but it could also help launch your own career:
Breakwave: It’s definitely been the perfect opportunity to develop my own DJ career. It’s helped to get my name out there, facilitating a career in DJing around the UK and Europe, gain a residency at 24 Kitchen Street in Liverpool, work with the likes of Resident Advisor, Red Bull and many more, which I am really thankful for.
Build something solid with good residents and a great music policy and the rest will follow.
4. Build your brand
Establish the identity of your night before you approach an audience, and keep it clear and uncomplicated so people know what you're offering:
Tom Hoyle: I don’t think you need to overcomplicate things or try and be too clever. Stick to the basics like getting a good lineup together and making sure you’re offering something that people actually want to come to for a start.
From Meine Nacht live-streaming their nights to Wigflex putting out mixtapes, there’s plenty of things you can do beyond just the events that can help build your night into a brand – and get your name out there:
Breakwave: I taught myself how to live-stream in a week. It was an additional layer to the party – those who couldn’t attend could watch it on YouTube. I once fed an Ethernet cable up a food lift shaft in a pub to the top of a building where I was hosting a party in order to live-stream the event and, funnily enough, it worked.
Lukas Wigflex: I started off putting out mixtapes and doing a weekly Wednesday night session in a local bar. By the time we put on our first club night we already had a good reputation for playing music that no one else was at that time and it got us a bit of a following.
5. Know your audience
Your audience are your community. It's important to stay true to your vision, but you can build support for your night by getting to know those on the dancefloor and how you can cater to them.
Lukas Wigflex: I think some of the best parties are the ones that impart their vision onto the audience as opposed to just delivering exactly what they want to see or expect. There are enough huge clubs and institutions out there pushing popular trending artists to pull big crowds, but I think what’s really important is to stick to your guns musically and do what you love. Inspiring your crowd is everything.
Breakwave: Some club nights attract a certain audience based on line-up choices, but with my night I think it’s a combination of artist, secret aspect of the party and the vibe that has been created by Meine Nacht followers. In order to build a community, you need to ensure that it’s an enjoyable comfortable environment. Key factors tend to be the atmosphere – that’s why I cap the capacity of my parties.
What’s really important is to stick to your guns musically and do what you love. Inspiring your crowd is everything.
6. Promote your night to build awareness
Long gone are the days where flyering and word-of-mouth were the only ways to put your party out there – social media has transformed the game, and it's where you can spread both the brand and an event on different channels to reach different audiences. But it’s still a balancing game between the physical and digital worlds:
Tom Hoyle: Instagram is a fantastic channel for us nowadays, just make sure you’re posting interesting and engaging content to get people excited about your event. Don’t forget to consider physical promotion too, like getting posters and flyers in the right places. And it always helps if you can get the people on the line-up to support the event by posting about it on their social media and helping to hype it up. Usually the artists will have a good following of dedicated fans so utilise this to your advantage.
Lukas Wigflex: Back in the day we’d be handing out flyers outside clubs in Nottingham at 5am in the rain, so that makes me appreciate the value of social media today – even though it’s fuelled by a lot of bullshit. But there’s only so much that can do. Word of mouth is very important, but there’s also a value in keeping things a little stripped back and letting stuff grow organically rather than putting together super strategised social promotions.
Once the event is out there and ready to go, there’s plenty of platforms you can use to push ticket sales on:
Tom Hoyle: Make sure you get your event listed online in as many places as possible – just setting up a Facebook event is not always enough!
7. Know your responsibilities on the night
Once the doors open, your work is far from done. From coordinating with venue staff to looking after the DJs, there's lots to keep an eye on:
Tom Hoyle: In a dream scenario you would be chilling side of stage with a beer and enjoying the sets. In reality, though, there are a million and one things you end up needing to pay attention to, or are potentially fire-fighting. Looking after the DJs is vitally important, but you also need to be paying attention to things like: how quickly are people getting in? How is the sound? Are the lighting and visuals running as planned? Are any of the acts on the lineup running late due to traffic? If so, can we change the set times around last minute? Is the venue manager happy with everything? What are the sound levels like off-site?
Lukas Wigflex: There’s only ever so much you can control, so as long as everyone working the party wants people to have a good time too you’re more likely to have a good night. If you have an amazing team on the door people are walking in with a smile on their face, and if the bar staff are all sound people are happy throughout the night. Booting out aggressive or sleazy people straight away is so important – we have no time for that and neither does anyone we work with.
And once the house lights turn on, your job’s still not over. Taking down a club night, especially those in non-traditional locations, is hard work:
Breakwave: [You’ll be] taking the DJs back to their hotels, then cleaning, lots of cleaning. I have cleaned toilets, floors, walls, ceilings and all kinds of industrial, weird and wonderful spaces – sometimes I don’t get into bed until 12pm the next day after the party. I have a trusty sound guy, John, who provides the sound system, at times he has to take it all away on the same night because I have to hand the keys back to the landlord the next morning.
8. Build on your early successes
So you’ve just thrown a successful party, but how do you build this into something bigger and more solid? As all three explain, you need to be prepared to put in the work through the setbacks, the losses and other challenges you might encounter:
Breakwave: I’d advise to try to build the brand, think out of the box, budget carefully, push yourself and most importantly have fun, that’s what it’s all about. You have to keep one step ahead; there’s always going to be something or someone new, but it’s good to inspire people, as it helps you to grow and pushes you to remain on top of the game. Challenge yourself and bounce ideas with other people. Collaborations will come once you break through the initial start-up period.
Lukas Wigflex: The biggest thing I’ve learnt is to just keep going and not let set-backs ruin the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve. You’d expect certain parties to be really successful because the nights have been so much fun and the line-ups have been big, but that doesn’t always mean that they’ve worked out financially. I’m at the point now where my main goal is to just focus on making each party better than the last. Over time I think that’s the only way to ever really grow.
Think out of the box, budget carefully, push yourself and most importantly have fun – that’s what it’s all about.
9. Don't lose sight of the reasons you started
Putting on parties is hard work, so it's important that your drive to be a club promoter comes from a place of passion:
Breakwave: I get to meet a bunch of great people and talk about music and a lot of people send me their own music. It sparks collaboration, can help with a little bit of advice you have been seeking and I have made friends with many people who I’d never have met if it hadn’t been for the club night. It’s a hard task running a party on your own but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. The energy in the room is what makes it worthwhile at the end of the evening.
Lukas Wigflex: Personally, the main reason I started promoting was to give myself a gig. Having this crowd grow with me over the years to a point where I can play what the fuck I want on home turf makes me happy. Seeing a party in full flow, everyone wide eyed and smiling, is a beautiful thing.
Tom Hoyle: I’m not going to lie, at times it can feel like the worst job ever. When you didn’t quite sell enough tickets the night before and now its 7am and you’re tired, sober, broke and packing up equipment long after everyone else has gone home.
But then on the flip side you get some amazing moments when your event has sold out, everything is running like clockwork, it looks and sounds spot on, and the headliner drops something ridiculous and the whole room erupts. Or when people contact us saying they had the best night of their life at one of our shows. We had a guy contact us recently asking if we had any posters for a load of old shows that he came to while he was studying at uni in Bristol. He wanted to frame them up to put up in his house as they reminded him of some of the best years of his life. That was a lovely message to receive and it reminded me of why I’ve stuck with promoting for so long.