Flyering: the importance of hand-to-hand inviting

Many local authorities regard flyers as a nuisance, but they are a vital part of creating cultural scenes in our cities.

Emma Webster

Topics Politics

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As part of the Manifesto Club’s campaign against the increasing prevalence of local council-implemented leafleting bans across the UK (see the petition here), Emma Webster, a researcher at Edinburgh University, explains why flyering is a vital part of grassroots live-music promotion, based on her personal experiences as a flyerer, and on her doctoral research into the promotion of live music. This is an abridged version of a piece originally published on the Live Music Exchange website.

Flyering is obviously in my blood. After performing in three Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows in 2000 and 2001, with all the pavement promotion that entails, my first ‘proper’ job after leaving university was as a full-time marketing and events assistant for Sheffield’s monthly Headcharge and JuJu Club events. What this meant in practice was that I was responsible for getting the various publicity materials (posters and flyers) out around Sheffield and beyond. Sometimes, this meant getting up at 5am on a Sunday morning to go and flyer outside Gatecrasher, or going out to the weekly Tuesday Club events to flyer after the club finished at 2am. Following three happy years working for Headcharge/JuJu – although my flyering duties were passed to someone else after a year of hard slog and bulging muscles – I got a job at Opera North as a marketing officer, one which allowed me to employ people to flyer on my behalf! From there, following a few more adventures, I returned to academia to write a thesis about live-music promotion, and am now working on Live Music Exchange, all of which I put down to my initial work handing out pieces of A6 paper to strangers.

However, over the course of my doctoral research, I heard time and time again about the difficulties facing live-music promoters when trying to promote their events in their own cities, usually around the local authorities’ attitudes towards flyering and fly-posting – the argument being that flyering causes litter while fly-posting can be unsightly and difficult to remove. Such promotional activities are a vital part of grassroots promotion because they are cheap and cost-effective, but also because handing someone a flyer requires striking up a personal relationship – albeit, usually a very brief one – with that potential audience member.

But as Martin Cloonan has pointed out, the attitude of local authorities towards such publicity materials – particularly fly-posting – has often been one of heavy regulation and even prosecution. In one extreme example in Sheffield, a promoter who was in his early sixties at the time received an ASBO for fly-posting!

Cities can benefit from promoting their cultural activities and flyers are a vital part of grassroots live-music promotion. A more accommodating approach to flyering would benefit both cities and promoters.

Flyers are vital for a variety of reasons. First, there is branding. The design of flyers, for instance, can be an important signifier as to the nature of the event, and is an opportunity for the promoter to market an event. Sarah Thornton’s excellent work on club cultures shows how club organisers aim to deliver a particular crowd to a specified venue on a given night, and that to a large degree, ‘club crowds come pre-sorted and pre-selected’, partly through the design and distribution of the flyer. When at university, I was certainly not the only person who blu-tacked flyers on the wall both to decorate my digs but also to show my allegiance with certain events and hence my ‘subcultural capital’ or ‘hipness’.

Promoting an event to the right people in the right place is important, too. I used to flyer outside The Tuesday Club in Sheffield as I knew that there would be a crossover audience with Headcharge; similarly, I left stacks of flyers in certain shops and bars because I knew that those were places our audience – and potential audience – frequented.

The second point is that for gigs and club nights at the small scale, if a promoter is able to talk to the very audience that they want to attract while handing out flyers, there is a higher chance that that person will attend than if they simply picked up a flyer. In this way, the successful conveyance of the information on the flyer is also dependent on that relationship, however fleeting.

This is particularly important because, at this level, the promoter’s ‘brand’ may be more recognisable than the artist’s that they promote and therefore a name on a flyer will be meaningless. For example, if you see a flyer for a band called The Randoms, who you’ve never heard of, are you likely to pick it up? Are you likely to go to the gig? Now if a flyerer approaches you – particularly one whom you recognise and trust – and you allow them to tell you about The Randoms, about the venue, about the buzz at the last gig, who was there, how great it all was, are you perhaps more likely to go to the gig? I know I would. Flyering, then, gives a perfect excuse to go out and talk to people, as well as being able to pass on the information on the flyer.

The third point about flyering is that it creates a means of networking among promoters at the grassroots level. As I point out in my thesis, formal and informal networks between promoters are vital to ensure that the promoter accrues ‘social capital’ in the form of contacts, ‘favours’ and loyalty – vital when you need to borrow an amp at the last minute, or to locate a venue when yours is flooded. Flyering is one way of forming such networks, as this enables promoters to chat to each other about future plans and any other issues. In Sheffield, for instance, when I was flyering for Headcharge on the University of Sheffield concourse, this was a chance not only to distribute publicity material but also to catch up on the latest gossip and plans of other promoters who were also flyering there.

The fourth point is that flyering is a means for young would-be promoters to be able to try out live-music promotion at a fundamental, (relatively) risk-free level, as well as bagging themselves a free ticket for a gig. If they enjoy the experience, then those junior promoters may go on to start promoting their own events.

Festival Fringe performers hand out flyers on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 2012

In this way, flyering can be an important part of a new promoter’s career development. As covered in the second book on the history of live music in the UK, student unions became an important breeding ground for promoters in the 1960s and 1970s, with the likes of Harvey Goldsmith and Simon Moran both starting out as entertainments officers. I don’t know if those two flyered for their events while in the role, but certainly at the University of Sheffield while I was there, one of the first jobs a new ‘ents’ volunteer was required to undertake was flyering for student-union events.

Finally, flyers are relatively cheap. Headcharge, for instance, ordered 10,000 flyers for each monthly event, which cost around £160 in those days. That’s a cost, therefore, of less than two pence per flyer, which is incredibly cheap. One promoter I spoke to brought down the costs even further by doing mini sponsorship deals with clothes shops and bars, where they would contribute towards (or even pay fully) the cost of the flyers. For promoters at the grassroots, for whom the loss of even £50 can mean making a loss or only breaking even, flyers are an incredibly cost-effective way of publicising their events.

But what about the mess from all those flyers, I hear you cry? As Lord Clement-Jones points out: ‘Problems with litter should be dealt with through provision of litter bins and other common-sense measures, not by placing restrictions on our civil rights. Leaflets advertising cultural events, an important expression of our community activity, should not be treated in the same way as a burger wrapper or crisp packet.’

From my own experience, flyering at somewhere like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is an absolutely vital promotional tool. The programme for this year’s festival listed nearly 3,000 shows – without some form of personal recommendation, a favourable media review, and/or a flyer presented in a memorable way, it is difficult to know what to choose. Inevitably this creates a vast amount of litter, and yet Edinburgh somehow manages to tidy up each day, probably because it understands the value of the festivals to its economy and accepts the clean-up as part and parcel of the deal. A report by BOP Consulting estimated that the gross visitor expenditure in Edinburgh for all festivals was almost £250million in 2010.

But what about digital marketing? There is certainly a place for using Facebook, Twitter and email. But as mentioned earlier, flyering allows a promoter (or their volunteers) to make a personal, face-to-face connection with a potential audience. That initial face-to-face contact (and subsequent opportunity for persuasion) elicited by the humble flyer is the best way for promoters at the grassroots level to create a buzz on the street.

As a final anecdote, a few weeks ago I was walking past a venue in Oxford when a teenage lad asked my group, ‘Would you like to come and see my band at the Bullingdon later on?’ Now admittedly he didn’t have a flyer, and we ended up not going (due to hunger pangs), but all four of us were so impressed by his spontaneous self-promotion that we genuinely considered going. Now that wouldn’t have happened on Facebook.

Emma Webster works for Live Music Exchange, based at the University of Edinburgh. Visit the website here. Follow Live Music Exchange on Twitter here.

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Topics Politics


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