The Necessity of Connection: A Q&A with Steve Pitt of the Cellars at Eastney

The music industry has changed – and continues to change – beyond recognition. So how has the Cellars at Eastney, one of Portsmouth’s great independent venues, fared in the new environment? In the first of a three-part series, Portsmouth University lecturer Tom Sykes and a group of his creative writing students quiz owner-promoter Steve Pitt and local singer-songwriter Andrew Foster. This issue they discuss the mechanics of promotion, the perils of Britain’s Got Talent and the wealth inequalities in the music business. 

Question: Could you tell us about how you became owner of the Eastney Cellars?

Steve Pitt: Obtaining the freehold was an eighteen-month slog. The space was owned by Enterprise Inns until 2010 when they decided to sell it at auction for flats. We felt we had nothing to lose so we started a campaign to persuade the company to sell us the venue and got a huge amount of support. I realised that, to work out the email address of an employee of Enterprise Inns, you simply put a dot between their first and second name and then add ‘’. So I figured out how to email the chairman that way and persuaded the world and his mate to send messages of protest. We ended up crashing his inbox!

I started getting frantic calls from the area manager saying, ‘You have to call this campaign off.’ And I said, ‘No, you have to sell up.’ I think that was the turning point. They realised that taking it away from us and Portsmouth would be more trouble than it was worth. They eventually agreed to release the freehold.

Q: How do you publicise Cellars events?

SP: In a number of ways. We make sure the poster boards here are always up to date and that the next slew of gigs are advertised on the outside boards as well. We carry an in-house flyer advertising all the main shows that we have constantly updated. We also have a direct mailing list with 2,000 people on it. About 45 per cent of whom open the email and read it, which is very high against the industry standard of 17 per cent.

We’ve got 2,700 people in our Facebook group and we boost-post to hit a wider demographic. Given that Facebook is not the powerhouse it used to be, you can’t just have a page and hope people see it – you have to really work at it. We’ve got over 3,000 people on our Twitter feed and we do regular update tweets about who’s coming to play over the next week or so. Live tweeting from the show is also a good method.

We do collaborative advertising with the Guildhall, the Wedgewood Rooms and the Kings Theatre as well as with The News whose G2 guide we sponsor. Sub-regional promotion is also a big help and we do that through the And Guide, which covers Bournemouth, Winchester, and the Meon Valley and New Forest areas.

Networking is key, as the artists themselves promote our events via tweeting and shared Facebook posts.

Q: What is it about the Cellars that makes it unique?

SP: We’re very different from the other venues in Portsmouth. The Guildhall has hit the medium sized touring market specialising in the contemporary and the emerging ends of the market. They’re one of the best venues in the country for that kind of music, but they don’t cover the heritage artists that the Cellars does. We’ve cornered the blues and singer-songwriter markets, and we also do theatrical, comedy and spoken word events.

We hosted a poetry gig last year called Zones of Avoidance with Maggie Sawkins, and it went on to win the Ted Hughes Poetry Prize – a major achievement for anybody.

Despite being distinctive from other Portsmouth venues, we are very connected to them. I promote stuff in other places and vice versa. If Geoff [Priestley, general manager of the Wedgewood Rooms] feels that a show is a bit too small for them, he’ll hand it over to me. And then I’ll do guest producing at the Guildhall and Kings Theatre.

I also think we are somewhere intimate and special to play. There are a lot of famous faces on our wall [amongst them Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols, Rod Argent of The Zombies, Albert Lee and Nik Kershaw], and many of them normally play bigger spaces. But thanks to the agent-management work that I do, I have connections with specific artists that mean they are keen to play here, even though in other cities they’d be playing the next size venue up to us.

Q: A lot about the music industry has changed since you started here in 1998. How has this affected gig attendances?

SP: The industry is changing on an almost daily basis. None of us know what it’s going to end up looking like once it has finally decided what it wants to be. It’s almost unrecognisable compared to what it was like pre-recession, and ten years before that it was even less recognisable.

What used to happen is that agents and, to a lesser extent, management labels funded new artists to go out on the road and build a fan base. There was a lot of good quality, emerging talent out there that created excitement amongst an audience and got them going to gigs regularly. That funding dried up for various reasons and most of the acts now have to find – and fund – their own way of getting out there and playing live. Nowadays very few agents are proactive in making that happen. Luckily, I work with a couple who are.

With the ready availability of all kinds of material on the internet these days, people tend to stay in more. I guess an analogy is fewer kids going outside to kick a football about because they’d rather sit at home and play FIFA on their computers.

The decline in UK gig audiences is universal apart from at that very high-end arena level. But even though these big venues outwardly appear as if they’re selling out night after night, an awful lot of what we call “papering” goes on. In other words, when you go into an arena and you find 10,000 people there, they haven’t all bought a ticket. There’s a whole combination of different things that these venues do to make sure that they fill that space.

Does anybody here receive text messages offering you the opportunity to buy advance tickets for certain concerts? It’s not a scam but it’s a slight untruth because these huge concert promoters such as Live Nation will split their allocation of tickets with a load of different providers. The providers will then send these messages to different sections of the public that say ‘Hurry and buy a ticket now as there’s limited availability’. In reality, though, there’s only limited availability of that particular provider’s share of the allocation; there may well be plenty of tickets left across all those providers.

It’s a marketing ploy that adheres to that old adage: when everyone wants something but it’s limited to one per customer, people will covet it a lot more.

These big promoters have managed to sustain this approach for a long time, but it’s starting to unravel. The effect on the lower level – where the Cellars exists – is that more gigs are having to become free entry and ‘DIY’ in order to sustain that live market. This is not necessarily a good thing.

Q: Can I ask Andrew how important venues like the Cellars are for the development of local artists?

Andrew Foster: These venues are integral, they are where people like me cut our teeth. There’s nothing like being in a small room like this, alone with a guitar, making a connection with people.

Q: When I was a teenager getting into music, you still heard phrases like “making it” and “getting a record deal” bandied about. That’s obviously changed for the reasons we’ve mentioned. I just want wondered what does it now mean to “make it” as a musician? What are your ambitions?

AF: Very good question, and it’s one that the big magazines like Q and Uncut are asking all the time. That term has completely morphed, I think. Gig-goers’ spending habits have completely changed because people will spend £70 on a ticket to see these arena-level acts or even more to attend festivals, which are the in-thing now, they spring up everywhere. Unfortunately, what’s happened is that fewer people are willing to pay £15 to come for one night to a smaller venue like this one.

Just to add to what Steve said earlier, another major change is that a lot of artists are now completely DIY when it comes to touring and distribution. And those you might think are not DIY in fact are. They have to do everything: the making, recording, distribution, even the promotion of their music. Even when you see these artists in Q and Uncut, you think they are making loads of money and must have a huge entourage and so on. That’s not true. This also means that the distribution of money in the industry has completely changed.

SP: 77 per cent of the total revenue of the music industry is controlled by the top one percent of the music industry. That does not leave much for the 23 per cent. It’s a flawed system because artists are losing the opportunity to perform in small spaces where they can develop and take risks, try out a new song and find out how it’ll play with an audience. They will miss out on the whole process of building their character and confidence as an artist. Put it this way, you can’t just take someone who performs in their bedroom and looks good on a Youtube video and put them straight on the stage. It will be an absolute car crash.

One local artist who is now hugely popular – I won’t name her – had a number one hit. But she couldn’t perform live to save her life; she was terrible. A label took her on quickly and tried to make the most of her image and relative fame, which was dependent on a large online following. They tried to catapult her to stardom, but she was incapable of going on a major stage and headlining a show.

Now, if that’s where the industry is going, we’ll end up with poor-quality, shallow “stars” being pushed and anyone with any musical talent getting nowhere at all. That would turn music from being an art form and a creative process into simply a business.

It’s vital that artists develop their star and their sound, and make a connection with an audience. If they’ve never been on that journey – and they just suddenly arrive at stardom through a TV talent show or something – then they won’t build a long-lasting relationship with an audience.

Too often someone wins The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, has a number one single that sells millions, and then six months later is dropped by the label because they can’t sell a million copies of the next single. And of course they can’t because they had no roots fan base, no core audience following them from the very beginning. The audience could only ever see them as a novelty act, a YouTube sensation, and not as a proper artist.

Q: Do you think the influence of those talent shows is waning?

SP: Yes, just look at the declining audience of The X Factor. I listen to and make judgements about music for a living and I can’t make myself watch that programme! I don’t see anything in it that’s beneficial. If they’re setting out to prove that people no one has ever heard of have great voices, they might as well not bother; go to any pub in Britain on a Saturday night that puts on a covers band and you’ll realise that. But it’s not just about technical singing ability, it’s, as I say, about connecting with an audience.

I have always said this to young bands: ‘Video yourselves and watch it back. If you don’t like what you see, why should anybody else like it?’ Your mum, dad and mates will come along and support you a few times. But that’s only going to take you so far. Unless you reach a wider audience and gain proper fans, you’re going nowhere. And I don’t think that will ever change, no matter how the rest of the industry changes.

Q: Andrew, how did you get your name out there and progress as a musician?

AF: As far as social media goes, Facebook has made it downright impossible for anyone without money to properly promote themselves. We have this insane situation where an artist has to pay in order to get an advert out to all the people who have already subscribed to your page. I don’t even know how that’s legal!

In the end, though, there’s no substitute for just getting up in front of people. I got to know Steve personally after a few gigs, made a link with him and he started to trust that I would work hard. Then Steve got me in touch with Terry, a local folk singer-songwriter, and we went on the road together. So I think it’s vital to manoeuvre yourself into the right places and form links with artists with similar approaches.

SP: If a band turns up here and asks to see me – and makes that physical connection – I will bother to listen to their music. Not always but pretty much every time. I can’t be bothered with someone spending all day in their bedroom, who will create music on machines and send endless emails to people and then expect to make an emotional impact on them. It’s just not how it works and Andrew is living proof of that.

Q: Are there any types of band that you wouldn’t be interested in promoting?

SP: I find it very hard to get hardcore music because I don’t imagine that in thirty years’ time someone will be growling along to a song without any real lyrics. That said, I sometimes hear a band and feel that I can judge whether they are good quality or not, without necessarily liking their stuff myself.

Q: What are your criteria for taking a band on?

SP: I used to be a proper old-school “put the records on” party DJ, so my background is therefore pop. For me, everything is about melody, lyrics and song structure. Is it memorable? Am I going to want to hear it again in a week’s time? I don’t necessarily know everything that’s wrong with the song but I know when it’s not right.

And if I hear a song and believe it’ll be a hit, I’m reasonably confident of being right. If I wasn’t right fairly often this place would have shut down years ago!