The culmination of a long association with pianist Matthew Mills, Bagatelles represents some 30 years of piano music by British composer Bernard Hughes.
Unusual venues make for a different concert experience than a regular concert hall and often give more opportunities for creativity but hiring an empty space somewhere, with none of the necessary infrastructure around it does mean there’s more to think about and often extra cost. Here are some things we think about when we’re in a “dry hire” venue
The space itself will have a big influence on the vibe of the event but you can influence it by how you set it up too. Where will the musicians be, will they stay in the same place for the whole concert or move either for different pieces or during pieces? Is the space too big for your expected audience, could you use curtains/chair layout to make sure it doesn’t feel empty? Do you want the audience standing or sitting in rows or sitting around tables? How informal do you want it to feel? Do you want recorded music played before, after and in the interval and if so, do you need a DJ and/or speakers? How are you going to light it – brightly, totally dark with stand lights only, spot lights, just white or colours…? How will the musicians see each other and what “house” lights will you have? Who’s going to turn the lights on and off and how will they know when? Will a simple light switch be enough or do you need a lighting control board?
An empty space is unlikely to have been designed with acoustics in mind like a concert hall (let’s not discuss acoustics of London concert halls here, that’s a conversation over a pint for another day) – as a review of one of our concerts said “all the acoustic alertness of the inside of your shoe”! Check what the acoustics are like and think what they will be like when it’s full of people. If it’s not how you’d ideally like it, are there things you can do to improve it?
Hopefully you thought about this before picking the venue otherwise life might get a bit tricky! The easiest option is singers or small instruments: string quartet, wind quintet, solo trumpet etc. However, if you do have a piano or big percussion or harp or anything else big on the programme, how are you going to get it in and out – is the entrance wide enough and flat or with a ramp, is there a lift, where is the instrument going to go, how do you make sure it doesn’t get damaged?
A word of caution about prepared piano. If you are hiring a piano (or actually using one at any venue) and you want to do anything other than play the keys in a traditional way, double and triple check what you’re allowed to do. We have been caught out with this before, a lot places lease Steinway pianos and their rules are very strict – nothing allowed on the strings, no touching the strings, no touching the inside of the piano, no hitting the inside or outside of the piano with anything etc
All the extra things you need to hire/borrow/make: staging, lighting, chairs, tables, any amplification or projection equipment, decorations. Think about when you can get into the venue and when everything will be delivered and picked up afterwards. How does that fit with your rehearsal times and will the ensemble have something to sit on for the rehearsal? Can you leave things in the venue overnight and get them picked up in the morning? If you are transporting anything in your own car, do you know how big it is and will it fit? (this sounds simple but for one concert we hired some small lights that came in a massive case that wouldn’t fit in my car. We had to take the lights out and send the case back with the courier after a small panic).
Also think about how long it’s going to take you to pack everything away afterwards – longer than you expect probably. Check when you need to be out of the venue and plan your event start time accordingly to make sure it all fits in. Our concerts tend to run longer than we expect – world premieres often end up being longer than the composers thinks and you need to leave time for all the rapturous applause so over estimate.
What if something goes wrong? Make sure you have all the contact and reference numbers of all the relevant people for equipment hire and the venue easily accessible and out of hours numbers if you need them on weekends.
Legal and safety things
You need an event licence from the local authority for a public event. The venue may have this already or you may need to apply for a temporary one. Check whether the venue is going to do that or if you need to do it. Each borough is different but generally you can do it with quite short notice and it’s a small fee (£20 ish). You also need to speak to PRS in advance, inform them of the programme afterwards and pay the appropriate fees (something like 4% of ticket sales for the small events we do). Info here
Check whether the venue has public liability insurance or if you need to have it. If someone trips over a speaker cable at your event and hurts themselves or an audience member damages part of the venue, are you covered? It’s a good idea to check around the venue too for any possible safety hazards and minimise them as much as possible
Depending on your expected audience, you may want to double check things like how clean the toilets are, that the whole place is generally clean, will people be able to find the place and the front door if it’s not obvious. We’ve put up signs before but only thought about people coming from the tube so people coming from the opposite direction didn’t see the signs and got a bit lost!
Is there a green room in the venue? If not, where are the musicians going to put their cases and warm up? You’re also likely to have lots of storage boxes for the lights, the bar equipment etc, where’s that going to go so it’s out of the way?
We always want people to have the option of having a drink at our concerts. Is there a bar provided by the venue and if not, are you going to run one yourself? If you’re going to run one, you need to think about licences again – depending on what licence you or the venue have, you may not be able to sell alcohol and therefore need to do it on a donation basis or include it in the ticket price. Either way, where are you getting the drinks from, who’s going to run the bar, where are the glasses/cups coming from, where is it going to be in the space, how much are you going to charge? Also think about having enough change in a secure cash box if you’re charging people
If you’re in an empty space, particularly one not usually used for concerts, then you don’t have the benefit of the venue’s marketing channels so you need to do even more promotion work yourself.
This also extends to selling tickets – you may not be able to do this through the venue website and so you’ll need to do it yourself. We use Ticket Tailor and find it great for being able to have lots of flexibility on pricing, see how ticket sales are going and you can embed it in your website. It also means you need to control how many tickets you’re going to sell (make sure you know the limitation of the venue, both size and fire regulations) and decide how much you’re going to charge – early bird prices, student tickets, concessions etc
Front of house
You need someone to run front of house. Where is it going to go in the space, do you need a table, how will you manage the guest list, how will you check tickets? For our last couple of concerts we did this ourselves and I like being able to say hi to audience members as they arrive. We had 2 people on the door – one checking the guest list on a bit of paper and one using the Ticket Tailor app to check off people who had bought tickets. If you’re lucky enough to have sold out in advance, great, but if you’re selling tickets on the door, how much are you charging? Make sure you have plenty of change and a secure cash box. What are you going to do with late comers? I’d also suggest keeping a tally of how many tickets you sell on the door so you know how many audience you have and how many buy tickets in advance vs on the door