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All Tomorrow’s Student Circuits – MusicTank

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All Tomorrow’s Student Circuits

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MusicTank is honoured to have been invited to produce a session at this year’s International Live Music Conference – the largest of it’s kind outside America.


All Tomorrow’s Student Circuits

Starting out as a social secretary in the ’70’s college circuit was key to MY career in the music industry. Throughout these formative years MY peers went on to become key industry figureheads.

My early experiences began as a student attending a college which needed someone to organise social dances. In becoming social secretary, it was my job to put on dances for students at Ewell College. My committee would call round agencies to see what bands were available.

I couldn’t understand why the cost of hiring an act for a college was so high, when those same acts would play pubs mid week for almost no money. The club circuit at this time was healthy, providing much opportunity for bands to play and develop. Club owners were a mixture of entrepreneurs, ex-bouncers and chancers. The Star (Croydon – Hendrix played on several occasions), The Toby Jug (Tolworth), Gull (Croydon), Eel Pie Island, the Barge (Kingston) – these venues made for a healthy local circuit in his area.

Starting to book gigs was part of a steep learning curve, along the way meeting Roger Forrester (later became manager, Eric Clapton), Johnny Togood, Mike Dolan (later managed The Strawbs, Eddie Grant and the Eurythmics when they were still known as The Tourists. These were legendary agents of their time, working in an era in which bands would play 2, 3 and even 4 times in an evening.

Working out who to book led to the introduction of debarring clauses. We didn’t want bands who were appearing up the road or in nearby rival colleges (of which there were many), providing competition in the surrounding area. After much thought, I started booking acts – The Nice, £175.

These were gigs, not so much dances. The era of sitting concert-style had dawned, and some colleges were none too happy for that. As social secretary, I would book acts, design the poster, stack chairs, worry about the power supply sell tickets & clear up the following morning. Fiends and helpers at that time included Nigel Kerr & Chris Briggs ? both much respected to this day.

Other acts booked incl.? Led Zepellin (their second ever gig – £175 and then called The New Yard Birds), King Crimson £15, (one of their very early performances) were one tightest acts I’d ever seen even turning up with their own posters, Roy Harper andFairport Convention.

The role of social secretary was born. With no training, learing was very much on the job. You either rose to the task or suffered. I had great support, and managed to make money which enabled Union to later have acts incl. Black Sabbath and Rory Gallagher.

Many acts would play for the college, and then go back to London to do the clubs later that evening (The Speak Easy, Revolution). Apart from healthy audience demand, minimal equipment demands made this possible.

Ewell College, as with many others, appealed to agents, managers and artists alike. It was an opportunity for acts to refine and develop; to play at what were then often better venues than the small pubs & clubs of the day. They could earn a decent fee and grow a fanbase amongst a record buying audience.

A well established country-wide club scene existed at this time and in later years it was to become part of my life again when I became a booker. A cottage industry, the developing college circuit operated without rules and regulations. With learning strictly on the job it served myself and others well; many went on to become senior industry players.

The club & college circuit co-existed for a number of years. Bands would play clubs, go to colleges and then move on to another tier of gigs; the town hall cinema and ballroom circuit. This was for acts who’d outgrown the college/club circuit and wanted a mixture of venues before going on to a full UK tour.

Throughout the early 70’s, the circuit got bigger, with some colleges becoming huge, others remaining small. Likewise, big acts got bigger, becoming super-groups, playing in Europe, at stadiums and open-air events. From a handful of promoters, opportunities for national tours took over ? Mel Bush, Harvey Goldsmith, Tony Smith. Colleges were by-passed with only super colleges (Leeds, Exeter, Manchester etc) good enough to fill in gaps in tour schedules in towns where the local venues weren’t good. This was especially true for American acts.

The college circuit has become a roller coaster. There once existed a college event magazine and a social secretary convention to highlight & showcase new talent ? the latter still operates. Even with agents doing percentage deals for commission on the door, colleges couldn’t keep up with opposition from bigger shows in town, and had to accept smaller, emerging acts and lesser talent.

What had once seen the birth of concert acts became the haunts of discos, retro events, theme nights and novelty tribute acts for fresher nights.

We should aim to build a stronger college circuit. Do we have such a strong club network? Many highly organised venues of all sizes are doing the work of colleges of old. Do we have better venues? Although improved, many regions are still without sufficient facilities. Is music as important in people’s lives, competition for leisure time being so much greater? And does today’s student want to go to smokey drafty gigs, spending cash on what can be a hit-and-miss activity?

Student unions can’t offer some of the facilities on offer in US and parts of Europe. Are we all hanging on to a lost dream? The young grow up quicker ? should we not be concentrating efforts on schools rather than colleges, giving younger people an opportunity to hear music in the company of their peers?

We should be doing all we can to solidify the college circuit. Whilst grateful for the activities of the Barflys, the King Tuts, the Academy’s etc, as abreeding ground for the next generation of music indusry players and for the oppportunity for bands to step up to the next level, there is nothing like a college tour.

Society is now very different, with perhaps not the same thirst for traditional Rock ‘n’ roll tours.

Any broadening to a European level of the circuit would prove a mamoth task. It’s fraught with difficulties on a national level, never mind stretching it out to a continental scale. But maybe this is worth serious investigation?

How many in the room started out in music due to involvement at college? It would be very sad if this opportunity were lost altogether. Is it too late?


(CC – CMU Daily)
[Chris presented the student secretary poll results]

If the circuit as described no longer exists, what happened to it and where did it go? There are two answers:

1. Competition for the student audience has grown massively over the last 20yrs, and with the advent of student marketing in the early ’90s, brands (especially entertainment brands), wanted to reach students directly. A result was an increase in venues (some owned by breweries or pub chains, others private), to compete for the student pound. The unions found that their previously captive student audience was being pulled away by the lure of promotion nights ? cheaper drinks, cheaper tickets, better artists ? in their own towns. They were able to offer artists better facilities and services, were consistent and more professionally run. Not surprisngly, artists preferred to use these professionally run operations. Suddenly the student unions ceased to have a captive audience and scaled down their entertainment operations.

Student unions do perceive themselves as being in competition with these venues. Nowadays, most student unions need to make a profit, as a result of the 90s policy of university subsidies not allowed to be used for leisure & entertainment activities. Furthermore, profit generated from student leisure & entertainment activities should be used to subsidise other aspects of college funding.

2. Growth . The student population has grown massively in the 90s and the stereotypical student of the 70s & 80s was now largely outdated, as are music tastes. Unions went more mainstream with music choice, revolving around cheap drink and novelty acts.

These reasons, coupled with agents and artists receiving better offers elsewhere gave rise to the whole circuit going into decline. Dance and club culture further accelerated the demise of the live circuit.

However, on a positive note, as the poll shows, there has recently been a rise in the number of live gigs across the board, and many unions now employ fulltime staff, who specialise in events and marketing.

Whilst this may be counter to the old spirit of the student scene, licensing legislation has dictated in this regard. Most unions recognise that live is on the up, and do try to involve students as much as possible in the running and organisation of these events.

In the poll, two recurring themes cropped up to rejuvinate scene.

1. National student network . Agents can book groups of venues forming a large proportion of the tour. When working on an individual basis, an element of cherry picking occurs whereby agents only use the student union venue if a better venue doesn’t exist. A network would stop that from happening.

2. Star names . From the agent and wider music industry side, for a network to work it’s important that bigger names are programmed to support the next generation of artists. Unsigned student bands could appear on the same billing, to the extent that unions once
again become the hotbed for the next big thing.

(DR – Academy Music Group)
I’m very pro student unions, and recognise the opportunities they present for long term careers in the music industry. The problem with the union facilities is that they are also dealing in retail and food which most often take priority over entertainment.

Student unions as I see them, are no longer stand alone venues. A national network would never work. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to booking artists across a network does not work. I can struggle to get one band to play a couple of venues in a venue group. The idea that 750 student unions can link together for bands to tour is at best optimistic and wholly unrealistic.

(LF – NUS Services)
I can agree with some of these points. Yes, student unions are not venues, they are complex organisations and not easy organisations with which to work. The circuit of old is not what it was, but it’s not dead and change is afoot, with NUS Services now looking into it. NUS Ents were tasked with entertainments in unions through elected student officers.

Ents managers are now responsible at the larger more commercial student unions. The responsibility for entertainments has now moved from the NUS to NUS Services, a sister organisation concerned with puchasing and licensing. We are currently in the midst of this change and it presents an opportunity for student unions to work collectively, and create a network of organisations that are members (approx 225) of NUS Services. Only approximately 160 unions of the 750 that exist actually trade i.e. have bars, shops, catering outlets etc. The network would comprise this number, not 750.

Daryl’s points are valid, and a ‘one size fits all’ would not be our approach. We would seek to be flexible – the network would provide a framework within which each individual member could tailor accord to their own needs. Each union is a separate operation. NUS is an umbrella organisation which doesn’t have any interventionalist rights whatsoever. NUS and NUS Services provide services and assistance if and when required. Any kind of framework would be on an opt-in basis. We would seek the input from experienced professionals (Daryl) to help establish this framework.

Regarding agency representation, NUS Services are keen to establish levels of standards and quality of service and benchmarking them so as to be able to provide a level of service external bodies are happy with and would expect. We are able to do this, and have done this with regard the licensed trade, social reponsibility and other areas. We want to move with the industry in this regard, and would seek their help in order to do this.

(JL ? Channelfly)
I share many of Daryl’s sentiments, and the industry needs these conversations with colleges. Ticket sales are definitely up with Barfly (450’000 – the equivalent of more than 3 Glastonbury’s), and at a time when ticket sales have never been harder to achieve.

Live music events is a specialist area ? colleges are colleges. If they can’t get the event management right, why don’t they license out the operation to someone who can, just as they do with many other student services (food, drinks, retail etc). That way, you could guarantee an income in return for the franchise operating on campus, utilising the facilities and so-on.

The circuit does exist. Some facilities are good with some campuses enjoying mutli-capacity rooms and bars. This presents a great opportunity, yet it’s not really working because the ‘service’ is asleep, and won’t be of much interest to agents until there’s a structure in place that they can trust. An agent with a small band with a chart album almost a certainty, you’re not going to upset the label, manager and artist by taking a gamble with a promoter you don’t really know. A seasoned promoter with a track record will always be a more attractive proposition.

In trying to do deals with colleges and universities they have often fallen apart not with the ents managers themselves, but from a higher tier within the university framework. This makes an agents job much harder. In one case, a university spent 2 years consulting with industry and building facilities (at a cost of £9m of tax payers money) incl. £100’000 of lighting and PA equipment. To this day the venue has yet to be used. When it came to negotiating the use of the venue, institutional machinery came into play and decisions could not be made.

Universities don’t really want live music. The ents managers do and the students want it, the institutional hierachy doesn’t. It took me 2 yrs to get a PEL (Public Entertainment Licence) at one university, despite being able to pull in profits. Some universities have knocked down perfectly good live venues and replaced them with bars. They don’t want gigs. This why I think Academy, Barfly et al do so well. When we go to a city the student population is one of the most important considerations as to whether or not we open a venue.

Re franchising venues, there are licensing issues. You can’t sell live music in union venues all the time. There is a requirement for a diverse provision of activities and events ? they don’t all involve live music. Increasingly more and more people are attending colleges and universities who aren’t into live music, and the unions have to respond to the needs of their membership. If that means more dance nights, hip-hop and so-on at the expense of live gigs, that is what they’ll put on. The control of the programme of events is an issue.

As far as venues closing and re-opening of bars, its the Universities doing, not the unions. The competition from the high street is making unions change. Student unions are closing because they can’t retain their customers, they don’t do what their customers want them to do, and other issues – inflexible venue management etc. But the changes have forced them to think more commercially about how they operate, and this does present an opportunity for unions to provide what the live industry wants.

Recent research at NUS Services has shown that of those polled 52% of students regard a night at a friends house as being a good night out, and 21% stated going to gigs was their preferred method of socialising.

In defence of universities, their core activity is education and research, and up until now, they perhaps can’t be overly blamed for not recognising the value of leisure & entertainment. The impact of tuition fees, however, will be to raise the bar in terms of quality and standards of venues, leisure services and so-on. The standard in the US is much higher because of this ? people will vote with their feet and go to a college or university that offers a high standard of events etc.

If universities were to franchise out their venues, whilst it presents an opportunity to allow students to work with industry professionals, the very spirit of adventure that gives rise to the future industry king pins of the future will be lost.


The college circuit is an educational process for those wanting to work in the music industry. Chris Wright, Ed Bicknell, Rob Dickens, Paul Conroy are all examples of this. There are many ways to get involved in music industry at university ? student gigs, student magazines, student radio etc, but the most useful learning curve was in putting on gigs. Whilst you can look to formal courses, the best education is the practical kind. With the demise of this circuit, we have really lost something.
(DR) We sort of do this already. The manager of Brixton Academy comes from a student union where he worked behind a bar. But if venues are closing anyway, where are these future industry professionals going to go anyway?

The panel needs to make a distinction between a touring circuit that is booked by promoters, or one that is booked by the students in the student unions.
(DR) Its both. Sometimes, promoters couldn’t be interested, in which case social secretaries and ents managers would book bands themselves. Ensu meetings comprising typically 40 entertainments mangers of the biggest student unions couldn’t come to a collective agreement about many things. What resulted was each ents manager booking their own acts. If we couldn’t get that to work, how could a network of perhaps 150 student unions do it?

What can NUS Services do to inspire people to open small capacity venues and make them work? NUS Services is a buying group, not a promoter. There are 3 student unions owned by students in the UK. All the others are owned by the Universities.

Student bands need to be encouraged to play in their union venues in order to get a revival underway. Many unions are simply a source of cheap beer and a place to hang out – not a place to see bands.
A great example of a success story is Liverpool University ? the university have provided the ents manager with a proper budget and a venue. They also programme bands in smaller rooms off the main venue when a club night is on, attended by up to 2000 students who may go through to see a live band. Universities sould be doing a lot more creative programming like this.

Many booking agents see no need for student union venues. There are better more professionally run outfits out there, and you know you will get paid.
(LF) Some student unions haven’t been run professionally for some years, but that is changing.

(KH) The worst thing that has happened in the music business is that everyone is qualified – it’s stripped out the mavericks from the industry.

How will NUS Services to make sure the circuit becomes professional?
It will be a case of modify and change or the union venues will close ? supply and demand will dictate.

(DR) The nail in the coffin for student unions was when they employed professional events managers. It stopped students running their own events. Maybe it would be better to go back to social secretary’s and ents committees who make the decisions.

(PC) I can see a Clear Channel or similar making an offer; irrespective of that, we need a college circuit ? if not we will lose a vibrant sector of the industry. Students have got to get motivated. Whilst I can’t see a national circuit working, it would be terrible to see the venues disappear having spent so many years working in this area. Nobody has talked about schools, I do think this is a possible area for expansion, and that ‘amateur hour’ ? getting student bands playing in their venues would be a good thing.

(LF) We are attempting to engage with the industry in a way we’ve not before. There is antipathy on both sides, and we are seeking to change this. I don’t think there should be a college circuit just because there should be a college circuit.