Primarily, DBTR promotes live music in Durham City but on occasions we work with venues in Newcastle and Stockton on Tees. Events organised by DBTR are ethically ran, not-for-profit and are intended to benefit musicians and their audiences. All ticket and door sales are paid directly to the musicians. We look on our events as a collaboration between DBTR, venue, musicians and audience.
In 2018 I was contacted by an ‘online magazine’ who wanted to know something of DBTR. This is an updated version of that interview.
Tell us about DownByTheRiver, how it all started and what does it hope to achieve?
I’ve been involved in grass-roots music promotion on and off now for 25 years. In 1996, partnered by an amazing musician from New Mexico called Chris Chavez, I started and ran a gig/label/artist management imprint called ZAMBRA which was based in London. It was quite successful on an underground level but as often is the case these things have a certain shelf life. High points were recording an album with Chris and subsequent live BBC Radio sessions with Johnnie Walker and Bob Harris, a VH1/MTV set and a west coast US/Canadian tour with Chris who opened for Bat For Lashes (I carried his guitar and sold merch!). Then there was a bunch of sold out gigs at the renowned 12 Bar Club, which at the time was located on London’s iconic Denmark Street or ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it was once better known.
What I’m doing now with DBTR mirrors ZAMBRA in many ways, in as much as it is rooted in DIY culture and ran ethically. It is mainly gig promotion I do now but I still get involved in the occasional recording project. A good friend of mine (Dr Bone) owns The Washoose Studio in Lanark, Scotland and it was Bone who recorded/produced the Chris Chavez album ‘Skinwalkers Dance‘. He had also worked with the late-great John Martyn on a couple of his later albums, so Bone is my go-to guy as far as recording goes.
In terms of what I want to achieve, it’s pretty simple really and has never changed. I want to help build the live music scene in the north-east, make sure musicians get paid for what they do and give emerging artists a listening and supportive environment in which to develop their musicianship. I always insist the audience give the musicians the ‘gift of their full attention.’ It seems to have worked because my audience are serious about their music and they do listen. Musicians appreciate that and always seem to go away with a good feeling which is not always the case, especially in pub gigs.
A question I’m often asked is ‘Why do you do this’? Followed by ‘you are crazy, you are working for nothing’. My answer is this – music changed my life; I had my eyes opened by people like John Lennon, Bob Marley, Joe Strummer and Neil Young and have had so much pleasure listening to, watching and working with musicians, this is my way of re-dressing the balance.
I also came across this entitled ‘What it’s like to be a starving Musician’– written by a guy called Alex Wilson, who describes himself as a mediator, touring musician, hobby philosopher and beard enthusiast. His words really hit home and convinced me that running DBTR as a not for profit gig is the right thing to do. This is what Alex had to say….
‘I had a conversation backstage recently with a fellow musician about what has been dubbed ‘the beans on toast lifestyle’. Basically it involves scrimping and saving 24/7 to stay afloat when your income is severely limited by barely-profitable giging and the costs of running a band, which is essentially a small business. The story everyone already knows about musicians is that they are trading stability for authenticity. What I think is more interesting are the details of how it plays out in reality.
The positive aspects of this lifestyle are not often spoken about, since they get a little metaphysical. But since I started my ‘career’ as a touring musician in early 2012, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to over 20 countries, playing my own music to wonderful, happy people from all cultures and all walks of life. Real connections with others are forged – briefly, but powerfully. It’s hard to overstate how much of a joyful experience this can be and I’m always looking forward to the next gig, anticipating whatever new experiences might lie ahead.
It also feels like an authentic life, insofar that you are giving pride of place to your creative tendencies, which for most serious musicians is their life-skill, the one thing that they are clearly best at. Being able to forge a space in the world for this, and a space that has the potential to enhance the lives of others in small ways, is a profound experience that permeates one’s overall outlook.
The troublesome reality, however, is that the numbers game of the industry means the vast majority of musicians will never earn what most people would consider a reasonable income. Musicians, knowing the odds, do their best to press ahead through the stress and exhaustion of balancing day jobs and band commitments, seeing the financial and social stability that their friends are settling into as a speck on the horizon to try for at some later date.
When I started out I optimistically believed that I could safely balance music with a largely austere life of renting, frugal eating, minimal (non-musical) possessions and negligible disposable income. I don’t think I’m very different from most musicians in this way – we can experience wonderful things but with a sense that our musical lives exist on borrowed time. We never know exactly when we will get off the ride, but we know there is a final stop somewhere on the road and that there is a significant remainder of our lives to come after that. It can be heart-breaking to realize that your greatest skill cannot be the major vocation of your entire life – a heartbreak that those with a passion for a trade, a science, law or business will not need to grapple with.
How does DBTR go about booking musicians?
I go out to loads of live music events so I’m always on the look-out. I read the local and national music press, listen to BBC 6 Music (a lot) and do research on line. I get a lot of submissions which I always listen to. However, it has to be something I’m into and a lot of care goes into my programming. I think the audience appreciate that and they know pretty much I try and promote good quality music even if some of the musicians I promote are relatively unknown. I’m quite eclectic in my taste so there is no hard and fast rule. Over the last few years I have featured everything from gypsy jazz to cutting-edge electronica to blues, folk and Americana
How do you publicise your gigs?
I do look on my gigs as a collaboration between promoter/musician/audience and venue so I try and encourage everyone to chip in promotion wise, especially as I have nothing to gain financially out of DBTR. Like most DIY music promoters a lot of the time I’m flying by the seat of my pants and praying I don’t lose money. It’s without doubt something you do for love rather than monetary gain. Unlike when I started out in London, these days social media plays a major role in gig promotion. I don’t have a massive online reach so I just try to make my gigs look as interesting as possible on Facebook etc and put it out there, hoping that the musicians involved and the folks who come out to my gigs will share it around and people will ultimately buy tickets. It does seem to work to a large extent but without the support I have received from the local music press I don’t think I could have achieved what I have. The Crack and NARC magazine are very supportive of what I’m trying to do and I can only thank them for the help and encouragement they continue to give me. I also do the usual stuff like strategically placing posters and flyers in varied locations and I send out a DBTR group email from time to time. I spend way too much of my time working on my computer but when a gig sells out, a musician gets well paid and people tell me they have had a great time I’m more than happy to keep on doing my promo thing.
It seems most of your gigs happen in Durham City? Why is that and how do you choose which venues to work with?
I’m a County Durham native so really it seemed logical to put gigs on in our beautiful city. It started at The Peoples Bookshop in December 2014. At the time I was part of a collective of volunteers who were working in the shop. My role was ‘event organiser.’ I started to put on gigs in the bookshop featuring protest singers under the banner of ‘Club Resistance.’ It was a success but after a while I started to feel a bit constrained by the political theme of the gigs. So I launched DBTR as a side project at the now sadly closed Empty Shop in Durham in 2016. I have since promoted DBTR Durham shows at The City Theatre, Durham University Students Union (were Pink Floyd amongst many others have played), Durham Miners Hall (Redhills), Allington House; in Newcastle at The Mining Institute and The Cluny, plus at The Georgian Theatre in Stockton. Durham is definitely home territory and I would say that Claypath Deli is now DBTR base-camp along with a Teesside enclave at The Georgian Theatre, which I must say is ran super-ethically by a great bunch of people who I have a lot of time for.
Yes, I get a great deal of satisfaction from collaborating with venue owners who buy into my policy. For example, the guys who own Claypath Delicatessen are music lovers themselves so they enjoy the gigs and take a few quid in drinks and food sales so everyone is happy and working to the same end – building the Durham music scene, encouraging the arts and getting a buzz from putting on something genuinely ethical. Our audience know that when they buy a ticket or pay at the door they are directly supporting the musicians so though it means a lot of work and effort to bring things together it’s definitely worth it in terms of growing something organically.
As I said I’m no longer doing the protest thing at The Peoples Bookshop and a conversation I had with Martyn Joseph confirmed what I had been feeling for some time. I was promoting Martyn at The Georgian Theatre in Stockton and the gig happened during the build up to the 2019 general election. As I was aware of Martyn’s politics I asked him if it would be OK for a Labour Party representative to say a few words before he came on. Though Martyn is definitely what you would describe as a left-wing troubadour, he declined. He said ‘my message is in my songs and I would rather they speak for themselves.’ Point taken, from then on I decided that DBTR should just focus on promoting music and that I should put my own political leanings to one side. There’s a time and a place etc.
That said, I will never forget my time at The Peoples Bookshop and I have some fond memories – From the first gig in December 2014 which featured Lee Maddison and Stewart Hardy to the last in October 2019 with Bedford and Simmonds. Though it was only the second gig I promoted there (in January 2015) it remains one of my favourites; Joe Solo had driven up from Scarborough on what was a freezing cold Sunday. Only 12 people turned up and it was more like the gig was happening in a fridge than a radical bookshop. Everyone was clutching hot drinks in an effort to stay warm but undeterred Joe played a powerful set. It was such a special, emotional gig culminating with Joe’s impassioned call to arms – Why Are You So Angry?
Over the years we had some great singer/songwriters in the bookshop e.g. Will Kaufman, Nev Clay, Hector Gannet, Nathalie Stern, Kathryn Williams, Jez Lowe, and Steve Pledger all of whom are critically acclaimed artists and to see them up close in such an intimate venue was something unique. In 2016 we had a true music legend at the bookshop – Michael Chapman. A man with one hell of a back-story. For example, in the 70’s he says his band was ‘stolen’ by Bowie. That band later became known as ‘The Spiders from Mars’. Anyway, I digress; when Michael finally made it up the stairs to what is in reality an attic that has been transformed into a bookshop, he said, ‘Wow, this is great, it’s just like one of those New York City loft gigs’ and that is exactly how it was. Happy days, I will miss that place.
To wrap this up, I would like to put on record my sincere gratitude to everyone who has helped and encouraged me along this path. The people who do the door for me when things get busy, the sound engineers when I put on something bigger, people who help me spread the word on social media – there are too many to mention by name but you know who you are. I have name-checked a few people in the above paragraphs but if people didn’t buy tickets and come out to the gigs nothing would happen. Thanks, it is much appreciated.