Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Sounds of my City / Manchester : Now Wave presents…

Sounds of my City / Manchester : Now Wave presents…

09 February 2012, 12:00
Words by John Freeman

Like most Mancunians, I’m packed with civic pride. And, like a typically arrogant Manc, I will happily brag about my city’s success stories. Already, within this series of articles about Manchester, I’ve waxed lyrical about the gaggle of its fine new bands and have offered up the view that the gig-going community has a fabulous choice of venues to experience live music. However, there is another key element to Manchester’s current buoyancy; it can also boast a fantastic set of promoters.

If I am honest, up until recently I never really thought about the role promoters play in a music scene. The letters ‘SJM presents’ - for example – may have been printed on many tickets I had bought, but all I thought a promoter did was book a venue, place an advert in some music publications and then sit back and watch the money roll in. But, having stood at numerous gigs watching a new band play with only 30 other people on a dank Monday night, it has since occurred to me that promoting live music may not be a surefire way of printing your own money.

So, it is pretty lucky that some intrepid people do promote new music. Manchester has a great expanse of talented bands and can attract virtually any touring artist. It has some brilliant venues and a huge student population which are potential regular gig attendees. However, somebody needs to be the ‘link’ and Manchester has a formidable set of promoters who have connected new music to the people.

In my opinion, the best of this bunch is Now Wave. Over the last four years they have developed a formidable reputation in Manchester. The list of bands they have promoted is stunning (and reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most exciting new music of the recent past), while their ticket prices are cheap even though each gig seems rammed with exciting support acts.

Now Wave is the brainchild of two people – Wes Killerbee and Jon Wickstead – and they are almost constantly out promoting their shows and talking to people about new bands. Coupled with the fact that the Now Wave ‘brand’ is finessed with beautiful, bespoke-designed [poster artwork and a gorgeous booklet, means I have been to many Now Wave gigs just because it is, well, them.

So, it occurred to me that Manchester’s vibrant live music scene doesn’t just happen; it takes a lot of hard work and dedication from people like Wes and Jon and I became fascinated with how they had become so good at what they do. Promoters like Now Wave have become central to the city’s success. With that in mind, I met up with Jon and Wes in the upstairs bar in a city centre art house cinema. They both order Earl Grey tea as are on a “month of detox” after a crazily busy end to 2011. If promoters were ever to be the new rock stars, Jon and Wes look the part. With his long vertical beard, Wes could be a hipster version of W.G. Grace, while Jon is as fresh-faced as is humanly possible for a twenty-something male. What becomes perfectly clear over our hour-long chat is their passion and commitment to Manchester’s music scene.

How did Now Wave first come about?

Jon: “We started Now Wave about four years ago. It came about from Wes and I doing club nights together and we had taken it as far as it could go. We were putting on more and more gigs through the club nights and it progressed from there. Plus, we’ve both tried working at office jobs and we absolutely hated it.”

Did you have an initial vision for what you wanted Now Wave to be?

Wes: “When we were DJing we were noticing that the songs that were getting the best reaction were brand new songs – stuff that no one else was playing but people were hearing at home and really into. We took that idea and used it as the modus operandi of the live bookings. We would book the new bands that people were hearing online, and really liked, but no one else was booking.”

So, I’m guessing the name ‘Now Wave’ alludes to that philosophy?

Wes: “Yes, you’ve got New Wave and No Wave, so we had the idea of being the sounds of now. It’s fairly self-explanatory.”

What was it like when you first started out?

Wes: “It was pretty hit and miss.”

Jon: “The second ever Now Wave gig we did the opening band were The xx. That was quite a good gig, early doors.”

That was amazing. How do you decide to book certain bands? Do you have the same tastes in music?

Jon: “We don’t have the same music tastes but music is the main thing we care about. The starting point for booking a band is ‘do we really like it?’ and is it something that we ourselves would pay to go and watch. Sticking by that rule has done us all right.”

Wes: “When we started no one knew who we were so all the emails were outgoing with us contacting people. Slowly, by working with small bands and – we think – treating them well, promoting gigs properly and having an eye for detail, bigger bands have asked to work with us.”

How would you define promoting a gig ‘properly’?

Jon: “Actually doing some work and promoting them physically. It’s easy to post on Facebook and Twitter and fire off emails, but a big part if actually getting out into the real world and handing flyers out, putting posters up and talking to people about music. That’s a big part of what Wes and I do.”

I can vouch for that – I have received flyers from you both on many occasions. There also seems to be a real ‘brand identity’ with Now Wave. For example, all of your posters are beautifully designed. How important is this to you?

Wes: “The artwork is a key part of it. Paul is the unofficial third member of Now Wave. He designs all the posters and has done from day one. We design a poster for every single gig. It always goes online; there will always be a physical copy of it and now we produce the booklet that includes every poster.”

The booklets are works of art in themselves. Aside from the publicity, what else is critical to being a successful promoter?

Wes: “Well, it’s not like we book a headliner and then think that any old support band will do. There are often two quality supports that we like as much and fit into the headline act. For example, when Real Estate play , the night will start with Childhood, who are a really good new band from Northampton, then it is Outfit from Liverpool, who are a bit better known. That is a whole Friday night’s entertainment at what we think is a reasonable price .”

Jon: “We could have just put Real Estate on and let it sell out, but we want to make it a quality night. That’s really important in these financial times; people need a reason to go out.”

I’m assuming giving value for money has become critical recently?

Wes: “It is definitely more difficult than it was 18 months ago. People are choosing to go out less. Maybe people who went to four gigs per month are now going to three. Or they might go to the cinema instead because they won’t drink as much and they will therefore know what the cost is going to be. We have become very aware of keeping ticket prices as low as possible and providing as much entertainment as possible.”

How much thought do you give to picking the right venue for a particular band, or is it more a case of booking whatever is available on a particular date?

Jon: “Picking the right venue is almost as important as choosing the right band. A good band in the wrong venue can ruin a gig. There are so many good venues in Manchester to choose from, there is not really any excuse to put someone in the wrong place.”

Wes: “In general we will start with the band, and then Jon and I will talk about the size of venue but then after that it about where will this band suit. If you need to be able to see something The Deaf Institute is amazing. But, maybe if you want to feel something and be ‘in there’ then the Mill is better. Death Grips was amazing at the Mill and I’m not so sure it would have been as good at The Deaf Institute. But, maybe if you need to really see the performer – like Peaking Lights where he is playing instruments he has made himself – The Deaf Institute is perfect.”

How big could Now Wave grow? You are huge champions of new and breakthrough bands, but do you have ambitions to promote arena or stadium shows?

Wes: “We never set out to do big gigs, but we have. Over the years, enjoyed working with certain people as they have got bigger. We want to keep working with them. We first put SBTRKT on supporting Holy Ghost at The Deaf Institute to about 80 people. Then we put on Sampha, who is the singer with SBTRKT, to about 150 people and now SBTRKT is coming back to do 1,500 at the Ritz. I don’t see why we can’t keep working with him as he gets bigger.”

You also did a show at the 3,000 capacity Manchester Apollo? How was that?

Jon: “Good but stressful. It was amazing, if you see some of the photos from it. It was a real high point for us.”

Wes: “The Apollo is an amazing building; the slanted floor, the mixture of sitting and standing and the architecture is all incredible. Our gig was billed as ‘Now Wave At The Apollo’ – it was Caribou, Battles and a mixture of other bands and DJs. I’d love to do more gigs there.”

And, as promoters of new music, how much do Now Wave get involved with ‘older’ bands, or indeed the dreaded reunion tours?

Jon: “We have done some shows for older bands. We did The Lemonheads recently performing one of their classic albums, but that was just something Wes and I liked when we were growing up.”

Wes: “As Now Wave has become better known, we have been offered stuff that we liked when we were younger. Without a doubt, the emphasis is still 90 percent on breaking new and emerging bands, but just occasionally we will book older bands. There was The Lemonheads, Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus in quick succession, all of whom have been heroes for us.”

There are some other great promoters in Manchester. Is their rabid competition? Must Now Wave crush all others en route to world domination?

Jon: “It is healthily competitive, I’d say. There are loads of good promoters putting their own type of music on.”

Wes: “On the electronic side, The Warehouse Project are superb, Chris who runs Hey! Manchester does alt. country and folk stuff brilliantly. Luke at Lost & Found does more ‘credible’ NME bands and does it really well. Ciaran at Wot God Forgot does more the ATP side of things and all those guys are really good.”

Can we digress for a second? Can you give me an example of a ‘credible’ NME band?

Wes: “Something like The Vaccines. They are a good band and it is a good album. If I had a 16-year-old sister, I’d love her to be listening to that. It’s not quite for me, but it is better than fucking X-Factor rubbish.”

Ha ha. So, if The Vaccines are reading this Now Wave will happily promote your next Manchester show. Getting back on topic, I’m thinking that for a city to have a number of good promoters is a very good thing.

Wes: “Absolutely. Some cities get taken over by one promoter and it is at the expense of a diverse music scene. It is better for the bands if we are competing against each other. They have more options; they can get more money, they can play at different venues and it keeps the scene healthy for people who want to see a breadth of bands.”

And, can I also assume that you both think Manchester is – currently – a great place to be a music fan?

Wes: “Well, I’ve lived in Nottingham and London and Manchester is easily the best place for music. In London there are more things to do, but you can do less of them. There is slightly less going on here but you can go to all of it. In London, something you like might be on, but it might be an hour-and-a-half away. That’s effectively Sheffield for us.”

Jon: “You can do three gigs a night in Manchester – if you are quick. Manchester is a nice size for a music scene. It is small enough to feel like there is a community but it is big enough for it not to be claustrophobic.”

Finally, the question I’ve been itching to ask. Is there any money to be made in this promoting lark? What proportion of gigs do you actually make a profit on?

Wes: “It splits three ways; a third you lose on, a third you break even and a third you make money. You are just trying to tip those odds slightly in your favour. If someone tells you they know how many tickets a show will sell they are lying. There will still be shows you expect to sell 300 and they do 50 and there is no explanation. Afterwards you may have a vague realisation; you picked a bad night or the single wasn’t as good as everyone expected, but nobody really knows. You cannot control the weather and you cannot control clashes with other gigs, which is why we pay so much attention to the posters, the support acts, the ticket prices and the venues. That’s what we can control.”

To see what else John has to say about Manchester, have a look at the other articles in this series:

Sounds of my City / Manchester : Introducing Ghost Outfit
Sounds of my City / Manchester : Manchester’s Best Venues
Sounds of my City / Manchester : Introducing Patterns

And to find out what treats Now Wave have in store, take a look at their upcoming listings here:

Now Wave Website.

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