Jeff Thompson of Un-Convention

How to guarantee an audience in a city you have never played before

Off-Axis is one of the four winning projects chosen for Joining the Dots funding and support. Founder Jeff Thompson lifts the lid on his project and how you can become directly involved.

I’m Jeff and I’m co-founder of an organisation called Un-Convention. Un-Convention came about in 2008 when a number of independent record labels in Manchester got together to run their own grassroots music conference. Around that time there was a lot of talk about how the internet was threatening the music industry but we were very much coming at it from the perspective of all the new opportunities technology presented, particularly to the artists themselves.

The event was a great success and immediately inspired a second Un-Convention in Belfast a few months later and things kind of grew from there. By the time we did a follow up event in Manchester (well actually it was in the wonderful Sacred Trinity church in Salford) we had people coming from the Netherlands and India and there were Un-Conventions happening as far away as Brisbane. It became a wonderful community of like-minded music lovers, be that artists, promoters, DIY label owners, journalists, academics and so on.

For the last six years the events have continued to happen both in the UK and further afield but more recently we’ve been looking at how we can produce more of a legacy with what we’re doing. The events have always been great; full of energy and inspiration but it’s hard to know what the long-term impact is once they’re over. Hence, we’ve been thinking about new ideas and models we can look to introduce in different places. For example, as a result of an Un-Convention event in Uganda, we helped to create a musicians co-operative over there – something that could exist the whole year round and not just when the events themselves where on. It’s these kind of collaborative ideas that we believe will create genuine opportunities for artists. In Uganda the coop has already produced its own recordings and released a CD, secured festival performances, and has weekly music nights – they’re making opportunities for one another by working together.

How we arrived at the idea for Off Axis

We’re currently working with Joining The Dots on a new touring network called ‘Off Axis’, something we believe can be a real game changer for independent artists. The initial inspiration for the network came from the events themselves. Wherever we held events, or went to talk at conferences, whether that be in Belfast, Edinburgh or Groningen, the most common problem put forward by the artists was ‘how can we play further afield?’ I run a record label here in Manchester too, and I know the predicament all too well. There’s bands we’ve worked with that are truly brilliant, and have great local fan-bases, but they find it almost impossible to get a show even 20 or 30 miles away. Around 2009 we’d done some events in the Netherlands and when I got home I had a few emails from bands we’d met there saying they’d love to come and play in Manchester. Even though I know the city pretty well, I knew it would be a struggle – as it is for any new band from out of town – simply because venues and promoters would really only want to put on bands that they knew could bring people through the door.

Hence, I started looking for artists in Manchester that I thought would fit with these Dutch bands looking to play in the city. The idea was to set up gig swaps – it was apparent that promoters wouldn’t be interested in these overseas artists, but for local bands with an existing audience there seemed a great opportunity to put them together – allowing the local bands to host the visitors with a view to setting up reciprocal shows in the Netherlands further down the line.

That worked with a great deal of success. We had bands playing packed out shows on their first visit to the country, and we were able to do similar things with bands from different parts of the UK, and to an extent this seemed to solve the problem of bands being able to move around. However, it was a very labour intensive endeavor – and was limited to bands that knew me, and the bands that I could think of to match them with.

Then later in 2009 we came across an organisation in Brazil called the ‘Fora do Eixo’. At first I didn’t know too much about them, but over time I got to hear about their touring network which seemed to facilitate the movement of hundreds, if not thousands of artists. I got speaking to some of the people involved and they explained how their circuit had evolved. They had faced a similar problem, one of how to circulate artists around the country, and had managed to develop an incredible nationwide network of artists and promoters who worked together to host artists in different city. Alongside this they had also developed their own currency, the ‘Cuba Card’ that facilitated a lot of these exchanges. This inspired us to think about building a more formal system for the gig exchanges we’d started doing – ‘Off Axis’ is the translation of ‘Fora do Eixo’.

In a nutshell, Off Axis is a network that allows artists to play to full and appreciative audiences, all across the UK, even in towns and cities they’ve never visited before. It works by allowing artists in the system to earn ‘credits’ by organising shows in their hometown, ensuring there’s a good audience, and then inviting another band from elsewhere to play alongside them on the bill. In doing so the host bands earns a credit. This credit can then be redeemed with any other artist in the system on the same terms. All of the artists in the Off Axis system have to be able to produce a show with at least 70 people in the audience, and the artists are matched by genre so that they are relevant to one another’s audiences.

As an example, a band from Glasgow can host a band from Leeds, allowing the Leeds band the opportunity to play to a brand new audience in a new city. This allows them to start building a fanbase outside of their hometown. As a result of hosting this show the Glasgow band earns a credit that now makes them eligible to be hosted at an Off Axis show in another city – that could be in Leeds, or indeed in Manchester, Cardiff, Derby, or anywhere where there is a relevant artist who is part of the system. At the same time the Leeds band have a credit deducted, so they must arrange to host more bands in their hometown in order to build their credits up again. The system puts a tangible value on the kind of camaraderie that often already exists between bands, and also allows them to expand rapidly outside of their known networks. We believe such a system will make it much more viable for the artists to build truly national fan-bases, allowing them to work toward more sustainable careers.

National gig-swap project is one of our four Joining the Dots winners from the hub on Vimeo.

What stage it is Off-Axis at now and what’s the next step?

We’re currently just getting the Off Axis website finished. This is where bands will be able to find each other to arrange shows, and it will also keep account of each bands credits. At the same time we’ve been approaching suitable artists to join the site. We’ve already got some fantastic artists involved, and intend to start moving bands around in the next month or two. Once the site is finished the first phase is for us to work with around 40 artists from across 15 or 20 towns and cities. Then we’ll introduce another 40 bands, and grow it from there. Once we have the core of the system working, and in turn making more artists aware of it so they can get involved, we want to build a public awareness of Off Axis.

Essentially we’re helping to enable great quality, hard working artists to move around in a way never before possible, so we want audiences to understand that is happening. Hence when they see an Off Axis show it can act as a kind of ‘kite mark’ for grass roots live music – people will know they are going to see a great local act playing alongside some brilliant artists from elsewhere in the country.

What help do we want from the hub and its followers?

Right now it’s about finding the right bands to launch with. The criteria is pretty straightforward, we need artists who can produce hometown shows with an audience of at least 70 people, and who are prepared to host relevant bands from other places at those shows. The only other criteria is that they ‘get it’, if that makes sense. We believe there’s a huge opportunity here to open things up for independent artists in every town in the country – for those artists who really want to build a national fanbase we think this offers an unprecedented opportunity – and the harder they work, the more benefit they will reap. The system is free to use and non-exclusive, so if there are artists out there that reach the criteria then please get in touch. Similarly if there were an opportunity for us to come and talk to artists about the system then that would be great. The further we can spread the idea and the ethos the better and we’re very transparent about how the system works. The idea being that even for artists who can’t yet meet the criteria of at least 70 people at their shows it gives them a very clear progression path – to concentrate on building that local audience, because if they can do that the Off Axis system will open up the rest of the country for them.

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