Poor summer weather and the introduction of the smoking ban has left some publicans looking for new ways to bring in revenue. Live music is one solution, and it's not as hard to arrange as it used to be, as Selwyn Parker reports
Some customers at Cambridge's Golden Hind may be too young to remember folk singer Julie Felix or too old to register rock group No ID. But they still turn up to hear them.
Pat Reynolds, manager of the Spirit Group pub, has found that live music, whether folk or rock, has steadily boosted the business's bottom line. "It's making a big difference to my takings," he says. "Wet sales are up 20% in the 20 months I've been here and food sales have nearly doubled."
Music provides an extra attraction at the suburban pub, often keeping customers on the premises until closing time, Reynolds adds. "We get a different set of people, who would not normally come to a pub," he says. "The music side has a lot of potential."
About 100 fans turned up to hear Felix earlier this month when she performed with the local folk group - a band that has been staging Friday-night performances for years in an upstairs function room. Reynolds is still experimenting with music - rock groups perform only once a month at this point - but he's convinced the live-performance strategy works.
At a time when pubs have been hit by the poor weather over the summer, and with some of the wet-led operations affected by the UK-wide smoking ban, anything that can help differentiate pubs from their rivals must be welcome.
That's certainly the conclusion of Richard Drummond, who is using music to relaunch his pub in Scotland. Having bought the wet-led McKays in the tourist village of Pitlochry in the Highlands at the start of the summer, he has seen patronage soar in the afternoon and early evenings - periods when business was slow under the previous owners.
Impressed by the way pubs in Ireland, which he often visits, use music to add character to an evening, Drummond set out to "create an ambience with music".
In a process of trial and error, he initially hired performers for between 7pm and 9pm but noticed that customers left when the music stopped. Now he often books two groups to follow each other and his customers tend to stay on until later.
Some veterans of live music in pubs argue that it should be regarded almost as a loss-leader. "Just make sure the music is well suited to your clients and think of it as a reward for loyal customers," says Dave Bevan, managing director of Alive Network, one of the UK's biggest booking agents. "It doesn't necessarily need to cover costs on the night to be profitable in the long run."
For publicans who want to pursue the music route, the red tape involved in securing the appropriate licences is not as onerous as it once was. As well as introducing standard fees, the 2003 Licensing Act abolished the irksome "two in a bar" rule in the original law, under which pubs needed a permit if more than two musicians were performing.
In the meantime an exhaustive, three-year survey by the government-appointed Live Music Forum, chaired by former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey, highlighted one way to keep the local council happy: keep the sound down. While generally praising authorities for encouraging live music, the study showed that Home Counties authorities can be particularly pernickety about interpreting the noise abatement rules.
And it pays to win over the locals because it's invariably residents who lodge complaints, as the owners of the Bull's Head in Barnes, south-west London, can testify. Even though the pub had operated for nearly 50 years as a jazz venue, Richmond council moved to close the premises after an objection from a single tenant in a new block of flats next door. It took a prolonged media campaign and £100,000-worth of soundproofing to win the battle.
The good news is that when the Government looks at the forum's set of recommendations later this year, it may accept a proposal to recognise the claims of long-established live-music pubs, such as the Bull's Head, over new residential zoning rules.
Reynolds, for his part, has no doubt about the financial contribution from live music. "We aim for a three-fold return," he says. "If we pay £250 for a band, we expect to take in £750."
Which will be music to any publican's ears.
Maximising the benefits
Publicity - use posters, flyers on the bar, local radio, newspaper events guides and staff to sell the event.
Theme nights - for instance, Spanish evenings with a Latin trio can sell San Miguel or other brands.
Book quality performers - "cheap rubbish" music will backfire on the business.
Source: Dave Bevan, booking agency Alive Network