Brent Oliver Entertainment Manager - Sidetrack Cafe, Edmonton AB

Brent Oliver is the Entertainment Manager for Edmonton’s Sidetrack Café. He’s been promoting independent music for 15 years.

How did you get started booking bands?
Like a lot of promoters I got started by booking the band that I was in when I was 15. When you’re 15, you have just a couple options: you can convince a bar to let you play there and that you’re all 18, or you rent out a hall and you try to put on your own hall show, or I guess you can do it in basements and living rooms. First show that I did was I put on my band, called Killing Floor, and we played at a place called the Ritz Diner. The Ritz had this great reputation of never checking for ID so we put on the show there, put up lots of posters, and charged five bucks at the door. I did a backflip when we packed the place up with over 100 people and the guy at the bar gave us $75. It was awesome. I have since learned that that amount didn’t really work out all that well, since we provided the sound and did all the work, and it was a Tuesday night. I was just ecstatic that I got paid to do something I really wanted to do. So then I went on and started to do hall shows, a little more all-ages-wise, with the six or seven punk bands in town all on the same show.

What do green promoters need to look out for that might not be obvious?
The rules have changed quite a bit since I was doing hall shows and the number one thing that I’m hearing from all-ages promoters, or just promoters, is about insurance. In the bar business we pay for liability insurance and it’s a flat rate over the entire year. But now what’s happening in Edmonton and other places is if you want to rent a community hall you have to pay a fee per head of the capacity of the hall. That’s on top of damage deposit and rental for the night, which a lot of kids are finding tough to do. It could be up to $200 in insurance for one night that you won’t get back.

What can you do to get around licensing and insurance issues?
What you have to do is think creatively. There are a lot of [young promoters] who’ve thought creatively around here, like putting shows on in art galleries and non-profit organisations and artist studios and things like that. But if anyone is putting on shows to make money, just stop right now. You’re gonna go in there and hopefully not lose money, and if you’ve got $50 in your pocket afterwards, hooray.

What are some of the personal attributes a would-be promoter should have?
You’ve gotta be reasonable. If the bar sells $1,000 worth of beer, don’t expect to make a lot of money on the door. Maybe even lose a little money off the door, because the band has brought all these people in and they’d like to get paid, and they’re probably not asking for some of your bar receipts. Understanding the musician’s side as well as the business side is important. And I think that honesty is a huge thing. It’s almost a cliché, the slimy promoter, and you have to rectify that. It’s this really fine balance, a partnership between the musicians and the venue; both the right hand and the left hand have to know what’s going on.

So what’s the magic formula?
Divide your expenses by the number of people you think are going to come and that’s your ticket price. It’s kind of like gambling — you could charge a higher price but then fewer people might come. If you set a lower ticket price, maybe people will drink more if you set up a bar. There’s a whole bunch of variables and if I knew the magic formula I’d be probably doing a lot better than I am now. But I do this for the love, not for the money.