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CMU@TGE: Jeff Thompson on Off Axis

By | Published on Tuesday 31 May 2016

Jeff Thompson

Look out for insights, advice and viewpoints dished out at this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conference here in the CMU Daily throughout June. This week, a series of interviews conducted by CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke as part of this year’s CMU:DIY programme, where the spotlight was on how new bands can go about building a fanbase through gigs and tours. Today Jeff Thompson on the Off Axis programme.

This year’s CMU:DIY x TGE programme began with the mantra that new acts need to gig to build that all important fanbase, and at the outset that means putting on your own gigs to get the ball rolling. But once the ball is rolling locally, how can you start playing further afield?

It’s that challenge that the Off Axis initiative has been set up to tackle. It’s led by Jeff Thompson, co-founder of the UnConvention events for the grassroots music community. “We’ve done loads of panels about getting started in music”, Thompson explains. “You know, getting your music online, social media, gathering emails, all that stuff, but one topic that would always come up was the challenge new bands face gigging beyond their home town”.

He goes on: “When you start a band, your first audience is made up friends, family, work colleagues and well-wishers. And that’s true of every band there’s ever been. The trick, of course, is to do a show that’s so good, some of those people will tell their friends and colleagues, ‘you should come and see my mate’s band’, and then there’s that tipping point as the band starts to get an actual fanbase”.

But what next? “Lots of new acts find that, even when they’ve started doing great home town gigs with a decent audience, they still hit a glass ceiling. So, you have 200 people coming to your gigs in Manchester, say”, he continues, picking his home city as an example. “But how do you grow beyond that? The old model was to wait for an A&R to find you, and invest some money, to get you tour support and marketing, so that your band’s name would start to spread. But for most bands that’s not really an option”. And even less so in an age when record labels are generally signing new artists later into their careers.

“I worked with some bands from the Netherlands, who were brilliant bands worthy of an audience, and I wanted to get them a gig in Manchester. But I couldn’t. And that’s despite me being pretty well connected in the Manchester music community. It’s not the fault of the local venues and promoters, because, after all, who’s going to come and see some Dutch band they’ve never heard of, however good I think they may be?”

“Things like this kept coming up”, he explains. “And even more locally than that. You’ve got all these bands who are doing well at home, but who can’t play a gig 50 miles away. I had the problem myself with a local band I was working with, who were selling 650 tickets in advance for their Manchester shows. But I couldn’t get them gigs in the next town down the road, because the local promoters just hadn’t heard of them”.

Which is where the idea for Off Axis came from, in part inspired by a similar scheme in Brazil, and by the old punk idea of gig swapping. “It’s simple, you’ve got a hundred fans in your home town, another similar band has a hundred fans in their home town, so you each invite the other to play a gig at your local venue. You don’t expect them to bring much of an audience – because they’re 100 miles away from their hometown – but you know you can sell enough tickets to have a decent show”.

Gig swapping isn’t new but, says Thompson, the problem is that the basic concept isn’t scalable. “You’re limited to the bands you personally know elsewhere in the country who are playing to a similar crowd. And gig swaps can always be unpredictable, what happens if the other band don’t get anyone along to the show, or they split up before they have chance to offer the reciprocal gig?”

Which is where Off Axis comes in. It’s a platform via which bands around the UK can exchange gigs. But instead of a straight swap, participating acts earn credits whenever they host another Off Axis band. And those credits can be used to score a support slot with any other relevant outfit in the network when they are staging a local show.

“We’ve got bands in 67 towns and cities around the UK now”, Thompson says. “Everyone joins the network on the understanding that they want to host bands from other cities, in return for opportunities to play elsewhere in the country and extend their fanbase. It means you don’t need to already know another similar band in the places where you want to play, and you have a little more reassurance about the quality of the other gig”.

Bands are vetted before being allowed into the network, principally to ensure that they are at the stage where they can actually command a decent attendance for hometown shows. In terms of the financial arrangement between gig swapping bands, Off Axis doesn’t prescribe, though it does recommend a deal, mainly because, Thompson says, “I find bands are really bad at talking abut money”.

Under the template deal, the host band covers their costs, the guest band gets their expenses, and then any monies left are split 60/40 to the headline act’s favour. “The host band might say, why are we putting in all this effort in for just 60% of the profit”, notes Thompson. “But that misses the point, the value you get from the show you score with your credits”, ie a show in another town with your expenses covered where you get to play to an appropriate crowd, all of whom are potential members of that fanbase around which each artist’s entire business will grow.

You can find out more about Off Axis at