Secret Sounds' Mark Gibbons on Trends in Venue Booking, Building Audience Loyalty, the Importance of Community, and more
Events Blog
August 10, 2023

Secret Sounds' Mark Gibbons on Trends in Venue Booking, Building Audience Loyalty, the Importance of Community, and more

Secret Sounds’ Head of Bookings Mark Gibbons is big on community. It is, he says, key to a venue’s survival, as it creates a sense of belonging that makes people want to support it

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Rod Yates
Rod Yates
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Audience Republic
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Secret Sounds’ Head of Bookings Mark Gibbons is big on community. It is, he says, key to a venue’s survival, as it creates a sense of belonging that makes people want to support it.

His passion for community was established early.

“My family were very generous and took me to a lot of shows when I was very young,” he explains. “And then when I hit my teens, it was less about the music and more about the people and the culture around it. So I came up through a fairly DIY sort of punk scene in Sydney and we put on our own shows, and we did our own posters and created our own festivals and found our own sponsorship, and had this outlier approach to running our own events and parties." 

Eventually he began investigating how to turn this hobby and passion into a career – which, many years later, he has done. Here, Gibbons discusses the logistics of booking multiple venues, the importance of engaging with the community, building loyalty, and much more…

Tijs van Leur (Unsplash)

How big a role does data play in your booking decisions, and is there any particular data you pay more attention to?

For us, the main thing is previous shows in the market. We're lucky that we've got a few different venues of different sizes and scopes to be able to pull data strands in. We’ve got The Outpost [in Brisbane], which is about 350 capacity, up to [Brisbane’s] Fortitude Music Hall, which is 3000 capacity. In Adelaide we've partnered with a company called Five Four [Entertainment] that runs the Lion Arts Factory and The Crown & Anchor, which helps us make informed decisions for Hindley Street Music Hall.

We can really know what [an artist’s] done in the previous years on smaller campaigns. And also, we can get in on the ground floor with management and help develop an artist's career through all of those steps as well. Which is really great.

Besides that, streaming numbers and TikTok and other content vehicles like that are also really important. However, I think we have come to terms with the fact that the live world and the online content world, they correlate in some respect, but they're not like for like.

There's definitely a huge disparity between an online audience for an act that has huge streaming numbers, huge TikTok, and then when they go to do a live tour, unless they're at the top tier, they don't generally have a live audience.

"I think we have come to terms with the fact that the live world and the online content world, they correlate in some respect, but they're not like for like."

Are there any trends that you're seeing in terms of what's really working at the moment, whether it's particular genres or particular events?

Post-COVID there’s a huge glut of content coming through in a massive wave, in particular the international stuff.

While trends are really critical to look at from a granular level, I think the popular genres or trends don't necessarily work the best, purely because if it's popular, it means there's probably going to be a few examples of it.

So that means that there's going to be a healthier competition to that genre, which we take pretty critically. We look and go, yes, they are at the top of this, but are they competing with three or four other things in the market at the same time which are all doing the same thing?

So what we look for is, what the hot trends are, and where they are spaced out around our program. But then also, what’s the more subcultural or niche stuff, and how can that fit within it as well? A fair bit of time and resource is spent on that.

Trends wise, I guess package lineups – you see agents and promoters really spending a little bit more to create more of an experience for the ticket holder. Rather than buying a ticket for Matt Corby, it’s buying a ticket for Matt Corby plus two, three acts from his label. And there's a bit of a story around that.

How do you make sure that people know what is happening at your venues?

We talk about this in the office often.

We can't just see ourselves as bricks and mortar, we have to put a lot of resources into selling tickets on behalf of the promoter and the artists. We have ticketing partnerships, like nearly all venues around the country. And those deals are done in agreement to facilitate some in depth marketing as part of that, so it's not just a ticket flick, that's not what we or our ticketing businesses are about.

It's about forming lookalike audiences for the digital ad campaigns and really drilling into doing a better job and making sure that the venue has a heart to it as well, rather than just being a box with a PA inside it. There needs to be a bit more of a special offering.

We have to instil in people to treat us as a night out, rather than going to the footy or getting a bite to eat with friends at the pub.

"We spend a lot of time looking at what the other businesses are around us, and how we can work and partner with them."

So how do you build that loyalty or sense of community around the venue?

The Fortitude being the size it is, a lot of the heavy lifting is done via the artist’s name, and all we need to supply at that point is being really customer focused and investing heavily on production infrastructure, and just making the experience really strong, from lining up to the venue and what's behind the bar and the security through to actually seeing the show. Every piece of that is critical.

And then our venues like The Triffid, for instance, which is open six nights a week to serve dinners and just be a bar as well as a live music space, there's a lot more subcultural loyalty that comes into that, a little more community spirit. We spend a lot of time looking at what the other businesses are around us, and how we can work and partner with them.

I think about 25-30 shows a year at The Triffid, for instance, are community driven local entertainment options. So whether it's music schools or investment banks, it's a pretty broad spectrum. We do boxing and random sorts of fitness activations as well in there.

So it's really knowing who's around your immediacy, and then who you're really trying to target to come, but not trying to pigeonhole yourself into any one sort of subculture.

So working with local businesses is important. What are the best ways for you to engage with them?

In the early days of each of the venues it was definitely a strategy for us to include the businesses and residents – but in particular businesses – around us in the process of the build. Not in the sense of them saying, 'Well, yeah, I think you need to raise this wall a little higher', more just to keep them included in what we were planning and what our dreams for this place were.

And then after the fact it was like, ‘What do you guys do on an annual basis that you look to bring your community together? And how do you do that? And how can we help you do that?’

There's a lot of examples of us going to a local charity from around the corner and partnering with them on [growing] their reach. As I said, 25 to 35 events a year at The Triffid, 10-odd at the Fortitude, for instance – these aren't things that you make money out of, and you never aim to, it's really an engagement thing.

It's not like you can just advertise in the Yellow Pages these days and expect those things to come, you really need to engage with people and show them that there is a heart to this and a real sense of community that they can be involved in and be included in.

I was talking to booker in the States and he was saying there’s a pizza place next to one of the venues he looks after, and quite often they'll try and cross market: ‘We're putting on a special pizza for Halestorm, so come by early and grab a slice and then go see the band.’ Have you seen any partnerships like that?

The Fortitude is right in the middle of the Fortitude Valley, which is littered with clubs and bars and restaurants. So it's a really thriving area. And what we've done is be able to put an extra 3000 people onto that street who need to have a pre-drink, need to decompress afterwards.

So we've definitely done some after parties with some of the smaller DIY clubs. We do packages with some of the car parks around the area to make it easy for the punter, but also to feed or channel all that parking business into them. 

We do a bunch of stuff with the restaurants – if there's a specific request from a rider, for instance, we'll go directly to a business rather than trying to replicate it ourselves, to the point where that idea [became a] form of festival. We had a rider come through and they wanted very specifically made burgers, and we managed to find a place that will do it for us around the corner.

And now we're doing a festival called Burger Fest each year, which is all the local burger operators, about 12 of them. We close the street down and they put their wares out, we program a music lineup, so it becomes this big food and booze and music festival, all on the back of the community spirit.

How do you handle the logistics of managing bookings across multiple venues in different states?

There’s absolutely a lot of spinning plates to any kind of events business. And we've got five stages to curate 365 days a year. We basically work on about 100 odd events at any one time.

We’ve set up a structure and the systems to do that as effectively as we possibly can, and that starts and ends with a product that we use called VenueOps, which is like a client service CRM that handles our working calendar and our financials and settlements.

It’s got our client database in there, and all the working documents that all our events’ stakeholders can look at any time they need to access that.

How is the trend of crowds buying tickets later impacting you?

We’re putting a lot of work into incentivizing presales, trying to make some early adopters of events, in particular at Hindley Street Music Hall, which is our newest venue. It's in Adelaide, which has never been known for being a quick buying, urgent sort of crowd.

So for us, it's paramount to put a membership program and early access tickets and put merch packages together, really try and drive home the message that we're open for business, and if you support us and buy early then you can get a win out of it.

And ultimately, that leads to our goal of being able to sell out events as much as we possibly can, which then starts the momentum of being able to develop that ticket buying culture, to know that when we announce something we plan on selling it out within the first month rather than the last couple of weeks.

What sort of membership packages are working for you in that space?

At the Hindley it's definitely around ticket price and early access. We also do some stuff around food and beverage packages to incentivize people to come in early. You get a good spot, get a couple of drinks and some food, and then they also get a great vantage point before the throng of people arrive.

The Triffid’s been running a thing for many years called the Triff-Heads. And that basically is a membership program where, we'll do a ticket giveaway for two or three shows per month. And that doesn't necessarily mean that they're low selling shows, it's generally the ones that are sold out that we incentivize people to engage with this program.

Obviously the aim is to sell the tickets, but we're also trying to create that community spirit as well. So making people feel really engaged with what our venues are. And you don't just have to buy the ticket to be engaged, you can actually look at all these other avenues to have some contribution as well.

So it's basically giving people a really good reason to be on a database.

"Obviously the aim is to sell the tickets, but we're also trying to create that community spirit as well."

And then I guess from a booker’s perspective, just strategically making sure you're booking the right content into the venue in the first place makes a big difference. With the way that the world's going with costs and cost of living and how much it is to travel anywhere, we’re finding that if you're an act that’s worth 1000 tickets at the moment, you should probably be playing a venue that you can sell 800 tickets in and sell it out and get that momentum really built up to the point where festivals are taking you really seriously, because you've got the sold out banner across everything.

You can then step up a little bit further, radio is starting to play you a little bit more because they're seeing the demand. Whereas if you go into a venue that sells 1200 tickets, nobody sees that story that, yes, you sold 1000 tickets, but maybe you sold 600. Nobody knows at the end of the day.

What are the successful booking agents getting right at the moment?

They're not overextending their acts. So they’re getting those sold out banners up, they're able to tell the story of success, which is really crucial. There are definitely a lot of stories of people trying to overextend or shoot for the stars and going into a venue in the hope that extra single is going to pop and you've got the headroom to sell it through. But to make a really sustainable career, you need to leave some tickets on the table for the next time you come through town, and not completely dissolve that market via playing that play in a venue that potentially doesn't feel quite right because it's 60% full rather than 99% full.

Besides that, it definitely feels like the year of the underplay in 2023. So that's absolutely critical. You know, agents that let their artists develop and cut their teeth on smaller shows, and don't try and push them too fast into the stratosphere, that's definitely a big thing.

I've seen a lot of acts in the past few years where they'll be on the stage at a major festival and you're like, this show’s not ready. Just because 10,000 people want to see them doesn't mean that they're ready to play in front of 10,000 people.

Visit Secret Sounds here. Follow Mark on LinkedIn here.

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Secret Sounds' Mark Gibbons on Trends in Venue Booking, Building Audience Loyalty, the Importance of Community, and more

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