How do you promote niche music in a market dominated by major promoters?

Enter the micro-festival – savvy art promoters’ attempt to wrest audience from the mainstream

The recent rush of people to part with their hard-earned money for Ed Sheeran tickets was viewed with a mixture of scorn and envy (mostly the latter) by Ireland's small band of "art music" promoters. While commercial promoters can rely on large venues and festival audiences, promoters of what might be termed "creative" or "outsider" music (think jazz, contemporary, avant-garde, improv, electronica and dozens of other compound micro-genres) might have to dig deep just to find a hundred listeners for music they think is just as worthy of attention.

But rather than curse the darkness, these art promoters – typically small, non-profit organisations run by fiercely committed individuals – are lighting new candles. They know branding and marketing have a role to play in art music, but rather than promoting individual artists, whose names and resumés are frequently unknown outside a small circle of fans, these enterprising promoters are creating new contexts and narratives which give curious listeners a way in to the music. In particular, the last decade has seen the emergence of the “micro-festival”, clusters of performances drawn together under a single identity that connect with audiences in a more tangible way.

This week's SPECTRUM is the Dublin art music community's latest attempt to wrest audience from the mainstream. Presented jointly by the Improvised Music Company, Note Productions and Homebeat, this three-day micro-festival – subtitled "creative music for curious ears" – will refract a daring and diverse programme of music through the jazz prism, ranging from UK free improv giant Evan Parker and senior New Yorkers Dave Binney and Tom Rainey, to Norwegian punk-jazz guitarist Hedvig Mollestad and Dublin electronica producer Kobina.

Challenge of competing

Kenneth Killeen, artistic director at the Improvised Music Company, is sanguine about the challenge of competing with the big commercial promoters. "It's the order of things, frankly. It's like a musical version of Newton's third law: the existence of 'popular music' creates an equal amount of music that pushes far and wide in the opposite direction. And when the music is less overt, less binary, more complex, arguably more nuanced and doesn't exist to seek approval – particularly instrumental music which doesn't communicate a simple narrative through lyrics – it becomes even more difficult. That's why we have to be as innovative in our promotion as the music that we are presenting."

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Matthew Nolan of Note Productions agrees. "The reality is that it has become increasingly difficult to manage limited resources, trying to sell eight or 10 events across a calendar year. It makes more sense to cluster events or create micro-festivals like SPECTRUM."

Homebeat, the third corner of the SPECTRUM prism, is the new kid on the outsider promotion block, and for its founder, Emmet Condon, context is all important. "Homebeat started as a series of house concerts which set out to close the gap between performer and audience, with a particular emphasis on staging shows in alternative, non-traditional spaces like warehouses, galleries, churches, cafes and DIY spaces. We place a huge emphasis on atmosphere and in building real relationships with the acts. All we've got [to compete] against the big companies is a sense of real connection, and that is the thing that we have to cherish and foster and get across in every aspect of what we do – from communications to production. What we 'sell' is really a more genuine and lasting experience."

In Belfast, Moving on Music has been working the same outsider beat for the past 20 years, presenting new music ranging from jazz and folk to electronica and art rock. Its Brilliant Corners festival, which kicks off today, is a similarly diverse offering, and for artistic director Brian Carson, it's about creating an identity that people trust.

“I think the idea of not calling it the Belfast Jazz Festival was a good one,” he says with a wry smile. “We have noticed that people buy into the concept of the festival. Over the years, the audience hasn’t changed that much in numbers – it’s always been kind of small but well-formed – and at the core of it is people who are just really interested in music. They trust our judgment that whatever it is, it’s going to be good.”

Diverse acts

Taking the idea of the micro-festival to its logical conclusion are regular events like Listen at . . . and Kaleidoscope, two regular salons on the Dublin scene that are building audiences for challenging music by programming intentionally diverse acts in a single night.

Composer Dylan Rynhart, who curates Listen at Arthurs on Dublin’s Thomas street, agrees about the word jazz. “Audiences don’t generally show up in massive numbers for any unknown music, whether it’s ‘contemporary’, ‘progressive’ or ‘avant-garde’, but if you append any of these with the word ‘jazz’, then you have totally lost people.”

“The principle of Listen at . . . is to provide a night of art featuring four sets of music or spoken word that are as diverse aesthetically as possible. In that way, audiences get something they know, along with something new. What I always say is, if you don’t like it, then you just have to sit there for 20 minutes and then you’ll hear something totally different.”

By its nature, art music – you’ll notice the strenuous attempts to avoid specific genre words whenever possible – will never compete with the mainstream in terms of numbers, but all agree that there has been a particular dumbing down of musical culture over the past few decades that makes events like SPECTRUM and Brilliant Corners more important.

“Of course music is subjective,” says Killeen. “A ‘Belieber’ has just as much right to defend their musical icon as an Evan Parker fan. One of them makes insipid, cookie-cutter vacuousness, propagated by an army of highly attuned and savvy business people looking for maximum return on their investment. And the other makes music. But that’s just a personal opinion.”

Alternative musical events

SPECTRUM, Dublin, March 10th-12th

Ronan Guilfoyle’s Hands, Friday, 8pm, Whelan’s

Powerfully creative quartet, featuring two of New York’s most sought-after jazz musicians, saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Tom Rainey.

Dans Dans & Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Saturday, 7.30pm, Opium Rooms

Belgian trio Dans Dans blend jazz, rock and avant-garde; and Norwegian guitarist Hedvig Mollestad mashes prog rock with free jazz and raw punk energy.

Spectrum Club, Saturday, 11.30pm, Whelan’s (upstairs)

A late-night club of homegrown electronica, curated by Homebeat, with the sophisticated electro-pop of White Collar Boy and ambient grooves from Kobina.

Izumi Kimura & Barry Guy, Sunday 12pm, Hugh Lane Gallery

Free improv piano and bass duo from two world-class performers with strong Irish connections.

Paul G Smyth and Evan Parker, Sunday 7.30pm, Opium Rooms

Irish pianist squares up to the man many regard as the greatest free saxophonist alive.

Brilliant Corners, Belfast, March 7th-11th

Sirene 1109, Tuesday, 8pm, Sonic Arts Research Centre

Playful free ensemble of distinguished international musicians led by Korean guitarist Han-earl Park.

Ronan Guilfoyle’s Hands, Wednesday, 8pm, Black Box

See above

I Am Three, Thursday 8pm, Black Box

German trio led by saxophonist Silke Eberhard pay homage to the great Charles Mingus.

Dans Dans & Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Friday, 9pm, Black Box

Organ Failure featuring Jean Toussaint, Saturday, 3pm, Black Box

Dublin guitarist Nigel Mooney’s trio back US saxophonist Jean Toussaint, formerly of Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers.

Strobes & Robocobra, Saturday, 9pm, Black Box

Dazzling electro trio from London, mixing jazz complexity with jagged dance grooves; plus rising Belfast punk-jazz quartet Robocobra.

Listen at Arthurs is on March 18th at Arthur’s, Thomas Street, Dublin

See listen.ie.

Kaleidoscope is on March 8th at Bello Bar, Portobello, Dublin

See facebook.com/KaleidoscopeNight.