A music promoter who brought renowned folk singer Eddi Reader and rock and roll band the Blockheads to the isles says he will not use Lerwick venue Mareel again – unless there is a marked change in attitude towards community groups.
Jeff Merrifield, who this year launched the inaugural jazz and world music festival Jaws, says the pressure of putting on gigs and dealing with Shetland Arts’ top management means music promotion “seems to have stopped being fun”.
Mr Merrifield says local groups who organise attractions risk being priced out of the market as a result of high fee charges.
His comments have been denied by Mareel’s general manager Graeme Howell. But The Shetland Times understands bookings could fall next year because of a struggle among promoters to pay required fees.
That is despite meetings this year with Shetland Arts’ management to help thrash out a more attractive deal after earlier concerns following Mr Howell’s arrival.
Mr Merrifield said: “We put on a really wonderful festival this year, but it was a financial loss, for one reason or another.
“We’ve been having a bad time dealing with Mareel, and with them – we think – not treating us very fairly.
“There used to be, under Gwilym’s [Gibbons] regime – which was not perfect – at least a modicum of co-operation and respect for what you were trying to do. This new management don’t have that at all.
“I’m not enjoying it any more to be honest. It has become increasingly difficult to promote. Airfares going up don’t help. It’s become a really difficult financial manipulation, and it’s really difficult to keep your head above water.”
Mr Merrifield cited concerns raised following two Eddi Reader concerts in June, when the Glasgow singer performed along with the Scottish Jazz Orchestra at Mareel. He said discrepancies over how many seats had remained empty were “dismissed out of hand”.
He said: “When we got the financial returns on that we were asked to believe that in that block of 240 seats over 100 of them were empty.
“The numbers they gave us were 130 and 140. When I went to talk to him [Mr Howell] about it he just dismissed me out of hand. We were wrong and he was right. We couldn’t prove it, but we just knew it was ludicrous.”
Mr Merrifield stressed he was not alleging that any underhand activity had been taking place.
“We said, ‘we’re not saying you’ve been cheating us, but somehow more people were there than bought tickets’. Our suspicion was that their door staff weren’t very good. He [Mr Howell] just wouldn’t accept that.”
Mr Merrifield said he tried to prevent a repeat of that episode in preparations for the Blockheads gig.
“At the meeting we insisted that we put our own door staff on, and that we’d have wristbands. That was agreed. But then we got a letter the day before saying our staff are not allowed to talk to the customers.
“Then when we got the returns on that they’d taken £1,200 off us on the charge for Mareel. That’s four times what I used to pay Gwilym. It’s impossible, you can’t operate on that.”
He said his nose had been put out when he was told he could not put up banners for the Blockheads’ concert.
“I went out into the auditorium and there were three banners for the same bloody film.
“It’s diminishing what local community promoters can do. It’s being priced out of the reach of the local community.”
Mr Merrifield stressed that the Jaws festival would continue, but that organisers would not use Mareel unless there were assurances over community awareness.
“It’s our intention at the moment not to use Mareel again until things are healed.”
He said there was a possibility of using the Clickimin Centre in the future.
“What a shame, that we have to go back to using what there was before Mareel was built,” Mr Merrifield added.
Another promoter, Davie Gardner, said a seemingly amicable agreement had been reached with management, although it remained to be seen, in practice, whether things would turn out for the better.
“From my point of view, the concerns I had are at least rectified. I guess I have to try it out in anger and see if it actually works.
“It’s certainly very different from Gwylim and there’s been a huge change of regime. The dealings I had with Graeme were very much in terms of the financial element of what he was proposing, and the first set of proposals he tabled certainly wasn’t acceptable to me. But in fairness to him he went away and changed that.
“Any concerns I had have been hopefully addressed, but I’ll not be so sure until the new year when I put on a few gigs and see how they actually operate.”
Asked about Mr Merrifield’s concerns, Mr Howell insisted Mareel had “fully supported” the jazz summer school which had operated this year. He said charges had not been pushed up exorbitantly.
Mr Howell said: “There has been a lot of confusion… around Mareel, and all we have done is publish a new set of hire charges.
“We’re pretty much joining in the risk when anyone wants to do anything at Mareel. The hire charge is essentially built up of a percentage of box office, so if the show doesn’t do very well, we don’t do very well, if the show does okay, we do okay.
“That makes it a lot easier for people to take the risks they want to take in terms of putting up artists, as opposed to committing to charges that would price them out of the market. It’s a much fairer deal and it’s a much cleaner deal, so everyone knows what they are paying.”
He said Mr Merrifield had failed to supply anything to substantiate his claims over the Eddi Reader seats.
“We’ve asked Jeff to provide any evidence to back up what he’s saying there, and he can’t.
“The very idea that 100 Eddi Reader fans snuck into a gig for free, or that Eddi Reader fans are that criminally-minded, I find interesting.
“I think Mareel does an incredible amount for community groups. Handing over the venue for a whole week to Jaws at a heavily reduced rate, so they can run the jazz summer school… What more are people looking for?”