Gig promoter refuses to work with Mareel’s management

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
Jeff Merrifield

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?”


Add Your Comment
  • iantinkler

    • December 18th, 2015 20:14

    Shetland Arts!! Mareel!! A bit like a hole in the head.

  • iantinkler

    • December 18th, 2015 20:18

    Not a bad cinema, pity it cost so much but who cares about children’s education. Just keep closing rural schools and watching Star Wars 3D. How many millions now?

    • Robert Sim

      • December 23rd, 2015 1:20

      Which rural schools are closing, Ian? In case it had escaped your notice, the answer is zero. Unless you know something the rest of us don’t.

      • Ali Inkster

        • December 23rd, 2015 9:38

        Are you saying that school closures are off the cards for good then Robert? Because it was only a few weeks ago that the council said they would be reviewing the situation.

      • John Tulloch

        • December 23rd, 2015 10:19

        No thanks, Robert Sim, to you and your former colleagues in the education department. It was only a determined rebellion by a number of wise councillors that prevented closures from proceeding.

        Vaila Wishart, education committee chair, reiterated her view in the last couple or so weeks that school closures will be back on the agenda in 2017 – if she gets her way, that is.

        She won’t, the opposition will be even stronger than last time – and Wir Shetland will be in the vanguard.

      • Robert Sim

        • December 23rd, 2015 16:57

        Ringing words, John. I would just say in passing that I am not sure why you are saying “no, thanks” to me when my post doesn’t advocate closure of schools – except of course that’s it a good chance to tub-thump. I am impressed by your rhetoric. Just one wee question though – how would you handle Shetland’s funding gap in education? Or more widely for that matter. And I mean now – not after Shetland gains self-governing status.

      • John Tulloch

        • December 23rd, 2015 17:58

        Here’s what you, your colleagues and some councillors were closing the schools for, Robert:

        “And more failures are flying in to their roosts on a almost daily basis.

        Yesterday, 16th December, it was big and it was education. The international body, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] called for a major overhaul of Scotland’s misnamed Curriculum for Excellence [CfE], to address a collection of its most signal failures.”

        Not exactly “a pretty picture”, is it?

      • Robert Sim

        • December 24th, 2015 9:43

        The problem with relying on the media – with all its biases and tendency towards the superficial – for information on areas you know very little about, John (and I acknowledge your undoubted expertise in the area of energy generation), is that you end up trying to defend extreme and therefore indefensible positions.

        Read the OECD report for yourself instead of relying on soundbites: you’ll find it presents a balanced picture of Scottish education with plenty of positive comments. Here’s a short sample:

        “The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is an important reform to put in place a
        coherent 3-18 curriculum…There is a great deal to be positive about in such a review: learners are enthusiastic and motivated, teachers are engaged and professional, and system leaders are highly committed.” And so on.

        I also note you haven’t answered my question. But maybe you haven’t read it yet?

      • John Tulloch

        • December 24th, 2015 12:32

        Robert Sim,

        You were an employee of the SIC’s education department, were you not?

        And you were (and are) an apologist for the school closures progamme who was granted immunity to comment in the press when teachers and others were silenced, were you not?

        And if you’re not “advocating closing schools”, may I suggest you answer your own question as to what should be done about the education funding gap?

        I await your answer with interest.

      • John Tulloch

        • December 24th, 2015 12:45

        Robert Sim,

        I’ve spent about half my entire life in education – on the receiving end – so your condescension is wasted on me.

        Try listening to the teachers.

        I’ve answered your question before, more than once.

        If you close country schools you hit their local communitIes, many of whom face issues around depopulation.

        Falling school roles are not a reason to close schools and make depopulation worse. They should raise concern and trigger tackling of the root cause of the depopulation.

        There is no reason, given effective transport links and broadband communications, why rural communities cannot be sustainably vibrant and continue their huge contribution to Shetland life into the long term.

        I would not sanction school closure for financial reasons, only genuine educational ones which, especially, with the junior highs, has not been demonstrated.

        What I WOULD do is what I’m doing now, organise a lobby group to “up the anti” with the SNP Scottish Government about schools under-funding.

        The people dealing with SNP ministers need to stop schmoozing around Holyrood and tell them straight, Shetland is being shafted in education funding – an it winna dae!

  • David Spence

    • December 19th, 2015 2:16

    I take into consideration Shetlands small population, isolation from mainland UK and high travel costs to get to the islands, but surely putting profit ahead of what your function is supposed to be, this of promoting local music and music from further afield, must take greater priority. Afterall, why was Mareel built in the first place.

    This also looks, potentially, negative towards Mareel, as I am sure word will go around to bands (proper bands, not your pre-manufactured boy/girl bands rubbish or dj’s heightened beyond belief in terms of talent lol) groups etc etc down south and may have repercussions for Mareel in the future.

    If it is a case other music venues are used more often in the future (Clickimin, Garrison Theatre) within Lerwick, one would seriously have to consider what has caused this change, what changes has Mareel done to compete with other venues and why music promoters are giving Mareel a wide-berth in terms of bringing music to the islands?

  • Leslie Lowes

    • December 22nd, 2015 16:00

    I spent the last six years as a trustee of Shetland Arts and I am shocked at the rather shabby attack Jeff Merrifield launched on Mareel.

    Staff there do a great deal to support the work of local promoters and to help their events go smoothly. I believe a full list of the support actually given by Shetland Arts, including financial support for the JAWS festival, has been published locally.

    I am sorry the JAWS festival made a loss and I understand Jeff Merryfield has now resigned as promoter for the group.

    I am sure if JAWS wishes to stage any future events at Mareel, the Shetland Arts staff there will be glad to support them and help them make their promotions as successful as possible.

    • Robert Sim

      • December 23rd, 2015 7:25

      A balanced and sane comment, Leslie.

      • ian tinkler

        • December 23rd, 2015 12:11

        “balanced and sane comment, Leslie.?” So all the criticism was just an act of fiction? That is OK then. For an encore “pink pig flypast” Perhaps we should take more water with it!

  • Paul Meyer

    • December 22nd, 2015 20:44

    Jeff Merrifield has had over 45 years professional involvement in Community Arts and is an impresario of the highest degree. To be told he could not put up banners for the Blockheads’ concert in the Mareel is totally ludicrous!

    With the Mareel’s final cost of £12.4 million and their need to generate £2.3 annual turnover, Jeff’s run in with the management regarding Mareel’s charges and other matters is not surprising. Mr Howell’s £50,000+ salary should be indicative of the man’s professionalism – but his apparent lack of support for local arts, venues and visiting artists, high charges and failure to assist in promotion, seems to send out the wrong message to the local community.

    I have a huge wide screen TV and a superb surround sound system at home – so unless there’s some significant cooperation from the Shetland Arts management ‘going the extra mile’ to assist local arts and those promoting venues – I will be avoiding the Mareel in future.

  • iantinkler

    • December 23rd, 2015 6:55

    Leslie Lowes, As a long time trustee of Shetland Arts you must remember Mareel went millions over budget, opened years late, much was promised and has never been delivered. Truly made the lawyers real money whilst effectively bankrupting Shetland Arts!!. A huge lumbering “white elephant ” has been created, which has shed/lost all (I think) it’s original staff. Either made redundant or rather like rats off a sinking ship. A half decent cinema, moderate cafe and clean bar and that is about it. Hardly worth the £15 million or so. Never mind, lined a few pockets I suppose, but as a prestige, game changinging, “Arts Center”, O dear me, spot that pink elephant flying by.


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