Square Roots Promotions have quickly become one of the definitive sources for Americana, Bluegrass and Folk on the South Coast, putting on authentic roots acts in intimate locations in and around Portsmouth. Since 2012 the promotion has gone from regularly selling out The Square Tower to selling out the Wedge and have even graduated to The Pyramids. You might be surprised to know the man behind this promotion is also a punk rocker! Ken Brown has been a visible member of the music scene for decades now, having created Portsmouth’s first punk fanzine back in the late seventies. His story is a fascinating one and we were very excited to get his thoughts on promoting ahead of his show with Gangstagrass at The Wedge on the 30th of Jan!
Q: How did you get involved in music?
Ken: A mate and I started (arguably) Portsmouth’s 1st punk fanzine (Safety In Numbers) in 1977 – it was very much along the lines of “Here’s one chord, here’s another – now go form a band”…except we did it with words due to the complete lack of any musical ability. So we basically copied “Sniffin’ Glue”, but gave it a Portsmouth slant. And it went from printing 10 copies on the school “Gestetner” copier (memories for those of a certain age!), to being printed properly and having 2,000 copies printed. Ironically in time honoured tradition I threw all my copies away years ago – only to realise that I should have kept them to show my kids! So I have managed over the years to get a copy of most of them back again. Funnily enough I was tracking issue number 7 on E-Bay a couple of years back (it had a screen printed front cover of The Clash and local boys The Media on the back), which went to a collector in Greece for £130!!
Q: What was the first show you put on? Any specific memories?
Ken: Chris Abbott let us promote “alternative nights” at Basins in the Tricorn many moons ago now. It was a great lesson in how to lose money quickly! I think the first one we put on was either The Wild Flowers or Pop Will Eat Itself (for the princely sum of £100!). However, the one which will live long in the memory (for a multitude of reasons!) was Sigue Sigue Sputnik, or as it was a secret gig, the “Sci Fi Sex Stars”. How it got leaked to the press I’m not sure (cough cough), but it sold out quickly and it was a dynamite night. The band could play (their 3 hour sound check proved that!), and assorted hangers on (including Janet Street Porter, who was Tony James girlfriend at the time) kept us amused for hours afterwards!
Q: How have things developed or changed since then? Any difficulties/learning curves?
Ken: Technology and the advent of the digital and social media age has meant that there are multiple “tools” for a promoter to use, and that’s obviously a great thing. However, the “leg work” is still the same – or at least it should be if you want a well attended show. As a “part time promoter” (I run my own building company!) for me the difficulties are always finding enough time to do what I need to do, and do it properly! However the aim is to be professional and hopefully Square Roots Promotions does achieve that. The learning curve for me has been finding out, and having to realise that you can’t please everyone all of the time! I came to that conclusion pretty quickly, and try not to take any criticism personally although sometimes it’s hard as our shows are done for the love of the music and not for any latent financial gain.
Q: What is your favourite gig/line up that you have put on so far?
Ken: There are 2 shows that stand out immediately (although of course I would say that they are ALL brilliant!). The first at the Square Tower – we managed (somehow!)
to persuade one of the US’s top bluegrass bands Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers (multiple IBMA award winners and regulars at the Grand Ole Opry) to fly into the UK on their way to a big festival in Belgium, and play just one UK date for us! It was a magical night. The audience knew they were watching something very special in such an intimate venue (the musicianship was frightening!), and as every song ended their was an enormous roar from the crowd. They were just knocked out by the Portsmouth crowd and were genuinely taken aback by the audience love for them. Of course we’re hoping they’ll return one day!
The second – well it had to be The Dead South at the Wedge in April of last year! How did 400 people know about an obscure band from Saskatchewan? Well they did, and sang along to every song! One of those nights that just made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!
Q: What can we look forward to in the future?
Ken: Square Roots Promotions is now in its 6th year, and going forward I’m looking at retiring from the “day job” so that I can put more into building Square Roots up as a brand that people will trust. We’re in the very fortunate position that our audience trusts that what we promote is going to be quality – so even if they haven’t heard of the band / artist, they know that it’s got our seal of approval. We’re hoping that we can continue to grow that audience organically, and hopefully into other geographical areas (although not to the detriment of our core area). I’m also a massive admirer of other brilliant local promoters – people like PVC (Ian) and Beats & Swing, put on some amazing and eclectic shows, and hopefully one day Square Roots will be viewed in the same way.
One of our upcoming shows at the Wedge is on 30th Jan and we have an awesome genre-busting band from the States called Gangstagrass! Who’d have thought that a bluegrass / hip-hop mash up would work? Not me…until I saw their videos and listened to their album. It’s one of the most exciting and fresh sounds I’ve heard for a long time, and they’ve been flooring live audiences wherever they go. Can’t wait for that one!
Q: Any advice for people wanting to put on shows or local bands looking to get more gigs?
Ken: Advice for local bands – if you want your local promoters to support you (ie by including you on one of their shows), then you MUST support them. I’ve had numerous messages / e-mails from local bands / artists asking us for a gig. Yet when I ask if they’ve ever been to any of our shows, invariably the answer is no. So if you don’t support your local promoter / venue then don’t expect them to support you. It’s a 2 way thing.
My advice to others wanting to put on shows – 3 main things.
1. Never undersell your product. If you believe in what you are putting on then give it a realistically high value.
2. Do it as professionally as you can – if your posters / flyers / website look amateurish then that reflects on what you are promoting.
3. Work your arse off getting the message out there – and sometimes that means standing outside handing out flyers in the freezing cold! A successful show is the result of hard work. There’s no substitute!
Q: Describe the Portsmouth music scene in one word
Ken: Divergent! (which is a great thing – and the Wedge is right at the heart of that!)
Square Roots Promotions bring hip-hop/bluegrass fusion act Gangstagrass to The Wedge as part of Independent Venue Week on the 30th of January! Also upcoming at The Wedge is The Phil Beer Band on the 23rd of March. Remaining tickets for both shows available from www.wedgewood-rooms.co.uk
For a full listing of Square Roots Promotions gigs see: