Sunday, July 01, 2007

Join the cultured club: invitation-only, exclusive...and free!

The hottest tickets are for guerrilla gigs: invitation-only, exclusive – and free.

The providers of popular culture rarely do what they say on the tin. The Menier Chocolate Factory doesn’t sell chocolate; the advertising agency Mother won’t give you a cuddle; and cinemas called Ritzy usually aren’t. Laughter in Odd Places, however, delivers on its name so literally that it smacks of obsession.

Based around a website and a drunken conversation, it organises Sunday-afternoon comedy gigs in, well, odd places – a library, an Oxfam shop and a record shop have all played host to comic talent such as Josie Long, Joanna Neary and Robin Ince. Entry is free, but by invitation only – invitations being as simple to come by as registering on the website. Now it is curating three gigs at the Museum of London, with performances from Perrier nominees We Are Klang and Sarah Kendall, as well as the maverick stand-up Simon Munnery.

“We wanted a club that was the opposite of the boozy Friday-night bearpits all comics have to play,” explains LIOP’s co-founder, Tom Searle. “It started as word of mouth, with 50 friends, but it’s grown to more than 200 members and the comics love playing. It favours the imaginative performer, rather than the jobbing club stand-up, so you get interesting performances.”

Seale and his partner, Terry Saunders, were inspired by the American folk singer Jeffrey Lewis’s penchant for gigging in laundrettes and cafes. They in turn have kicked off a new taste for secret or invitation-only gigs in comedy: Russell Brand played the Soho Revue bar for free last November, and at least three comics are doing one-off or free shows in Edinburgh.

Outrageous – and out here: the comediennes are coming
Such gigs have been an occasional feature of the music industry for some time, but this year they have exploded. Prince played one in Camden in May, and the Aliens held an invitation-only gig for 50 fans in the Caves, in Edinburgh.

In the trough of his addiction, Pete Doherty would text everyone he knew to get them over to his flat for gigs; while the Others delight in guerrilla performances on trains. Razorlight, Kasabian and Editors prepared for the summer’s festival season with unannounced performances in low-key venues, most of which were leaked to to ensure the performance was a sellout.

“I think the relationship between a band and their audience is far more intense and definitely more conversational,” says Dom Cook, director of marketing and content at MySpace. Cook says that the days when a band could “release an album and then not speak to their fans for a year are over”. He’s started a number of secret-show initiatives with record labels, where fans of certain bands who also use MySpace get “first come, first served” invitations to one-off performances.

The programme, which began last year, has seen Faithless playing a warehouse near Leeds to 250 people, Babyshambles appearing in a London basement and Gossip playing the Roadhouse, in Manchester. “You have to have the Secret Shows link and the band’s link in your top eight friends to qualify, but apart from that, entry is free,” Cook explains. “We work on the premise that 1,000 people, with an average of 100 friends, putting the band in their top eight means it’s basically viral marketing to 100,000 people.”

Outside the music industry, other cultural renegades have started taking the invitation-only guerrilla gig into film and theatre. Journalist Andy Greenhouse has been promoting Shallow Shorts at the 100 Club, in Oxford Street, where short films and documentaries are mixed with live bands and DJ sets for a word-of-mouth audience drawn from Soho’s television and film-runner community. Meanwhile, the Shunt Lounge, a set of disused railway arches beneath London Bridge station, used as a base by the eponymous theatre company, has become a private members’ bar where insane performance art takes place most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. (Membership is available on the company’s website). In June, for instance, the main bar had experimental music from Goldsmiths Electronic Music Studios and Vektormusik, among installations by Squid-soup and Paul Adderley & Michael Young, although those wanting to see The Return – an absurdist play about people trapped in a time loop reenacting their past – had to turn up early and book, for free, on the door.

On a more intimate scale, the London- and Liverpool-based arts space Metal Culture has been hosting the AGA dinners, where guests such as Stephen Frears, Wole Soyinka and Paco Peña break bread, display their work and exchange ideas with an eclectic band of doctors, local councillors, town planners and scientists. The dinners have gone so well that Colette Bailey, Metal Culture’s MD, is touring Essex this summer – stirring stew in Southend, Chelmsford, Harlow and Colchester with Ackroyd & Harvey, Billy Bragg and Mark Wallinger.

Perhaps it’s horror at ticket prices, a postArctic Monkeys belief that connection between artist and public should be direct and intimate, or a feeling that some things are too precious to sell to everyone. Whatever: like the revolution, the best fun to be had this summer, will not be televised.



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