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CMU@TGE: Matt Tanner from Donuts

By | Published on Thursday 2 June 2016

Matt Tanner

Look out for insights, advice and viewpoints dished out at this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conference here in the CMU Daily throughout June. This week, a series of interviews conducted by CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke as part of this year’s CMU:DIY programme, where the spotlight was on the grass roots live scene. And today Matt Tanner from local club night Donuts.

The theme of CMU:DIY x The Great Escape this year was very much about new acts taking the initiative and putting on their own gigs, so to start building their fanbase beyond friends and family, and to get the whole direct-to-fan thing rolling. Some new artists though – and especially those making dance and urban music – go one step further and set up their own regular club nights, building an audience that way.

But how do you go about launching a brand new club night? Matt Tanner promotes Brighton hip hop night Donuts, a venture that began with him simply wanting to be able to play records that didn’t fit in at the student nights where he was being paid to DJ. “DJing was a great part-time job to have as a student”, Tanner concedes. “It was certainly better than working in a shop, but it was very much a job, in that I wasn’t playing the sort of music I was personally into”.

That music he was ‘into’ was hip hop, and specifically more experimental hip hop that didn’t seem to get played at all in the local club scene. “So I decided to launch my own night. I wasn’t planning any thing big – I certainly didn’t expect to make any money out of it – I just wanted to be able to DJ the tracks I was most excited about”.

He approached Brighton’s Green Door Store with his pitch for a new night, knowing that the team there had a particularly open-minded approach to programming. “I just got their email address off Facebook and sent them a message”, he says. “They invited me in, we had a chat, and they suggested I do a couple of nights to test it out. By this time the students were in exams and heading off for summer, so those initial nights were pretty quiet, though the venue still saw the potential”.

So much so, that when September came round and the students returned, the venue proposed making the night weekly. It was a free night, so the deal was that the venue would pay Tanner a fee and provide a marketing budget, making its money back on the bar. “What’s great about the Green Door Store is that they’re not so profit drive. Many of the other clubs I’ve worked with, it’s all about the money, which is fair enough, but that doesn’t really work with this kind of night”.

Though it paid off for both parties. Four years on, Donuts is still a weekly night at the Green Door Store, and while it enjoys a sizable student following, the venue doesn’t have to do the kind of drinks deals that are the staple of most student club nights. “Because people come for the music, not the drinks deals, the venue makes a decent bar take, which makes it a more attractive early-week club”.

Getting in that student audience in the first place did require a slight rework of the original music policy. “I did have make some compromises. We didn’t go mainstream exactly, but we made it more of a traditional hip hop night, playing funk and soul, and 90s-era hip hop, but in amongst that we slot in the more experimental stuff. Which means people will hear something different, and perhaps they’ll Shazam it and start following that artist or label”.

Despite the successes, as a free night Donuts still operates on a tight budget, meaning marketing spend needs to be kept down. Facebook has helped in that regard. “At the start, the marketing was me putting up posters and flyering around the uni, but as Facebook – and Facebook advertising – evolved, that became a more effective way to publicise the club”.

The regular night doesn’t need so much promotion anymore, but for special and spin-off events, especially those that are ticketed, Facebook remains a key tool. “I probably spend between £60 and £100 on Facebook advertising for a ticketed event”, Tanner reckons. “Which is less than printing and distributing flyers would have cost. And now that we are starting to do nights in other cities” – there is now a regular Donuts night in Nottingham – “social media makes it much easier to promote a night from afar”.

The CMU:DIY day was all about tips, and Tanner came to the table with five bits of advice for budding club promoters. First, research the local and wider clubbing scene first and look for genuine gaps in the market. Second, think about a name and branding before approaching venues. Third, you need about six weeks to publicise your launch night. Four, don’t get drunk on the night, not until you’ve built up a team who can run the show if you decide to be a clubber at your own club. And five, get to know everyone at the venue, including bouncers and bar staff.

“Coming up with the name was the one of the hardest things”, Tanner reckons. Donuts is named after the J Dilla album of course, one of Tanner’s favourites, though that wasn’t the original plan. “It was going to be called Gobstopper [after the XV track], but my friend who I had illustrating the publicity was really struggling drawing a gobstopper, so he took my list of alternative names and said ‘I could draw a great donut’. And so we had the name! Of course we didn’t know we’d be here four years later with the same brand”.

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