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Arts boss remains keen to work with jazz club

Jeff Merrifield is stepping aside from gig promoting as part of JAWS (Jazz and World Sounds). Photo: Dave Hammond

SHETLAND ARTS has strongly rejected accusations of a “strained relationship” with jazz promoter Jeff Merrifield and said it would have preferred to talk directly to him rather than through the local press.

Last week, the veteran promoter announced that he was throwing in the towel after seven years at the forefront of the local jazz scene and resigned from his promotion role with JAWS (Jazz and World Sounds).

The 72-year old cited “the un-cooperative attitude at Mareel” during a gig by the legendary Blockheads on 22 November as the “last straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Merrifield also cited a drastic rise in charges for hiring Mareel without prior notification, a lack of marketing support and a refusal to consider his claim that door numbers paid did not match audience attendance during this summer’s Eddi Reader concerts as reasons to withdraw from the role.

“It seems to have stopped being fun anymore,” he said.

Shetland Arts general manager Graeme Howell refuted the allegations and said the art development agency had given JAWS “extensive support this year across a range of projects”.

These include: 

  • discounted use of Mareel (three gigs) for the JAWS festival in June this year;
  • £300 contribution to booking local jazz musicians to play in the bar after the Mareel gigs;
  • free use of a Mareel exhibition space for Chris Brown’s photos of the festival;
  • heavily discounted use of Mareel for the JAWS jazz summer school;
  • free use of the Garrison for a Michael Janisch workshop;
  • free backline (plus transport) for the JAWS-promoted Janisch gigs;
  • a discounted rate for the Blockheads gig, re-negotiated post event.

Howell said he had no interest in fuelling the controversy further, adding: “I feel it is a shame that the JAWS committee didn’t feel they could come to us and talk about their concerns as we have a successful track record of working with a broad range of organisations.”

Merrifield has been involved in bringing a wide range of top-notch jazz acts to Shetland since 2008 including Gilad Atzmon, Tommy Smith, and Brian Kellock.

In 2015 JAWS attracted £35,000 in public funding from Creative Scotland – mainly to host the nine-day JAWS Festival with Scottish songstress Reader and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra topping the bill.

Merrifield said that, despite generous grants, “local issues” had made it increasingly difficult to promote concerts in the isles.

Shetland Arts general manager Graeme Howell rejected Merrifield's attempt to question audience numbers at two Eddi Reader concerts, but said the arts organisation remained keen to work with JAWS. Photo: Adam Jones

But Howell said it was simply not true that Mareel hire charges had been hiked up without consultation.

“We worked hard in consultation with local promoters to develop a model that would work financially for them and us,” he said.

The previous model of fixed rates – £600(+VAT) for charities, £900(+VAT) for community groups and £1,200 for commercial hires – has been replaced with a risk-sharing model.

The arts agency boss said: “The new model maintains the lowest charge of £600(+VAT) and the highest charge has gone up a little to £1345(+VAT) and is calculated as a percentage of box office receipts.  

“If your gig has a low ticket price or doesn’t perform well at the box office then our share will be towards the low end. If your gig has a high ticket price and does okay our charges will be in the middle, and if your gig does extremely well the maximum we will take is capped at £1345(+VAT).

“The new hire charges also clearly lay out what is included in the hire fee, including marketing support. It also makes it possible for the promoter to pay for any extra support they would like including cinema advertising.

“What we tried to do this year with the revision of the hire charges is to create a level playing field so that is works towards our charitable objectives.”

With regards to the disputed attendance figures for the Reader concert, Howell said JAWS had first raised concerns with Shetland Arts five months after the event.

“We asked what they could use to back up their claim and no evidence was forthcoming,” he said, adding that he and others had been well aware of how poorly the gig had sold.

Howell said the arts agency had so far received no formal approach from the JAWS committee to discuss Merrifield’s concerns.

He added that the door was wide open: “We got no axe to grind against JAWS, we will work with them in the future as and when they like us to.”