2016 was quite the year for Steve Pledger. He released his critically acclaimed third album, Somewhere Between, in the incredible Main Hall in Dunster Castle in November, and followed it up with a plethora of award nominations. Somewhere Between won Album of the Year for Fatea, Album of the Year (Male solo artist) for Folkwords, and was runner up for Album of the Year for Folking.com. Steve himself was runner up in the Folkwords Soloist of the Year.
Since then Steve has mainly been concentrating on live performances, and went through the massive upheaval of moving his family from Somerset to a new home in County Durham. Everywhere he's played he's picked up yet more fans, and even shared a stage with Billy Bragg last July, a singer he's often been compared to.
In 2019 Steve announced he was starting a new project - On Trust Events. Steve kindly agreed to tell us a little more about it, sitting down for a quick chat after another remarkable performance at a house gig in Berkshire.
Tell us a little bit about On Trust Events
Basically it's an idea I've had kicking around for 3 or 4 months. I popped to a local venue near to where I live with the idea of putting on a gig there. I liked the venue, but it started me thinking about the ticket price and where to pitch it. Like many of us I'm in an area where there is a mixed financial situation for people and you have to keep that in mind when deciding on where to set the price. That got me to thinking more about the 'pay as you feel' angle, doing away with the barrier of a fixed ticket price. This particular venue is a community center, and they have a food bank there, advice centers and so on, and I thought about combining the 'pay as you feel' concept with working alongside, or with the cooperation of, the people who are running these other elements of what goes on in the center. I wanted to open it up to people to come along from any walk of life, to pay whatever they feel they can afford; not just to introduce the new pricing structure but to do it in a way that actively promotes it to people who wouldn't normally think about going out to this type of gig. Free gigs are great, but they usually take place in pubs, feature mostly covers, and you have the noise and what comes along with that. This would be a proper live gig but without the potential barrier of cost.
So how does this represent a change from models such as the whip round?
In a sense it's a variation on that theme. I certainly wouldn't say it's a great leap forward in the structure of gigs. I think if it has a USP as such, it's the idea that we're putting it out amongst the people, and the movements that are happening such as youth groups and council-led initiatives. It's so easy to think for people whose financial situations are particularly hard, that there are food and clothing banks and shelters… and that is basically what they need. It's both understandable and unintentionally dehumanizing. We're more than that as people. Those that struggle to lay their hands on a meal can also have a yearning to get out and experience something beyond just the physical necessities of life; things that most other folks even with fairly limited financial resources may take for granted. For some, a £5 or £10 ticket to see something is as unaffordable as a £400 ticket is for others. So I want to positively and actively take this idea and structure and place it in environments where folks in that sort of day to day reality feel welcome to come along, and feel that it's just as accessible for them as for someone for whom those things are not a consideration.
Have you had much interest from the food banks and the other organisations?
That has been the encouraging thing so far, the various people I'm talking to have been very supportive. I've been talking in particular with my local councilor, a lady called Joan Nicholson who is a ball of energy on legs! She is one of these people that just makes things happen, and she's been helping to put me in touch with various people and coming up with suggestions, and of course I'm coming up with my own lines of enquiry as well. The folks that get involved with these types of projects want to help people in all aspects of life. If that is where your desire and heart is, to help on any sort of level, and provide something good for people who are struggling, then I would hope that something along these lines might also be of possible interest.
Is there a danger that this could be seen as just another means for self-promotion?
That's a great question, and don't think it isn't something that hasn't already crossed my own mind. I think it could be seen that way, and the idea initially came from thinking about how I could put a gig on for myself and make it work. This is what I do for a living, after all. Then you start to think of potential obstructions preventing people coming, and ways to help get around these. Not only could this be a way of me continuing what I'm trying to do… get out there and perform live gigs, but also doing it in a way that is hopefully more open and beneficial to those who otherwise might not be able to consider coming. If you have 15 / 20 / 25 people come along who are able and willing to pay a certain amount, and then you have another 20 people that can afford to put £1 in or nothing at all, nobody has lost anything. I've not lost anything. If anything we'll have had a fuller evening with more people coming from different backgrounds, and it might prove to be a unifying experience for us. On Trust Events isn't a charity, and I'm not going to pretend I'm doing something overtly charitable. It's like anything in life; if we can find a way of doing the thing that we do, that makes it work for us, but in such a way that it also works well for others then that's got to be a good thing.
You've called this On Trust Events, so is there a danger or a worry that what you're effectively going to do is put on free gigs?
I've called it On Trust Events because I'm saying to people that if you can afford to put something in then I'm trusting you to do so, if you feel it was worth it to you. Equally if you don't put anything in I'm trusting that there is a reason for that. As with anything like this, there are always going to be people who play the system, but I don't think I'm the kind of person who is going to attract too much of that - "Let's go see this obscure, bald folky, and we might be able to get away without paying anything." I honestly don't think there's going to be a lot of that going on. But if there is I'm prepared to suck that up and accept it. The hoped for benefit of doing it this way is far going to outweigh the fact that you might end up a few quid down. Often you find that where there is a gig with a 'pay as you feel' approach, it can work as well as a structured ticketed event. The theory I've rightly or wrongly arrived at when considering how to do this, is that the more opportunity you give people to be trustworthy, the more trustworthy they'll be. I think we live in a world now where the more you tell people what they can and can't do, the less people think about what they should and shouldn't do. That's our mindset. Not that I'm an anarchist or advocating anarchism at all. If you say to people "I'm going to trust you", the majority of people are going to be trustworthy. We'll do this again in six months though, and maybe we'll see if I'm right then!
At the moment it's all happening local to where you live up in the North East, but do you have an interest to take that further afield?
Absolutely, yes. At the moment I'm trying it out in County Durham where I'm based, and I'd like to keep it local for the time being, see if it works and see where we go from there. There's no reason why if it works locally it shouldn't work further afield as well. I'm going to continue to do gigs of all other kinds as well, with different pricing structures, but this is definitely something I want to hopefully prove will work, see where it goes, and take it further.
You launched On Trust Events last month.
Yes, at the end of February, beginning of March. That was when we went live on the website, and on the social media accounts. Now begins the hard work. I've had the fun of designing things and putting it all together, and now it's a case of getting on and making it happen.
Have you had any other artists approach you to discuss it?
I've said in the blurb on the website that for the time being this is a way of me trying to do some gigs. I've been quite up front about that. There's nothing patentable about this, and no reason why anybody else shouldn't do it, and I think I'd encourage it… why not? But as far as On Trust is concerned it's a way of me putting on my own gigs for now. That's not to say I wouldn't open it up in the future. I don't know how well it's going to work yet. If it worked really well with other people I could find myself in 8 months' time realizing I haven't played a gig for 7 months! I'd really love it to expand geographically, and I also like the idea of other artists being involved. I find sometimes it's very easy to be in front of people who have paid for a ticket and wring our hands collectively about the difficulties and injustices that some people are facing. But we're all quite comfy in our nice warm room, and people have paid some money, and I've earned some money, and that's that. That could almost become quite self-congratulatory I think. If I'm writing about things about which I have concerns, it's better to find a way to put them out there so that some of those folks for whom these things are a harsh reality might find some comfort; knowing that there are people out there who are at least aware of something of what they are going through. Sure it may just be people singing dusty folk songs about it but it is all part of the discussion - the songs, the singing, the films, the tv programmes, the articles people write; all of these things are part of that democratic process of bouncing around these hard facts of life and trying to deal with them as a society.
When is the first gig?
The first gig is 26th April, at Annfield Plain Community Centre. People are already signing up for it. One of the considerations of course is that if you are not selling tickets, and if you are effectively putting this out as potentially a 'free' event, it's hard to know how many people are going to turn up, especially the first time around. If you have a room that can accommodate a certain number of people and then three times as many people rock up, and you can't fit them all in, then people are going to be justifiably unhappy. So people can either register at the venue or there's a little form under each gig on the website that takes 30 seconds to fill in - name, email address, contact details, how many places they would like to reserve… that's it.
Is it just the one gig lined up for the moment?
It's the one gig at the moment though I have a meeting coming up in the next week to discuss a potential event. I'm in touch with a number of other people as well, so hopefully it won't be too long before we're able to put some others in place.
Do you have a message for any food bank, community groups etc., if they're interested in what you are doing?
Yes, please check us out at www.ontrustevents.co.uk which features a more considered and eloquent version of what I've just said on there. There's always the concern of how to express this on the hoof, but hopefully there's a better description on there of what On Trust is all about. Please, please get in touch; I'd love to tell you more about it. It's something hopefully we can do more of. These gigs will be promoted amongst the people with whom these folks (community groups) are working, but also in the wider community. I provide posters and flyers etc. We're looking to encourage community promotion. Hopefully we can bring people in who otherwise don't know of these projects, to come into these areas where everyone can meet and feel that it's something that belongs to them. It hopefully draws together more people who otherwise might not come together. I'd like to think that folks will think of it as something beneficial to the work that they are doing. Again, because it is very early days, I'm trying to be cautious on what I'm promising, but I'd love to be able to work things in such a way so that for anybody who puts a gig on, there might be a way that I could pass on a donation to them. We don't quite yet know how it is going to evolve or what costs/income each gig will generate, so I have to be careful about what promises I make. I genuinely would like it to be something of financial benefit to them though. We'll see where it goes.Website: www.stevepledger.co.uk/