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Today is an exciting one as we're delving into Bristol's live music scene with the dynamic duo behind The Underdog: Jon and Kray. Since 2015, these two have been the driving force behind some of the city's most electrifying events, and nurturing up-and-coming talent like only they can. Thanks to Jon and Kray for giving us the inside scoop on what makes The Underdog the ultimate hotspot for music lovers in Bristol!

Can you elaborate on The Underdog’s journey since its inception in 2015? How has the company evolved over the years, and what factors do you attribute to its longevity in such a competitive market?

J: I’d had the idea for the Underdog whilst at university in London, so when I came back to Bristol I pitched the event to a couple of venues and they loved the concept - an ethical take on the standard battle of the bands model. Back then it was a much larger competition, with 13-17 events (compared to 8 now). After launching in 2015, we sold out the final at The Fleece (420 cap) within 9 days. In year two, we were approached by o2 Academy about moving the final to their venue, which we jumped at.

We expanded the number of events, added in a secondary competition called ‘MicroDog’ and moved the final to o2 Academy. After the success of year two, I was headhunted for a position at The Fleece, under the condition that I stopped running The Underdog. I negotiated one final run, and in 2017 we ran our biggest competition to date. We changed the format slightly, and returned to o2 Academy for the final, selling out the ground floor of the venue (650 cap). After the third series, things went fairly quiet for the Underdog for a few years. I put on the occasional single-event competition but had no plans to bring back the larger version.

Fast forward to 2020, and I was preparing to relaunch the Underdog when covid hit. Whilst waiting for the lockdown to end, I put out a post on my Facebook asking if anyone would like to get involved with running the competition, and Kray was one of the people who responded. We relaunched in 2021 as soon as lockdown was over, with a new covid-friendly competition called ‘The Ultimate Challenge’. Most of the competition happened online, and was only supposed to be a short run of about three months… but then another covid wave hit, and the final had to be delayed by five months. As soon as the 2021/2022 series finished, we made plans for our fifth run, and after completely throwing out the previous format, we launched MicroDog in 2023.

We had stumbled upon a format that worked perfectly; rather than stringing out the events from heats to semi-finals to the final, we removed the middle section and came up with the ‘one win and you’re in’ format. Win your heat, and you get to play at one of the most prestigious venues in Bristol. People have responded positively to the new format, and we’ve replicated it for the 2024 series we’re currently running.

K: My band Liquid State won the 2017 series. I later joined the event team post-covid when Jon asked Liquid State to be a guest headliner. I wanted to help out and learn more about events so I offered my hand in learning the trade through Jon. We understand that The Underdog distinguishes itself by investing significantly in the development of participating bands.

Could you share some specific examples of the resources and support you provide to bands, and how this investment translates into their growth and success?

J: I’ve always been about helping the local music community, so I spend hours on the phone advising bands on how to succeed. I love working with bands who are just starting, as you can help them avoid the common mistakes most younger bands make. It’s incredibly rewarding to see a band take the stage for the first time, and then see them a year later - the progress they’ve made makes this all worthwhile.

Half of this year’s finalists took part last year but didn’t get past the heats stage. They took the feedback onboard and came back a year later with a better understanding of the process, and now they’re on the road to Thekla.

K: In the event series that my band won, the grand prize was £1000 ‘no strings attached’ cash - we were able to invest the money in our band. In the post-covid competitions, we’ve offered a development package; featuring time in a recording studio, a release show, mini tours and, merch, and a small cash prize. We want to offer artists something that allows bands to focus their efforts on a release campaign and get some experience on the road.

Jon also offers extensive feedback on artists' social media and live performances, where I advise artists on playlisting and how to release music.

The rapid sell-out of tickets certainly generates a buzz in your community. What strategies does The Underdog employ to create such high demand, and how does this buzz contribute to the overall success of your events?

J: Ahh, trade secrets! We can’t give away too much, but we’ll just say that FOMO (fear of missing out) is a very powerful marketing tool…

K: As Jon mentioned above, FOMO is a key aspect. One other key factor is the prize table, where else could you play at a prestigious venue and potentially end up with a free single recording, merch and a tour package afterwards?

Judging performances at Battle Of The Bands events like The Underdog requires a discerning eye and ear. What specific criteria guide your evaluation process, ultimately leading to the selection of a winner?

J: In the earlier stages, we focus solely on the performance; from the strength of the songwriting to their stage presence, and how the audience responds to them. We’ve made lots of adjustments to our judging criteria over the years, and we’re really happy with what we use. Once bands make it through to the final, we start to look at the other crucial areas of being in a band; the ability to market themselves, how to monetise their bands, how to create memorable experiences for the audience etc. It’s a strange hybrid; half competition, half mentorship programme.

K: Performance is key in the early stages of the competition. The judging criteria are given freely to artists in advance so they can understand what we are looking for. We also offer an ‘extra credit’ category for those artists who go above and beyond on their performances or campaigns leading up to the event.

The Underdog seems like a massive gig to pull off. Can you walk us through what it takes to put together an event like that, from picking the bands to making sure everything runs smoothly on the day?

J: It’s about nine months from first booking the venues to announcing the winner at the final - it’s a very long process! We start by booking the venue for the final, and then working backwards for the earlier stages of the competition. The application process and onboarding of the bands is by far the biggest job of the competition - we had over 100 applicants for this year’s competition, and we expect that to rise next year. We keep the events running smoothly by doing a lot of preparatory work before the shows, twinned with over 10 years of experience running these sort of events.

K: It’s an awful lot of work but very rewarding. The entire process is broken down into steps that are a lot more manageable to work through. Keeping the events on schedule takes a lot of planning and prep work, and stage managing is crucial to this. Artists are told in advance of the changeover times and I'm around by the side of the stage to help get artists on and off efficiently.

Feedback and challenges are integral parts of The Underdog’s approach to nurturing talent. How do you ensure that the feedback provided to bands is constructive and supportive, and how do you tailor challenges to help them grow and improve their skills?

J: I’m a firm believer that smaller bands exist in echo chambers. The initial feedback they receive is from friends and family and is usually overwhelmingly positive. Whilst this is useful at the beginning, it masks any flaws in a band. I believe it’s crucial to a band’s development for them to hear raw and unfiltered advice. It can be hard to hear that one member of the band is holding the rest of the musicians back, but if the band truly wants to succeed it needs to be said.

K: Being a critic of the artist’s challenges and performance can be a little daunting as it’s very subjective and quite personal to grade. I value how strong the performance is overall and how each member acts together as the collective as I am a firm believer that not one person makes up a band. If everyone is gelling well on stage and giving their all, that's top marks from me. That small missed snare hits and bum guitar notes don’t bother me if I'm vibing off of your performance.

Hosting live music events must come with its fair share of memorable moments. Care to share one that sticks out in your mind, whether it's hilarious, heartwarming, or just downright wild?

J: For me, it was the first time I walked out on stage at o2 Academy. As a teenager, the first tour I went to as a fan was at that venue, so walking from the production office backstage to announce the winners in front of hundreds of local music fans… was a special moment.

K: I love the build-up to the winner's announcements as I know how it felt for me when Liquid State won. Hearing your band's name getting called out is a wonderful feeling with mixed emotions.

Being based in Bristol, you're in a city with a rich musical heritage. How do you see The Underdog contributing to and being influenced by the local music culture?

J: We provide a platform that pushes musicians to spend time working on their bands, and teach them the necessary work ethic to succeed. It takes a lot more than being a talented musician to succeed so we’re trying to train bands how to be professionals, and (hopefully) the local scene benefits from these efforts.

K: I have always seen the competition as a platform for artists to use to improve and focus on their craft. They have the perfect opportunity to have a deep dive into how the band functions and what they can do to improve. I love seeing a band end this process and continue to succeed using The Underdog as a stepping stone.

In a landscape where music comps often come and go, The Underdog has established itself as a mainstay in Bristol's music scene. What do you believe sets you apart from other competitions, and how do you plan to continue innovating and staying relevant in the years to come?

J: The local aspect of the competition is key. Many of the larger competitions that come through don’t care about the Bristol scene, they’re just trying to extract as much money as they can before they’re chased out of town. We’re constantly innovating between the competition series, and we’ll probably never stop trying to perfect The Underdog. We don’t always get it right, but all of the experimenting has led us to where we’re at now, and we’re really happy with how the current format (MicroDog) is performing.

K: Jon has fantastic ideas on what we can do to improve the competition. I am fascinated by Jon's constant drive to pick out small details in the runnings of the competition that sparks hour-long debates on how to resolve these issues. It’s been a lot of internal thought and decision-making to make this competition as efficient as possible, and we’re still not done yet!


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