Next up in the Ilovecarnivall’s Promotional Teams series, I speak to Mateen Hepburn (Director of Busspepper Productions). Years ago, I used to consider the Busspepper fetes high end, predominantly attended by Trinis. My perception has changed with reference to the attendees but this is still the one soca fete that I will dress up for more than any other fete on the soca circuit in London. The heels will come out. Busspepper as an event has been going for 13 years and I spoke to Mr Hepburn with regards to his event.
Why did you guys start Busspepper? Initially I started Busspepper on my own. It was my second year in the UK and my previous job was in bars and clubs so I knew quite a few venues and the operational systems on that scene. There’s no polite way of saying it but a lot of the nicer venues back then when they heard that there would be a Caribbean or urban event going on, they would be hesitant to hire out the venue. I was in a unique position as I didn’t have that wall in front of me. The people I requested venues from knew me and knew that I would only bring a good crowd. The first event wasn’t a business or for profit. I was bored and wanted to provide a party that we have back home in Trinidad. I didn’t want it to be in a basketball court or a disused warehouse. I wanted it to be in a nice place that the west end people who go to their offices can go for a drink afterwards. And although I didn’t do the first one to make money, I did charge because there was food. The ticket price included the food and the entry drink. I got there at 12pm to start cooking the food in the kitchen. I DJed all night. To my surprise at that first one, 150 people turned up.
After that one, I thought ‘this is a lot of work’. But everyone begged me to do it again. At the second event, the numbers doubled and there were messages of ‘When are you doing it again? By the third event, it was becoming smoother. From there it grew and evolved.
How many people are on the team? The committee now is the Euphoria committee and two organisations are intrinsically linked. When we were making the Euphoria committee, I thought and discussed with the others, it doesn’t really make sense to have the separate committees as we are targeting the same audience, the same people so we just sort of combine the two and it works well. We have about ten people and there are unofficial people are well who are not actually on the committee but who are friends of the brand.
Do you have a particular target audience in the soca community? Consciously, the type of image we want to portray and attract is classy and sophisticated, in a nice venue. If you have a work colleague who is I don’t know, senior management in the company that you work for, it is more likely that you will say ‘let’s go to the fancier place because you will enjoy it more’. These guests of soca get brought to these events. The ones that like it keep coming back and they sort of eat sleep and breathe the brand after that. They are like ‘This is where I go’. It’s amazing that every time we put tickets on sale, they just buy it, no matter how far in advance.
What makes your events different from the other soca events in London? First, I think it is because of the venues. One thing that works for us is that we keep it classy. You stay in a classy venue and people dress better. When people dress better, they feel more special. What that tends to do is make everyone feel that ‘wow I’ve gone to Busspepper, therefore I‘ve gone to a special party’. I mean everything has its place. As much as everyone likes to jump up wave and get on bad, you still want to look good. So whether people want to stick on that scene all the time, whether they want a mix of both, it has seemed to work for us. And what I do know it that there is a faction of our crowd that does like both scenes. They will come to our event and go to others that are totally in the other direction. The other events have audience locked. They know what their target audience is and they cater for those so hats off to them and it works.
Also, part of the Busspepper’s brand and style is that we have certain DJs that play in a certain way and we kind of stick to them. People have said that you have the same DJs playing with you for years. But that is more along the style that we wanted. We like a smoother finish rather than a rougher finish. Most of our people like to groove rather than jump up on tables and go absolutely nuts. It goes back in line with what we are known for and what the customers like, are you in your best heels tonight, do you want to be daggering on the dance floor?
How many events do you have for a year? We have 11 events a year. Traditionally, we will have ten that are pure just Busspepper events and we do a joint event with Tribe on the Notting Hill Carnival Saturday and that bumps it up to 11.
Which is the busiest Busspepper event? The busiest is around the time of Trinidad carnival. The pre carnival and post carnival fetes. Depending on how strong the soca is, the post carnival will do better. There are some years when the music is definitely stronger than others. You come back from Trinidad carnival and have a tabanca and you feel like coming out. Busspepper will be really busy then. And around Notting Hill carnival.
Are there any good/surprising things about putting on events in London? Well it was very surprising at a point but I no longer get surprised by it. When we do an event at a venue, quite often for the first time, at the end of the night, the management will usually come to me looking at me kind of you know, almost with a tilt in their head ask, ‘Why is everyone in your crowd happy all the time?’ A lot of the time, at the beginning of the night, they will see a party get packed and think ‘ok wow, this is going to be a rough urban night’. The contagious joy that our type of partying has, that soca gives people. Even the bar staff, we go to a venue, they have never heard soca before, and before you know it the bar staff are working and wining behind the bar. The management and staff compare our events to any other events that they do. They never see so many people with so many smiles having such a good time. Absolutely no aggro. They say, wow you guys are different. It’s nice to show that we are fun people and go against the common misconception about Caribbean raves. We have shown them a different side and I think Busspepper has done a big part in showing the outside world that part of our culture.
What are the challenges of putting on an event in London? Of late venues have become a lot more limited. There was a company we would use quite a few of their venues. They own about 22 different venues in the city. They took on a lot of promoters perhaps they shouldn’t have to a point where they have had a lot of incidents in their venues. This company had to cut a deal with the City of London Co-operation to actually stop doing promoted events. So you will see many closed bars in the city of London over the weekend because the City of London Co-operation said that if you continue to have police call outs and such a high percentage of them are from your venues, we are going to yank the licences from all of your venues. So they said we are going to stop promoted events. It cost them £3.4 million per year at the time (that’s how much they were making from promoted events). There are only a handful of venues which are not owned by this giant company that were operating and still doing promoted events. Around that time our numbers were just getting bigger. And with a lack of venues we just had to start looking for venues that would hold everyone. That’s where we sort of became more regular and switched venues.
There have been a couple of times when the city of London police have been tight on all promoted events and would just come through a party. They just wanted to see what was happening. It’s one thing to be in a fete in the savannah in Trinidad and there is army and police around, but in London, if you’re inside and there is police around, it instantly kills the vibe. That was the most challenging thing; you can do nothing about it. You tell the manager and they say ‘What do you want me to do? It’s the police.. you want me to tell them not to come in?’
What do you consider a successful Busspepper event? You see it on people’s faces. From the very beginning, success has always been smiles on faces. There are some people who write the next day saying that they had such a good time last night. That is the time when you pat yourself on the back, when someone goes through the trouble of contacting you, not with a complaint but with a compliment. To me that is the pinnacle of successful events.
Was there ever a pivotal point when you thought ‘Ok Busspepper has made it, bus pepper is successful? Yes I guess it would be the point when I left my day job. This is what I do, this is now who I am. Although it is quite funny in social situations where somebody introduces you to somebody and the first thing they introduce as is your business. But I would say about 2010, we grew big enough.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date? What are you most proud of with reference to Busspepper? I think the most satisfying is where people say ‘We just got married and we met at your party.’ To feel that you are responsible for that happening. I am not saying that the opposite has not happened, that you wine on the wrong person in the party and you get in trouble [laughter]. But to think that these people have a family now because of Busspepper, that’s a great accomplishment from a personal standpoint. From a recognition point? Yes I would say that we host the bigger DJs even when it is not carnival time and that is an economies of scale thing. The Brand recognition is a good business accomplishment. The amount of people that I meet in different countries that know about the brand. And when people come into London they tell me the one thing they have to do is go to Busspepper…
Are there any mistakes you think promoters sometimes make? I think sometimes people get carried away with the hype and they forget that they are running a business. I’ve learnt some hard lessons in regards to over spending on entertainment in the past. When you get in a position and the bank manager is looking at you and says ‘Well you know you didn’t make on this event’, you make events and you learn. And I see some promoters making the same mistakes and although it is not my duty to tell them what to do, I tell them ‘Just work out your demand and supply and your cost price’. Because everyone will want to have the Machel’s and the Kes’, in London but does it make financial sense? Poison used to do that because they had lots of sponsorship from various brands. But the market doesn’t sustain a £30-40 ticket price. As much as I have always wanted to keep the brand a step ahead of everybody and do things that much better, I have realised that there are certain areas where I say ‘Ok we can’t have the biggest names in soca entertainment, because it is not good for the business. It’s good for the hype, but after that night, people are going to forget that’. They are not going to rate you on the future because of a big name. They are going to rate you because you give a consistently good time to your customers.
What is the hardest lesson you have had to learn as a promoter? Everyone will tell you the same; the rivalry, the dog eat dog attitude in the industry whether you are in London, the US, Trinidad, Barbados, you are going to get the same. It is not a friendly business to be in. I wouldn’t want to belittle people in my profession but for some strange reason, in the Caribbean circles, people rather be against each other than together. It is definitely an ego business. But we are such a small diaspora, a lot of people don’t take the time to understand the industry and they think the only way to be successful is by the downfall of another. And I am not saying everyone is like that but I have seen people treat each other that way. It is a bit disheartening. It particularly happens when Notting Hill carnival comes around. Because it is such a short period of time and so many events going on, everyone who are friends all year round are now competing with each other. And that’s when you really see the gloves come off. There is subtle underlying and cutting. It has gotten a bit better now as more people are coming to Notting Hill carnival and there are enough people to go to all events. That’s my least favourite thing about the business, the lack of camaraderie.
There are a lot international brands and new brands coming into the London Soca industry. Is this something you think about? I do. There has been a lot of talk from London promoters that we should block international promoters, this is our market. The truth of the matter is we live in a capitalist society. If someone is going to set up shop and do something good, you just have to up your game and improve your product. I can see the bitterness where people are comparing it to the Tesco’s moving into the village and shoving out the smaller shops. I can see the logic. People are going to come in whether we like it or not. It is a date and time thing. You have your date and time and make it so solid that people are not going to come up against you. Different promoters have different crowds so sometimes there are no concerns.
Mr Mateen Hepburn has run Busspepper promotions for over 13 years rather successfully I would say. He has helped to show the rather pessimistic west end managers of bars and clubs that not all urban fetes are marked with violence and you know what? We West Indians can dress up with the best of them and be elegant and classy (but still wine de place down). When soca is playing we are happy people. There are those who met at Busspepper, got married and have started their own families. Busspepper has seen the rise of e-ticket sales, promoting on social media and other promotional teams. This fete has weathered the fickle crowds who always want something different and more. Will Busspeppper be around for another 13 years? Let’s see what Mateen Hepburn of Busspepper Promotions comes up with shall we?
For more information on Busspepper events, please visit www.busspepper.com, Busspepper Promotions Limited on Facebook, Busspepper on Instagram and Twitter. All images were used with the authorisation of Mr Matteen Hepburn and taken from the Busspepper website.