Nellie PittsNELLIE PITTS was voted by the readers of PROG Magazine as their UNSUNG HERO of 2019 for her role as the owner and driving force behind THE MERCH DESK and THE BOOKING OFFICE.

Just a few weeks into 2020, everyone's world has been turned upside down by Covid-19, and one of the knock-on effects of the crisis is that all touring has stopped.

GET READY TO ROLL! met up with Nellie for a socially-distanced cup of tea'n'tonic to see how she's progressing...

• • • • •

So Nellie, how did it all start?

I'd been going to local gigs with my mates since my early teens, and I used to take the jug round to collect cash for whichever band was on - so I've always felt a connection with musicians and venue hosts.
My brother played bass in a band called Freefall in the late 80s and I helped to promote them by sending out very elaborate press packs that I'd spent hours making. I still reckon they were ahead of their time!
One incarnation of Freefall went on to become Tinyfish, and another member went on to become Frost*. Tinyfish were doing their first ever gig at The Peel in Kingston and I went along to show support for my brother and his bandmates, many of whom I’d known for most of my life as we all went to the same school. Little did I realise that I would be roped in to do the merch that night!
Nellie Pitts This was the first inkling of The Merch Desk as I then went on the run the Frost* online shop. Frost’s guitarist, John Mitchell, was also in It Bites, a band I’d loved as a teenager. Their merch had been sat in a lock-up for 20-odd years so I approached Bob Dalton (well, pestered him relentlessly) until he agreed to let me collect it all and list it on their website so they could have an online merch shop. For me, this was becoming a little complicated and after a quick discussion with designer Paul Tippett (Vitamin P), we branded The Merch Desk and I had the shop up and running within a week.
I started gathering bands quite quickly as a lot of the band members in smaller bands had day jobs and didn’t have time to deal with merchandise. Big Big Train was a band that had been recording studio albums for many years and had begun growing a substantial following. I’d noticed that they had absolutely no merchandise at all and began nagging them to allow me to print some t-shirts for them. Eventually, they gave in and I ended up reprinting one of the designs three times. From there, the BBT merch became famous in itself for being so imaginative and diverse. Nine years later The Merch Desk is going from strength to strength and now has over 40 bands on the roster.

At what point in the timeline did you set up The Booking Office?
I started taking The Merch Desk to festivals, and whilst working at Summer’s End in 2013 I was blown away by Lazuli who were headlining the Saturday night. They had only appeared in the UK once before at the same festival so when I asked them if they would consider coming back to do a tour, they readily agreed. As they were fairly unknown over here I thought it best that they double-headline with a slightly better-known band and invited Moon Safari to join them. I’d never done anything like this before so it was a huge undertaking - the whole thing made a meagre profit but was a promotional success. Since then, Lazuli have returned a number of times gaining more followers with each visit and selling out The Borderline - a great venue, which has now sadly closed.

The Lazuli result gave you a taste for more, yes?
Yes! I like to boss people around and organise things, so I started booking gigs for various bands under the proviso that they were responsible for all expenses. This gave bands from other countries the opportunity to play in the UK when they couldn’t find a promoter, and held no risk for me as I was not a promoter - I just booked the venues as hires and the bands paid for everything.
I decided that The Merch Desk as a name was not appropriate for the live work I was doing so came up with The Booking Office for that side of my business. It does what it says on the tin!

Being a woman in what is traditionally a man's world, do you feel you're treated any differently by promoters, bandmembers etc?
Sometimes! I remember turning up at Hackney Empire with a band and being completely ignored by the technical manager until an hour or so later when I introduced myself as tour manager. I’d had a lot of dealings with him prior to the show so I was quite surprised at his behaviour. It’s not unusual to be overlooked or assumed to be someone’s girlfriend. On the other hand, I can usually persuade men to do the heavy lifting if required! Fortunately, there are many women in this line of work who are more than capable of doing any role a man does. For example, the technical crew at The Underworld in Camden is all women.

What's new in the online shop?
Along with the Lazuli album, I’ve just added Jennifer Rothery’s EP as well as Riccardo Romano’s CD. Amy Birks’ debut solo album is selling really well and I’m still selling loads of the latest Pendragon album, Love Over Fear. But the full stock-list includes CDs, LPs, t-shirts and other items from the whole roster of bands and individual artists.
Nellie Pitts
How about the shows and festivals? 2020 has to be the most difficult and soul-destroying year for touring bands.
When the Corona virus was first reported it didn’t seem to have much impact on daily routines. People were advised not to shake hands or get too close, and the worst-case-scenario seemed to be that we might run out of toilet paper. The week before Lazuli arrived for their UK tour,

Pendragon had begun the European leg of theirs. I was in daily contact with Rachel who was telling me how every day another gig was being cancelled and they didn’t know what was going to happen.
Nellie Pitts Lazuli arrived for the first gig in Chepstow and we approached the tour with the assumption that it would go ahead until we were told otherwise. Chepstow was great and we travelled to Southampton for the next show. Everyone was a little more cautious and social distancing was tentatively being introduced. Hugs or kisses for friends were exchanged for elbow bumps.
The next day was a travel day and we headed off to Liverpool, not knowing whether the gig would happen. Half way up the A34 we got a message to say that a doctor friend of one of the band had received prior warning that the French borders were being closed and that any residents abroad should return to France immediately or have to wait six weeks before they could return. We pulled over at a service station and the band turned the bus around and headed for Folkestone in time for the only available shuttle back to France. They drove all night and arrived home within hours of the border closing.
The knock-on effect is enormous for bands. If tours are postponed then they can reschedule, but with financial penalties. However, no one knows when it is safe to rebook. Tour-specific merchandise is useless. Some hotels and travel logistics are non-refundable. All promotional costs are wasted. Fans are even more sceptical about buying tickets in case they have to cancel travel plans.
On top of that, Brexit will make touring for smaller bands more difficult because of the additional costs involved. It’s hard enough to make tours pay, and when there are additional admin fees on top I suspect they just won’t bother to come.

Is the vinyl/CD split in The Merch Desk reflecting the general upsurge in vinyl sales?
Vinyl has become popular again and I would say that the vinyl/CD split is around 25/75%. In my opinion, I’d be happier if it were more in favour of CDs, as packaging is physically and financially enormous for vinyl, as well as the risk of damage. That’s just me being grumpy!

Talking of posting out the merch, I know you go the extra mile to use sustainable packaging.
Yes, I get through a lot of packaging material and I realised that most of it contained plastic. ”Jiffy” bags are really bad because they are part paper, part plastic so not easy to recycle. I don’t like waste and our disposable society is something of a bugbear to me. I have now introduced recycled, degradable mailing bags and cardboard CD/DVD mailers which makes me feel better even if they are three times the price and will only make a tiny difference to our planet!

Nellie PittsDescribe your typical working day... folding'n'packing'n'posting, phoning, emailing, etc.

I’m a single parent with two teenage boys and three dogs. All of these come before work so I need to get up early to start my day. Walking the dogs grounds me and allows me to think things through before I begin work. I’m lucky to live on the edge of a village close to some beautiful woods and fields. I think I’d go crazy without this escape every day.
Once the dogs are walked I can start work which always begins with me trawling through my emails. I’ll spend a couple of hours on correspondence and then print off any orders from the shop. As I work from home I try to set myself some rules and always break for lunch, even if it’s just 15 minutes of shovelling down last night’s leftovers. I’ll spend the afternoon packing the orders ready to post by 6pm when I’ll dash over to the sorting office. If I have a tour to book, I’ll spend some time in the evening emailing venues, which is when most of them are available to respond. The last few years have been so busy that this has been a 7-day cycle and there was a three month period when I didn’t have even a single day off.
Amazon has a lot to answer for when it comes to unreasonable demands. I am a one woman band and can only do so much in a day. Mail order used to have a statement attached saying “Please allow 28 days for delivery”. On the whole, most customers are great, but some people nowadays are so self-entitled and they expect their order to be despatched the same day and to arrive the next. Under normal circumstances this is possible but during busy times like album launches this simply isn’t achievable. I’m sure that they think I have a team of packers working around the clock! I shall have “Where’s my CD?” engraved on my headstone.

Any Spinal Tap stories from the front line?
One of my favourite anecdotes from a few years ago is when Frost* were about to fly to Edinburgh to start their UK tour. I’d stayed overnight at John’s (Mitchell) house to make sure that he was packed and ready to go when the taxi arrived to take us to the airport. Instead of the planned early night, we’d managed to stay up until 3am drinking and watching old It Bites clips, but I remembered to set the alarm for 5am and went in to John’s room to wake him up.
John, it’s time to wake up.
We need to catch a flight to Edinburgh for the first night of the tour!
There was a slight pause, and then… John:
Alexa… play The Who!
This was followed by We Won’t Get Fooled Again blasting around the house at five in the morning. It was like the start of a Richard Curtis film. I suppose you had to be there.

What are your hopes for the rest of 2020?
Live work is not on the agenda in he immediate future, however, there are things afoot... gigs are being planned and I’ve pencilled in the rescheduled Lazuli dates for March 2021. I’ve booked a couple of shows for Cosmograf and Gungfly in October that I hope will go ahead but I'm not holding my breath. I don’t think there will be any mass gatherings this year although smaller shows might be on the cards as we ease back into normal (whatever that is).

I don’t expect any festivals to go ahead this year but smaller events might be admissible next year.
Music fans will still seek out new music though, so I’ve had The Merch Desk website redesigned by my friend, Steve Vantsis. Not only is he an excellent bass player (Fish, TILT) he’s one of the best designers I know. He’s done a lot of work for me on t-shirt designs and posters and I’d recommend him at the drop of a hat. Here's the new website for The Merch Desk, which is up and running. I‘m currently having The Booking Office website designed, too. When it’s ready, it will be here.

And finally Nellie... what advice can you give us for getting through the crazy times we're living in - and through life generally?
NEVER give up, and NEVER give in!

Nellie PittsNellie Pitts
© Get Ready To Roll - 30th April 2020

2016 - All Rights Reserved