By Ben Gallivan
I was born in 1978. May 28th to be exact. Nothing else of any importance happened on that day it turns out – not that my birth was anything to get excited about other than for my immediate family. The second round of the presidential elections in Upper Volta were won by incumbent SadgoulLamizana. Al Unser became the 5th driver to win the Indianapolis 500 3 times – his average speed being 161.363mph. You see? It was a slow news day.
But it was the beginning of life for me; a life that was going to be pretty much controlled by the music I listened to, played and watched. And eventually promoted.
The eighties saw my first single purchase (‘Road To Nowhere’ – Talking Heads), my first – less impressive – album purchase (‘Turn Back The Clock’ – Johnny Hates Jazz) took place. Then, in the nineties, my first experience of a live gig happened. The bands were L7 and Faith No More and the place was the now defunct Cardiff Ice Rink. It was November 22nd 1992 and I was 14 years old.
From There To Where?
The gig opened my eyes on a massive scale (though not to the point where it became uncomfortable). Even though it was my first experience as a gig-goer, I could see the immense joy that it brought to the people who had paid £11 (inc. booking fee) for a ticket to see these giants of rock music – at the time at least. I parted company with my friend’s parents who had chaperoned us to the venue along with a further £8 of my hard-earned paper round money to buy the obligatory tour t-shirt and took my seat in the stands to watch the wonder unfold before my eyes. Even though I was only fourteen years old I could already tell what it was like for a paying punter such as myself to experience seeing your favourite band up on stage, belting out the hits. I can’t say that is where my interest in promotion started for sure, but it was definitely a catalyst. I wanted to see the crowds pogo around to something that I had organised. I wanted to see beaming faces and arms aloft when their musical heroes started firing up the opening bars to their most popular tunes.
But it wasn’t until the age of 34 that I finally managed to find the time to make a go of it.
The Secret Diary of me, aged 34 3/4
I started writing a musicblog in March 2012. I had moved back to Wales after 10 years in London three years previously and had spent a lot of time hanging around and seeing how the music scene had deteriorated since the heady days of Newport being crowned the New Seattle by the NME back in 1995. The thing is… it hadn’t. Unsure if it was just me and my pessimistic ways, I started going to gigs regularly. The first thing that hit me was how lifeless Newport had become. TJ’s had gone, which inevitably led to the deterioration of other venues in the recently crowned city. Other venues had popped up in the interim but had subsequently sunk without trace and the good money was on Cardiff taking over Newport’s mantle. This wasn’t to say of course that Cardiff never had the edge over Newport. It was a rarity that I’d venture into the capital in the 1990s purely due to the fact that getting home would have been an absolute nightmare and I had essentially no idea what had happened during the 2000s as I was living 150 miles away completely oblivious to what was occurring.
Upon my return to the fatherland in 2009, I always had it in my mind that I could make a go of it as a promoter. Why it took me so long, I have no idea. There is no lack of venues that’s for sure although Cardiff venues do tend to err on the side of caution in terms of the amount of people it can hold. There are many small venues and a couple of huge ones. Smaller venues though – ace! I could breeze through my first few gigs and get all my friends and contacts to come along and build up a bit of a reputation (a good one).
How naïve for one so middle-aged?
Well, very it would seem. After the blog had been going well, I decided to start trying to promote local bands in the local area; so far, so League Of Gentlemen. This all came about in the latter part of 2012 when a band made up of friends and acquaintances named Local Sports Team starting playing gigs and released an EP. I was a big fan – not for the sake that they were my friends, mind you – and started contacting other musicians and bands in the area to see if I could set up my very first gig as a promoter. I called myself ‘Red Medicine’ after the Fugazi album of the same name, got a logo designed and started trying to make it happen. Not so easy to do it seems.
The Weather? Whatever
The first gig I was involved in – featuring the aforementioned Local Sports Team – was a snow-out. After almost 6 weeks of poster-designing-artist-contacting-venue-confirming-headache-inducing wonder, a particularly heavy snowfall on a January morning put pay to what was to be a momentous show. All of that work, all of the e-mails came to nought. I consoled myself with several beers and good company and told myself I would never be defeated by the weather again.
You can see what’s coming, I’m sure.
The next gig was going to be a corker. University bar, last day of term – it will be rammed. Packed to the rafters! Right? Not quite. The venue itself was great, but finding it a little more taxing. Added to the fact that I was blissfully unaware of my own spend on the show, the venue had unhelpfully made itself look closed for its entirety and it wasn’t until I’d begged those too pissed to even attempt to find their way home for the night, did I attract anything nearing a crowd. The weather once again did not help either, with Howard Gardens acquiring an outdoor swimming pool without asking for one.
This was a huge shame and a shock to the system. The people playing that night, however, couldn’t have taken it more on the chin if I’d asked. My mini-breakdown will (unfortunately) not be forgotten that evening, but neither will the aceness that the bands in attendance displayed to make my first gig proper a huge success – even if not monetarily, but definitely in terms of getting the Red Medicine name out there.
Know Your Enemy
There’s a semi-regular meeting of promoters and the like which takes place in the bowels of ClwbIfor Bach organised by the Welsh Music Foundation and hosted by John Rostron. This is where I first became aware that I could possibly do something within the realms of music promotion. It seemed so simple but then on second glance it also made me realise how many promoters there were operating in the area. It makes it sound like some kind of espionage thriller, but you need to watch your back.
Since the first couple of gigs that I’ve put on, I’ve managed another half a dozen or so. The only issue being is that everyone else in those meetings is trying to do exactly the same thing and clashes are bound to happen. When I’ve tried to put on an album launch, there’s an EP launch by a much bigger band just waiting to happen around the corner – pretty much literally. Cardiff is a small city compared to others and the number of venues, although growing in number, is still limited. Take the student population out of the equation and the number of people you can expect at a gig dwindles even further, so much so that you can find yourself losing a lot of money. Not only that but you might find yourself out of favour with any bands you want to put on in the future.
It isn’t easy, and only 6 months into setting up Red Medicine as a promotions venture I have found myself having to put it on hiatus. The amount of money you put in is sometimes hidden away. How much did you pay for that poster design? How much did it cost to get them printed? What was your total spend on travel in getting the flyers into the record shops and boutique sandwich bars?
It is enjoyable however, and when you find yourself at a venue watching a crowd full of people dancing to an appreciating something that you made happen then it is definitely – oh so most definitely – worth it.