Promoter Interview: Ben Gallivan on the End of the Red (Medicine)

A week before this year’s abbreviated (if nonetheless sparklingly good looking) one day Dim Swn fest and a few days after a meeting discussed the seemingly high cost of even pre-emptively working out how to rejuvenate the Coal Exchange, it seems like yet another time where audiences will be asking questions about the ins and outs and state of the Cardiff music scene. Regular gig goers will doubtlessly utter a small sigh at prospective navel gazing – everyone who has even fleetingly forayed into Cardiff’s thriving alternative music gigs knows the problems that remain – no mid sized venues, a dearth of public transport and others which coalesce to give a nagging sense that our capital is outwardly perceived as a ‘nearly’ city on the touring circuit.

Those do seem unalterably and therefore slightly boring questions to repeat ad nauseum but looking closer at the variety of Indie-ish promoters – Jealous Lovers Club, Joy Collective, Fizzi and Holy Boredom amongst others who are able to pop up and pick singularly intriguing bands to book, it seems important to explore the shape of things at a more individual promoter level. Hence why we’ve been talking to Ben Gallivan, aka Red Medicine on his experiences of putting on a fascinating mix of local gems, experimental wonders and the occasional breakout act (such as his recent sold out Sleaford Mods show) and the reasons behind why he’s chosen to retire Red Medicine, with his final show at the Full Moon from That F**king Tank to come on October 14th.

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Q: Give us a little more detail about the bands you’ve been promoting and how you got into the game around Cardiff?
I’ve been involved in the music scene for nigh on 20 years now. Playing in bands at first, then writing about and reviewing them and then for the past couple of years promoting them. The promotion actually started a little while after starting the benlikesmusic.com site with help from YEAH Local who have much more internet savvy than us. I was writing about local bands that I’d seen and reviewing EPs and albums then one day somebody asked me if I put on gigs. It seemed like the ideal time to start.

Q: What convinced you to do it around Cardiff? Was there something about gig goers/audiences here that encouraged you?
By the time I considered starting promoting I’d been living in Cardiff for 3 or so years and had been regularly going to gigs and chatting with the bands and promoters. I liked the diversity of the audiences that turned up to the different venues. Cardiff audiences seemed interesting to me because they seemed to be more receptive to more off-beat bands and artists than in other places that I’ve lived.

Q: Like many in Cardiff, promoting isn’t your day job – was it something you just wanted to always do for fun or did you think “I could do this better” than others? Following from that – did it become less fun/take more time than you thought?
I knew from the start that it was going to be challenging to get into event promotion in Cardiff. There used to be a monthly get-together of promoters at ClwbIfor Bach that John Rostron used to look after; I turned up to my first one only to find another 30-40 people in the same room who were doing the exact same thing. I never thought I could do it better than others, I just thought that I could do it differently.
It does take a lot of time, definitely. Trying to build up a following has been the hardest part of it all as I was pretty much playing catch-up the entire time to people like Jealous Lovers Club, The Joy Collective et al.

Q: Have you just picked out certain bands you’ve always put on or has it been a case of jumping when opportunities come?
I basically put on bands that I enjoy watching myself (forgetting that most of the time I miss them by having to sit on the door). Sometimes gigs come from bands that have been in touch with me, some of them simply from me enjoying what I’ve seen at a previous gig or had recommended to me. I obviously do have my favourites; Totem Terrors, Gwenno and Y Pencadlys have all featured at my shows in one way or another around half a dozen times.

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Q: Is there still the perception from bands and agents that Cardiff is one-stop away from being on the normal UK tour itinerary? What do you think can be done by smaller promoters and venues about changing that if so?
I do feel that touring bands take a somewhat blinkered view of Cardiff; Wales in general in fact. It’s long been established that Cardiff doesn’t have enough mid-sized venues of, say, 300-500 capacity which doesn’t help matters, but I sometimes get the feeling from agents that they think it’s some kind of backwater town than a city with a thriving music scene. I don’t think the promoters and venues can do much more in all honesty; we just need to maybe convince them that you can play Bristol and Cardiff and get a good crowd at both.

Q: Do you agree that promoters are pretty friendly and like-minded around Cardiff – could there be more sharing of gigs/collaboration between promoters/what more could be done?
Definitely. There’s always going to be some kind of friendly rivalry as to who can get the big names and there are inevitable clashes; simply unavoidable due to the number of promoters in the city and only seven days in one week. I have noticed quite a lot more promoters teaming up to work on getting some bigger names into Cardiff/Newport over the past 6 months or so and they have worked really well in most cases. After winding down Red Medicine there’s every chance I’ll help out other promoters if I am asked and if it suits.

Q: Have the disparities between the enthusiasm of yourself and bands and the frustrations of the business of promoting/small audiences dampened your excitement about any of the gigs?
The problem that I’ve had when promoting my shows over the past couple of years is that many of them have been non-ticketed events so you basically have no idea who or how many people are going to turn up. You can always go down the Facebook event page route, but that simply doesn’t give you any firm idea of numbers; the ‘halve the number attending plus 10’ thing just doesn’t work. This is frustrating for bands also, especially touring ones who will constantly badger you for expected numbers when they know you can’t really provide them. On the flipside, you could put on a trio of unknown acts and have the biggest audience in ages – that’s basically my experience of how Cardiff works.

Q: Talk us through your best gig/audience you’ve had so far – was it just luck it came together, or are you any wiser to how to encourage a great/responsive audience?
There have been a good few surprise ones along the way. One of the big successes I had was an amazing show at Le Pub in Newport. Death Pedals were touring and I had to find good local supports. The Sick Livers were suggested to me and I chanced on a band called Swift Arvel who wanted to play their first show. The Sick Livers’ popularity and general mayhem, added to seemingly all of Swift Arvel’s friends and family turning up meant it turned into a rammed venue and a great night. Definitely one of the best if not the best.

Q: Conversely, what’s the most indicative experience of the difficulties/frustrations of promoting in South Wales?
On a personal level, it’s finding the best way to create a name for yourself and get a good following going. Not long after starting promoting, I managed to secure a gig with Scott and Charlene’s Wedding who had gone down a storm at Glastonbury a few weeks beforehand. Despite plugging the hell out of it and getting a trio of amazing supports sorted, fewer than 30 people turned up. It didn’t help that the venue had failed to update their listings or put any of the posters up to entice people in.
There have been times where the bands themselves haven’t done their share of promoting for an event and are then surprised when there’s nobody there to see them; it should be a given that they shouldn’t expect the promoter to do everything.

Q: What are the reasons you’ve decided to stop – do you still think there’s an audience for the weirder/alternative acts you put on here?
I wouldn’t say that they’re weird/alternative; I guess they’re just smaller acts that I’d like to see turn into bigger acts. The first show I put on included Laurence Made Me Cry and Ellie Makes Music who have since been playing around the country and being nominated for awards and such; it’s nice to see. There are two simple reasons why I’ve decided to stop Red Medicine; time and money. I’ve put on 25 shows in a little under two years and as enjoyable as most of them have been, they all make you a little crazy. I’ve also found that it’s become a lot harder/more expensive since moving out of the city a little over a year ago. Even something as simple as postering doubles in price due to the travel involved and it all adds up.

Q: What would you say to people thinking about going into promotion around here?
Take your time. I went head first into it, burned out and was ready to stop after only 6 shows under my belt. My initial ‘retirement’ just turned into a three month break as I couldn’t help myself. Don’t be aloof – get friendly with other promoters around the city, otherwise you’re doing yourself no favours. And also, do ticketed gigs as often as possible and have a separate bank account. And buy the acts sandwiches, they love that.

Q: So you put on a really successful, sold out gig at the Moon Club with Sleaford Mods – did that make you reconsider to stop promoting?
Yes. That was pretty much the perfect gig. All the bands were friendly, the day went without a single hitch and it was good to see all the acts enjoying each other’s music as well as the audience. I’m looking after the Sleaford Mods return to Cardiff in March because I think they enjoyed the day as much as I did. Thing is though, these gigs are a rarity. The fact that it sold out meant that I didn’t have to worry about anything as I knew I was going to make the money I’d poured into it back, and then some. If I thought I could do that – or close to – every month then I’d carry on. I’ll dip in every now and again, but more as collaborations with other promoters, or managing any band that’ll have me.

Photo: Sleaford Mods @ The Full Moon, Simon Ayre