In which The Author does someone else’s job
About a decade ago, the live entertainment scene in the Valleys entered the Twentieth Century.
Yes, that’s right – the Twentieth Century. Just as the rest of the Earth was coming to terms with dates which started with 20—, the municipal venues across the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taf finally started playing host to live pop/rock music. After a century of light opera (which later expanded to encompass five decades of musicals), attended mostly by pensioners and/or the families of the performers, the situation began to change.
After all, neither audiences nor performers were getting any younger. The situation was analogous to the ecology of 65 mya, when dinosaurs gave way to mammals. The Land That Culture Forgot reluctantly caught up with the rest of the civilised world.
For the first time, most of my contemporaries (and certainly younger people) were in unknown territory. We could move on from seeing local guys playing low-key gigs in back rooms of smoky pubs. Audiences didn’t have to travel to Cardiff (at best) to see proper live music. Instead, actual living breathing recording artists came to Goddessforsaken places like Pontypridd, Treorchy and Aberdare.
It must have been a whole new experience for them as well, mind. Trading down from the Holiday Inn to the Premier Inn must be a hammer blow to anyone’s ego. Is there any comparison between dining out at a fine steak restaurant in the city centre, and grabbing a takeaway from the only kebab shop that’s still open when you eventually get away from the venue?
Even so, the Coliseum in Aberdare managed to attract some top-line musicians: I saw Rick Wakeman play a cracking show (the second of two appearances); the Blues Band have also played there twice, and for a bunch of guys in their sixties they can still show young bands how to grab an audience; Fairport Convention were marvellous, as always. And there was Beth Nielsen Chapman …
Possibly better known as a songwriter than as a performer, Beth (I’m going to use her first name for reasons I’ll come to) first came to prominence in the UK via Radio 2 – in particular, Terry Wogan’s erstwhile breakfast show. He regularly played her songs, and that led to the strange event I’m about to relate. During the summer of 2004 Beth was touring the UK, and one of her gigs was at the Coliseum. The morning before the gig, Terry Wogan played the sublime ‘Free’ at about 8.45 a.m.
Fortunately I was in the middle of a week off work, so I was able to hear the show at home. The PC was online, so I sent a quick email to the show:
Do you realise how much influence you and the rest of the Radio 2 crew have over the booking policies of our local theatres? Here in the South Wales valleys we’ve been stuck with the same tired old am-dram musicals for centuries, with nobody of any note coming any nearer than Bristol (if we were lucky) or Cardiff (luckier, but still £40 for a taxi home). Suddenly, the tide has turned in our favour. Tomorrow night we’ve got Beth Nielsen Chapman in Aberdare (just around the corner from me), last week Gretchen Peters played in Pontypridd (20 minutes away by train), and in the autumn we’ve got Janis Ian, Ray Davies and Kate Rusby in our three local theatres. How do you do it? It’s amazing!
Anyway, after listening to the nine o’clock news bulletin and another record, I was amazed when he read my email on the air. I’d had a few texts and emails read out on Ken Bruce’s show over the previous few months. Now I’d publicly declared myself to be a proud member of the TOGS – Terry’s Old Geezers (he says!) If I was amazed by that, I was truly shocked by what unfolded throughout the rest of the day.
Mid-morning, I checked my emails and found one from somebody named Andrea W. at Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council. She worked at the department responsible for marketing the Coliseum and its sister venues. Andrea explained that some of her colleagues had been listening to Radio 2 when my email was read out. Curious to know more, she’d emailed the show to find out who had written in. One of the production team had forwarded my email to her, and so the circle had been completed.
Apparently the Coliseum switchboard had been red-hot with callers wanting tickets for Beth’s gig. I imagine they must have checked out her website, found the contact details for the Coliseum, and rung up as soon as the box office opened. Andrea reckoned that I’d managed to sell more tickets in two hours than she’d managed in the three months she’d been doing her job. On behalf of RCTCBC, she offered me two free tickets for the gig. She also said that if I got to the Coliseum during the soundcheck, I could have my photo taken with Beth.
After an exchange of emails, that’s exactly what I did. On the evening of the gig, I went along to the Coliseum, where Andrea was waiting for me in the box office. Unfortunately I’d had a few pints beforehand to calm my nerves. After we chatted for a few minutes, she took me into the auditorium where Beth was setting up her guitars. She’s ten years older than me, but she was beautiful. She was really laid-back and friendly, and I made a bit of a knob of myself, to be frank. We had a chat and Andrea took a few photos of us before I decided to have another pint in the bar.
And the place was packed! People had come from far and wide in response to the sudden announcement of a gig in Aberdare. Andrea was chuffed with the turnout, and Beth even gave me a name-check from the stage for getting so much free publicity. Afterwards, at a little table in the foyer, she did an informal signing session of her latest CD Look. She gave me a signed copy for helping to make the gig a success. I’ve still got it, with the complimentary ticket stub tucked inside the case.
In his book The Tipping Point, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a pivotal event in US history – Paul Revere’s Ride:
On the afternoon of April 18, 1775, a young boy who worked at a livery stable in Boston overheard one British army officer say to another something about “hell to pay tomorrow.” The stable boy ran with the news to Boston’s North End, to the home of a silversmith named Paul Revere. Revere listened gravely; this was not the first rumor to come his way that day. Earlier, he had been told of an unusual number of British officers gathered on Boston’s Long Wharf, talking in low tones. British crewmen had been spotted scurrying about in the boats tethered beneath the HMS Somerset and the HMS Hoyne in Boston Harbor. Several other sailors were seen on shore that morning, running what appeared to be last-minute errands. As the afternoon wore on, Revere and his close friend Joseph Warren became more and more convinced that the British were about to make the major move that had long been rumored — to march to the town of Lexington, northwest of Boston, to arrest the colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and then on to the town of Concord to seize the stores of guns and ammunition that some of the local colonial militia had stored there.
What happened next has become part of historical legend, a tale told to every American schoolchild. At ten o’clock that night, Warren and Revere met. They decided they had to warn the communities surrounding Boston that the British were on their way, so that local militia could be roused to meet them. Revere was spirited across Boston Harbor to the ferry landing at Charlestown. He jumped on a horse and began his “midnight ride” to Lexington. In two hours, he covered thirteen miles. In every town he passed through along the way — Charlestown, Medford, North Cambridge, Menotomy — he knocked on doors and spread the word, telling local colonial leaders of the oncoming British, and telling them to spread the word to others. Church hells started ringing. Drums started beating. The news spread like a virus as those informed by Paul Revere sent out riders of their own, until alarms were going off throughout the entire region. The word was in Lincoln, Massachusetts, by one A.M., in Sudbury by three, in Andover, forty miles northwest of Boston, by five A.M., and by nine in the morning had reached as far west as Ashby, near Worcester. When the British finally began their march toward Lexington on the morning of the nineteenth, their foray into the countryside was met — to their utter astonishment — with organized and fierce resistance. In Concord that day, the British were confronted and soundly beaten by the colonial militia, and from that exchange came the war known as the American Revolution.
Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. A piece of extraordinary news traveled a long distance in a very short time, mobilizing an entire region to arms. Not all word-of-mouth epidemics are this sensational, of course. But it is safe to say that word of mouth is — even in this age of mass communications and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns — still the most important form of human communication. Think, for a moment, about the last expensive restaurant you went to, the last expensive piece of clothing you bought, and the last movie you saw. In how many of those cases was your decision about where to spend your money heavily influenced by the recommendation of a friend? There are plenty of advertising executives who think that precisely because of the sheer ubiquity of marketing efforts these days, word-of-mouth appeals have become the only kind of persuasion that most of us respond to anymore.
But for all that, word of mouth remains very mysterious. People pass on all kinds of information to each other all the time. But it’s only in the rare instance that such an exchange ignites a word-of-mouth epidemic. There is a small restaurant in my neighborhood that I love and that I’ve been Celling my friends about for six months. But it’s still half empty. My endorsement clearly isn’t enough to start a word-of-mouth epidemic, yet there are restaurants that to my mind aren’t any better than the one in my neighborhood that open and within a matter of weeks are turning customers away. Why is it that some ideas and trends and messages “tip” and others don’t?
In the case of Paul Revere’s ride, the answer to this seems easy. Revere was carrying a sensational piece of news: the British were coming. But if you look closely at the events of that evening, that explanation doesn’t solve the riddle either. At the same time that Revere began his ride north and west of Boston, a fellow revolutionary — a tanner by the name of William Dawes — set out on the same urgent errand, working his way to Lexington via the towns west of Boston. He was carrying the identical message, through just as many towns over just as many miles as Paul Revere. But Dawes’s ride didn’t set the countryside afire. The local militia leaders weren’t alerted. In fact, so few men from one of the main towns he rode through — Waltham — fought the following day that some subsequent historians concluded that it must have been a strongly pro-British community. It wasn’t. The people of Waltham just didn’t find out the British were coming until it was too late. If it were only the news itself that mattered in a word-of-mouth epidemic, Dawes would now be as famous as Paul Revere. He isn’t. So why did Revere succeed where Dawes failed?
The answer is that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. Revere’s news tipped and Dawes’s didn’t because of the differences between the two men. This is the Law of the Few, which I briefly outlined in the previous chapter. But there I only gave examples of the kinds of people — highly promiscuous, sexually predatory — who are critical to epidemics of sexually transmitted disease. This chapter is about the people critical to social epidemics and what makes someone like Paul Revere different from someone like William Dawes. These kinds of people are all around us. Yet we often fail to give them proper credit for the role they play in our lives. I call them Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen (Gladwell, 2000: pp. 30-34).
Later in the same chapter, Mr Gladwell goes on to discuss Revere in more detail:
Here, then, is the explanation for why Paul Revere’s midnight ride started a word-of-mouth epidemic and William Dawes’s ride did not. Paul Revere was the Roger Horchow or the Lois Weisberg [two well-connected people Gladwell encountered while researching his book] of his day. He was a Connector. He was, for example, gregarious and intensely social. When he died, his funeral was attended, in the words of one contemporary newspaper account, by “troops of people.” He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed — as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his brilliant book Paul Revere’s Ride — with an “uncanny genius for being at the center of events.” … He knew everybody. He was the logical one to go to if you were a stable boy on the afternoon of April 18th, 1775, and overheard two British officers talking about how there would be hell to pay on the following afternoon. Nor is it surprising that when Revere set out for Lexington that night, he would have known just how to spread the news as far and wide as possible. When he saw people on the roads, he was so naturally and irrepressibly social he would have stopped and told them. When he came upon a town, he would have known exactly whose door to knock on, who the local militia leader was, who the key players in town were. He had met most of them before. And they knew and respected him as well.
But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night. “Along Paul Revere’s northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm,” Fischer writes. “On the southerly circuit of William Dawes, that did not happen until later. In at least one town it did not happen at all. Dawes did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders in the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, or Waltham.” Why? Because Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, and Waltham were not Boston. And Dawes was in all likelihood a man with a normal social circle, which means that — like most of us — once he left his hometown he probably wouldn’t have known whose door to knock on. Only one small community along Dawes’s ride appeared to get the message, a few farmers in a neighborhood called Waltham Farms. But alerting just those few houses wasn’t enough to tip the alarm. Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors. William Dawes was just an ordinary man (Gladwell, 2000: pp. 56-59).
Now, I’m not claiming to be anywhere near as well-connected as Paul Revere was – as Gladwell calls him, ‘… the man with the biggest Rolodex in Boston’ (Gladwell, 2000: p.59). I go to pubs, I’ve been involved in quiz teams over the years, and I wish I could afford to visit the theatre more often. I’m far from being a successful businessman, certainly not a card-player, and definitely not a Mason. I’m not sexually promiscuous (quite the reverse!) and I’ve never spread an STI.
But (and it’s an important but) I tend to know people from a wide range of social groups, and often find myself bringing people into contact who might not have not crossed each other’s paths otherwise. It’s not a question of what you know, but who you know. (Or in my case, don’t know – but Terry Wogan is a well-known public figure, so he’s a sort-of proxy friend.) My quick, impromptu email to one of the UK’s most popular broadcasters had demonstrated the wisdom of the New York Herald Tribune columnist who wrote in 1956, ‘Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark.’
When my stagestruck cousin Aimee H. was in her teens, she roped Dad and I into going to the Coliseum one evening. She was a member of a local music group called the Youth Entertainment Society (YES), and they were performing as part of a charitable evening. I knew full well that the Cynon Valley Leader wouldn’t send anyone along to cover the event. I’d been a semi-regular contributor to the paper when Rowland occupied the editor’s chair, and during the time of his successor Linda Morgan, but hadn’t bothered subsequently. I wrote an unsolicited review and sent it to the paper with a covering letter. (I even mentioned that Rowland used to pay non-staffers 4p a line, but under the new owners they did it for the love of the game, apparently.) Anyway, my review made it into print, and the magical Contacts Clearing House started working again.
Janice Hopkins, their musical director, had been on a secretarial course with Mother back in the day. Her son Stuart, a peripatetic music teacher a few years my junior, was the accompanist. As soon as she read the review Janice got in touch with Mother. In turn, Mother put her in touch with me, and we all arranged to meet up for a drink one evening. Janice wanted me to come on board with the society, so that I could help with publicity and promotion. What I didn’t know at the time was that there’d been a split in the ranks, with several youngsters (and a couple of the committee) leaving to form a new group.
I was invited to go to a rehearsal one evening and meet the youngsters, to see how I felt about getting involved. I hadn’t met any of them (except Aimee, of course) before, but they’d all seen my review in the paper and seemed enthusiastic about my joining in on the adult side of things. Then Janice played her master-stroke. On a totally unexpected show of hands, I was unanimously voted in as Chairman. I had no idea that I’d even been nominated. It was rather like Charlemagne’s anointment as Holy Roman Emperor, only on a more local scale.
My first bit of real Networking with YES was towards Xmas, when we organised a carol concert at St Fagan’s Church in Trecynon. Janice wanted some photos of the kids as souvenirs for their families. She asked me if I had a decent camera. At the time, I had a fairly okay-ish 35mm set-up, but I didn’t want that sort of brief, to be honest. I stick to photographing buildings and landscapes, mainly because they don’t pull stupid faces, look away at the vital moment, or waste half a reel of film trying to find their best side. So I got in touch with my friend Paul P., a very keen amateur photographer. Paul was out of work, so I figured that the kids would have some really good photos, and he’d stand to make a few quid for his time and trouble. It worked a treat. I gave Paul and Janice each other’s numbers, told them it was up to them to negotiate a price, and left them to it. I don’t know much Paul made from the deal, but he seemed quite happy when Janice and Christine (the treasurer) signed the cheque. I’ve stayed in touch with several of the youngsters to this day, and it’s a shame that the whole thing collapsed acrimoniously shortly afterwards. (Oddly enough, last night I dreamt that some of us were getting a panto together – not my long-abandoned Dick Whittington adaptation, but something completely new. I knew I should have kept the notebook by my bed …)
My friend Pam (as I mentioned in Number Numbness
) is a tremendous CGI artist. My friend Stuart G. is an SF writer. He’d written several screenplays, and we were discussing ways to make them a bit more attractive to prospective film-makers. I had the idea of getting Pam and Stuart together one evening, in the pub, to see whether they’d be interested in working on an illustrated treatment for one of them. Pam brought her portfolio along; Stuart brought some of his works in progress. I don’t know whether their potential collaboration ever bore fruit. As with Janice and Paul, I introduced them and I left them to it.
And that’s pretty much what I’ve continued to do to this day. My wallet is crammed with business cards for tattooists, B&B proprietors, tarot card readers, cake bakers, photographers, musicians, taxi drivers, PC technicians, and even Aberdare’s sex shop (old friends of mine from the Carpenters days). I’ve actually remembered to tuck a couple of my own cards for my proofreading service in there today – just in case. My Facebook Friends list includes artists, singers, musicians, music teachers, photographers, models, dancers, writers, historians, teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, computer programmers, DJs, web designers, a couple of psychologists (one Jungian, one Adlerian), a couple of archaeologists(!), journalists (both print and broadcast), a BBC radio producer, animators, film-makers, and even the new leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, whom I met through Rowland and Dafydd just before the last council election. If I bump into (say) a band who need (say) a photographer, I can generally put them in touch with someone. It’s a far cry from just knowing the junkies, dealers and petty criminals whom a lot of people in Aberdare seem to know and revere (no pun intended).
I used to joke that I was going to change my middle name to Nokia. Their marketing slogan was Connecting People, after all. I decided that it was a stupid idea. For one thing, that would make my initials SNOG – and the last time that happened was with a certain Lunatic Bint of my former acquaintance. It’s better not to tempt fate.
My networking skills came in handy during my first year at Glamorgan. A small gang of us were having a drink before Gill A.’s lecture one Friday lunchtime when Aimee B. (yes, a different Aimee) asked if I knew of any recipes for a vegan birthday cake. I told her I could go one better. I logged into Facebook and looked up my friend Maggie P.’s number. At the time, she’d just opened a small bakery in Aberdare, specialising in diabetic-friendly and gluten-free products. I knew that if anyone could bake a vegan cake at fairly short notice, it was Maggie. Aimee rang her and within minutes the order was sorted. (I never did get a slice, mind you.)
A few years earlier, I’d nearly given Keith (the shop manager) a heart attack when I suggested a possible candidate for a book signing – Dave Courtney, the former London gangster turned author and celebrity. I’d started chatting to a friend of a friend (both of whom shall remain nameless) in the pub one night a few years earlier. I can’t even remember how we struck up a conversation. The guy has a fearsome reputation in Aberdare (and further afield) but he went on to become a good mate. I found out some time later that I’d known his daughter for ages, but had never associated the two in my mind. He mentioned that Dave Courtney often visited him, and that he’d be more than happy to do a signing in our (old) shop. Keith wasn’t keen on the idea (even if it had gone through the publishers, as usual) but when I told him that it could be sorted out with just ‘a phone call to my mate’ he got really worried. Laurie said to me jokingly afterwards, ‘We’ll never be able to sack you if you know people like that!’
I was working on a plan for another signing (with my old pal Stuart Cable) when Fate took a hand. I was made redundant and I wasn’t able to organise it. Two years ago, Stuart passed away. Today, on what would have been his 42nd birthday, I’m working on proofreading a novel by his friend and collaborator Anthony Bunko. I was recommended to contact him by my friend Dai Lucas, when he put a shout out on Facebook last week for a proofreader/editor. Another circle completed …
One virtual friend (whom I was suggested to by some friends in a band) has recently taken over a pub in Pontyclun. Rhian used to drink there when she lived in that neck of the woods, so we’ve promised to visit it one day soon. I’ll actually meet Sian S. face to face for the first time. In the meantime, I’ve taken the opportunity to network on her behalf, as she and her boyfriend are trying to make it into a good venue for live music. She puts a shout on Facebook for bands wanting to play a new venue, I share her statuses, and I hope that at least one group of friends will follow up the lead.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to where we started – local guys playing low-key gigs in the back rooms of pubs. (They’re not smoky any more, of course – that all finished five years ago.) The Coliseum’s brief love affair with live music seems to have fizzled out into an endless parade of ‘tribute acts’ – ABBA, Queen, Pink Floyd, the Rat Pack, the 1950s and 1960s in general – which are guaranteed to put bums on seats without spending any of their marketing budget. Maybe, like Paul Revere, they’re relying on word of mouth to publicise their events. However, from what I can gather, it seems more likely that they’ve appointed the latter-day William Dawes to the position of Publicity Officer.
I live quite literally two minutes’ walk from the Coliseum. I pass it at least once a day, almost every day of the week. I can tell you for a fact that Frank Vickery’s new play is there soon. (For those of you not in the Valleys loop, Frank Vickery is an unaccountably popular playwright from Blaencwm. His improbable farces, trading on outmoded stereotypes and 1970s-style humour, attract the same audience who used to attend the G&S performances a generation ago.) I know this to be the case because last week there were six A2 posters on display outside the venue, advertising this ‘forthcoming attraction’. Earlier this week, they were augmented by an enormous Tyvek banner for his newest rib-tickler.
Strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing any posters (let alone an enormous Tyvek banner) for last Friday’s show by the hugely popular comedian and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue host Jack Dee. I found out about it halfway through Friday afternoon, when a couple of my friends mentioned on Facebook that they had a spare ticket for the gig. It turned out that a fair number of my friends hadn’t heard about it either. Apparently it was in the brochure. I used to be on the mailing list. Then the Data Protection Act was revised and the mailing list died a sudden death.
I tried to pick up a copy of the Coliseum/ Muni/ Parc & Dare brochure from the extensive rack of Tourist Information material in Aberdare Library yesterday. I found leaflets for Big Pit (Blaenavon), the Big Cheese Festival (Caerphilly), Tintern Abbey, a choir from Brecon, Noah’s Ark (‘North Somerset’s award-winning zoo’, apparently), White Castle (near Abergavenny), Tretower Court (near Abergavenny), the Castles and Gardens of Carmarthenshire, the National Botanical Gardens (Carmarthenshire), Caerleon Legionary Museum, the National Museum of Wales, Newport Castle, Raglan Castle (near Usk), Llancaiach Fawr (near Gelligaer), and Afan Argoed Country Park (near Port Talbot). But there wasn’t a single Coliseum brochure available. It was a triumph of non-publicity by RCTCBC.
I was on the way into Aberdare Park the other morning when I spotted an A4 notice attached to the side gate. It was the statutory notice of a licensing application for live music over a weekend next month. I thought that maybe the council had decided to have small-scale gigs on the bandstand, like they did ten years or so ago when John Hollingsworth (along with his son and daughter) provided free entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.
I found out today (via Facebook, of course) that it’s actually the Aberdare Festival. Only Men Aloud and Mike Peters (formerly of the Alarm) are headlining the event. It’s on the RCTCBC website, apparently. A couple of my friends have posted the link on Facebook already, to fill the publicity vacuum created by RCTCBC. It did cross my mind to do the same earlier.
But I’m not going to.
After all, if I were employed by a local authority in a PR or marketing role, I could expect to earn between £13k and £15 (at least). I think I’ve already done my bit for them for helping to sell a large number of tickets for Beth’s gig. If they expect me to act as an unofficial publicist once again, they can bung me a cheque for £500 (two weeks’ earnings) and I’ll spread the word.
Then again, if they want to offer me a job, I’m more than happy to attend an interview. They can either leave a comment below, or email Terry Wogan’s production team. After all, they’ve probably still got my email address.
GLADWELL, M. (2000) The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference. London: Little, Brown.