After all of the excitement, hard work and worry of another COVID hit festive period, this week I’ve taken a little bit of time to reflect on last year and to try to plan ahead. Looking back has been hard for lots of reasons but it seems trying to plan ahead might be even harder.
With so much happening over the last year it’s hard to really remember this time last year. Hospitals were filling up and businesses were shutting down. After almost a year of isolation and working from home people were trying to find ways to work. As my calendar for 2021 stretched emptily before me out of the blue came a booking from BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’. It had been sometime since I had performed on this BBC institution of a show but back in the day I had travelled all over the country to sing my songs. I had driven to Newcastle, Ely, Winchester with the closest booking being St Davids.
Songs of Praise, Swansea. February 2021
I tried to convince myself that the reason I got the call in February was that they had finally realised what they were missing. The truth was probably more down to the fact that they were filming in my home town Swansea…right place, right time!
The recording proved to be an emotional affair. I spent half an hour in a nearby car park waiting for my Lateral Flow test to come back negative and then I spent the afternoon back in the Liberty Church Landore, the ‘Old’ New Siloh Chapel where my grandmother had once been the organist back in the 1920’s. If I closed my eyes I could still see Myfanwy looking up to me from the now removed pews as I sang ‘O Come Emmanuel’ in the Brynhyfryd School Carol Service of 1967.
TV shows come and go but Songs of Praise is almost as old as me. It has now been moved from its traditional early evening Sunday slot to Sunday lunchtime but it’s amazing how much impact the show still has. Weeks after my first performance I was still getting emails from all over the world as people found the show either on iPlayer or on their TV channel in a different country. For many people in lockdown who couldn’t go to church during the pandemic Songs of Praise was their ‘church’ and it was really humbling to have so many encouraging messages.
Armed with that encouragement and no sign of any gigs I decided to start releasing records again. For me, 2020 had been a year full of hope. I had just returned from Prague with an album full of new songs and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It had ended with a tour that had been cancelled 3 times and a shed full of unsold CDS.
One of things many musicians and artists will tell you that being forced into lockdown meant we all got down to writing and recording to fill the time, and our need to be creative. Even though I had an album from 2020 that hadn’t really seen the light of day, in my head I had moved on to the new songs written in lockdown.
Being a recording musician is a bit like being a farmer. There are seasons. You prepare the ground by writing the songs, you plant the seeds by recording the record and then like the farmer you pray for a harvest. The first few seasons are all expenditure, paying for time in the studio, booking musicians, creating artwork and producing the finished crop or CD, to sell at concerts.
No concerts in 2020 meant no harvest.
In 2021 I decided to try something different. Making music is only half of the job, the next problem is how do you get that music to people who will play it on the radio.
You might think that as I’ve been in the industry since I was a teenager I can just ring people up and ask them to play my record. Well, in some cases I can but to be honest its embarrassing for both parties, me asking, and them turning me down as nicely as they can because it doesn’t quite fit their show or station.
What I needed was a plugger.
If you search on LinkedIn or Google you will find any number of people who promise to make you a star…for a fee. I suppose the good thing about having been in the business so long is I have optimism tempered by a healthy level of cynicism. I knew I needed advice, so I rang Steve Barnes from Swansea Sound/The Wave. I thought Steve would be best placed as every day of his working life he gets calls from all sorts of promotion companies.
Without hesitation Steve suggested a plugger who worked on his own named Adrian. Adrian’s name rang a bell and when we chatted it soon became clear we had lots of friends in common. Adrian was busy but he said he would listen to the tracks and see if there’s anything he could do.
Being a plugger is hard. The good pluggers have a great relationship with people in the industry often built up over many years. You can’t make people play the record you are plugging; all you can do is make the radio producers and presenters aware of the record and gently nudge every so often.
Working with a respected plugger gets over the first hurdle. If Adrian likes the track and thinks it might fit with my radio station’s format, well, producers and presenters know he’s been right in the past so maybe he’ll be right again.
Adrian made no promises and as he had a pretty busy schedule promoting artists of the calibre of Paul Carrack. He liked the summer vibe of my ‘Philly Soul’ inspired ‘I Still Think About You’ and sent it out to all of his contacts. I knew it was a bit of a longshot, but my optimism was still in the ascendency. I think it was less than 24 hours after that mail drop that Adrian rang with my first radio interview.
After that it snowballed. I was getting 2 or 3 interviews every day for a couple of weeks and the record was getting plays from New York to Melbourne. One lesson I learnt very early on came to me from a Radio presenter in Manchester when I was 14. He said to remember that I might tell my story 100 times but for the interviewer and listeners it was the first time so don’t get bored by your story, be as enthusiastic with the last interview as with the first. To be honest it wasn’t hard, I was just chuffed to pieces anyone was interested.
By the end of the summer, with some records getting airplay finally the gigs started coming again. At first they were low key, socially distanced, with limited audiences before finally being sold out full venues by the end of October.
December was filled with filming and performing for the Carolyn Harris MP hamper campaign #EveryOneDeservesAChristmas which was great fun and very rewarding but in the background the world was getting ready for another shock.
I suppose we should have seen it coming but somehow Omicron took us all by surprise again; the plans we made for Christmas and the New Year all shattered or put on hold again. It would be easy to lose heart, but we have all been here before. We will get through this together.
As I write this I’m working with Adrian on the release of my next single and making plans for my first concert of the year at the Lyric in Carmarthen. Theatres are being visionary and resourceful. The Lyric is a big venue but by limiting the audience size, playing cabaret style and maintaining social distancing I’ll be back out on stage on 21st January… and I really can’t wait.