At the moment there's one dedicated music programme on British terrestrial television with more credibility than any other and it arrives in series, with lengthy gaps between them. The folk bands that have made it to Later With Jools Holland are extremely thin on the ground, which is a shame, particularly because it's a taste-former.
Harriet Simms, of Glass Ceiling PR, does press and marketing for Bellowhead, who've hit BBC Two's sunlit musical plateau three times, including one new year's appearance on Hootenanny. "There are two people whose opinions count more than anyone else's on that programme and they are the producers, Mark Cooper and Alison Howe. But there's no set way to get their attention," she said.
"The way it worked for Bellowhead was that I sent a CD and then followed it up with press information and an invitation asking whether they'd like to come to a gig. But the producers of Later are very difficult to plug in the conventional sense because they're very aware musically and already know what they like. I was quite fortunate that Bellowhead struck a chord, so to speak.
"They seem keen on every show having a sort of rhythm or theme, which I don't think always makes sense to the viewers. But there is method there.
"It's hard for folk musicians to get on because not many of them are on the kind of labels that have dedicated TV pluggers and are competing against bands that do." I was momentarily thrown by that, but Harriet said yes, TV plugger is a real job, made possible by the large amounts of money that a band can generate with the exposure that results from appearing on TV (the kind of tautology that could drive a struggling musician to drink). "Being on Later can make a huge difference in terms of profile, CD sales and gig attendance. I know that Bellowhead's sales rocketed after their first appearance, even more so after the second.
"It's more likely that a band with control over its own destiny would dabble in having a dedicated TV plugger to see whether it's worth the money. I think Seth Lakeman had one for a while - but it's very time consuming to get artists noticed.
"If you've been on Later once, though, and proved you can work a room I think there's a strong chance you'll get invited back. It seems to me that folk artists have an edge there, since they generally know their instruments and are used to playing live. So in that respect the show works well for them."
Others who have appeared include The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy and The Imagined Village - which is interesting because Simon Emmerson recently told me that their first album didn't make much, suggesting that Later is, for all its promise, no magic wand.
During the course of our conversation Simms indicated that it might be worth trying to catch up with a woman called Karen Williams, who owns an agency called Big Sister, to get a perspective from farther uphill. "She's usually to be seen in the studio audience when you watch the show because she's a dedicated TV plugger who has someone on nearly every week. She has the reputation of being the very best."
"Ha! I'm usually hiding from people round the corner in makeup," said Williams, when after several days pestering I finally got hold of her. I was aware - because I'd been told - that the reason she was elusive was because she'd had meetings about the Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs. She, like Simms, emphasised the suzerainty of Mark Cooper and Alison Howe at Later.
It was Williams who represented Seth Lakeman for a while. "I'm not sure that Seth did Later though... he did the Mercury Prize and it was that which turned people's heads. But I was brought in by Relentless, which is part of Virgin - although I believe he brought the Mercury nominated record out himself, didn't he? I think Relentless thought of me because I'd done KT Tunstall, which was as close as I'd been to anything folky then."
Talking to Williams was illuminating as much for what she didn't say as what she did. There was an evasion in her answers that, as a younger person, I used to mistake for an arrogance towards the press that sometimes comes with success. But these days it's clearer that succeeding in highly competitive fields - such as the one that in which Williams is a big fish - is largely about the quality of the relationships you form. That being the case, expressing strong opinions about your work environment is usually unwise. Shark infested waters.
"It's a ridiculous way to make a living, isn't it?" she laughed. "I think I at least know of all the people in the country who do my job. I got here through the secretarial route - though I don't know whether someone could do that any more. I worked at RCA as a secretary and went to the marketing department, where I started to help out with television. I've done it now for 20 years at various different companies, before setting up on my own.
"The television landscape has changed a lot in that time. Later is the one that all the musicians want to be on. But there used to be Saturday morning kids' shows [that featured bands]. They've all gone now. And they've been replaced by Alan Carr and Graham Norton.
"The demise of Top of the Pops was a great shame from my point of view. But there's still a chart, which you can hear on Radio One. It's just come to be dominated by Simon Cowell." Ever pragmatic, she refused to be drawn much on the subject. "If Ollie Murs is what gets a 14-year-old girl into music these days, then her tastes will probably evolve as she grows older," she demurred.
She made all the expected noises about how lucky she is to work with so many talented musicians and how she needs to feel passionate about a band in order to work with them. But the real questions are how lucky and how passionate? After all, everyone has to make a living. I found myself wondering whether she'd take someone on just because she liked them? "It would be foolish for me to suggest that spending money on a TV plugger, and on me in particular, wouldn't be money well spent, wouldn't I?" she said, truncating the possibility of that conversation.
So then, what'll get you on Later with Jools Holland is money and luck: nothing much to knock your socks off there. I could have asked Williams how much she charges, but she was very good at marking her territory - I'd already got it in the neck once for my persistence in getting hold of her - and I doubt very much that she would have answered me. It felt like a case of if you have to ask you can't afford her... Power has its own logic.
* If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in How Seth Lakeman's music ended up on Coast
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