Ahead of more than 500 industry delegates and 21,000 music fans descending on live music showcase festival and conference Focus Wales, Access caught up with the event’s co-founder Neal Thompson to discuss what’s in store this year.
Since its launch in 2011, Focus Wales has gone from a single conference panel event with a sprinkling of live shows to being categorised by the Welsh Government as a Signature Event for Wales. That means it’s an event that is representative of Welsh culture and identity. It is also an event that contributes more than £1 million to the city of Wrexham, where it has taken place since the outset.
Among the 260 artists due to play at Focus Wales, which involves 16 venues including a 1,500-capacity Big Top in the city centre, are established names such as Billy Nomates, The Coral and Squid.
With the event being focused on emerging talent, there is no shortage of fledgling acts lined up along with artists whose careers have benefitted significantly from previous Focus Wales exposure. Among the most notable are Adwaith and N’Famady Kouyate, who have been included in recent Focus Wales showcases oversees at events including Eurosonic Noorderslag and SXSW.
The industry delegation is set to be equally diverse, with representatives from different sectors and countries. Access All Areas will host a panel focused on the future of the European festival market, with speakers including Lauren Down the MD of End of The Road Festival (UK), Cindy Castillo who handles management and booking at Mad Cool Festival (Spain), Angie Rance who is an agent at Earth Agency (UK), Jerome Williams who is an agent and the co-owner of EBB Music (The Netherlands), and Glastonbury Festival’s Martin Elbourne and Lisa Nasta.
Other panel topics include equality and class parity within music, while POWER UP Wales will host a black music action group roundtable. Other presenter partners include MMF UK, British Council, Noise Unit PR, and Gwyl Cymru.
Among the keynote speakers will be Gerald Simpson, aka A Guy Called Gerald, in conversation with BBC Radio Wales’ Aleighcia Scott.
The event will also involve international showcases including BreakOut West (Canada), M for Montreal (Canada), WHY Portugal, Ear Up Music Hong Kong, Catalan Arts, Fira B! (Spain), Music Nova Scotia, Liechtenstein Music Export, and The Spanish Wave.
Neal Thompson (pictured), who founded Focus Wales 12 years ago with Andy Jones, says the focus from the start has been to promote Welsh talent in an environment that welcomes participants from around the world.
“We were determined to have an international element right from the beginning so that Welsh artist would benefit from playing alongside exotic acts from other countries, and further down the line that would generate some kind of open situation where we can create opportunities for Welsh artists to play outside Wales.”
The duo has also worked from the outset to make sure that the event is not just welcoming to delegates and artists from anywhere around the word but also at any stage of their career.
Says Thompson, “The focus of the festival and conference has always been to support the next generation of artists and industry executives by creating an environment where everyone is treated with equal respect. We’re really keen on accessibility and parity; it is about everybody being in the same room on the same level, and our speakers being just as accessible as the next person.
“One of the panels this year is focused on equality and class structures within the music industry, and what the barriers to achievement are. That can involve anything from class privilege to ethnicity to aggressive workplace behaviour. People are interested in furthering their music career, but they are also interested in what that means in a real sense.”
Thompson, who used to run Wrexham’s 500-capacity Central Station venue, now called The Rocking Chair, is adamant that Wrexham is the perfect location for a multi-venue festival. It became Wales’ seventh city on 1 September last year, but until recently Wrexham was very much in the shadows of nearby cities such as Liverpool and Manchester.
Netflix TV series Welcome To Wrexham has done much to boost Wrexham’s profile but Thompson says that there was never any doubt in his mind that it was the perfect location for Focus Wales.
“Assumed snobbery aside, it’s never been an issue,” he says. “People say, ‘why don’t you do it in Cardiff?’, but not everything has to happen there. Wrexham city centre is so compact, it really lends itself to this kind of tightly scheduled, multi-venue, showcase event.
“Wrexham has always been great access wise, with great public transport links. It’s in the middle of everything; a couple of hours away from London, three-and-a-half hours away from Glasgow. Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are nearby, and there are two airports from which Wrexham is easily accessible.
“Now, we have Hollywood stars from the other side of the world that think Wrexham’s football team is worth investing millions of dollars in. Everyone seems to have cottoned on to it.”