When The World Visits Wrexham: Inside Focus Wales

5. 26. Mangka 03 Kev Curtis 1
MANGKA treating her audience to Manipuri folk songs at St Giles’ Parish Church, one of the most spectacular venues of Focus Wales. (Photo by Kev Curtis)

When non-Europeans think of Wales, they usually think of ridiculously long words
impossible to pronounce, Snowdonia, and Tom Jones. But the “Delilah” singer is by far not the only musical sensation hailing from this small UK nation with an estimated population of just under 3.3 million. Shirley Bassey, Duffy, Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Bullet For My Valentine, Skindred: the list goes on.

Making sure this list has an inexhaustible supply of new acts coming through is the team at Focus Wales, specifically co-founders Neal Thompson and Andy Jones, as well as program manager Sarah Jones. This year, more than 250 artists will present their music to some 20,000 visitors descending upon Wrexham, May 4-6, many of them industry professionals.

Neal Thompson
Neal Thompson, co-founder of Focus Wales.

The event has come a long way since its inception in 2011, inspired by UK talent festivalsl ike Liverpool Sound City (launched in 2008) or The Great Escape (2006), and by what many consider the epitome of the showcase festival and conference: SXSW. And while all of them feature the odd act from Wales every now and again, both Thompson and Andy Jones felt like it was time to give Welsh artists and the rich history of Welsh music a proper platform of their own.

The first edition took place at a 600-capacity venue, presenting 30 bands and one industry panel featuring the Welsh representative of UK performing rights society PRS, who’ve been ardent supporters of Focus Wales since day one. The vision they first had for the event hasn’t changed, in the words of Thompson: “A showcase specifically for artists from Wales with an international element. A broad representation of everything that’s going on from all different kinds of genres across Wales, including a strong representation of Welsh-language music.”

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones, program manager at Focus Wales.

The only thing that’s changed is the scope: more artists, more visitors, more talks, and more venues, including a 16th century church. Sarah Jones explains: “There’s 20 stages, which are spread across different venues in the city centre, which includes one big outdoor stage that we added in 2021, a 1,300-capacity big top tent right in the middle of the city. All of our venues are within a five to 10 minute walk of each other. There’s not that many dedicated music venues in Wrexham, so we take over a lot of different bars, a hotel function room, we used to take over a closed down shop, just any space that’s there, build a stage and turn it into a venue.”

The big top tent is a sight to behold, standing there, in the middle of the city, right on the spot where Thompson and Andy Jones used hang out while skipping college classes. “We had Echo & The Bunnymen headline last year, one of Andy’s favourite bands. It’s funny, we would hang out and listen to them on a stereo, and today we’re putting the actual band in a giant tent on the very same space. It’s nice,” said Thompson.

While you could certainly hold an entire event around Welsh-speaking artists, there
are reasons his team decided to introduce an international element from the outset. “Let’s not create a scenario where people are going to think, ‘Oh, they’re just going to force us to watch loads of bands from Wales.’ No, Welsh acts are exciting, but you’re going to see all of these other acts from around the world as well. Wales is an open, welcoming, cool place to come to, play music and participate in the industry.”

It also works the other way round. With support for export activities via Welsh Government and Arts Council of Wales, and under the broad banner of “Welsh Music Abroad,” Focus Wales has been presenting Welsh artists at international showcase events like SXSW. “Three or four out of the seven acts we took this year were Welsh language speaking,” says Sarah Jones.

One of them, South Wales alt-rock threepiece CHROMA, had one of their songs featured on one of Britain’s most popular sports TV programs, “Match Of The Day” off the back of their SXSW performance. Another one, experimental, political, post-punk trio Adwaith, also performed at Eurosonic this year, and had people queueing around the block. Thompson said the people behind Eurosonic share ideals “very similar to our own in the sense that it’s not anglo-dominated; there’s so much more that you’re not seeing.”

Focus Wales 2023 has partnered with the music export offices of Liechtenstein, Portugal, and Hong Kong this year, to change that.

The conference program this year is as varied as it has ever been. Sessions range from the return of live to Chat GTP to how to access the Asian markets to equity and access in the music biz. The latter is chaired by Anika Mottershaw, A&R and project manager at Bella Union, and will address how things like race, class, wealth, background, education, etc. affect the opportunities available to people.

“I’m really looking forward to that conversation, it’s important,” said Thompson, adding, “for us, the numbers game of music industry is important, but it’s culture and it’s real. Focus Wales it’s a small conference, and I think it’s important to not be all about [the numbers]. It’s real people and real life experience, and all of the things that go along with it. Every single person in the room is under all kinds of different stresses and pressures, there’s good times and bad times, and it’s all relevant to the music industry. We want to convey that. Our conference is a very human-focused event.”

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