Words: Matt Innes
Wales may not be the biggest of countries, yet for the longest of times it has punched far above its weight when it comes to producing music.
The annals of music history are replete with contributions by the Welsh, particularly in the Celtic folk traditions.
But in more recent times, Wales has been responsible for some of the most memorable, not to mention important, additions to contemporary popular music, such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, and Manic Street Preachers.
Mike Kennedy is a musician and music journalist turned radio presenter for the popular ‘Welsh Connections’ programme broadcast on Oystermouth Radio in Swansea.
Through ‘Welsh Connections’, Mike works to promote local bands and establish a national identity for Welsh artists that helps them stand apart in the bustling UK music market.
“A lot of people think Wales is just a part of England, which obviously it’s not,” Mike laughs.
“It’s a very separate country, as are Scotland and Ireland, and we are fiercely patriotic about that. There’s quite a few of us around the world trying to do the same thing in our own area and the wider area and try to open up Wales to the world and say, ‘hey, we’re only a small country with a fairly small population but bloody hell, we have got some great talent in this country.”
What started as a small local broadcast has blossomed into a syndicated show that enjoys audiences throughout Wales and is booked up for interview talent 18 months in advance.
The strategy Mike and his team employed in making ‘Welsh Connections’ a success was to mix songs by emerging Welsh acts with those by their bigger-name counterparts.
“If they see their name alongside a household name it raises their kudos a little bit as well, gives them a confidence boost,” Mike explains.
It’s not unusual – to hear Tom Jones on Welsh Connections alongside modern Welsh bands such as Lost Tuesday Society
This method has given the programme great credibility in curating playlists far more diverse than the larger corporate radio stations.
“I started presenting the ‘Welsh Connections’ show, which is really just my favourite Welsh tracks by bands that I knew, and famous bands as well like Man and Dave Edmunds, people like Bonnie Tyler, Tom Jones, Manic Street Preachers, all that kind of thing,” he says.
“But I’d intersperse that with local bands because there was no platform for local music to get heard anywhere because all the big radio stations are centralised so they play the same playlists with the same tunes, the same people over and over again. It’s important to have a good mix of well-known names and local artists because the local artists could be the stars of tomorrow.”
‘Welsh Connections’ has established a respectable reputation, due in no small part to Mike and his team, which itself holds its own fair share of musical star power.
“The five directors behind ‘Welsh Connections’ are myself [sic], West End and very successful singer-songwriter Steve Balsamo, his former bandmate in The Storys, Andy Collins,” he says.
“We’ve got a Canadian expat who now lives in Swansea and used to be the frontman of The Barracudas, Jeremy Gluck, and we’ve got the husband-and-wife team of Melanie and Dave Beynon who do all the backroom and technical stuff for us.
“We’ve got quite a nice little unit and it helps us get coverage in the media in this country as well because as soon as you start throwing round names like Steve Balsamo and Jeremy Gluck, people start taking notice and that’s been a huge bonus to us. Local bands sometimes struggle to get heard and these guys help give us a voice.”
Mike has expanded his interests in promoting Welsh music into the realms of print and digital media, publishing hardcopy and online versions of magazine SWND covering all aspects of music, arts and culture in Wales.
In making connections beyond the national borders of Wales, Mike recently crossed paths with MADCAP Global Entertainment Managing Director, Stephen Morris who was born in the Welsh town of Port Talbot.
Mike and Stephen established an immediate rapport via their cultural heritage and mutual interest in promoting emerging and independent bands and musicians – a vision shared by ‘Welsh Connections’, SWND and MADCAP Global Entertainment.
What Mike has achieved with ‘Welsh Connections’ and SWND certainly qualifies as a success, though Mike doesn’t put much stock in numbers and dollar signs as metrics for success.
“One thing that we ask all the time, particularly in the interview show, is what would be success to you?” Mike says.
“And so often when you dig down, the answer is just to be able to do what you love and be able to pay your bills. You haven’t got to be in the media every single minute of the day, you haven’t got to be a millionaire, you can just live a happy life making music, creating art and be able to live a good life doing that.”