Over my years covering music, I’ve talked to a great many musicians and music types but, at the risk of coming off sycophantic, I’ve never spoken to two people who so humbly want to help other people in the music sphere and are so driven to do so without seeking any reward other than succeeding in their mission - to raise awareness of what’s going on culturally and musically in our little corner of the world. Mike Kennedy and Sarah Birch are two of the driving forces behind Soundboard magazine which shines a spotlight on music and the arts in South Wales. Now on issue 4, the free magazine is heavy on content and is quickly becoming a go-to resource for musicians and music fans alike.
Mike has been writing about music since the 1990s and has presented numerous radio shows since 2013 all the while preaching the gospel of Welsh music. Sarah is an obscenely talented singer-songwriter with the Lost Tuesday Society who has recently launched a solo album. The duo along with Joel Morgan, Alisha Withers and graphics guru Graham Morse are keen to keep people informed about what’s happening. But for Kennedy, the process started with annoyance, as he explains: “For me, the magazine was borne out of frustration. I have a radio show about music and as it grew and we wanted to reach a wider audience, the local press just weren’t interested. So the idea came from wanting to advertise what was going on – Sarah’s band Lost Tuesday Society had released a great album, but the local press didn’t want to know. Its been the same story for bands like Static Fires!”
Birch continues: “And when cool things happen too, there’s still no interest. A few months ago with Lost Tuesdays, one of our songs was used in a major Russian TV show and that song went from having 148 views online to nearing 85,000! But still there was no local press interest!”
Kennedy takes things up again to describe the Soundboard raison d’etre: “It’s just about letting people in the vicinity know what’s going on culturally and musically as there isn’t another publication to tell them. Music, culture, art, poetry, spoken word – they’re all so important to life and can be so powerful but they seem to have been ripped out of the school curriculum so we’re just trying to fill that niche in our own little way!”
So with the idea in mind, they had two very clear points on their wish list from the very start: it would be a physical magazine and not just a website, and it would be free. Birch explains the thinking behind this: “Years ago, people seemed to know what was going on across the region through word of mouth but that doesn’t seem to happen now. When we started this, someone said: ‘Why don’t you do it online?’ but, for me, it’s about having something physical, something real that can be passed around and now, I already know several people who are trying to collect all issues!” Kennedy continues: “In fact, one guy has posted on Facebook offering £25 for Issue 2! We’re all kicking ourselves as we only have our own copies with no spares!” he laughs before continuing: “But the whole point is that it is physical – it’s something you can read and feel and keep. Now we’re on issue 4 and its already growing. As well as Swansea, we’re now available in locations in Gorseinon, Neath, Aberdare, Brecon, Carmarthen and Llanelli – Alan at Cadno Music has been a great supporter. We’re based in Swansea but it’s about the whole of the South West!” he enthuses.
Like any other project, Soundboard has had obstacles to overcome, but they can be managed if you have the right ingredients in place: “Finding the right people to work with is vitally important. I don’t think we’d have a product of the quality we do without all the people we have involved. From the start, things have snowballed – we now print 500 copies and it doesn’t feel enough but it’s all we can afford!” Kennedy continues: “We’re determined not to overspend, so we only spend what we have and we’ve not been in debt from day 1!” he states proudly.
Birch explains that other options to make the process cheaper o increase revenue by having more ads or charging for the magazine were never seriously considered: “We could print on cheaper paper or we could have a hell of a lot more advertising but we were adamant we wanted more content than ads and now, people are surprised that it’s free but I like the idea of it being accessible to everyone rather than just being available to people with money. I’d much rather get the message across to everyone than be exclusive!”
Kennedy has already seen effects of the magazine: “We’ve already had an impact on people’s lives and careers and now, we have more and more contributors so it’s giving youngsters the chance to write for a publication. None of us are getting paid for this, but that’s not why we’re doing it!”
Another project for the Soundboard team also seeks to highlight and champion local music and culture, as Kennedy explains: “In November this year, we’ve got the first Soundboard Awards at the National Waterfront Museum and this was an aim from the very start – to have a national event to celebrate the artists, singles, albums, studios and venues in the region. Cardiff have music awards, so why haven’t we? Well, now we are!”
Kennedy and Birch seem to be excellent multitaskers as they also co-present the Flipsy McGraw Show on Radio Oystermouth every Wednesday. Kennedy explains how their partnership came about: “Several years ago, I tore my Achilles tendon after a gig so I stopped drumming and someone suggested giving radio a go. My early shows were just me playing my favourite Welsh tracks until I started having guests on. After 18 months, it got to the point where guests would approach me wanting to come on. I’d already interviewed the Lost Tuesday Society at this point and I’d introduced them at a charity event so there was a connection there.” Birch continues: “At this point, I’d lost my job and was wondering what to do and as I knew Mike I sent him a message to see if I could just come along and see how things worked and how things were done by sitting in and watching him do a show. But that’s not how things worked out!” she laughs before continuing: “When I arrived, Mike just handed me some headphones, said ‘There’s your microphone’ and I had to go with it!”
It’s a partnership that has blossomed as Kennedy says: “I thought I’d enjoyed doing the show before, but since Sarah arrived, it’s a whole new dynamic and the banter is great. The feedback has been amazing and in terms of guests, we’re now booked up until September with bands doing live sessions so it’s another way to talk about local music and events because local radio, like local press, don’t seem to be interested” Birch takes up the radio angle: “And it gives people a platform. Not everyone who comes on the show is incredible, but it’s a process and I’m always a fan of people who are passionate about what they do and also a fan of people who write and perform music as a form of catharsis!”
Not content with educating the people of South Wales and beyond about music through print and the airwaves, Kennedy is passionate about educating people at a much younger stage: “We’re also trying to do things with local schools – in Port Talbot initially. We’re offering Music Awareness and Songwriting Courses and they’ve been really well received so far”. Birch takes up the discussion: “Some schools are more receptive than others and some schools have lost peripatetic music teachers altogether, especially in deprived areas. Children are not getting the chance to learn an instrument and it feels like it’s becoming elitist, and that’s not right! But some teachers are recognising it’s importance” Kennedy gives an example: “At Eastern Primary School in Taibach there’s a teacher called Steve Manley who is inspirational in this respect. He along with Louise, the headteacher, really get completely involved and they’ve even gone so far as to organise a mini-festival” Birch continues: “The kids are completely involved in organising, ticketing, merchandising so they see the business side of music and it feels like the teachers really understand the importance of music!”
Kennedy doesn’t just want to stop at Port Talbot: “Anywhere that the teachers are willing to engage, we can offer these courses. Everything we’re doing is intended to shout about what’s going on and educating people about it!”
With their backgrounds, Kennedy and Birch have seen first-hand the changes in the local music scene and Birch reflects on a common issue: “On the local scene, we’ve talked for years about how to get bums on seats, especially for bands playing their own music. There’s a culture in Swansea at the moment where some venues will ONLY book covers bands. There’s nothing wrong with covers bands, but there seems to be an assumption that bands playing original music can’t generate crowds. They are a business and they’re worried about attendance for original shows. It’s a tricky problem to solve but I hope Soundboard can be a part of the solution!”