24 Jul Thoughts on Setting Artistic Direction
Every fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs would like to take a crack at managing the team – selecting the players, making the trades and determining what kind of team hits the ice. The same holds true for a lot of people who attend folk festivals. If you’re a music fan, wouldn’t you like to select the artists and program them on the different stages? Well, in some ways it is as easy as it looks. Usually not, though. In reality, it can be a very complex process.
I became the Artistic Director of the Mariposa Folk Festival in 2006. It was certainly not my first encounter with Mariposa. As a (very) young boy in 1963, I remember the infamous festival which saw Orillia over-run by festival-goers. Because of the ‘scandalous’ behaviour of some of the people who descended upon the town, the festival was unceremoniously booted out by Town Council with court injunction in hand.
I was at the 1972 festival on Toronto Island and got to see Bruce Cockburn give up his hour-long concert so that Neil Young could take the stage. I recall the festival moving to Barrie’s Molson Park and on to Bracebridge and other locales in the 80s and 90s. Then, when it returned to Orillia in 2000, I decided it was time to volunteer so that I’d get a ’free’ ticket. It turned out that I signed on for more than the standard 12 hours. Over those past 14 years, I’ve given more time to Mariposa than I probably gave to my full time job!
So what does it take to be an artistic director and put together a festival such as Mariposa?
I would begin with the truism that you have to love this kind of music. I have always been attached to folk, having grown up on a diet of Peter, Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. (I will admit to loving the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Police and I can appreciate why people like bands like Ramstein). But it is acoustic, ‘rootsy’ music that has always appealed to me both as a listener and a guitar player. I suspect there are a lot of people like me out there, of all ages, who would say the same thing.
I came to the job with a lot of preconceived ideas and biases. I also knew that I had to follow certain unspoken rules in putting together the festival’s lineup each year. Folk is a difficult genre to pin down since there are so many sub-genres. Blues, bluegrass, folk rock, alt country, spoken word, world, traditional, Celtic… I feel that all of these categories need to be addressed and present in a modern folk festival. Singer/songwriter is probably the most common and easily found of these genres, and I admit to having a fondness for this kind of performer. But even in that particular genre, there is a wide variance in what gets to the stage. Ken Whiteley is so much different from Susan Aglukark; Old Man Leudecke is miles apart from Serena Ryder. Yet these performers could easily be labeled as singer songwriters.
Each year, I have a list of personal favourites I’d like to hire for the festival. My first year, it was Don (American Pie) McLean. Another year, Peter Yarrow. In 2013, I hired two of my all-time favourites, Arlo Guthrie and Murray McLauchlan. Those choices are relatively easy to make and, being big stars, at least in folk circles, it was easy to convince others that these were good choices for Mariposa. Gordon Lightfoot has played the festival twice as a headliner since I became the artistic director. That’s a no-brainer. Gordon is a Canadian folk icon but also Orillia’s much loved favourite son.
A lot of lesser known entertainers I have come to know from live appearances, CDs and other sources are also on my radar each year. Jory Nash, Richard Knechtel, Connie Kaldor, James Keelaghan, and Cheryl Wheeler are not necessarily household names, but they are superb musicians. I often tell people, “I’d have ’em at the festival every year if I could.”
There are conferences and live performances where I see acts that I’ve heard about before, and acts that are completely new to me. Each October, Folk Music Ontario (formerly the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals) holds a four-day conference where, in addition to networking with other festival organizers, live music is a focus. I have seen an astonishing array of talent at these conferences over the years. Matt Andersen, The Good Lovelies, Del Barber and New Country Rehab are all acts that I discovered at this conference.
Folk Alliance International, an annual conference that brings together musicians and presenters, was a gold mine for me in February of 2013. This is where I first saw the Kruger Brothers, and immediately knew they would be a hit at Mariposa. I also saw several other acts that I hope to sign for the 2014 festival!
The Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2011 were my chance to see Rose Cousins perform live. I liked her a lot, and finally got the chance to hire her for 2013. Sometimes it takes a while to get a performer signed and on the Mariposa stage!
Going to house concerts and seeing people in restaurants or bars is also a source of talent discovery where I’ve been impressed by the likes of Rob Lutes, Ron Nigrini, Eileen McGann and Dave Gunning.
A wonderful perk of being the artistic director is being invited to places like Halifax or Sydney, Nova Scotia, for the East Coast Music Awards and to Charlottetown for Music PEI. At all of these events, artistic directors and presenters are treated royally by their hosts, and they get to experience outstanding musical talent. Amelia Curran, the Grass Mountain Hobos, Meghan Blanchard, Coco Love Alcorn and David Myles all came to my attention thanks to these excursions to the musically rich Maritimes.
Each year agents call to suggest artists from their rosters. Some I’m familiar with; others are new to me; (almost) all of them are good in some way or other. Artists like Mo Kenney, Yukon Blonde, Elliot Brood, Oh My Darling and The John Henrys were all suggestions who, although I’d never heard them live before, turned out to be popular choices with the Mariposa audience.
Having done this job now for several years now, I have established solid working relationships with a number of agents. I trust their judgment and they know that I’ll treat their musicians well. Most of the suggestions from the agents take into account the sort of music we have traditionally presented at Mariposa, and they know not to suggest the latest hot rock group or bands that would not be a good fit. At least a third of the roster each year is made up of acts who have representation with Canada’s biggest agencies: Paquin Entertainment, The Agency Group, Feldman, Jensen Music International, LiveTour and so on. Agents look out for their clients of course, but they usually have a good read of what festivals can or cannot afford.
There is always a reason why Mariposa doesn’t hire certain acts that our audience would love to see. 99.9% of the time the reason is financial. Acts such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Mumford and Sons might fit the musical bill and be ideal for a folk music audience but their fees are simply too huge for the relatively limited budget of Mariposa and most of the other festivals in Canada. Think about it this way: those acts can fill the 20,000 seat Air Canada Centre with ticket prices averaging well over $100 per seat. If you do the math, you will soon realize that the fee for a big name act is often well into the six figures and even the seven figures in some cases!
Every day between September and June, I am inundated with submissions or suggestions from singers, bands, agents, managers, friends, associates, and friends of friends – you get the picture! The website email address sees over a thousand electronic press kits submitted each year. I also receive myriad CDs – often with press kits attached – from those same hopeful sources. After the Folk Music Ontario conference, I bring home a large box with well over a hundred CDs or jump-drives filled with music. It is a daunting and time consuming task to sort through the entries and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
To be honest, very few unsolicited submissions are successful. It’s really important to remember that anyone can sound good on a recording with the technology that exists today. Seeing and hearing that act live can be a different story sometimes. Since Mariposa is a live event, I need to know how that act will look and sound in front of an audience.
Once the acts have been selected – a process that takes place between October and April – the next step is to slate the acts into workable, entertaining sessions. I come up with a list of workshop ideas then send a query to the acts that I’ve hired asking which sessions they’d like to be in and which other performers they’d love to play with. I take the responses from the artists then try to fit the pieces together in a sort of giant puzzle.
For themed workshops such as The Lightfoot Songbook, I need to coordinate what songs the musicians will perform. For a workshop such as Blues in the Afternoon, there’s no need to worry about specific songs and it’s a given that the musicians will actually play the blues! Sessions with titles like Going Down the Road often need some explanation to the musicians and to the audience. It is an arduous process scheduling performers for their festival concert as well as slotting them into four or five workshops where they play with others.
The festival itself is quite enjoyable and sometimes exciting for me. It is when I get to meet the musicians I have hired and, while I am no longer star struck, it is still a thrill to meet people I’ve admired for so long. Randy Bachman, Emmylou Harris, Don McLean, Arlo Guthrie. These people have been my musical heroes and to actually press the flesh with them is memorable to say the least. To have Gordon Lightfoot phone me at my home? Priceless, as they say! Additionally, a number of musicians over the years have become personal friends. That’s one of the great perks of being an artistic director. You meet wonderful people – and, admittedly, a few divas – who are lucky enough to play music for a living.
Ironically, at the festival itself I hear a lot less music than I would if I were a paying customer. I tend to catch music as I walk from one stage to the next. A lot of time is spent dealing with technical details and dealing with the issues of the festival, not that I need to worry about the running of the festival itself. Our Festival Organizing Group, the sound company, technical director and stage managers all do an unbelievably competent job. Of course, none of this could take place without the hundreds of volunteers, many of whom work virtually year round to make it all happen.
The job of being a festival artistic director is challenging, interesting, rewarding and time consuming, but it is all worthwhile knowing that the festival is living up to its mandate of promoting a type of music that gets too little radio play and too little media attention.
Long live folk music!
The mission of the Mariposa Folk Foundation is: The promotion and preservation of folk art in Canada through song, story, dance and craft.