Should Canada’s major folk organizations merge into one?
It seemed a propos that the venue for a town hall meeting about potentially merging the country’s main folk organizations was a noticeably more austere Folk Music Ontario conference than long-time conference-goers were used to. The conference, reduced from three and a half days to two and a half, its printed program and swag bag replaced with a smart phone app and “digital swag,” spoke to an obvious need to reduce costs and get more bang for everyone’s increasingly scarce folk dollars.
Members and followers of Folk Music Ontario, Folk Music Canada, and the Canadian Folk Music Awards received an email in August informing them that the boards of the three organizations had begun to talk about merging and notifying them of last month’s meeting. The fact that, after a month and a half’s worth of reflection, nobody mounted any particularly aggressive campaign to halt the process says something about the sense of realism in the room. Folk Music Ontario is more than $100,000 in the hole. Individual members of the folk community are asked to pay dues to more than one organization – FMO and FMC – and they are invited to attend, not one, but two events each year: the Folk Music Ontario conference and the Canadian Folk Music Awards weekend. Wouldn’t it be easier to hold one national conference and awards show together every year and have one organization to collect dues and advocate on behalf of the industry – such as it is? After much feedback from the community, the boards of the three organizations decided it made enough sense to at least start talking about it seriously.
Two face-to-face meetings have taken place between the organizations, town hall facilitator Paul Mills told the crowd, but so far, the only decision that has been made is the decision to consult the community. Which brought us to the town hall at the Folk Music Ontario conference Sept. 27-29 in Mississauga. Paul asked the 75 or so people seated around circular banquet tables to consider the answers to three questions and write their responses on sheets of flip chart paper. He provided around six minutes for the tables to write down their answers to each question before calling on them to share their responses.
What follows are the questions and a summary of the answers.
1. What would be the benefits and advantages of a national folk organization?
- Greater collaboration between what are now separate entities
- Pooling of scarce resources
- Improved national advocacy
- Reduced duplication of tasks
- Reduced costs to artists and industry people because they’d only need to join one organization instead of two
- Reduced costs to artists and industry people because they’d only need to travel to one event instead of two
- Membership dues could remain more affordable due to efficiencies and economies of scale
- Possibly more financial clout for obtaining funding
- A larger national brand and presence
- Much more efficient administration and communication
- A likely increase in membership leading to more revenue and diversity
- An opportunity to minimize the industry’s environmental footprint
- Greater potential for export of artists
- It is standard practice in the industry for an awards show and conference to take place side by side
- Development of new relationships throughout the country
- Less Ontariocentric
- A high quality board, since organizations don’t have to compete for board members
2. What should the national organization do?
- Support all talent, both developing and established (quote: “Even Murray McLauchlan needs a showcase now and again”)
- Grant writing
- Hosting a national conference and awards show as one event
- Reinforce sense of community
- Run an office with staff
- Professional development for people at all career stages
- Advocacy and lobbying
- Develop a media profile and public awareness for folk music in Canada / improve the public image of folk music
- Promote Canadian folk music internationally
- Run a travelling festival like a folk train
- Run a dedicated folk radio station
- Provide educational resources
- Use technology to enable remote participation
- Offer mental health support
- Maintain a shared directory of people in the industry
- Create more opportunities for touring
- Establish ways to measure outcomes from events
- Run an ongoing developing artist program
- Operate with a mandate to be environmentally friendly
- Maintain relationships with international organizations
- Work to promote awareness of and preservation of folk music
- Communicate with the larger music industry to provide resources and offers for members
- Share best practices
- Provide mentorship
- Identify the economic impact of folk music and related events
- Address different needs regionally
- Represent Canada internationally
- Unite the needs of different streams within the folk community, such as festivals and artists
- Identify emerging trends and issues
- Continue the export development program
- Have a fully bilingual staff with Indigenous representation
- Run an incubator for artists and industry
- Define what folk is and educate people about it
- Identify who its members are and who it serves
- Work collaboratively with existing regional cultural organizations
- Look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations to determine how they impact the organization’s work
- Provide better networking opportunities
- Get better media coverage for the folk awards
- Be equitable and inclusive
- Connect with other music communities
- Look for ways to engage fans
- Collective bargaining for health benefits
3. What do you see as being the challenges of doing this?
- Geography. Canada is a big country
- Regional rivalries and interests
- How do we engage Indigenous people and francophones? Currently with have three organizations that are largely white and Anglo. Their merger doesn’t bode well for diversity
- Risk of losing provincial funding from organizations like Manitoba Music
- The cost of travelling to distant meetings and events
- Who is going to absorb the FMO debt?
- Would members find a larger organization harder to relate to?
- Advocating for the unique issues of ten provinces and three territories. Would the organization become Ontariocentric?
- If there’s only one event, and you’re a performer who can’t go, you lose more opportunities than when there was more than one.
- An awards show and a conference together could become unwieldy
- Would the same quality of attention to programs and services be there?
- Convincing former members and supporters who are disillusioned to come back
- How do you define a mission and mandate combining all these different things the separate organizations do?
- How do you combine and reconcile boards of directors with different ways of working?
- Ontario needs strong branding and identity. How would Ontario be represented?
- Reflecting the diversity of urban and rural dynamics
- Maintaining community identity
- Equitable technology access
- Balancing subsidies to people
- Maintaining a diversity of leadership
- Coming up with better online infrastructure
- The logistics of a mega national conference. Where will it take place? What’s accessible? What’s financially accessible?
- The environmental impact of the travel involved
- Who’s not in this room? We need to hear from people who are not currently part of these conversations. We need lots of town halls about this idea in all the regions
- Institutional bloat. Do you wind up creating a greater bureaucracy in an effort to create regional representation?
- Concerns about providing health coverage because it’s a provincial issue
- Bringing institutional biases and exclusions into a new organization
- Would the organization be too big for the small festivals? Would they be concerned about having their voices heard?
- Merging the bylaws of three organizations.
- While a bylaw merger is happening, how do the existing organizations carry on business?
- What does the board look like in terms of representation?
- Taking risks is harder to do on a bigger scale
Following the break-out discussions and reporting back of results, Paul opened up the floor to questions, which members of the FMO, FMC and CFMA boards did their best to answer. But honestly, as the process is at such an early stage, there were few answers to be had – certainly not by the time I left the room to attend the Indigenous Artists Showcase.
FMO executive director Alka Sharma informed me that the working group, comprised of representatives from the three organizations, plans to meet again to review the feedback and will decide on its next steps from there.
What are your thoughts on merging the organizations? Please share them in the comment section below.