There are changes at Winterfolk this year as it adapts to our pandemic times
The 21st edition of the Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival gets underway in Toronto at the end of the month, but not without having faced some challenges due to complex factors, including changing audience demographics and a post-COVID hangover.
Brian Gladstone, the festival director of Winterfolk, said the annual three-day event was once welcomed by venues on Danforth Avenue, its home for nearly two decades.
“When we started on The Danforth, we had our choice of 11 different venues, and each of them wanted to be a part of Winterfolk, so we really had our choice of what clubs we felt would work the best,” Brian said.
Over the years, he’s found it increasingly difficult to find clubs and restaurants on The Danforth to host Winterfolk. At the end of last year, searching for venues for the 21st edition, which takes place from Feb. 24 to 26, he found the situation impossible. The same stretch of The Danforth, near Broadview Avenue, now has only one or two venues that would be suitable, as the festival requires five stages.
Venues switching to cover bands or DJs
“Many venues went out of business during the COVID pandemic, some are no longer presenting live music, and those that do have switched to cover bands or put in a DJ,” he said. “So this year, we basically had to start from scratch again. It felt like I was redoing Winterfolk One. We had to go out and find a suitable location, then walk in cold to offer my ideas to venue owners, and sign up venues one at a time.”
Fortunately, with some help from jazz singer Ori Dagan, a founder of the Kensington Market Jazz Festival, Brian found several market area locations that agreed to host Winterfolk: Free Times Café, Taco Taco (two stages), Supermarket, Church of St. Stephens (two stages) and Trinity Common. The festival’s opening night concert on Feb. 24 will be streamed.
“We’re excited to move Winterfolk to Kensington Market,” Brian said. “It’s a bohemian neighbourhood. It has a totally different vibe than anywhere else in the city where I’ve been. There’s a sense of community in Kensington. I feel like Winterfolk has to adapt or evolve to ease our way into this new community.
“We’re excited to move Winterfolk to Kensington Market. It’s a bohemian neighbourhood. It has a totally different vibe than anywhere else in the city where I’ve been. There’s a sense of community in Kensington.” – Brian Gladstone
“We haven’t yet learned how things operate and work in the Kensington area, so we thought it wise to introduce ourselves with a smaller model,” he continued. “Once we learn the terrain, hopefully we will come back bigger next year. We have fewer hours of presenting this year than in previous year. However I think the quality of talent we’ve hired is probably the best lineup we’ve had in Winterfolk history.”
The city’s clubs are attracting a younger crowd that is not reluctant to go out, Brian added. Many clubs are presenting cover or blues rock bands, but the biggest change is that they’re featuring DJs. This year Winterfolk is concluding their shows at 10 p.m., because the DJs take over the clubs in Kensington at 11 p.m.
Brian has watched Winterfolk audiences diminish over the past few years, he said.
“Folk audiences seem to be the older generation. Much of our audience has passed away, and many of the older generation are reluctant to venture out, which is COVID-related. Our booking artists were stars and reached their peak in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. And it seems they are no longer the big draw they used to be.”
Artists having trouble making ends meet
Artists who depend on folk and roots music for their livelihood are having a difficult time making ends meet,” he pointed out. “Venues are decreasing in numbers, audiences are decreasing in numbers, and there’s very little in the way of royalties in the age of Spotify and other streaming services.”
Brian remembers the folk music revival of the 1960s, when artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Donovan, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot were on the Top 10 radio charts and on television. “But those days are gone now,” he said.
The key to the survival of today’s folk and roots presenters is to develop a new audience by attracting the new generation of folk artists, he said. “There’s a lot of very aggressive young, emerging artists who have worked very hard to get their names out there, and they shamelessly and aggressively promote themselves. There’s a new generation of folk stars, and we have to tap into it. Many have developed their own followings and bring their crowd out when they play.”
To improve attendance, Winterfolk booked more artists of colour, more members of the LGBTQ community, more people of different ethnicities, more female artists, Indigenous artists and bilingual artists. “They have dedicated followers and we are thrilled to welcome their fans,” Brian said.
“Many of the artists we’ve hired are award-winners, meaning they stand out from the crowd,” he added. “We have Juno winners, Canadian Folk Music Awards winners and winners of songwriting contests. We tried to hire artists with a track record of accomplishments.”
In these inflationary times, Winterfolk is able to offer wristbands at inflation-busting prices. A $30 weekend pass allows admittance to more than 80 performances, including the online show on February 24. A one-day pass for either Saturday, Feb. 25, or Sunday, Feb. 26, costs $20. A 15 per cent discount will be applied until Feb. 23. For more information, visit winterfolk.com.