A Winterfolk History
If ever proof were needed of the adage that “every cloud has its silver lining” the creation of the Winterfolk Festival provides a real-life demonstration. For this annual Toronto music event that has made such a positive difference in so many people’s lives began, ironically, because of a negative experience.
Back in the spring of 2002, Brian Gladstone (Winterfolk’s founder and executive director of the Artists For A Better World non-profit organization that now operates it) and his musical partner Tony Quarrington had just completed an unsuccessful audition for a spot at a prestigious summer Folk festival.
“Out of nine people who had auditioned they picked six but they didn’t pick us and it was literally my 200th rejection by a festival over a two or three year period,” Gladstone recalled in a recent interview.
“Suddenly it occurred to me that if I wanted to play a festival I was going to have to start one! There were a bunch of other artists in the room where we were auditioning so I started walking around the room asking them ‘Do you want to play at my festival?’ and I just started hiring people to do that.”
After mulling over how to fulfill his commitment and studying the festival calendar, Gladstone was struck with one of those magical flashes of insight that we associate with geniuses in various fields.
“There was a seven-month void in the folk festival calendar during the winter and I thought ‘ok, that’s what marketing is: you find a niche and fill it, fulfill the need.’”
Gladstone thus decided to hold the new event at a time which would have seemed preposterous to veterans of the festival scene: in the depths of winter in early February! Naturally that meant it would be an indoor event and, in order to have multiple stages (a characteristic of any real festival) would require the participation of several venues located fairly close together.
Already familiar with the area north of Kensington Market then populated by a large number of live music rooms, Gladstsone set about contacting various venues in the area to organize 2003’s first Winterfolk event. The result was an inaugural festival weekend that hired artists to play in five venues over two weekend nights, a Saturday afternoon and at a Sunday wrap-up concert at Convocation Hall in February 2003. While not large by the standards of recent Winterfolk shows, it was impressive for something put together so quickly and with no precedent to draw upon.
After the inaugural event, response was enthusiastic, so it was natural to stage a second one a year later. A big help for the second Winterfolk in 2004 was its accidental inclusion as part of the City Of Toronto’s annual winter events series, then known as Winterfest, resulting from “a mistake in the Toronto Star in which they gave us some editorial coverage and mistakenly called us ‘Winterfest’ too,” Gladstone recalls. Thanks to these new factors, the second event, while essentially an extension of the first, was much more successful, with double the attendance and a much higher public profile through its inclusion in City brochures and advertising and via the acquisition of more sponsors.
After the 2004 festival Gladstone and the volunteers group, which included songwriter and broadcaster Laura Fernandez, whom Gladstone describes as “the ultimate volunteer,” went ahead and set up the new provincially-chartered Association of Artists For A Better World non-profit organization (aka A Better World as it’s known short-form) and began applying for funding support.
Utilizing a key group of volunteers, Winterfolk also began staging fundraising events between the festivals, such as “Peace Concerts” at Mel Lastman Square and Earth Day events. At that point it was also decided to turn over the role of selecting the artists who would appear at the festival to a committee of people, in part to broaden the event’s scope.
With the organizational changes and Canada Council now on board helping to fund the event, the group also decided the time had come to think about expanding it to respond to a groundswell of support and interest from the music media and the community at large. Thus the decision was made to relocate Winterfolk for its third year from the College-Spadina area to the strip of Danforth Avenue just east of Broadview Ave. At that time several venues in the area were already offering live music regularly, with room for future expansion. Another plus was that it was very diverse area culturally and the Winterfolk board was encouraged by enthusiastic support from the local Greektown Business Improvement Association (BIA). Local businesses not only welcomed participation, several of them also became sponsors and advertised in the festival program, providing additional revenue to allow more artists to be hired.
After the third highly successful festival in 2005, and enabled by the financial breathing room afforded by more grant income afterwards and from new community sponsors, it was decided to make the fourth festival in 2006 a free event, as it continues to be to this day.
That decision led to even larger audiences (attendance hit the 3,000 mark in 2006 and has continued to be strong ever since) and helped Winterfolk to evolve into a must-attend yearly event for hundreds of musicians, live music fans and community members alike.
As Winterfolk has flourished, the nature, scope and importance of the festival to the music and local community has also grown and matured. Many significant and even historic shows have been held during the past several years and Winterfolk is now recognized as a significant event listed in national media.
Since the beginning Winterfolk has always incorporated “Best Of” showcases from organizations such as the Nashville Songwriters Association of Canada, Songwriters Unite, Seneca College Independent Music Program, Speak Music Presents and other venues and individuals that regularly provide opportunities for new and accomplished songwriters to perform. But over the past seven years it has greatly expanded its involvement with other participants in the Greater Toronto Area’s music community through the inclusion of more “community presenters” among those staging shows each February. For the past few years, Winterfolk has also held live audition shows at various venues in Toronto and outlying GTA communities such as Oakville and Stouffville, and now also stages “Sneak Peek” pre-festival shows at disparate and far-flung venues that also double as festival fundraisers.
In addition, the festival, starting with the first event and increasing yearly, also includes several themed showcases which change from year to year to resonate with particular topics or interests of the Roots musical community, including concepts, for example such as Aboriginal Roots and Childrens’ Songs workshops-style shows, which is a way of involving and educating the community about various forms of Roots music.
In 2012 another new chapter was written in the history of Winterfolk, as, for its tenth festival, it moved to the prestigious Delta Chelsea Hotel in the heart of downtown Toronto, where it took place on several different stages under one roof for the first time, and to where it returns in 2013 Feb. 14-17.
Winterfolk has come a long way from that day in May 2002 when Brian Gladstone spontaneously, even somewhat capriciously, lit the spark that has spawned hundreds of musical fires over the past decade. No doubt even more exciting times lay ahead.