2018 Folk Music Ontario Conference

By Mike Martyn,  SPARC Network Steering Committee

I attended the 2018 Folk Music Ontario (FMO) Conference, held near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, for a couple of days at the end of September, ostensibly as a panellist for SPARC. It was not my first time attending this conference but, as it had been several years, I was interested to see what had changed, who was new (and who was old), and how the DIY spirit that permeates folk festivals would survive in the shadow of Pearson International Airport, arguably one of the least folkie places in the country.


Since forming in 1986 under its original name “Ontario Council of Folk Festivals”, FMO has grown from an ad hoc collection of well-organized hippies into one of the most important networks for independent musicians and presenters in the country. FMO’s services include a number of networking and development opportunities for musicians, presenters, administrators, and other industry professionals. The FMO Annual Conference is a moveable feast occurring each fall which, for 32 years, has been one of the best[1] music events in the Province.

The folk festival circuit is artist focused and grassroots. To understand the FMO conference one must be familiar with the informal nature of folk festivals compared to other segments of the music and entertainment industries. Ontario Contact, for instance, has a long and admirable history of showcasing a range of commercial performers, with broad appeal to community presenters, and also providing networking opportunities to industry supporting businesses such as agents, production companies, venues, etc. The FMO conference reflects the grass roots and artist focused culture of the folk festival circuit: while some facilitation is provided for newcomers most of the professional networking remains informal.



There are plenty of scheduled and official industry events at FMO, but everyone knows the after-hours showcases are where the fun’s at. Imagine a major hotel being the temporary home to hundreds of folk musicians and festival organizers. In the early years of the conference, as official showcases ended around 11:00 pm, most musicians were just getting warmed up. The shows didn’t stop, they simply migrated up to the various hotel rooms in the form of “unofficial” showcases. Then different festivals and small labels began featuring their favourite independent artists, usually unamplified, in these low key settings. Like any good festival the jams went all night, sometimes to the befuddlement and frustration of hotel management.

Some of the most remarkable musical moments of my life have taken place in these rooms. At Ontario Contact the showcases and interactions are fairly regulated and limited to specific times in specific rooms; at FMO you can be riding in an elevator when a spontaneous bluegrass jam starts up and four hours later you’ve decided to name your first born child “banjo”[2]. I don’t think anyone ever quantified the dollar value of business transactions done at this conference in its early years, but at a guess I’d say it’s got to be at least 2 or 3 bucks.

Since my last time attending there have been some controls put in place to manage this, at least in part because OCFF was running out of hotels that would host the event. The biggest difference I noticed is these smaller showcases have achieved a level of “official-ness” by being limited to a single floor of the hotel. They still start at 11 and go until 5, and many of these rooms now feature an alcohol sponsor, in addition to whatever “presenting” company or organization is paying for the room that night. This effectively keeps the interactions between itinerant washboard players and widget salesmen on layover to socially acceptable levels.


Our friends at FMO approached SPARC to lend some perspective to a panel focused specifically on the challenges of Networking and Touring from a Remote Location. Joining me on the panel were my fellow SPARC steering committee Barrie Martin; musician, FMO Vice President, and CFM rep Rosalyn Dennet; and, all the way from the Yukon, singer-songwriter Diyet.

The format was unstructured: conversation ranged across performing, touring, presenting, and professional networking. The themes that emerge when performing arts people from outside the population centres get together tend to resonate around overcoming isolation and reaching the audience. In the small crowd was a good mix of artists and presenters from across Ontario, mostly in the early stages of their careers.

Each panelist’s individual relationship with place affected our commentary. Barrie and I spoke from the perspective of SPARC, and our desire to establish stronger networks that serve rural and remote cultural sector workers. Both Barrie and I live within a couple of hours of cities of a million people or more. Our networks are relatively direct to the cultural capitals of the country. Rosalyn, while originally from Manitoba and raised in a largely rural context, now lives in Toronto. Our professional networks are our daily reality and what resources we don’t have locally are accessible fairly easily. That is one valuation of place.

For Diyet, who lives three hours north of Whitehorse in a community of about 60 people and performs with her husband, the value of that physical place is in the way it sustains her creatively. The integrity of her work is derived in part from her relationship to her place, which is the place of her ancestors. A long-term planning window is essential for her to work because of the logistics involved. She is writing grant applications for tour support and recording three years into the future.

The makeup of this panel is indicative of the challenge it is set up to address. Specifically, the fact that 3 of the 4 panelists all live 1 – 3 hours from the hotel where it was taking place, there was a sameness to our perspective. I’m optimistic that resources can be found to support more people who have overcome major barriers to creating a sustainable income or organization while continuing to make their homes in places far removed from the urban centres.

[1] Author’s note: it’s the best music event in the Province but I’m supposed to present as being unbiased.

[2] Not me, of course; although in case you’re wondering I was overruled by his mother on that one.

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