Home > Focus On Festivals > Q & A: Helen Meissner (Folkstock Director)

Q & A: Helen Meissner (Folkstock Director)

Jo Cox


Helen Meissner set up the Folkstock Arts Foundation in February and, just 6 short months later, she’s already gearing up to host her first event – Folkstock Acoustic Festival. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about the foundation, its artists and the festival itself.

How did the Folkstock Arts Foundation come about and how many artists are you currently working with?

Over the last two years I made many contacts within the radio, press, blogging and reviewing world because I was helping establish the band which my daughter is in, The Folk. In February of this year, having cut my teeth from a standing start and no musical background on The Folk, I decided to share this new knowledge and the contacts I had created with as many bands as possible in the acoustic, folk and roots genres.

I set up a community interest company called Folkstock Arts Foundation cic. The remit was to encourage musicians to feel part of something supportive and give them a framework and the tools to make the most of their talents. I wanted to help as many people as possible express themselves creatively and to boost their mental health by maintaining their confidence and self respect at this tricky time. Tricky because often the initially supportive family and friends get exasperated at yet another cancelled arrangement when they are dropped for a last minute gig. There is a limbo between starting out, getting your song writing style developed and your first public gigs, and that holy grail of arena support slots. It can be years, it can be never and no one knows which camp you’ll be in, either. So after a while, self doubt can creep in as the sacrifices are so high. Having someone outside your immediate family to give you objective feedback is invaluable and can help you keep going.

Most people offering this service are trying to earn a living out of it and there is no money to be made, so it’s a rather difficult time to navigate and many bands split up at this phase when there is so much at stake and the issues of commitment come to the fore. Internal wrangling and disagreements over the direction of the band can escalate if there is no one else to listen in and provide an outsiders’ point of view. It is something which I enjoy getting involved with and personally can’t think of a more enjoyable way of utilising my time or resources than helping musicians produce something which ultimately makes their input more rewarding, satisfies their detractors because they are doing something constructive which might actually get somewhere and be worth the sacrifices and ultimately, enhances the lives of everyone who hears them perform.

I created a structured framework with four programmes. Feel the Fear is for students and inexperienced musicians who may not have recorded their songs yet, or even decided on a name. Grass Roots is for people with a bit of experience and Phoenix addresses the difficult time a couple of years in when you haven’t been ‘signed’, but everyone is saying how good you are and you are starting to think, is this as good as it gets? It culminates in One for the Road, which focuses on radio and entry level touring in addition to any relevant aspects or gaps in their armory from the other programmes.

The help I provide ranges from marketing and getting their social media organised (and coaching them if necessary), to features about them in local press, independent radio station plays across the country, mentoring, coaching in live radio/magazine interview skills, biog and press release creation, agreeing on a consistent recognisable image, promo pics, demo recordings or good video of their live performance. Once their audience development and stage presence has begun, we try to create a community of musicians who could gain strength from each other, collaborate and experiment in a ‘safe’ non corporate environment without contracts or pressure from return on investment. I was able to encourage the press around Hertfordshire to run the story inviting bands to apply and soon had an excellent choice. They filled in a questionnaire by email and then we had dialogue. You can see more about this on the website.

I have now got 18 acts on the Folkstock Arts Foundation, or associated with it, and many more who play at our gigs and events. Once that was sorted I approached, via Facebook, iconic folk fiddle player Dave Swarbrick from Fairport Convention and asked him if he would do us the honour of being patron, which he accepted.

Are you happy to work with artists anywhere or do they have to be local to you?

I was going to work with artists from all over the country and started having dialogue with bands quite some distance away, but the reality is they don’t have either cars or the money to pay for trains, to keep travelling this way for the events which were mainly in the counties north of London. So I incorporated them in two events, notably in Dorset and Brighton as this was a way of promoting them. We have agreed that they are not on the foundation officially, but I put leads their way and support when something relevant comes up.

How do you select who you’re going to work with, will you accept anyone?

I only have a dialogue with a band or musician who’s music excites me. Then I check out their live footage, their Facebook and social media to see if they are helping themselves in the first instance, their photographic images and logo branding, how appealing they look (as distinct from how ‘pretty’), whether they have a distinctive style, how they present themselves and would I, as a fan, warm to them and want to help them make it. Then I investigate their commitment and outlook. If I pick up any warning bells, I double check and then move on if I don’t get the reaction that I need.

I am giving my time freely here and so I do have a choice. I don’t need to work with bands who feel the world owes them success or who have started to believe their own PR, no matter how good they are. People who are neurotic or defensive are also difficult to work with and while there’s an element of insecurity inherent in most musicians they need to be able to switch on the stage persona and work the crowd, to some extent, and a lot of that can come from encouragement. But if I encourage someone and then, the next time, we are back to square one and they haven’t moved onwards at all, then I bail out. It’s a joint process and it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t like having someone’s opinion in the frame and ultimately, will probably make it on their own. These people are using me and I can spot them a mile off. They have a good grasp of where their gaps are and can see how I can help them, but their smiles don’t reach their eyes, they are not responsive on social media if it is not about them, they do not support the other bands in the foundation, or even the foundation at all, and are only in it for their own gain.

How did the foundation lead to a full festival event?

I wanted to provide a credible performance event which showcased the artists after a few months on the programme. There were a number of smaller events since May which we have run and it’s all gone really well, the most exciting day for many of the bands was the stage takeover at Standon Calling and Folkstock is the next chance to be part of something where everyone is pulling in the same direction. I felt that if I involved some nationally recognised musicians who have won Folk Awards, and the like, that the cred of the whole event would rise and that it would be encouraging to everyone concerned and make the more established acts feel like they were part of a community of musicians rather than just turning up to play at a festival.

There have been lots of connections made at the events and on Facebook, as well as collaborations, between the artists and there’s loads of goodwill about performing and representing Folkstock (so I’ve been told). People are saying that they hope they don’t clash with another act who they have come to hear about and I have spent quite some time working on a schedule which pleases as many people as possible. It means that we have excellent acts on all day, rather than starting of with all inexperienced acts and working it that way. This is because some of the more high profile acts would have inevitably been on at the same time across the four stages and this would have been a shame for everyone, so it’s all jumbled up and very exciting. It also means people will be there from the beginning and there will be a great backstage atmosphere as artists meet up again and some will meet for the first time in the flesh. Setting up a Facebook group for all the artists has also helped create a culture of inclusion and being part of something where everyone has the same values. The amount of bands who have made the Folkstock logo their profile pic or used the poster as their banner has really delighted me and was completely unexpected.

What sort of scale is the festival on and where do the profits go?

Folkstock is on 21st September at Aldenham Country Park, Elstree, Hertfordshire. It’s a small festival with a capacity of 5,000 on an 8 acre site and is the flagship event for the Foundation. It was meant to be one stage, way back in February, max two, but is now across four as people wanted to be part of the event. I’ve had to draw the line at four as the costs are massive and, being the first year, there is no momentum from prior attendance and no regular events of a similar nature to cross pollinate from. Most of the bands have a five or six song slot to showcase their best tracks and it’s a chance for them to shine. The marketing in the run up is as useful for a band who embraces the opportunity as the audience on the day, so I have been supporting all 77 bands personally to market this effectively to their followers, which seems to have gone down well. Of course, that also markets the event so everyone wins. Whether you are one of the 77 artists who have managed to get on the line up (with easily as many quality acts turned down) or are visiting to soak up the supportive musical atmosphere, you will find there’s something for everyone at Folkstock. Here is our little jingle, kindly supplied by a friend on Facebook, Heartwave Music

All the profits from the festival ticket sales from Folkstock will be split equally between the Folkstock Arts Foundation and Cancer Research UK.

You recently curated a stage at Standon Calling, how did it go and has it helped you prepare for the main event?

It went like clockwork and it reassured me that if the artists are properly briefed about how long they have on stage, and know how many songs to prepare, that they know they tune up before they go on stage, that they think ahead and have the relevant leads and capos and picks on them, that it will all going according to plan. You can’t plan for technical issues but you can have back up stock at hand, which I will make sure is the case at Folkstock. I was given a stage with the sound engineer and stage management in place and they had a different agenda to me, which was to push people through as quickly as possible, which meant that fans who were juggling their timings found that the bands were sometimes almost off stage when the allocated time was reached. This will not happen at Folkstock.

You’ve got a huge lineup of over 70 artists, how did you pick who was going to play and is everyone from the foundation involved?

Yes everyone who is on the foundation is playing and everyone who has played at one of our events also has a slot as a thank you and a number of them were not known to me, but starting approaching me early on asking if they could play. I have been able to see 95% of them live and have full confidence in the stage presence and delivery of all the acts. Some of them I have seen many times and know that people are going to be impressed. I am so looking forward to the event.

Folkstock Acoustic Festival takes place on 21st September 2013 at Aldenham Country Park in Elstree, Hertfordshire. Tickets are just £25.

www.folkstockartsfoundation.com / www.folkstockfestival.com