Live Folk Music
Gigs In Manchester previewed by Norman Warwick
Sat 18th Nov | Stoller Hall
Ahead of an official release in 2024, this autumn sees Cara unveiling “Coming Home”, her first new material in almost six years, in which she effortlessly blurs the lines between spoken word and song to stunning effect.
Sat 19th Nov | SOUP
Fresh from performing on Later… with Jools Holland, Frankie Archer tours her debut EP Never So Red. Frankie Archer’s electro alt-trad combines Northumbrian fiddle, electronic passion and soulful global folk.
“fascinating and intoxicating.”
Mark Radcliffe (BBC Radio 2)
Sat 24th Feb | Academy 2
After amazing performances at MFF’22, Grace Petrie is back – stronger, older and a whole lot angrier than ever before – on tour and with a new album BUILD SOMETHING BETTER, produced by Frank Turner. With ferocious lyricism and powerful energy, this is not a gig to be missed
Fri 19th April | Hallé St Peters
Based in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall yet reaching out to the wider world, Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening explore the connecting threads of music, landscape and people over a period of almost 2000 years.
| As English Folk Expo thank supporters of Manchester Folk Festival 2023 and announce a change of name Folk Music from EFE logo SOUND ROOTS sounds right reckons Norman Warwick You were amazing! Thanks to everyone who attended or performed at English Folk Expo (EFEx) last month. Our first completely sold out event in 2023 involved more delegates than ever, a move to all new venues and hotels in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, our first event with four international partners – Sweden, Flanders, South Korea and Prince Edward Island – and our first running alongside the European Folk Network conference and the artist career development conference Un-Convention. Our delegates and artists made it vibrant, friendly, musically exciting and productive. Thank you!|
Mark your diaries. The next English Folk Expo will take place from the 20th-23rd March 2025 as we move the event permanently into March. Delegate registrations are now OPEN. To register or to discuss attending contact email@example.com.
EFEx: WOMEX ’24 Event Delivery Partner
photo 5 womex A few weeks ago, we shared the exciting news that WOMEX ’24 would be in Manchester, England next October. WOMEX ’24 will be locally run through Manchester Music City, a partnership of people and organisations from across Manchester’s music landscape.
We are delighted to have been appointed the event delivery partner for WOMEX ’24 and our team has been expanded to bring in additional expertise to fulfil that work. As a result the annual English Folk Expo showcase event will move to March 2025, as we make space for the major work around WOMEX. English Folk Expo will then stay in March for future years.
To find out more about WOMEX ’24, sign up to the WOMEX newsletter. Hotel deals, UK entry information, delegate registration and showcase
As our organisation continues to grow and develop, the breadth of our work has expanded. To reflect this, English Folk Expo have now undergone a reorganisation of our brands within the structure of our charity. Sound Roots is now the umbrella brand for all our work with the following programmes sitting under this banner:
Manchester Folk – presenting our public-facing events including Manchester Folk Festival and our year-round promotions programme
English Folk Expo – the annual industry showcase of folk, roots and acoustic music in England
– Official Folk Albums Chart – delivered through the Official Charts Company, this is the official monthly chart for folk albums released in the UK.
Sound Roots Connect – a new platform currently under development which aims to bring together of all our online education and learning resources within a single platform where music industry and artists can network, learn and grow their careers.
While Katherine Priddy, Lady Nade, Jack Rutter and Chloe Foy would make an impressive addition to any festival line-up – one thing they have in common is that they are all graduates of Sound Roots’ Artist Mentoring Programme. Most of us have no reason even to wonder what goes on behind the scenes of the live performances or recordings of the music we love. If you are a new artist trying to make a living from folk music, where do you begin to navigate your way around all of that? How do you even start to get gigs around the country, never mind abroad? Is anyone helping those artists, as well as the myriad of others – people running booking agencies, festivals, venues of all sizes and labels – who keep the wheels turning?
Sound Roots exists to do just that – providing an assortment of events and initiatives to support artists and the ‘industry’ behind them. The organisation started life in 2012 as an annual showcase for acoustic, folk and traditional music – essentially giving artists exposure to people who might book or sign them to a label. As they have expanded the range and type of support on offer – way beyond an annual event – they have also taken on running the associated Manchester Folk Festival.
I talked, in the run-up to this year’s English Folk Expo and Manchester Folk Festival in October (taking place for the first time in a plethora of venues in Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Ancoats), to their Chief Executive, Tom Besford, and Artistic Director, David Agnew to find out how their work had developed. I also talked to some artists and Expo delegates about what difference it makes for them.
English Folk Expo was founded by EFDSS and Playpen Management & Agency, inspired by the success of Showcase Scotland, the equivalent event for Scottish folk music and part of the Celtic Connections festival. Tom Besford described those early beginnings. “I first worked with Terry (Terry O’Brien of Playpen) organising forty Morris dancers to go to Oman in the Middle East in the run-up to the Olympics in 2012; it was a fun, wild, a bit bonkers really. When we came back, she asked me if I’d work with her on a project she was developing with Katy Spicer, Chief Executive of EFDSS, to create a showcase event for folk music in England. The idea was to present a load of English folk, roots and acoustic musicians to venue organisers, festival bookers, and labels from the UK and beyond.”
David Agnew, then the Bury Met venue’s Chief Executive, now Artistic Director, had set up Homegrown, a three-day folk and acoustic event in 2012. Then, from the 2013 English Folk Expo, with some Arts Council funding and Tom and Terry running it on top of their day jobs, piggy-backed onto Homegrown. After four years, as David explains, a change of location became necessary: “The [showcase] delegate and public aspects outgrew the available venues and hotel in Bury. We needed to move elsewhere, and so in 2017, in partnership with then recently opened Home [a city centre Arts Venue], the festival became Manchester Folk Festival, with an Expo where industry could look over the shoulders of a public audience and other events to help export English traditional and folk music, and other traditional and folk music based in England as well.”
Lisa Schwartz, who used to programme the Philadelphia Folk Festival and now programmes the Cambridge Folk Festival, said she has “discovered amazing artists at the English Folk Expo. I’ve never not found someone that I wanted to present. People I’ve booked from seeing here include Daori Farrell, Clare Sands, Dani Larkin (appearing as part of Expo’s Ireland International Partnership), and Holy Molly & Crackers. This is an extraordinarily good use of my time.”
Once the three-day annual city centre Manchester showcase event and ‘urban’ festival was well established, the organisation, having secured more substantial, medium-term Arts Council funding, looked at what else could be done to support artists through the rest of the year. Tom recalls, “I was noticing that there were excellent musicians who didn’t necessarily have a grounding in how the music industry works, that maybe weren’t offered opportunities to perform overseas, didn’t have the first inkling about what that might involve. Working with the UK Americana Music Association, Cambridge Folk Festival, and Focus Wales, we created the Artist Mentoring Programme that would also help artists to take that step to be ready to maximise their opportunity in a showcase environment. Artists with very little profile when they joined the scheme have gone on to be much better known.”
Singer-songwriter Lizzy Hardingham was one of four artists on the 2021/22 Artist Mentoring Programme. “I was paired with Michael Hughes from The Young’uns. We had a lot of chats, mostly on Zoom. It was mainly introducing you to new ideas and new ways of thinking; about it being a career. As an emerging artist, there are things that you just won’t know unless someone tells you. You know you’ve got someone you can ring and say, ‘I’m not really sure how to do this or who can I talk to about it?’ I got to do a couple of showcases; here at the English Folk Expo in 2021 and Focus Wales. I’m still in touch with my fellow mentees, we bolster each other. It’s a relentless industry; wonderful but can be quite taxing on the soul, so it’s really good to have a group of people who you know are in your corner. I found it absolutely invaluable, and it gave me the confidence to advocate for myself.” Lizzy talked about what the programme had led to for her. “I released an album in 2022, and I had a tour date at the venues of a lot of the people I met here. It was the same with festivals; I met the booker for Sidmouth Folk Festival and played there this year.”
Talking about other new projects, David explained that “In 2019, we included Rising Up, which was a newly commissioned piece of folk music theatre about the Peterloo Massacre, that went on to tour the country as well as being premiered at Manchester Folk Festiva.” At last year’s festival, Touchstone, a Kashmiri/English folk collaboration, was first performed, and there are plans for a recording and a tour, dependent on Arts Council funding being secured. There is also a touring project on diversity in folk music in the pipeline, awaiting funding confirmation.
The arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 brought significant challenges to every corner of the music industry as in-person gigs stopped overnight. English Folk Expo responded with new initiatives to support remote working, which Tom outlined. “We commissioned a couple of videos early on working with Ian Stephenson about how you can record high-quality music in your home and how you could collaborate with someone remotely. That grew, and we started a new strand of learning resources, online networking, and conferencing, which grew into a platform called Folk Talk Academy.”
The other key development in the pandemic was fostering and supporting remote international collaborations. ”We partnered with Showcase Scotland, Sounds Australia, East Coast Music Association in Canada to set up a project called Global Music Match which the ran throughout the pandemic and the year afterwards which linked artists up together from all over the world to collaborate and create new music. At this year’s festival we have Lucy Ward from England, Svavar Knuter from Iceland and Adyn Townes from Canada working together as a new trio (Ward Knutur Townes) which came directly from that, and Max XT and Dan Whitehouse, who are playing one of the showcases, also met through Global Music Match programme.”
Showcases from international artists are a core part of the Expo event, and those partnerships expanded this year, as David explained. “To date we’ve had one international partnership each year. In 2022 it was Ireland, and we see those Irish artists now with regular work in England. This year for the first time we’ve opened up those international partnerships to more countries – Sweden, Flanders, South Korea, and Prince Edward Island.”
This year, Lizzy Hardingham was also successful in participating in an exchange scheme between English Folk Expo and Music Prince Edward Island. “I was paired with Joce Reyome and recently went to showcase Prince Edward Island where we wrote some songs. Joce is here at the moment, and we’ve recorded in a studio at Band On the Wall. The way we write and the way we approach music gelled really nicely. We’ve written five songs together and are hoping we’ll have an EP out and a short tour in England and a short tour in Canada.”
There are many obstacles to English artists working abroad, as Tom elaborated. “The UK is one of the largest music economies without a music export office or strategy, there’s nobody responsible for that. We don’t receive any funding to support artists to go overseas. The only pot of money artists can apply to is the International Showcase Fund. We had an agreement this year with South Korea for two bands to play at Seoul Music Week, but only one was successful in getting funding. We are doing some work as part of the Greater Manchester Music Commission on what would it look like to have a regional music export office, supporting people in all genres from this region.” Post-Brexit, the European Union is doing more than the UK government to support UK artists. Tom talked about the benefit of the Brexit Adjustment Reserve, which the European Union set up to provide financial support for bodies negatively impacted by Brexit. “That fund this year paid for ten UK artists to pay at Festival Dranouter and for three Flemish artists to play at Manchester Folk Festival.”
Heather Gibson is responsible for all non-orchestral music at Canada’s National Arts Centre in Ottawa. “English Folk Expo is only showcasing conference on my schedule that I come to every year. The reason for that one is that you get a really good taste of what folk music there is in this part of the world. I saw John Smith when it was in Bury. It was packed and he was unfamiliar to me then. To see the response of local audiences where they come from, that knows them, to artists like that is also really important to get an understanding of. Grace Petrie is another good example; it was good to see her and see people responding to her showmanship. There are always these little discoveries, like Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. It’s very well programmed for artists and for delegates – that makes it consistently a good investment of my time.”
A few weeks before this year’s showcase and festival, it was announced that WOMEX, the international-level equivalent showcase and conference, would be held in Manchester in October 2024. English Folk Expo has been involved through Manchester Music City in partnership with Brighter Sound, Marketing Manchester, the hub, Factory International, Horizons, British Council and Arts Council England. Tom talked about the importance of making the showcase concerts available to the public and including as many UK and Irish artists as possible. “We are fortunate in Manchester that the venues we’ve selected have additional capacity so we can sell tickets to the public. We would love to see thousands of people come to Manchester in October 2024, but we have to make sure the tickets are affordable. We are working with the five Arts Councils in the UK and Culture Ireland to present a regional stage at WOMEX so that nine out of the forty/forty-five [showcase] artists will be from the UK and Ireland.” The timing means the English Folk Expo and Manchester Folk Festival will move to March 2025.
I asked Tom what parts of the folk and traditional world they weren’t reaching. “There are loads of gaps and areas that I’d like to step into, to support and help lift up. I’m steeped in proper finger-in-your-ear folk trad; voluntary-led folk clubs are where my interests and background lie. I think there are loads of opportunities to work more with folk clubs and with small festival organisers; if you’re running a folk club and you’re struggling with dwindling audiences, or you’re not sure where to look for the next artist or would just like network with other people doing the same thing. That’s an area I’d like to be able to find a way into, but I don’t yet know how to pay for it.” Surprisingly, funding bodies don’t support the voluntary parts of the folk music world as they make such a key contribution to providing artists with live performance opportunities.
Traditional Yorkshire duo Alice Jones and Bryony Griffith were performing at the Manchester Folk Festival this year – both had done solo showcase performances in 2018. For Bryony, the possibilities didn’t quite work as hoped the first time around. “After my solo showcase, I was in talks with Canadian booking agents, but then I had a baby, and then we had lockdown. Being here, I’ve been able to talk with them again and hopefully restart what we planned five years ago.” The outcome was immediately better for Alice, who shared, “I got a tour out in Norway after my solo showcase in 2018.”
I was surprised at the extent to which both Tom and David talked about helping artists to be ‘export ready’ but less about the value of connecting artists with venues and festivals within England. Tom accepted it was not an accurate representation. “I’ve probably glossed over this. The point of a showcase is about connecting people. We know that when you build those personal relationships, opportunity happens that would not have happened otherwise. It’s far easier to pick up a phone to a booking agent that you’ve met and had a drink with. That has been the biggest impact that creating English Folk Expo has had on the UK sector. Two-thirds of our delegates are UK based; almost all the major booking agents in this sector attend, as well as a lot of the venues and festival organisers.”
For booking agent Phil Simpson (his roster includes The Young’uns and The Unthanks), the event is primarily about networking. “My business is all about knowing who the people are to talk about this festival or that venue. I come to an event like this to connect with them, to have face-to-face time with them, to learn about where they are up to with things – that oil the cogs. An email next week, the week after, six weeks after saying, ‘I’ve got this artist out on the road; it was great to hang out with you at English Folk Expo, are you interested in this date?’ Having been here and met them, it makes it much easier.”
There did seem to be a predominance of singer-songwriters in the festival programme this year, and not so many artists from the English tradition or diasporic cultures in England (the latter were better represented in the Expo delegate programme than the festival).
Bryony Griffith had a clearer view of the number of traditional artists in the programme. “It does slightly worry me as to where the people are that will stand up and do a solo 10-minute ballad. The idea seems to be, ‘We’ll get people in through the door with the not quite folk’, but then the finger-in-your-ear stuff is not actually on. They could do more to promote actual traditional English music. It would be nice if it was more balanced.”
Whilst there are limits to what a single organisation can do, what English Folk Expo, now Sound Roots, delivers is impressive. They have continually responded to what artists need in changing circumstances. The reality perhaps doesn’t match the expressed aspiration every time – as with diverse and non-English cultures in the festival – and there is an overemphasis on support for artists to work abroad. Still, a whole layer of folk artists and industry people have benefitted in multiple ways from their work
note: English Folk Expo recently undertook a rebrand to better reflect the scale and ambition of their work, and they are now called Sound Roots. Due to the timing of the interviews for this article, the term, English Folk Expo, is used interchangeably to describe the overarching organisation and the annual showcase event. And lastly…the above photo is Amy Thatcher and Fran Knowles at this year’s Expo.
The primary sources for this piece were English Folk Expo newsletter, November 2023 and a piece by Dave McNally published on Folk Radio on.line on 31st October. Other authors and titles have been attributed in our text wherever possible
Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where categorised as images free to use.
For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023 entitled Aspirations And Attributions.