Interview Folken (NO) – Collaborative Manifesto

Folken is a concert venue and a students’ house in Stavanger, Norway. In 2013, the venue experienced a drop in visits and revenue as well as an overall bad reputation from their neighbours and the students of Stavanger. To counter this, they decided to research exactly what people thought of Folken as well as what they desired for the venue. This research work was the first step of a re-imagination of Folken, notably through the elaboration of a manifest to state who they were and fix concrete goals to achieve in order to have a broader aspect of people visiting them. In order for this manifest to be as close as possible to their audience and financer’s expectation, they decided to involve these people in the creation of the manifest.

In October 2020, we had the chance to talk with Mariann Bjørnelv, Managing Director of Folken who worked on the manifest. Find below a transcription of the conversation we had with her, where you will read about the reasons behind this manifest, how they worked on it and concrete tips on how to do the same in your music venue.

Hello Mariann, thank you for accepting this interview. At Live DMA, we are convinced that the work you did at Folken is of great value and your experience could be very helpful for other venues in Europe who should want to do the same.

My first question is: What is Folken?

The setting! [Mariann refers here to one of the three pillars of the Try-Angle theory, which states that a concert consists of an audience, an artistic proposition and a setting] – Folken is a combination of a concert venue and a student’s culture house. It has two puts to stand on: one is commercial-making “normal” concert venue and the other side is delivering the students in Stavanger with good quality culture.

Stavanger is a city which in, Norwegian standards, is quite big. It’s the fourth city in Norway, of about 120 000 inhabitants. The University there welcomes about 12 000 students. That is our main group to reach, and the rest of the city as well. Folken has been this combination of cultural scene and concert venue since 1988. We do, in a normal year, around 120 concerts. But all in all: 400 types of events. Everything from theatre to movies, parties for the student, quiz, debates, stand up… You name it! As long as it is inside the broad way of thinking culture.

The staff: we are a combination of paid staff and volunteers, which is how a lot of students and culture houses work in Norway. The paid staff is now an administration for 5 people: booking, production, bar… that kind of tasks. Then there are some paid bartenders and door-persons. The rest is volunteer. About 160 volunteers for 2019 from 15 different cities and countries from around the world. Our volunteers are mostly students, about 80% of them for last year, but some locals have stayed on after they finished studying. Some have been volunteers for nearly 30 years!

Why did you decide to do a collaborative manifest?

The background for it was that, 7 or 8 years ago, we experienced a huge downfall, economically as well as with the students and the volunteers. We experienced a bad reputation and lack of visiting, and, of course, the end of that was a bad economic situation. We had to do something new and fix our reputation. We were seen as a dark, rock’n’roll and metal place. A way of seeing Folken that we felt was not true, or belonged 20 years ago.

“We had to do something new and fix our reputation”

Basically it started with us seeing that we needed to fix our reputation to get a broader aspect of people to visit us. Not only the ones who listened to rock and metal, but all genres and all kinds of people and all parts of society because that is actually the events we make. The events we made needed to match the people the audience and the other side around. It started out what can we do to change the way the city views us, especially the students. This at every level: public authorities, visitors, audience, students.. We just needed to tell our story in a different way.

What was the process you took to start working on the manifest?

We thought the best way to do that was to ask everyone what they thought of us and what they wanted with us. What the people and organization around us wants us to be, what the city need us to be and especially, what did we, at Folken, want. It was a long process, from start to end it took 2 years.

We started at board level, internally with the people working at Folken. Then, we contacted the student’s welfare at university. We asked them to help us build a survey. We were forming the questions together with the university, together with the people who built the survey to define what we wanted to know. The survey basically ended up: “why do you use Folken?” (for their audiences) “Why do you not use Folken?” (for our non-audience) and “Do you think we are important?” (for audiences and non-audiences).

The survey not only reached the students but also the authorities and the other people in the city, although it was not the same survey for everyone. For example, the students had questions like “what is it like to be a student in Stavanger”; we asked the people living in Stavanger “what does it mean to you to have music in the city?”. With the grant givers and municipality it was more: “what do you want us to be?”. It took half a year to run the surveys. We got quite good percentage of answers, about 35 or 40%. That was like the base for the next step.

We then used their answers to figure out what our goals would be, what are our problems, what are we good at, and then we structured with the board, employees and volunteers, a draft for the manifest.

The manifest is build up like this: This is our goal / This is the problem / This is the status quo / This is how to get to the goal. It kind of has different chapters. We used about another half of year for that and then we took the draft and sent it out to all the persons who participated in the surveys as well as to other people to get their opinion on it. That was the next level, get it out there. That was scary.

We can imagine! And what were the reactions to it?

There were different levels to react, you could just send us an answer by email. We also invited different groups to different workshops. A group of students another one of volunteers as well as one with the municipality attended different sessions. Also, we had direct meetings between the people and me or my board. The basic thought of it was to keep the process as open as possible. And to be on a dialogue level, more than us saying “this is what we wanna do, is this okay?”.

“The basic thought of it was to keep the process as open as possible.”

When the finished document was there, all parties felt that they were a part of making that happen, they had a say in the making of our future. I think that is the key element of success for implementing in real life what we say in the document. With these kinds of statements and documents it often just ends up in a drawer and you never take it out again. We did not want that!

And how did you ensure that you would actually do the things you say in the document?

The document is very concrete! For example, we thought of everything such as the way the building is built. People told us the building was old and not a cosy place to be. So a concrete thing we did was to ask ourselves “ how to renovate the house?” “How can we find the money to renovate this nearly 100 year old building?”. Then we put this concrete idea into the strategy that we work with every day and that we update every year.

The manifesto is for a period of 10 years, then every year we would pick some parts of it and say “this year we’re going to do this”. From the main document, which is 40 pages long, every year we take a small part of it and then we can check the things we do. That’s how we worked with it to make it a concrete document and not only a visionary idea. For example, with the students, they told us that they did not feel like the Folken was for them. They said that they did not only want to go to concerts but have stand-ups, parties… So we took this part, put it in the strategy document, and said okay, we’re going to have 45 student organisations doing different events this year. We number it to have concrete goals to achieve.

“I think one of the success with the manifest is that it is very clear. It says: “this is the challenge, this is the goal, and this is how we are going to get there”.”

I think one of the success with the manifest is that it is very clear. It says: “this is the challenge, this is the goal, and this is how we are going to get there”. Its very easy to measure us on it. So when we ask the municipality an increase in subsidy, we can show them concrete and measurable goals that we have achieved.

And did it work? Did you have a better reputation and more visits once you implemented some of the objectives of the manifest?

Yes it did, so I highly recommend to do it! It has changed our status, especially with the students and the way they use the house. It has hugely improved. We have gone from “this house is not for the students” to having students there every day! More people there means more tickets sold, so it was good for us financially as well. It was one of our goals with the document, make sure our economy will be sustainable.

Will you start again the process in 10 years, once all goals of the manifest are achieved?

Yes! Actually, we evaluated the whole manifest last year at our General Assembly. We revised it and actualized it. It is something that we use to communicate with the society, the municipalities, etc. It is a living document.

“The manifest is a living document.”

What concrete advice would you give to people who would like to start the same process in the live music venue, club or festival they work for?

I think the most important thing with making that kind of manifest is to think that the goal of it is to say very clearly who you are. It is important to put that first when you start: where do you want to go? What is the meaning of this process? What is its goal? So do an evaluation of where you are and where you want to go.

We used a lot of time, especially in the beginning, to find the right format of the document and how to build it, because none of us had done it before. It took a long time to figure out how to do it in the best way. It was something hanging over my head for two years! So another tip is to be from the start a working group of no more than 2 or 3 persons. Because when you’re too many, it is hard to figure out who is going to write what.

About the process, be aware that the more you ask people for their opinion, the more time it’s going to take. With the survey, we were lucky enough to have the University of Stavanger as one of our funding partners. They were able to provide for a professional survey for free. We made some of the questions and told them what we wanted to find out and then the professionals put it into a system for us.  

Also, you need to have some continuance in working with it. I was lucky enough to use a lot of my time for 2 years to do this. I found it very hard to delegate the writing process of it. You need someone who likes that kind of work: getting into people’s head and see what they think and mean.

Another key success to this document is that we had both the inside [the workers & volunteers at Folken] and the outside [students, neighbours, municipality…] of the house as part of who were asked to come with input.

A final element is that we did use a long time to do it, we really dug down to see what was there. We had about 7 drafts of the manifest! It is very time consuming and it can be expensive. But it doesn’t need to be as massive as we did, it can be done in a shorter period of time and cheaper.

Did you experience any drawbacks or inconvenients in this process?

Yeah, you have to be ready to hear some negative things about what is dear to your heart: the place you work in. As many people working in the cultural field, it is not only a job, it is more than that. So when you ask people “What do you think of us?” and they are brutally honest, that can be hard. It felt unfair many times, it felt like we were misunderstood. So be prepared to what it can make you feel and makes you stressed. It was a stressful process. You need confidence in what you do, especially as a leader. I felt responsible for the negative comments, I felt like I was a failure. You need to try to let that go and think rationally about it. “This person feels like this, I have to take it into account no matter what I think”. You have to be prepared to open the Pandora box. But when it stops being painful, it starts to be good! And it’s worth it! It was a very happy ending on our side.

“You have to be prepared to open the Pandora box. […] And it’s worth it! It was a very happy ending on our side.”

Thank you Mariann for the explanations and inspiration!