What’s going on at the O.F.F.?

There’s been lots of chatter — online, in the media, and in what people charmingly call “the meatspace,” also known as real life—about what’s going on at the Ottawa Folk Festival. Many people know the broad brushstrokes of what’s happened—namely, that the Ottawa Bluesfest has taken the OFF under its wing—but change breeds uncertainty and that breeds speculation.

So when Roots Music Canada suggested I take some of my blather and turn it into a post for the blog, I thought it might be an opportunity to educate the community at large about some of what’s happening.

First, a disclosure and disclaimer: I was on the Ottawa Folk Festival board since January of 2010, and I remain a member of the board. But statements of opinion here are mine alone.

The least surprising part of the investment by Bluesfest in the Ottawa Folk Festival has been the voiced concerns. Here in Ottawa, the Bluesfest is guaranteed of two things each year: the first is big crowds; the second, people complaining that this or that isn’t “blues.”

And so when the Ottawa Folk Festival finds itself in need of help and Bluesfest steps in, dark mutterings of the Black Eyed Peas and Iron Maiden start. As I say, no surprise. But  while Bluesfest has undoubtedly moved beyond the genre captured in its name, there are a lot of people who’ve performed there—even last year—who I’d be proud to say were playing the OFF: Sarah Harmer, Jill Zmud, Matt Anderson, Levon Helm, Rosanne Cash, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Capital Grass & the No Men, Steve Dawson & the Mississippi Sheiks… and further back, Meredith Luce, Leo Kottke, Lyle Lovett, Chris Smither, our own Ana Miura, John Hiatt, Pinetop Perkins… you get the idea.

And the only true way for us to put concerns and fears to rest is to put on an Ottawa Folk Festival that shows itself to be in many ways the same. Like most folk festivals, OFF has had good years and bad ones. But one of the cruelest hardships of 2010 was that if our Sunday had been a sunny day, we likely would have been successful financially, and even more so artistically. Sadly, that was not to be. We saw torrents on that day—so much rain that our main stage was simply unusable, our generators were unsafe to start for most of the day, and we were left with our dance tent and our indoor stage as the only performance venues.

If we had been lucky enough to sell out our festival in advance we would have been safe. But we weren’t. The end of the festival left us not with a paid-down debt, but an additional, large deficit. We needed to do something big. Bake sales, raffles, and even fundraisers weren’t gonna solve this for us. And we were looking at a situation in which we would have required a string of stellar festivals with remarkable lineups and unblemished weather to dig ourselves out.

When discussions began with executive/artistic director Mark Monahan and his team at the Bluesfest, the board was VERY cautious. We talked, talked, and talked some more when talking got boring. From late September on, I think there was a minimum of one board meeting per week and more committee meetings. It was intense.

Through it all, the responses from Bluesfest to our questions and concerns were straightforward. I like straightforward. And speaking only for myself, Mark has impressed me with his straightforward attitude, his willingness to listen to what the “folkies” have brought to the table, and his quick understanding of the dynamics of the festival. Everything Mark has said he was going to do, he’s done. It’s hard not to develop confidence in someone who does that.

As we discussed the possibility of Bluesfest helping out the festival, we had multiple, long discussions with Mark and members of the Bluesfest board about what we saw as fundamental differences between the OFF and the Bluesfest, and between folk festivals and every other type of music festival. To my mind, the key difference is this: folk festivals are the only type of festival that come with a set of principles and ideas that are as important as attendance.

For us, those principles include: the support and nurturing of labour groups; of family-friendly activities and entertainment; of the daytime workshops: of ensuring that the festival is accessible and friendly to people regardless of a disability, of ethnicity, of sexual preference, or of gender identity; of continuing to strive towards environmental goals, and offering the audience a mix of traditional folk, contemporary styles, and world music.

Mark accepted our assertions without a second thought. He’s said publicly and privately that the last thing he wants is a “Bluesfest lite” in Ottawa. And speaking harshly, if he wanted to be the ruthless businessman, he could have simply waited for the OFF to die on its own, or he could have run us into the ground. Instead, his organization has put some of their money on the line, and came to an agreement with us that we could live with.

With former artistic director Dylan Griffith’s departure from the OFF, Mark is going to be overseeing the booking for the festival this year. But by no means will Mark be the only person making choices for the OFF. Paul Symes of the Black Sheep Inn is on the Board, and he knows his folk and roots music like few others. Founding artistic director Chris White is helping out in a consultative capacity. The Ottawa Folklore Centre and Arthur McGregor are working on the daytime side. And we have retained staff from the Festival including my friend Ana Miura, who’s working on sponsorship.

You may or may not buy any of this. And if you don’t, that’s fine. But I’m pretty hopeful. I think the 2011 festival’s gonna be good. And if it’s not, you’re more than welcome to say “told you so!”

Bob LeDrew is a blogger, social media pundit, music lover, and the principal consultant in Translucid Communications.

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