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Folk festivals in the time of COVID: They’re NOT dead; they’re just different

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As music festivals have been cancelled all over the world, folk festivals in Canada have been relying on streaming and other media to get artists in touch with audiences and keep the industry going.

This has been a big change for some. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival normally hosts a number of local and international artists and can be attended by 10,000-15,000 people over three days at Jericho Beach.

“We’re trying to replicate that festival atmosphere,” said Debbi Salmonsen, artistic director of VFMF. “We’re doing five or six streaming shows that’ll be available on our site and on Facebook Live, but we’re also putting up festival ambient sounds, linking to vendors and doing a 50/50 draw.”

All of which, she acknowledged, comes with its upsides and downsides.

“Our festival is about community and connection,” she said. “It’s a lot of seeing friends. So the switch to streaming has been a steep learning curve. But several hundred people tuned into the first show, and the comments were good. Plus streaming is cheaper, which is good for indies. … Everyone’s just trying to keep the industry alive and the audience engaged.”

Streaming has become the solution du jour for festivals. The Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, will feature performances from Sheryl Crow, Tash Sultana, Alan Doyle and many others through its Facebook and YouTube pages.

Mariposa is also hosting a concert series that began last month with a tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. According to its press release, it “will combine contemporary performances with never-before-seen archival recordings and materials. Each episode will consist of short pre-recorded online performances with contemporary performers paying tribute to some of the folk legends who graced the Mariposa stage over the years.

“The Mariposa Virtual Stage will also host one longer concert, which will feature special headliners and a Mariposa-inspired workshop.”

This new streaming innovation also leaves room for experimentation. For the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Saturday and Sunday afternoon concert series, that meant finding a new use for Zoom.

“The sound on Zoom isn’t ideal as it’s a conference platform, but the festival, audience and artists enjoy how interactive and intimate it is,” said Kerry Clarke, artistic director at CFMF. “They can see the audience watching them. We’ve overcome hurdles by tweaking how we approach it and getting expert advice.”

This intimacy has paid off for the festival. They have been selling tickets through Side Door at $8/device, and people have been showing up in large numbers.

“Our Saturday night digital concert series draws about 350 people — around 170 users but with several people tending to crowd around one device,” she said. “Some artists are getting over 900 per show, but there seems to be some saturation and numbers dropping. We don’t have any idea how many will watch pay-what-you-can streamed programming. We hope upwards of 900 users per show, but we won’t know until after it happens.”

The pay-what-you-can-streamed programming will be in the form of a festival weekend and will include interviews as well as concerts.

“We currently have eight of the eighteen artists confirmed,” she said. “The rest will confirm in the next couple of days, and the full schedule will be announced July 10. CKUA and CJSW radio will do festival-related programming over the weekend that includes both archival and fresh content.”

This spirit of innovation is not, however, limited to finding new ways to stream music. For some, like Terry Wickham of the Edmonton Folk Festival, the answer to the pandemic problem lies in doing something else completely.

Given the state of things, however, these experiments can sometimes yield mixed results.

“I was hoping to bring music to a senior’s home, if they had an outdoor space,” he said. “But I found out that the health services have banned vocal concerts.

“So we are spending lots of time and money in getting our video archives into shape. We have staff and local video arts people working on getting as many recorded highlights cleared and put online as possible. We’re also working on a documentary.”

The streaming dates for each festival are as follows:

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival — July 18 at https://thefestival.bc.ca/.

The Calgary Folk Music Festival — July 23 – 26 from 7-9 p.m., as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 3-5 p.m. The full line-up and schedule will be on calgaryfolkfest.com July 10.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival — July 11 at 7 p.m. For more details, visit www.winnipegfolkfestival.ca

Mariposa can be found on Facebook at MariposaFolkFestival Official, and archived concerts can be found at mariposafolk.com. They will also be hosting a 90-minute concert tomorrow.

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