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Other Canadian folk fests say they’re not in danger of folding despite rising costs

Folk festivals across Canada have told Roots Music Canada they’re in no immediate danger of going the way of Vancouver, despite facing new challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic similar to those that may end the Vancouver festival forever.

The board of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival announced last Tuesday that it is canceling the 2023 event and bringing forth a resolution at its Feb. 1 annual general meeting to dissolve the society.

Board vice president Fil Hemming said that the festival is facing radically increased production costs arising from the pandemic, in part because previous suppliers had gone out of business or could no longer meet the festival’s needs.

“Tents was a big issue,” Fil said, by way of example.

Festival would need an extra $500K a year up front

“Increased costs for the actual rental of the tents. … Another example was fencing. Our fence supplier went out of business, and our fence costs have skyrocketed.”

Suppliers are also demanding payment upfront, Fil said, something that’s hard for a festival to provide given that much of its revenue isn’t guaranteed until the event happens.

The board estimated it would need an additional half million dollars each year up front to put on the festival, according to a news release.

The society is not currently in debt and is in a position to voluntarily dissolve without liquidation under the B.C. Societies Act, according to the resolution that will go before members.

Allision Russell performs at a workshop at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2022.

However, putting on the 2023 festival would leave it close to a half million in the red, Fil said.

What’s more, the society only has enough funds to carry on for a few more months, even if it doesn’t put on the festival, according to the material accompanying the resolution.

Former artistic and executive director Debbi Salmonsen, one of the two staff members laid off by the board, told Roots Music Canada in an email that she agreed with its decision to cancel and fold.

Some fans of the festival have expressed concerns that it represents a canary in the coal mine for folk fests across the country, but other Canadian festivals told us that they are not at immediate risk of closure – even though they reported similar challenges to the ones reported by Vancouver.

‘very solid footing’

“We are on very solid footing both organizationally and financially,” said Sara Leishman, the executive director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

She credits their financial strength in part, to year-round revenues from producing shows at the festival’s own venue, Festival Hall; robust sponsor and donor support; consistent contributions from the federal, provincial and municipal governments; and having a “rainy day fund” to dip into when the pandemic lockdowns were at their worst.

The festival, like many across Canada, also benefited from government COVID relief funding.

Nonetheless, Sara said, running a festival has gotten more challenging since the pandemic hit.

“The cost for us to put on live music, whether it’s, you know, a concert at our venue, Festival Hall … or our summer festival itself, those costs have increased with our suppliers anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent. … And while we’ve done pretty well, we’re finding that audiences haven’t totally returned to pre pandemic levels.” – Sara Leishman, Calgary Folk Festival

“The cost for us to put on live music, whether it’s, you know, a concert at our venue, Festival Hall … or our summer festival itself, those costs have increased with our suppliers anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent,” she said. “And while we’ve done pretty well, we’re finding that audiences haven’t totally returned to pre pandemic levels.”

The organization, she added, has had to review its operations and make sure it’s maximizing all of its resources in order to stay on top of the pressures.

At the Mission Folk Music Festival, the closest major folk fest to Vancouver, costs have increased 30 to 40 per cent, said executive and artistic director Michelle Demers Shaevitz.

But the festival knows how to survive financial turmoil because it did it once in 2016, she said, when it lost a major grant and its previous artistic director, Francis Xavier, retired.

An aerial photo of the Calgary Folk Music Festival in 2019. Photo by Light Factory for Calgary Folk Music Festival

Mission scaled back that year’s event to a single Friday night concert and two days of daytime-only programming – much of it offered on a pay-what-you-can basis as a way to engage supporters – and rebuilt from there.

“2016 taught us that we can keep going in a variety of ways. So, our plan right now is, you know, there’s definitely belt tightening,” Michelle said.

“If we shrink our site, it’s less fence panels. … We have a couple of existing facilities on site that aren’t necessarily …our first [choice] how we would want to present an element of our festival. But if it means using one of those instead of building a stage, then that’s a cost saving to us.”

The belt-tightening may also mean fewer or different artists, she said.

“If we shrink our site, it’s less fence panels. … We have a couple of existing facilities on site that aren’t necessarily …our first [choice] how we would want to present an element of our festival. But if it means using one of those instead of building a stage, then that’s a cost saving to us.” – Michelle Demers Shaevitz, Mission Folk Music Festival

But she added, the organizers are approaching the coming season with optimism.

Over at the Vancouver Island Music Festival, producer and artistic director Doug Cox said things are going well because he has a team that’s committed to making the festival happen.

But he acknowledged that folk fest organization is not for those who are motivated by money.

His organization spends about $1.4 million on the festival each year and puts $50,000 to $100,000 in the bank at the end of a good year.

“Not many business people would make that kind of investment for that kind of small return!” he said.

The crowd at the Vancouver Island Music Festival. Photo by Keith and Heather Nicol.

Artistic director Darin Addison at the Home County Music and Arts Festival said his event is on track to make it to its 50th anniversary in 2025.

After that, they’ll take things a year at a time, he said.

The festival, which offers admissions by donation, is still building back after the pandemic shut-downs, and the 2022 event attracted fewer vendors – a major source of funding.

But it has a reserve fund, he said.

Darin said the challenges his festival faces are similar to those others seem to be facing.

“Everything’s gone up in price – porta potties and fencing, and I think the article about the Vancouver fest listed all those same things,” he said.

“I know we can get to the 50th no problem. Are we going to be able to survive beyond that? Or do we need to make changes? Do we need to move to a different venue and start having a ticketed event? Do we need to downsize a bit? Do we need to shut down the festival and have a concert series throughout the year? All those things are sort of on the table for us…. I’m hopeful that the festival will continue on.”

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