Just over a week after the board of directors of London’s Home Country Folk League announced it was cancelling the 2024 edition of the Home County Music and Arts Festival, a long-time advocate for Canadian roots music, says the festival could be a canary in a coalmine.
The president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, Erin Benjamin, said philanthropy is down, volunteers are not coming back to festivals after COVID-19, skilled labour is hard to find, and inflated prices along the supply chain are creating immense barriers to success for festivals right across Canada.
“The cost of doing business, especially for smaller companies or non-for-profit organizations, has increased, while revenues may not have,” Erin said.
Government grants like the provincial funding that rescued the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this summer are nice, but not something that can continue to be relied upon, she added.
“Government is always reminding us that these are not annual grants, and nothing is guaranteed,” Erin said.
“There has been a decade-long practice of supporting a variety of cultural events across the province, and certainly that has become more challenging than ever with pressures like an increasing number of potential clients and decreasing envelopes of support.”
The folk league cited as reasons for the cancellation increasing costs, difficulties attracting volunteers in leadership positions, and reduced access to funding since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next year’s festival would have run a nearly $50,000 deficit, up from $35,000 this year, according to Home County Folk League chair Sara Lanthier.
While the cancellation is not permanent, Home County “won’t be back in the same way that it’s always been in the past,” Sara said.
The announcement was not the first of its kind this year.
The board of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, one of Canada’s largest folk festivals, announced in January that it intended to cancel the 2023 festival and dissolve the society, citing rising costs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news was greeted with a public outcry, and the festival was rescued at the 11th hour by an infusion of cash from the BC government.
But where the money prolonged the life of the VFMF for at least a year, the same cannot be said for Home County, and Sara said solutions like government grants or Go-Fund-Me campaigns may only be a Band-Aid solution.
“We would need a sustainable funding source that would sort of give us enough money to hire somebody, like an executive director, who could lead the organization forward,” she said.
“As I joked to [London Music Development Officer] Corey Crossman on the phone the other night, ‘If a plane landed in front of our office with 25 leadership volunteers and $5 million, that would be the ultimate dream.’”
Sara is thankful for those who have taken the time to listen and understand why the decision was made, she added.
The next step will be gauging the feelings of Londoners and folk enthusiasts through FAQ’s and public forums, something that she saw was successful in Vancouver.
“There’s been tons of ideas coming out on Facebook, and if people want to take the time to write in with suggestions, we’re going to comb through those and read those,” Sara said.
The organization will set a 60 to 90-day timeline after its November meeting to come up with a solution.
Erin, meanwhile, remains optimistic about the long-term viability of festivals.
“When we look at live music specifically, we can see audiences rushing back to shows,” she said.
“There’s more inventory and market than ever before.”
If any city can grapple with and rectify this situation, it will be London, she added, saying she believes in London and the leadership of Corey Crossman to “understand the value of music.”
“London’s not in the business of losing music assets; they’re in the process of growing more,” she said, “So I’m optimistic that they’ll be part of the solution, whatever it is, down the road.
“Home County is an incredibly valuable asset to the cultural makeup of London, and if it was to go permanently, it would be a major loss.”