Home Feature Canadian Folk Fests still working toward financial stability post pandemic

Canadian Folk Fests still working toward financial stability post pandemic

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

Summer is quickly approaching, which also means the beginning of festival season. Many folk festivals across the country are gearing up for hosting entertaining line-ups and ushering in large groups of fans from all over — while also adapting to a changing landscape post COVID-19-related lockdowns.

Last year saw the Vancouver Folk Music Festival come close to folding before it was rescued by an 11th-hour infusion of provincial cash.

And the Home County Festival suspended its event for a year while it explored how to make it more sustainable.

This year’s season began with some promising news: the federal government boosted the Canada Music Fund by $32 million a year for two years. It also increased the Canadian Arts Presentation Fund (CAPF) by $31 million over two years. The program provides financial assistance to performing arts presenters, festivals, and organizers. The new cash infusion more than doubles the fund’s annual supplementary funding of approximately $8 million, according to Billboard Canada.

So where does this leave festivals this year?

Festival organizers have been prioritizing sustainability, said Erin Benjamin, president of Canada Live Music Association.

Her organization had been advocating for the increase in funding for a while as inflation was creating challenges for festival organizers, she said.

The government had bumped up financial support at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she added, but that had also opened the door for new projects to apply for funding — increasing the number of festivals and promoters sharing limited funds.

“Every year, we go through this cycle as an association where we attempt to assess the state of funding and other sources of revenue … and react from an advocacy perspective and help government try to understand what the opportunities are,” she said.

“The cost of doing business for certain segments of the ecosystem, especially small, midsize companies, is so overwhelmingly high. In a business where profit margins were already thin … even if you’re packing your venue or your small festival, just the profits are evaporating because you’re paying so much more for everything from labour to tents to gear, if you can even get it.”

Michelle Demers Shaevitz, artistic director for the Mission Folk Festival, said the BC-based festival has been obtaining funding a new way this year.

“We have embarked on a sort of concentrated sponsorship and fundraising campaign this year, which we haven’t had the capacity to do in previous years,” she said. “[With] the economic situation that we find ourselves in, we really need to do that.”

One obstacle that the organization faces is being up against the province’s film industry for rentals and supplies for the festival, in addition to rising static costs, she said.

Now, Mission Folk Festival has partnered up with The New School of Fundraising, which helps non-profit organizations explore identity brand communication to start up sponsorship campaigns.

Working with them was a great experience, Michelle said.

“We started later in the cycle than we normally would have, but the first part of the cycle was taken up by the learning and the development of the campaign. So going into this year, we’re not quite sure what kind of returns we’re even seeing for this year, but it has certainly set us up for 2025-2026.”

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival, meanwhile, is looking forward to a triumphant return this year after nearly canceling last year’s event and folding the society.

Artistic director Fiona Black said she is looking forward to the array of talent that’ll be performing, including musicians coming in from Palestine and Ukraine, and the festival’s board is fighting the keep it strong.

“It was really hard to swallow that the festival just wasn’t going survive these hard times,” she said of last year’s near-death experience.

“All the materials needed to build this little village that we build every year just increased [in price] and our government funding wasn’t increasing to keep up with inflation,” she said.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival was rescued by some 11th-hour funding from a new $30-million pot distributed by the BC Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Sports, and Arts, as well as additional funds from community donations.

“The province really came to our rescue big time,” Fiona said. “It’s a nice recognition that these festivals are really important.”

However, Fiona said that the festival is still working to diversify its funding, reaching out to sponsors and building a full-time staff.

“We’re not out of the fire yet,” she said.



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