Double Editor’s Box from fRoots 367/8 (January 2014)
Two years ago, following on from a panel I chaired at the 2011 AFO (Association Of Festival Organisers) conference, I wrote an Editorial questioning why successful festivals who come close to selling out every year through a combination of brand loyalty and astute picking of headliners couldn’t be more adventurous lower down the bill, bringing in three or four new names or going off at interesting tangents. In that same issue, Colin Irwin noted in his annual appraisal of the BBC Folk Awards nominees that the names were all very safe, samey and inward-looking to the established folk circuit. This year, though, that has changed a lot, but the initial bills for some of next year’s festivals still look remarkably like last year’s. Why are they getting left behind? What can be done to prevent the scene from stagnating?
“Can’t take risks” has been the common response from festival bookers, but if the tickets are going to be sold anyway and there’s an existing budget for non-headliners, where is that risk? Long experience says that audiences love the opportunity that festivals provide to discover new things and will thank you for it. Indeed, in these days of tightened purse strings and depleted household budgets, it has become very difficult to get ticket buyers through the door for single concerts or club gigs by lesser-known, untested names, but the festival environment provides the perfect ‘no risk’ opportunity for audiences to check out new bands and artists — if they’re booked.
The classic example of this must be Womad, where people buy their tickets and go every year for a bill where I imagine they’ve never heard of half or more of the artists, and then spend their weekend rushing from stage to stage to investigate them all. Then they’re off to the CD shop to take some of the experience home, and to watch the likes of fRoots for news of the artists touring again.
A few decades ago, when many of the nowestablished festivals were in their youth, there was a thriving club circuit where artists established their names and built followings, which festivals then took advantage of. Nowadays, when there are many more festivals and far fewer viable clubs and small concert venues, perhaps it’s time to reverse that model. I think it’s time for festivals to shoulder more of the responsibility of helping new artists develop their careers, and not simply leave it to the pages of fRoots to spread the word. If we can take the ‘risk’, why not others?
So what’s the solution? It’s the easiest trick in the book to moan from your armchair that other people aren’t doing something: it’s more difficult to propose positive answers — especially when somebody else stands to lose their shirt. So let’s draw together two other threads that emerged from this year’s AFO.
One was that having artists just parachute into a festival, do one set and disappear is a waste of opportunities for the festival and less fun for the musicians. Tim Chipping’s comments last issue about how certain ‘unknown’ bands generated their crowd momentum at a particular festival gave a clue how things could work better: we’re talking here about how the on-site bush telegraph works even quicker these days with texting and social media in the equation. So why not, for example, give a new band a short set before a guaranteed crowd-pulling headliner, then a full set on a smaller stage later on during the festival? Given a few legs up like that, they could be your headliners a few years down the line.
And those crowd-pulling headliners: there were many complaints at AFO that their agents are now demanding bigger and bigger chunks of the budget because they virtually have promoters over a barrel. So how about those well-established artists taking a bit of that imaginary ‘risk’ of putting on new, unknown artists as well?
My Editorial this issue was going to be a tribute to my early mentor and friend — musician, broadcaster and activist Alexis Korner, who died 30 years ago this coming New Year’s Day. One of Korner’s many great attributes was his enthusiasm for helping others to get a leg up, and one of the ways he did that (certainly in my case) was to take people out on his gigs and give them a support spot. Another artist featured in this issue, Al Stewart, used to do that too. In the Facebook discussion we just had, Norma Waterson reminded us that in their early days when the Watersons were in high demand for festivals, they asked that events should book a traditional artist as well.
So here’s a challenge to the headliners: put something back into the scene that feeds you by making it a proviso that the event gives a slot before you to a new name who you are enthusiastic about (and no, that doesn’t mean that your agent fancies the cello player and wants some points). Go on and personally introduce them, show your enthusiasm, plug when they’re playing later in the festival. Everybody wins.
We’re all in this together. As I constantly say, this is a self-supporting eco-system where everything feeds on everything else. When it’s buoyant and thriving, everybody benefits: doing things for the good of the scene ultimately feeds back to you. That’s always been our philosophy at fRoots anyway.
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English Country Dance Music (2003)
Is That All There Is? (2005)
Self Worth (2007)
Musical Racism (2008)
Small Venues & the Folkistanis (2009)
Existential Stuff Crisis (2013)
Festival Challenge (2014)