The early years of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival coincided with the near disappearance of folk music from the mainstream of radio. The moral weight of the protest song, mostly in the hands of gifted storytellers — Dylan, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, Odetta and others — saw their message marginalized by the encroaching MTV video machine. Those visual stars who could dance, pose and dress fashionably.
Times, they were a changing.
That first season saw a big Canadian contingent cross mainstage – Stan Rogers, Stringband, Tom Jackson, Valdy, Marie-Lynn Hammond, amongst many others – and even Odetta! Thirty-seven years on – I caught up with festival producer Terry Wickham for an insightful conversation about the popularity, support and future of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
The festival summer is looking a bit rocky with fewer dollars, uncertainty, over-saturation and higher priced talent. How have you managed the yearly challenges?
We increased our artistic budget by $200,000 and bought our U.S. dollar early. We also raised a weekend pass price by $10.
Thirty-seven years and counting.
To what do you attribute the key factors keeping Edmonton Folk on the front-lines and relevant in today’s short interest universe?
There are many excellent volunteer bases in the world of folk festivals and Edmonton’s, for me, is the top of the pile. We have always put the music and artists first. Our management philosophy is, 'constant improvement'.
How long have you been producing the festival and what brought you there?
This is my 29th Edmonton Folk Festival. I had been to the festival in 1986 and 1988 as a guest. When asked, it was not a hard decision to move from Calgary to Edmonton for this position.
How have you adapted during a time when folk music is out of range for most listeners?
We know we are a minority taste, but Edmonton has over one million people. We only need a fraction of the population to attend. Folk Music is continually developing new headline talent. Passenger, for instance, blew our audience away, as did, Nathaniel Rateliff.
We’ve also moved to younger artists while not forgetting the legends and past favourites.
How far ahead do you book artists and know which will attract an audience?
I try to have a clean slate each September. I came from the concert promotion world, so it is my job to know who is popular, though that is not as easy as it was when there were CD sales to go on.
Do you work in close collaboration with Tourism?
No, we have sold out for twenty-two years in a row. We are very efficient with our marketing dollars.
What percentage of attendees come from outside the region?
We think around 20%, but we don’t do much surveying of our patrons.
How does the festival impact the local economy?
Hotel rooms, taxis, flights, food concessions, crafters.
Suppliers like Big Rock Brewery got a huge lift in sales in Edmonton when they became a sponsor of the Edmonton Folk Festival. We don’t try to quantify our economic impact; we concentrate on the joy folk music brings to our city.
Do you get reasonable federal, provincial, and municipal funding?
We have strong funding from the Alberta government, strong support from the City, though it has been slipping in the last ten years, relatively. The Government of Canada was slow, very slow to support us and their funding level considering our profile continues to disappoint. Which is a mystery to me.
The physical layout and surrounding issues; from policing, street closures, fencing, staging bring unexpected additional costs. Cities have a way of downloading costs – raising permit fees; in general, look at big events as a way to squeeze a few extra dollars. Are these ongoing issues in your city too?
The City of Edmonton is a model as to how to work with festivals. Some of the smaller festivals were hurting with the cost of policing, so we got together with our mayor and a councillor, and they now pick up 50% of the city costs.
Timing is everything. What’s is it about the month of August that works for you?
We’ve had an amazing run of weather. I am told that the planners of the first festival went to weather records and picked the driest weekend, historically. I am not sure that is a true story, but it is working for us, touch wood.
What is the Endowment Fund and how does it work?
We had some very successful years and decided to start an Endowment Fund during our 25th year. We now have $2.5 million there, and it pays us over $100,000 a year.
We have donated to a lot of worthy causes with this extra money; this is the one area where the Department of Heritage has an excellent program. They pretty well match our contributions dollar for dollar.
How do you gauge ticket pricing?
We are deliberately underpriced, and 45% of our audience gets in for free. We donate a huge amount of free admissions. We are underpriced vs. market prices in all areas including beer, t-shirts, etc.
It builds long-term loyalty.
Is there a performance moment that stands out – etched in time, when the unexpected happened on stage?
I never saw an audience bounce up and down like they did for Michael Franti. I was hoping there were no old coal mines under our big main stage hill.
What has been the biggest nightmare?
Touch wood again, we haven’t had any.
Every festival must have a heartbeat – how would you describe the muscle that sustains and keeps Edmonton Folk, healthy and pumping?
Obviously, our 2700 volunteers are the muscle, but we are a community organization and receive support from many well wishers; CKUA and the Edmonton Journal come to mind.
What happens year-round that is associated with the event?
We promote 4-6 concerts in 1500-2500 seat venues, and we have special events for our members and volunteers. We concentrate mostly on the festival, as our name implies.
Once the event is over, what do you do to get away from the pressure?
I think there is a fine line between excitement and stress, so I don’t feel much pressure.
We are lucky to have very loyal support from our patrons, and we haven’t had a losing year in the last twenty-eight. Selling out in advance has a way of decreasing pressure. I am a family man at heart, so we always take excellent family holidays and still do, though credit belongs to my wife. We are also business partners, though she will never get the credit she deserves for her input and insight over the years.