Last week, I flipped the proverbial switch andÂ broughtÂ theÂ brandÂ new Peterborough Folk Festival website on line. Â You can check out our line-up, and some of the extended programming we’re doing, as well as learn a little about the 21 years the festival’s been running.
This is my fourth year as Artistic Director and Executive Director for the festival. I first volunteered for the festival in the late nineties, when I got stuck as a parking attendant for hours without water or any clear sense of what I was supposed to be doing.Â Since then, I’ve coordinated Healing Arts and the Club Crawl, eventually taking on the positions I’m in now.
The festival is run by a small, dedicated, and hard-working group of volunteers, many of whom have been with the festival for years and work, month after month, year-round to bring together three great days in late August.Â We’ve made a lot of changes to the festival in the past 4 years, changes I’m very proud of because they’ve made the festival infinitely better, andÂ infinitelyÂ easier to run. Â We’ve tightened up, planned carefully, and created a strong foundation for considered growth. Â But change always angers people, especially when they see it as negatively impacting themselves.
Last year, when I proposed that we cut the Club Crawl, it was not the first time I’d argued that it was a waste of effort that reflected poorly on the festival as a whole.Â Originally conceived as a fundraiser for the festival, the Club Crawl rarely worked as such, generally losing money despite our best efforts.Â In my opinion, it was a clusterfuck; paying artists a pittance to play in venues unsuited for live music, running technicians ragged as they dealt with jury-rigged gear and practically no switch-over time.Â Venue owners didn’t feel they were getting a good deal, either, and as a result, often dropped out or screwed us in some way at the last minute.Â The final straw, for me, was when one of our funders praised the festival as a whole but suggested in strong terms that the Club Crawl didn’t live up to the standards they expected as a baseline for paid, professional artists.Â I agreed, and either argued persuasively to the Board of Directors or just browbeat them (they may want to comment on which) into axing the Club Crawl for 2009.
I have to admit I was completely taken off guard by the anger from several local artists.Â What I saw as a shitty gig or tokenism they (I guess) saw as inclusion. And I’m sorry they felt that way; it reflects poorly on local audiences and venues that a $50 gig with no real soundcheck is considered okay for a skilled artist who’s been playing for years.Â I know it’s a lot harder to get into the festival now than it was in the past, because there are fewer slots.Â But I think it’s important for any publicly-funded arts organization to treat artists with respect, and part of that respect is to create opportunities that operate at a professional standard – decent pay, decent playing conditions. Â Another facet of that respect is to set the bar high and encourage the community to reach it.
My philosophy for booking has always pretty much been the same, from my very earliest days as a promoter, through my MoHo days, to now.Â I book great professional artists who are good to work with, and I pay them as well as I can and ensure they work in decent conditions.Â My resources are limited and I’m bound by the conditions of my funders, and this means that, if I’m going to follow my own ethical code, I book fewer artists, but better gigs, than we’ve done in the past.
In addition, we receive funding from the terrific Arts Presentation Canada program, run by the Federal government, whose purpose is to increase diversity at festivals, and who stipulate that their funding should be used to book artists from out-of-province as well as emerging and culturally diverse acts.Â I see this as an opportunity to introduce Peterborough artists and audiences to the sounds and ideas that are happening across the country, but it also means that there are fewer slots for local artists than in the past.
I’m extremely lucky because I book a free festival, so I don’t have to worry about a draw – every year, 7000-9000 people come regardless of who’s playing.Â Personally, I prefer to support emerging acts in any case, and I really don’t like the idea of blowing half or more of my artistic budget on the last two acts of the night.Â But it also means that we miss out on those tasty admissions fees that can make up a third or more of a festival’s funding.Â The idea of fencing off the festival area and charging admission has been bruited about, but none of the current Board are comfortable with the idea of changing 21 years of tradition in such a fundamental way – we like the festival free and accessible.Â So we do our best with the funding we receive, and I think we do a pretty damned good job.
There are so many things I wish for the Peterborough Folk Festival – good god, how I’d love to expand and do three days in the park, to rebuild that concrete stage with a proper proscenium and offices and dry storage underneath,Â and re-terrace the hill.Â How I’d love for us to own our own sound gear, to build some permanent platforms in the park, and to do weekly concerts throughout the Summer and a Winter series.Â I want to draw in the communities of new Canadians in Peterborough and become relevant to them, and I’d like to see more participatory workshops where our audience get to learn how to do things.Â I want to see fewer and fewer cars in the parking area, and more and more people arrive on foot or via transit/canoe/bicycle. I want to see an increasingly diverse crowd of people enjoying the kind of music they can’t hear anywhere else in the City.
My dreams always outstrip my abilities, and our finances.Â I am constantly disappointed by what I was not able to achieve in any given year.Â But by consistently setting the bar higher for ourselves, we reach a little higher every year, and do better.Â It’s hard work, but I think we can’t ask any less of ourselves than we ask of our community.Â And I think that, if we don’t ask for high standards from our community, we tacitly encourage unprofessional-ism and sloppy work.
Join us, August 27 – 29, 2010, as we try to reach a little higher than we have before; there will be mistakes, absolutely, and things that don’t quite make the grade. Â But there’s a spirit of sweetness, or openness, and a sense of community that you won’t find elsewhere. Â Moments of beauty that you can share with friends and family, great music, delicious food, and fabulous crafts. Â For all the heartache I’ve occasionally felt over the PFF, the end is always worth it.
This year I intend to step down at Executive Director of the Peterborough Folk Festival; if you’re interested in the job (it’s primarily a volunteer position, involving grant writing and administrative work, but comes with a small honourarium), you can get in touch with me and we’ll talk about it.