Trouble brewing for the Sidmouth
folk festival - extracts from an article in the Sidmouth Herald of 17 August 2001.
It has been clear for years that the
festival would run into difficulties. Costs rise remorselessly, accommodation for artists
becomes more expensive (or simply not available), few businesses in the town give any
support and many local people either dislike the festival or expect something for nothing
just because they live in Sidmouth. Steve Heap cannot fairly be accused of not giving the
town ample warning of what could happen if more support was not found - yet in 2004 some
people are doing just that! His many warnings should have been heeded. Now, in 2004, it
may be too late.
A blockbuster it was not says festival director.
While pubs, cafes and other town traders
reaped the rewards of this year's International Festival last week, its director Steve
heap has warned the town -"the future of the festival is in your hands" - after
he predicted the event itself had made a loss.
With foot and mouth hitting the number of advance booked season tickets this year, leaving
spaces in the Knowle campsite, Mr Heap pointed out 'The only people making a profit are
the businesses in the town". He said although this year's festival had not been a
disaster it had not been a block busting year.
He continued: 'There have been some excellent shows in the arena and some of the best
performances have been at the Volunteer Inn and Bedford Hotel where people have the
opportunity to perform on an open stage. "What has hit us most was on the opening
Saturday, our biggest day, we had bad weather which did destroy one of our best days with
takings down 80 per cent"
But many traders and businesses have profited well from the festival - up to £5 million
in Devon was a figure heard by Mr Heap - but only a handful give any financial support
back to the festival.
There are hundreds of businesses in the town but we have only 12 patrons from the whole of
the town. "We get support from some people in Sidmouth but it is a tiny minority and
it has always been that way. I have been desperately trying to convince businesses in
Sidmouth that they should support the event I don't know what we have to do but I'm
He said he needed to know now, not in the autumn, if he had financial support for the
future of the festival, which he felt should stay in Sidmouth, although very few people
appeared prepared to make sure it stays. He said: "Its future is in the hands of
Sidmouth, I think it will go on forever but we might not run it. We can't keep affording
to make a loss."
The festival costs around £6-700,000 to stage and £50,000 is spent on advertising the
event which brings in thousands of people into the area for the biggest such event in
What disturbs Mr Heap is that while he is paying for acts to perform, hiring of marquees,
equipment and the like, others are cashing in on the event, particularly those performing
down on the Esplanade or selling bird whistles and braiding hair by the seafront.
"If I did it I wouldn't be allowed. I'm not allowed to put signs up without a
licence," he said. John Vallender, chief executive of East Devon District Council,
told the Herald that there was no question of a blind eye being turned to these traders
and licensing officers had chased a number of people off, although some returned later. He
said those offering a service such as hair braiding, were not coveted by street trading
legislation and the council had supported a Cornish council in its efforts to get the Home
Office to amend it.
Pledging the council's support of the festival, Mr Vallender continued: "The festival
brings a lot of trade into the town and Sidmouth a lot of publicity that would be
difficult to buy. He (Mr Heap) feels bitter that local traders are not prepared to
contribute in any way towards the festival."
Another criticism of the festival was that there are fewer international artists. Mr Heap
explained that part of the reason for this was the lack of places to put them up that were
affordable. "We would like people to host them but no-one has ever come forward. We
need 300 beds for eight days and would be delighted if people had a spare room. "All
we want to do is run a successful event and want to do it in partnership in the town. We
spend money on publicity, they take a lot of money and we get nothing. It is one way
Mr Vallender said since the demise of the Iron Curtain Russian groups who had come over as
'cultural exports' were now demanding generous expenses and wages and somewhere other than
a mattress to sleep on. Traders in Sidmouth were this week confirming good takings for
festival week, and many felt there were not as many people in the town as previous years.
John White who owns Cards and News, a patron in previous years, employed more staff to
cope with extra customers who "bought a lot of everything". He feels the
festival is good for the town. So does nearby Mark Chapman of Paragon Books. "It is
always the busiest week of the season," he said. "We sold a cross-section of
everything. This year was on a par with previous years although there were fractionally
less people. "I look forward to the festival and enjoy it as much for the music as
well as business." He said he was not a patron because he had not got round to
Mike Fielden, who has just completed his third festival as owner of the Olive Grove
restaurant and delicatessen, said he would consider becoming a patron if approached.
"It was very busy last week," he said. "It was a record week and it sees us
through the darker parts of the winter. We need something like this. I wouldn't like to
see them go bankrupt because it does Sidmouth a lot of good."
Tim Spores, joint managing director of Fields, reported a very successful week with its
coffee shop doing almost too much trade. Friends of the festival through the patron
scheme, Mr Spores said the festival is economically beneficial to the town as a whole.
Hotels and pubs fared well too. The Marlborough was a music venue with performances from
the Chris Stuckey band, Ian Briggs on mouth organ and guitarist Maurice Dickson being some
of the artists booked for around £6,000. "I don't sponsor them because I pay for the
music, although I did put up a group" he said.
Mrs Leone Pyne of the Bedford, where Lonnie Donnegan and other artists stayed, said the
hotel had been very busy. "We do sponsor the festival and we think it is a good thing
for the town. Sidmouth holds the largest folk festival in Europe and it brings a lot of
business and revenue to the town."
Final word to Mr Heap: "We want to work with the people in the town, it is about
partnership that is what the patron scheme is about. We have got to get through the good
years and the bad years together"
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