Sidmouth Folk Week 2009: a few problems and suggestions

There are several websites containing pictures of performers in Sidmouth FolkWeek 2009 - and some youtube coverage - for links see the official website.

Photographs on this website (approx next 12 pages) are intended primarily to illustrate points about the infrastructure. For devotees of banal, pointless and silly tweets - there is also now a twitter page (see the official website). Did the organisers really have to descend to this level? As a serious information resource the Internet can be useful. As a mechanism for young people (and some adults) wasting their time and addling their brains it has a lot to answer for - and so do adults who encourage such uses. The official website could host a page of all the known links to photo pages for each year of the festival - this would be more helpful than trawling through tweets to find them!

Apart from the weather (which was awful on some days just before and also during Folk Week), 2009 was notable as a year when the limited capacity of venues seemed to be widely noticed. These issues are linked - poor weather tends to increase the desire of many people to be indoors. Many events were oversubscribed and with season ticket holders unable to gain entrance. Dance venues were often so full it was not possible to dance comfortably. In contrast some afternoon events at the Bulverton were (once again) sparsely attended with at least one being abandoned early owing to the low numbers. However, this was predictable.

FolkWeek: 'We need 500 seater hall' say stewards
Article in Sidmouth Herald 7 August 2009

SIDMOUTH needs a 500 seater hall in which to stage popular. FolkWeek performances, say festival stewards. Standing in the rain, waiting to get into the Manor Pavilion Theatre on Monday night, there were disgruntled folk complaining at the lack of large enough venues in the town. Apart from the new Ham marquee, which seats 1,000, other halls and marquees have struggled to accommodate those wanting to see such bands as Lark Rise or join workshops led by Genticorum.

"We need a 4-500 seater hall," said one steward at Manor Pavilion on Monday, after trying to fit all those wanting to see Lark Rise into the 277-seater building. Howard Lee, chief steward for the theatre and Arts Centre, agreed. "There is always this problem with people who have got season tickets, but we make it quite clear we cannot guarantee a seat. "If they buy an event ticket we have to guarantee a seat, and we have tickets we can sell [on the night] if we can manage to get them in." John Dowell, festival marketing director, said: "It is always going to be a problem at the Manor Pavilion because it is a small venue, similar to the Methodist Church.

"With the weather being so bad everyone wants to be inside. It is just one of those things. "We haven't got a big enough venue to cope with some popular events. We could have done with something like a 500-seater hall." He said the Ham had originally been considered as a venue for the Lark Rise Band but decisions who went there wore judged on how many seats could be filled.

It would be a waste to only half-fill the large marquee, he added. "The hall could be well soundproofed. The big problem is car parking." Theatre manager Graham Whitlock had one suggestion - to build another layer of seating at the Manor Pavilion. *Do you have a solution to this quandary? Have your say on the Sidmouth Herald forum at uk.

Ticket structures and costs

The 2009 ticket structure followed closely on the format of 2008 and seems likely now to be maintained, despite many objections that the Ham evening concerts are not included in the main season ticket prices. However, Given that Folk Week could not possibly survive without the extra Ham income, attendees are probably just going to have to accept the current (or some slightly modified) system.

Bus tickets caused some grumbles as well - not only was the cost thought too high at 24 for a week ticket (8 for stewards) but the service was said to be poor at times with a 40 minute wait. The alternative was a walk down the dangerous Bulverton road, sometimes in appalling weather. "Could do better" seemed to be the view of some attendees - with the 24 cost psychologically (if not entirely logically) added to the 50 camping charge making 74 per week to experience what some folkies regard as one of the worst wet-weather campsites on the folk scene. Unfortunately Sidmouth is in a steep sided valley - we don't have acres of perfectly flat school playing fields adjacent to the excellent showers and facilities at Warwick! But they don't have Sidmouth's beach.

The 'three days for two' weekend ticket caused some muttering too - with comments that it was not really three days but 2.5 days (and not even that given the low number of attendees in town on the Friday afternoon). One of my suggestions in 2008 was that the 3 day weekend deal should be made into an 'any three consecutive days' ticket for the same price. In retrospect, this would have been too good value - but the option of an 'any three consecutive days' ticket should still be considered for 2010 if only because of the number of people who said they couldn't afford to buy either a week season ticket (160) or three separate day season tickets (96). The weekend season at 64 could still be offered together with a three-full-days ticket at maybe 80. This could be accommodated quite easily into existing box office and ticket structures, and extra punters at 80 each are better than no extra punters at all.

However, there could be logistics problems at the campsite if too many people decided to opt for a three-day Sidmouth. Many more campers would be arriving and leaving midweek. In wet weather this could be an unwelcome - or even impossible - extra task. Thus, the whole idea of three day tickets may have to be combined with a proper database of available land, private gardens and the like, where short term attendees might be accommodated.

Sales of full week season tickets were apparently slightly down in 2009 but sales of weekend and one day tickets were up - maybe reflecting the number of families who simply couldn't afford a full week in the recession.

Nevertheless, the principal problem is that Folk Week cannot expand further without new and larger venues - a point made some time ago on this website when it was argued that the festival might not be viable in the long term at some 'intermediate' size, between its size in the days when the Arena provided overspill capacity and top-up funding (in good weather!) and the small revived infrastructure of 2006/7.

The problem here is simply that Sidmouth possesses no 'ready made' large venues. They all have to be built and this is most viable financially only when they can be utilised at peak capacity for extended periods. Extending the duration of the event - maybe to a quieter second week with alternative uses for the principal marquees would (in theory) be one option. Curiously, All Saints School was marked as a venue on some FolkWeek maps in 2009 yet was not used. Maybe it fell through and will be used next year? Sidholme Hotel is another option - and while they permit folkies to stay as paying guests they were not keen on an en-masse invasion - at least not a few years ago.

Study into expenditure patterns by folkies - was it something I said?

Many years ago I severely criticised claims made by East Devon District Council (and by Steve Heap) and centred on the real input to the local economy from the International Folk Festival (as was). My analysis was taken up by other academics and has been mentioned in a recent publication, which itself is a revision of earlier work.

In 2009, FolkWeek organisers distributed a questionnaire designed to shed further light on real spending patterns - it is reproduced here. The results should be interesting - especially if De Montfort University is brave enough to publish the methodology behind its calculations! The questionnaire itself leaves a bit to be desired and it will be interesting to see what is deduced from the analysis.

Some couples I spoke to had budgeted well over 1000 for their week. Two advance season tickets would be 280, a few concerts would bring the total to over 300 and their hotel was 80 per night - which they thought quite reasonable! A single lady I spoke to now camped in the garden of a 'posh' house and was allowed to use the facilities - this gave her what she said was the best of both worlds - a 'real' festival under canvas but close to town and without the mud and problems of the Bulverton campsite. Other people also did a 'half and half' festival - staying in their motorhomes but in private driveways or gardens. I had two in my garden - maybe I should set up a register of welcoming households!

Another single lady told me her tale of woe about Sidmouth hotels - she had been quoted not only the double room rate as a single person but the hotel had said that if she came alone they would add a further supplement because she would be spending less in the town shops than if she came as part of a couple! Why this applied only to FolkWeek seemed unclear.

The questionnaire asks what could be done to reduce the environmental impact of the festival. Apart form 'ceasing to be' (which may yet happen, council grants can disappear as quickly as they appear!) the only obvious answers are recycling of rubbish, banning bottled water from all venues (except re-used bottles!) and reducing car use. Recycling would cause problems in such congested spaces and would be a token gesture only. Reducing car use could be done in two ways - encouraging or telling people to leave their cars on the campsite once sited and encouraging walking and bicycling. Both are dangerous up the Bulverton Road.

More motorhomes with families aboard could use driveways along the route from Primley to Sidford - it is now an easy and safe cycle ride into town, but with few places to chain your bike safely once you arrive.

Having volunteers tour the beach telling feral teenage morons (and their equally useless parents) not to discard plastic waste would be as fraught with danger as it would be pointless - there is now so much plastic clogging up the oceans mankind will disappear before it even starts to degrade. But again a token gesture might be thought appropriate. Our local councils should be issuing far more penalty notices for littering - but not for dropping apple cores or slices of tomato! In the meantime, motorists are an easier target: cars have index numbers and they don't use threatening behaviour.

Looking to the future - some day, maybe within current lifetimes, songwriters, poets and loremasters will start to record the days before the seas rose and swamped Sidmouth. In that fond remembered time, there was electricity, health care and plentiful food.

It has been an interesting few hundred years, and it may not last much longer. Music would have to be acoustic again, and dancers would no longer have to use earplugs. Apart from that, there would be no advantages. 

Social dance - contra and more contra!

All doubts about not having a good social dance programme vanished as soon as the week began. Robbie Thomas had organised some excellent musicians and callers, albeit as a last minute exercise. I only ever went to the contra, some French/Breton dances and a few other workshops. But there was just too much contra. I never thought I could get jaded by contra - but it happened, maybe because it was always the same group of people. You can have too much of always the same!

Wendy Graham from the USA proved to be as popular Cis Hinkle in the days of the old Sidmouth International Festival. Her low point was perhaps the Running Set workshop - too many people remembered Ray Goodswen's workshops - these have never been equalled let alone bettered. Rhodri Davies was always popular and very clear - although I have to say I prefer my explanation of a teacup chain to his. The musicians in these contra workshops were superb, despite some early problems with the acoustics. But the dance halls were just too small. Many sessions were crowded if not cramped and with House Full signs appearing on a few occasions.

The Irish dance was very good too - pity about the workshop that had to be cancelled in the Methodist Hall.

Festival Workshop Showcase

The Festival Choir and similar events are amongst the most demanding in terms of sustained commitment and genuine effort over the week. For example, people who spend hours each day learning from Sandra Kerr how to sing deserve better than to have their end of week finale sidelined into a 'graveyard slot' within the normal 5 to 7.30pm 'go home and change' interval. For many years, the dedication of these people (both young and old) and including Sandra Kerr herself has been appreciated within the Festival Workshop Showcase held during 'prime time' and in a large venue. This needs to be reinstated for 2010 - when the Parish Church may once again be available also. Sidelining these events constituted shabby treatment of some of the most dedicated attendees - and this was widely noted. Notwithstanding the inconvenient time of the Festival Choir event in 2009, the venue was packed and the performance praised in a letter to the local newspaper.

The relevant part of the 2008 programme is reproduced below: all the groups who collectively gave so much time to improving their artistic abilities came together in one final and very well attended event in Blackmore Gardens.

festival showcase.jpg (28594 bytes)

A poor end to the dance week for non-Bulverton attendees?

There was some dissatisfaction with the poor end of week social dances - Mic Spenceley and 3D came in for particular criticism and the final dance with Frances Richardson was billed as gentle - and it was. Some people who didn't attend LNEs (or the Bulverton in the afternoon) wanted the chance of a more spirited end to the week, rather than a couple of damp squibs! There was no proper Blackmore ceilidh either - the slot having been taken by an event for the under 12s. For these people, the festival felt as if it had ended after lunch.

The Box Office

Whilst a box office almost on the seafront may appear to offer a scenic and tranquil place of work, this is England. In England, it rains (although only very occasionally during the first week of August). Sometimes we have gales too.

Once every hundred years or so, the two are combined and we experience what building scientists call driving rain. Driving rain is interesting because it can flood through what appear to be soundly built brick walls. It can enter roof spaces in ways not often imagined, and it can swamp any paperwork left within a few feet of an open window - even a small window. But I have to say the views were almost worth it.

Wind driven snow can (by the way) get into places that wind driven rain cannot. But that is another topic.

My further advice on how to make this part of the festival function more effectively and at lower cost have been sent to the organisers. If they take up a few of my ideas - expect some changes next year. And blame me if they don't work.

Craft tent (trade fayre)

Relocated for 2009 into the grounds of Kennaway House, this was at first sight an 'out of the way' location for stalls that would rely on passing trade. The close proximity of the bus terminus may have compensated. Stalls apparently cost 400 for the week - against 600 or 700 in the old Arena, and were thought 'acceptable' by the couple of traders I spoke to. There were some unkind words about the overall Festival organisation - 'bloody diabolical' seemed to sum up the feelings of being told only with 6 weeks to go that a pitch was available. This comment was tempered by the observation that most UK festivals were also run on similar 'last minute' lines and with no-one in the organisation appearing to know who if anyone else needed to make a decision in order to come to an interim conclusion, pending a final review.

However, the new translucent panels in the roof were thought a good idea. The damage to the newly laid lawn on Kennaway House appeared to be more severe than that suffered at Blackmore Gardens or the Ham.

If traders vote with their wallets and return year after year, things can't be all that bad!

The festival on shaky ground?

The old International Festival relied in part on a 60,000 pa grant from EDDC. It folded in part owing to further funding not being made available. This is now past history - the details are on SeeRed.

The new festival (FolkWeek) has been in financial difficulties from its inception. This is not surprising: it has been trying to salvage, reinvent and develop a highly complex event in a town that is not ideally suitable as a host venue. The new festival has also become reliant on public funding - and it probably had no choice. Initially, 5000 came from Sidmouth Town Council, to support children's events. For 2009 it relied upon an increased grant of 15,000 from the town council and 10,000 from Devon County Council. It also received 5000 from the Sid Vale Association's Keith Owen Fund. This makes 30,000 in a year - plus donations from businesses. This is all money that could conceivably be withdrawn at any time.

Relying on expectations or promises that such grants will continue is playing a dangerous game. Local politics is a messy business. Whilst the same councillors hold sway, things may remain stable, skewed in what ever direction they feel best suits their own agendas. A change of councillor, a realignment of power bases or a suddenly imposed restraint on expenditure could cause a dramatic shift of priorities.

Seismic shifts have occurred before in Sidmouth politics. In the old days, Ted Pinney - a notable man who held sway for over a decade over Sidmouth Town Council as well as EDDC, would never stand for anything that disadvantaged Sidmouth. Nowadays, there is no such powerbase within the town. The chief showman of the ruling party, Councillor Stuart 'lunatic' Hughes is well known as a supporter of the festival - just as he supports everything else that he thinks might bring in a vote or two, and no matter if they are contradictory or simply mutually exclusive. But he does not command the respect that Ted Pinney used to do - few people could.

Ten years ago Hughes vehemently supported the lunatic idea of a large multi-storey car park in the town centre and at the same time he championed pedestrianisation, which would have closed off the viable access routes to the car park. Such matters of logic do not concern Hughes. He continues to be tolerated within his own party because he brings in the popular vote. Hughes is everybody's friend. But if he were to be deposed, others would seek rapidly to unravel his favourite projects, out of revenge, out of a desire to wield their new found power, out of a desire to block expenditure that did not benefit their own local area. The coming squeeze on public spending is a threat hanging over not just pet projects but local authority jobs. Little may be sacrosanct in the next few years - including gold plated index linked pension schemes in the public sector.

A long term aim of Folk Week should therefore be to become as independent as possible of externally controlled income. It needs to plan to survive - maybe in an altered form - were some or all of present funding to evaporate. The plans would not of course be revealed - to admit that you could survive without some grant or another is to invite it to be withdrawn! But not to plan for every eventuality would be reckless.

Of all the grants now in place, that from Sidmouth Town Council may be the most secure. Traders in the town wield much influence on this council, and they have a lot to lose if FolkWeek were to die. Reading between the lines, the sudden increase from 5000 to 15,000 was likely the result of an ultimatum delivered by the festival organisers - increase the grant or you don't have a festival in 2009. Sidmouth Town Council can increase its precept as a part of Council Tax - it is not subject to capping by central government as are larger councils. Even that could change - arguably for the better.

Any suggestion that FolkWeek is 'out of trouble' can be neatly dismissed. After presenting the Bill Rutter award at the final LNE John Braithwaite (Chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Productions Ltd) made much of "we did OK, we'll be back again next year". Thus confirming what everyone already knew - that year on year there is and will likely remain, real doubt.

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