Sidmouth Folk Week 2005 - time for some realism?

The following discussion was placed on the mudcat folk forum by the SeeRed author on 11 November 2004. It represents probably the first rational analysis of how folk week in 2005 could succeed or fail. Previous discussions on the forum have largely ignored market sector considerations. They have also failed to recognise that, compared to many other festivals, travel between events during Sidmouth Folk Week is a significant detracting factor even in good weather.

It is therefore little short of remarkable that the steering group appears content with a forward plan that envisages dispersal of an (obviously) smaller number of attendees to scattered venues around the town. Logically, if the 'soul' and 'togetherness' of the event are to have the best chance of surviving, attendees should be concentrated as much as possible into town centre venues, if only to maximise the number of chance encounters. Utilising the main campsite (albeit on a smaller scale) could also significantly enhance the overall appeal by providing both a sense of continuity with 2004 (and, maybe, 2006) and a shorter walk into town.

Comments may be sent directly to the author (email - no attachments please) or posted on the mudcat forum - make sure you select the "Sidmouth 2005 opinions" thread. You may also send comments to the principal Sidmouth festival organisers for 2005 - John Dowell and Tony Day (more details including postal address here)

Subject: RE: Sidmouth 2005+ - opinions
From: Steve in Sidmouth 
Date: 11 Nov 04

What primarily concerns me now is that there are many people who appear not to understand that the world has moved on - from the days when Sidmouth had dancing in outlying halls and holidaymakers were happy with a bucket and spade. People now have more choice of which festival to attend and higher expectations when they get there.

The majority of those attending Sidmouth 2003/2004 may not have been drawn primarily by sing-songs in pubs but by the international "spectaculars" and the superb dance sessions and concerts conveniently located near the centre of a unique town. I agree with Lizzie when she mentions dance in the centre of Sidmouth as being a feature so many people come to experience. It was watching the dance sessions in Blackmore Gardens and on Church House Lawn that got me on to a dance floor for the first time in my life. (Thank you, Steve Heap)

If you have the data (and no-one has released any, and especially not EDDC who had a report drawn up by Peter Mason) you can illustrate these things using Venn diagrams and other manifestations of group and set theory. I have suggested as much to DCMS and their library colleagues in another section of SeeRed. For an illustration of their use try

Put simply, a festival needs a good overlap between the events on offer and the things that the majority of potential attendees find attractive - especially if attending means a long trip down to deepest Devon. It also needs a healthy proportion of the overlap to be substantially insensitive to weather. This is in effect your guaranteed income, come what may.

I suppose someone may start bleating in Lympstone English (or equally bad French) about negativity, but constructive criticism and rational analysis are the only way forward within any businesslike approach.

Take a simple example - my figures are pulled out of the air but it is the principle that needs illustrating. If you organised 30 pub sessions, MBS, Bedford and the like, and a few storytelling sessions and pub concerts, these might be of keen interest to a total of 500 people, including the folkies who come primarily to spend most of their time (and money) in the Anchor. Remember that in 2004 only around 2500 full season tickets were sold. The remaining 20,000 people making between them (in 2003/4) maybe 40,000 visits to individual events might have been interested primarily in dancing (say 800 people and 6000 visits?), the superb international events and the whole 'Sidmouth atmosphere' (say 3,000 people and 20,000 events) and specifically the arena and Ham concerts (say 5,000 tickets sold to people who came primarily just to see Kate Rusby, the Watersons and a few others and who stayed on for a few other things too.)

Take away the international acts, take away the 'star' acts such as Kate Rusby and take away the 'house full' dance sessions in the town (putting them out into half-deserted village and church halls miles away) and you are left with very little in town that is of primary appeal to many (perhaps most) potential attendees. Will many travel 200 miles to see things that are not of primary interest? What if it rains? How does the proposed model stand up? Granted many people will participate in or watch a pub session for the odd half hour but how many are sufficiently interested to class these events as primary interest and a compelling reason to make the trip?

The arena has always been sensitive to weather, less so the marquees and the whole 'in town' experience of which they were a central part. What will be left in town in 2005 if it rains? (This is not negativity, it's called sensitivity analysis.) There will be little on the Esplanade, the pubs will be full of maybe 1000 people in total, there will be (?) no dance marquees in town where you can spend a few happy hours out of the rain (even if you don't want to dance), and the arena may be a soggy mess with perhaps a 1970's act to look forward to in a few hours and maybe nowhere to shelter. Will the large Ham marquee be open to all as shelter with some entertainment? If not, might as well go home? The Ham is not mentioned in the press release of 9 Nov. Has the idea of having a Ham marquee been abandoned?

Most attendees may not be the determined folkies who will cheerfully trudge one and a half miles carrying their rucksacks and children to a distant village hall. Many people on family budgets will need to decide whether to come to Sidmouth or to go to a more guaranteed experience elsewhere. We are not all retired and/or rich folkies who can do the lot if we wish.

The 9 November press release really shows one thing - lack of co-ordination. EDDC or Sidmouth Town Council could have taken a lead and it would have cost them peanuts. I hope it is not too late to reconsider providing dance marquee(s) in town - the tickets might be selling rather better. There is certainly plenty of time to 'get it right' and full dance marquees are surely a viable cost centre? I retain the view I expressed months ago - it is an appalling mistake to put the social dancing/workshops/ceilidhs out of the town centre. It will put so much of the 'action' of the festival out of public view and it will be hassle enough getting to and from distant campsites, wet children in tow. Granted you might have a ceilidh or two at the Anchor - with many (most) intending dancers stuck out at Sidford for the morning and with no easy way to park in town at lunchtime?

In fact I have not seen anything at all said about parking. It may be an even more crucial part of 2005 than 2004 even if the total numbers attending are much lower - because so many people may come just for one or two acts (Wurzels??) and many may wish to use cars to and from the distant campsites and venues, rather than pay for infrequent buses.

Several people who do not live in East Devon have said to me that they will need to confirm hotel accommodation for 2005 early in the New Year or lose their reservation - so by then there needs to be a very much firmer idea of what they can expect.

Finally, if some people bothered to read we would see less discussion here about Sidmouth traders becoming bankrupt if the festival were to fold. Only a few would suffer badly. By far the largest income streams for the town are independent of the festival. Put simply, most Sidmouth residents couldn't care less about it one way or the other and most Sidmouth shopkeepers couldn't either. It seems a wholly different set-up from Cropready.

Whatever happens in Sidmouth post-2004 there will be a record on SeeRed - if only as a warning to others not to let slip away what took years to build.

For those who missed it on the 'news' thread, photos of the principal 30 or so players in all of this would be welcomed - together with some biography and details of your involvement.

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