Report of a public meeting held in the Manor Pavilion, Sidmouth on 17 February 2006 to discuss Sidmouth Folk Week 2006 - and including Press comments and other discussions.
First published on 18 Feb 2006, revised after comments received, 28 Feb & 8 March 2006.
The meeting was opened by Councillor Tom Cox representing Sidmouth Town Council (STC). He apologised for the absence of both Cllr. Ann Liverton, the present Chairman of STC, and also Cllr. Tony Reed, who was abroad. The continuing support of STC both as a sponsor and facilitator was said to be assured. The rest of the meeting was chaired by Chris Taylor, the owner of C & C Electrical (a shop in Sidmouth) and in his capacity as a trustee of Folk Week and the present chairman of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce.
In contrast to the 'full house' of the previous town meeting only about 50 people attended. Of these, probably 10 or 15 had to attend (the organisers, a couple of councillors, a few people involved on the fringes of the organisation), leaving perhaps 30 or 40 who attended either out of interest or simply to show support. The meeting lasted an hour.
Derek Schofield summarised the achievements that had led from the demise of the International Festival to a spirited revival of Folk Week in 2005. Individual promoters had taken their own financial risks, there had been a useful degree of co-operation as plans progressed towards August 2005 and, in the end, the week produced a surplus of £25,000. Although not mentioned at the meeting, much of the £25,000 is thought to have been generated by the Ham concerts organised by Gordon Newton (who is not involved in 2006) and directly via street collections - the LNE venue (for example) having operated at a loss. This money has been given to Sidmouth Folk Week Ltd, the charity set up to act as custodian of the artistic integrity of Folk Week, and it was intended to hold it to offset any wet weather losses in future years. Whether it proves adequate for this purpose and whether it proves possible to build up the surplus into a more comfortable contingency fund remains to be seen.
There seems to be some sensitivity as to the exact wording used in the above: my text said that the profit from 2005 (£25,000) was to be 'given' to Sidmouth Folk Week Ltd, the local newspaper reported it was to be 'handed over' to this charity and Derek Schofield originally stated that it is 'being transferred'. Quite what the difference is I cannot imagine, but here is the exact text of what Derek Schofield said, sent to me by email. This also makes clear (once again) that there appears to be an extreme sensitivity about keeping 'local opinion' on the side of the 'new look' event.
"I did not state that the money has been given, I said that it was in the process of being transferred. In addition, I was at pains to state the purpose of the charity. I worked from a script and this is what I said:
Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd the charity will now be acting as the custodian of the festival. It will maintain the integrity of the event. By integrity, we mean not only the artistic integrity, but also the integrity of the event in its local community. We cannot succeed properly in running this event unless we enjoy local support. We believe that we have that support. And we want to keep it.
Thats not what you have reported."
Trustees of SFW (the Charity) were listed as Tony Reed (STC), Chris Taylor, Tim Shardlow (a local solicitor), John Dowell, Tony Day (Middle Bar Singer), Simon Spoerer (Great Western Morris), Jean Salt (Sidmouth Steppers), Barry Lister and Derek Schofield.
Although not mentioned at the meeting, it might be worth noting that vocal opposition by a few residents was one reason why the Bridgnorth festival chose to relocate to Shrewsbury. Here is what the organisers said in a diplomatically worded leaflet published in Feb 2006:
"Yes the big move is underway. Making the decision to move the festival from Bridgnorth to Shrewsbury was very difficult; the very essence of almost any festival is the character of its host town. But we were running out of space, testing the patience of our neighbours, and the resolve of our District Council. The challenge had to be faced, move forwards or fall backwards. Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council came to the rescue..."
For 2006, Sidmouth Folk Week is being organised by Sidmouth Folk Week Productions Ltd with Eddie Upton as its chairman. An extended children's programme is envisaged with many more activities at Bulverton for the 14+ age group.
Although not discussed at the meeting, the strategy of trying to attract more young people to what will be one of the more expensive of the summer festivals may prove risky. Other festivals are attractive to youngsters and are cheaper because they last only for a long weekend - for example Shrewsbury offer a 4 day junior ticket (aged 10 to 16 years and purchased before 1 April) for £26 and camping is free so long as you are with an adult (4 day ticket costs £52 and camping is £6). For comparison, Sidmouth prices in 2006 are £120 per adult (£80 youth and £40 children 5 to 11 years) and camping is £40 (adult) or £27 (youth, 12 to 17 years old).
One wag who announced the Sidmouth Folk Week ceilidhs at an event in Exeter on 18 February said that the family season tickets were such good value that it would be worth stealing a few children for the week. I am not sure of his calculations as a family ticket with camping at Sidmouth would cost £300 + £120 camping = £420 (+£10 for a caravan) for a full week whereas at Shrewsbury a family ticket is £140 plus £12 for the two adult camping passes = £152 for the four days. However, Shrewsbury only allow two juniors per family ticket whereas Sidmouth allows up to three. For local residents or visitors who stay with friends and who do not need camping, the Sidmouth tickets offer comparable value - and of course you get a week by the seaside! The large difference in camping costs may be attributable in part to the (unknown) charges made by the owner of the Sidmouth site at Bulverton for use of the field(s) during the week.
In the past, Sidmouth International Festival attracted a huge following from more 'well-to-do' holidaymakers who were prepared to travel, often from overseas. With the demise of the International Festival and its Arena events these 'no-expense-spared' supporters are unlikely to return in any significant number. The same may be true for many people who came to Sidmouth not for the week as committed folkies, but primarily for a few of the 'big name' Arena concerts. This point was made specifically at the meeting - one man questioned whether the demise of the Arena could be so casually dismissed, as some people had suggested. He thought that some people had found it to be a less 'threatening' environment for non-folkies: other venues had been seen by some potential Festival attendees as being too exclusively 'folkie'.
In an enthusiastic address, Eddie Upton commended the 'fantastic programme in the making' and the introduction of season tickets for 2006. He even said that these would be cheaper than in previous years at 'only' £120 per week - but if comparing 2006 in value-for-money terms you would have to factor in that in 2004 and previously (under Steve Heap) the season tickets represented far better value (despite being more expensive) because of the stunning range of events on offer. The 2006 season tickets would include a discount on Ham evening concert tickets of 33% - so a £15 ticket could be purchased for £10. Publicity for the week was well advanced both on the official website and with 50,000 high quality leaflets having been printed.
Two new 'in town' venues were to be included, the Conservative Club and the War Memorial Club. These would be used for workshops. Neither is likely to have much of a 'folkie' atmosphere and both may reek of stale cigarettes - a problem noted by some Sidmouth folkies when a local dance club relocated from a village hall to the Royal British Legion Hall in Honiton. Even with no smoking on the day, the furnishings are so saturated with chemical residues that the 'aftertaste' of tobacco is a problem for many people. A similar problem was experienced by the author at the Bunkfest festival in 2005. The workshops would be open to anyone buying an event ticket - there would be no need to buy a season ticket.
Use of the Ham marquee will be extended to 3 concerts per day, and with 1000+ capacity, all of which implies that the venue will be 'concerts only' in 2006 and will not be used for dancing. Concerts will also be held at the Manor Pavilion and the Bedford Hotel.
On a sad note, Eddie Upton noted that a member of the Old Rope String Band had been killed by a hit and run driver - the band had since reformed into the New Rope String Band and would perform in the Manor Pavilion.
Ray Goodswen made a brief presentation about the social dancing that was the subject of considerable speculation in 2005 because it had been organised as a private venture, separate from the main folk week committee. For 2006, it was to be financially integrated and brought closer into town (well, a little closer!). The music room of the Sidholme Hotel would a new venue, with the halls at Sidford and St Frances being used as in 2005. This is an improvement but it would still be preferable if the social dances could be 'in town'. Mr Goodswen explained that in 2005, bands and callers came on the basis that if no profits were made they would not get paid. Presumably, given the sell-out of tickets and the minimal costs of hiring local halls, they did get paid! There was no discussion of the actual finances of these events.
The Blackmore Gardens would become more of an all-purpose 'village green' in 2006 with dancing, an enlarged Craft Tent, and more children's activities. It was even suggested that Blackmore Gardens could in some way be a replacement for the Knowle Arena - but presumably minus the 4000 people (paying around £50,000 per event) who in good years flocked there to hear and see international calibre performers!
In contrast to the social dance bands and callers, Jean Salt said that the Morris teams who came in 2005 never expected to be paid and indeed some collected money for Folk Week. Most had loved it, she said, and would be returning. EDDC were being supportive and it is hoped to have as many groups in 2006 as in 2005. Simon Spoerer gave a brief but upbeat presentation on the ceilidhs - a large number of bands had been booked for 2006 and representing the full spectrum from very loud to the ever-popular Pixies.
The organisers were keen to make 2006 more of an event for children of all ages, and attractions included the involvement of Ethno-England for 14+ dancers at the Bulverton and workshops for parents and the under 5s. A Global Dance Party type of event was planned for early evening(s?) at Bulverton. All of this sounds fine provided the youngsters behave themselves (or else the locals will be annoyed) and if sufficient of them choose to attend given the ticket prices compared with those at competing festivals. Much of this seems to have derived from a desire to make far more use of the Bulverton marquee in 2006 given the sparse attendance and financial losses of 2005. It may be a make-or-break year for this venue in 2006, and indeed for the whole Folk Week. This point was alluded to by Eddie Upton who stressed that in 2005 the goodwill shown had been exceptional - from artists, from customers, from stewards and from the town. In 2006 and onwards, maybe Folk Week will have to make its own way in a more demanding environment.
The 'damp squib' of the evening seemed to be the announcement of the 'EX10' or 'supporters' club (EX10 being the Sidmouth area postcode!). For a annual payment of £20 you would be permitted to purchase discount Ham evening concert tickets - although you would need to purchase at least 4 of them to make an EX10 card financially worthwhile. The whole idea seems at best muddled - if it is to be spread (as was suggested) to EX11 and EX9 then why not across the whole UK? The aim is to act as a supporters club and a means to 'donate' to Folk Week without expecting much or anything in return.
It was explained that the organisers could not afford to offer discount season tickets to East Devon residents because EDDC had withdrawn the £60,000 annual grant that they had given to the International Festival up to 2004. In reality, only about 2000 season tickets were ever sold for a typical year up to 2003 and maybe less than a third of these to East Devon residents? No estimate of the number being made available in 2006 was given although it was stated that they would be 'limited' to allow scope for single ticket purchases for some of the events.
This may prove unwise - the undoubtedly shaky finances of Folk Week may need as much up-front money as possible. Selling the maximum number of season tickets as far in advance as possible may be the best way of achieving this. Seeking to favour more casual 'single event' ticket purchases may be risky when taken overall: the number of casual visitors may be reduced because so many came to see Arena events. Expect some further fine-tuning of the ticket structure?!
Chris Taylor stressed that it was very much the intention to keep the festival 'in the town' and he even said that the events in the Arena had been 'unwanted' by townspeople. This represents the extreme of a view prevalent amongst traders in the town - that the Arena was full of food stalls taking trade away from town shops. It is a singularly narrow-minded view, as has been emphasised already on this website, yet is one shared by at least some of town councillors (several of whom either own shops or work in them).
A further indication of the extent to which Folk Week is now seen as 'for the benefit of the town' is that there is, as yet, no provision for food stalls on the Ham or at Bulverton although both are under discussion - as is squeezing one into Blackmore Gardens. It is no secret that some town traders are against any such provision, and despite the fact that the town shops could not cope adequately with the demand for food during 2005. This has already been discussed. Many people complained that they had to queue. Some bemoaned the absence of 'festival food' such as Mexican and other exotic specialities. Food outlets always bring a litter problem - but Sidmouth has a huge problem anyway, centred upon coach-loads of seemingly brain-dead day-trippers who feed the seagulls as soon as they have sat down with their fish and chips.
One person said that she was glad to get rid of the International Festival and all the arena events, which she saw as overpriced. She saw the 'new-look' Folk Week as being much more in the spirit of the 'old days'. Her view, that the town is glad to be rid of all the 'excess' of the Steve Heap years is one shared by many local people and some older folkies. Indeed, this point was picked up and reported in the local newspaper on 24 February as follows:
The news that there would no longer be an arena at the Knowle was met with cheers from the audience. Outlining other plans for 2006, Eddie Upton said: "There are some new venues this year and some events will be held at the Conservative Club - so some of you may wish to attend in disguise"
I do not agree that there were "cheers from the audience". One woman seemed delighted but she is well known in the town for other reasons - see the comments posted a mudcat 'thread' and reproduced here. In any case, it seems illogical to decry the Arena events as 'overpriced' when they were often a sell-out to thousands of people - but maybe logic takes second place to small town dogma. An additional nail in the Arena coffin was provided by Chris Taylor who highlighted the 'sky-high' insurance costs resulting from the topology of the venue including the dangerous old railings upon which festival goers were (presumably) regularly impaled!
My own view remains that the old style International Festival was unique and uniquely beneficial to the town - and that some of the various councils and councillors involved remain at least partly culpable for its demise. The new style Folk Week will become, at best, one of the many well organised (and competing) folk events in the UK. It may have little to distinguish it apart from the memories of what it once was - and of course the enduring seafront and beaches. It remains to be seen whether the 'goodwill' that was so heavily stressed as having been a feature of 2005 is maintained through 2006 and beyond as memories fade. The loss to Sidmouth is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the torchlight processions of 2004 (and previously) with that of 2005 - it was a damp squib and a very poor imitation at best. Personally, I doubt if this part of the festival will be maintained - and indeed there seemed little point to it even in 2005.
Longer term plans mentioned at the meeting included having the Battlefield Band in 2007 and making a special effort in 2012 to compete with the London Olympics - or maybe to offer a welcome alternative to them?
It is worth reiterating of course that Sidmouth is not the only festival to have run into trouble in recent years - but as one of the largest in Europe it has attracted much attention. Many smaller festivals have also suffered from the onslaught of 'health and safety' legislation, insurance costs, etc. The fundamental problem in Sidmouth has been well discussed in earlier pages on this website - the town has little in the way of fixed infrastructure that comes 'free of charge'. All major events therefore have to recover marquee or similar costs.
Holmfirth festival has been 'rescued' by local businesses after the Festival Committee decided not to hold it as normal in 2006. Tiny by comparison with Sidmouth, it takes place almost exclusively in existing venues. More details here - including the full size image that by itself makes the website worth visiting!
The rescuers are led by Holme Valley Business Association assisted by local folk music and dance enthusiasts. More than 40 businesses have pledged support.
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