Sidmouth Folk Week 2007 - comments and analysis.

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Once again, the organisers of Sidmouth Folk Week were lucky. Contractors and volunteers had to contend with some soggy ground during the initial stages of erecting the marquees and organising the campsite but during Folk Week itself, the weather was remarkably good. Three good years in a row (2005/6/7) may have helped lay the foundations for a sustainable festival but it is still the case that one really wet year might kill the whole event. Audited accounts from 2006 apparently show an operating loss of 30,000 - and that was in a good year. Further details are here. Superficially however, many people think the whole show is safely back on the road. Therefore, the biggest risk factor now may be complacency.

The festival is far from secure - it has dubious finances, it continues to be run by a small group of overworked volunteers and the loyalty of both some stewards and long-time patrons is in doubt. Like so many folk and music festivals it may never become truly secure, it may merely survive on a year by year basis until some calamitous event proves too much. Only then - and not for the first time in Sidmouth - may many people realise what they risk losing.

Other folk festivals have been cancelled in 2007 and owing principally to lack of financial support - notably Wadebridge and Bunkfest. Others are hanging by a thread with too few volunteers carrying an unsustainable administrative load. Arguably, all that saved Sidmouth festival in late 2004 was the intervention of a few dedicated local folk stalwarts and a businessman from Kent. There is no guarantee that Sidmouth as a town will be so fortunate next time.

Numbers up, folk arts quality down?

Is Sidmouth Folk Week showing signs of appealing more to local 'day trippers' and youngsters who want to 'thrash about' and less to genuine dedicated folkies? There are a few worrying signs. Certainly the number of 'genuine folkies' remains at a much lower level than in previous years. Enhanced publicity for the event on local television (and with the added attraction of seeing most of the ill-fated Napoli towed away) may have encouraged more casual visitors - swelling the overall numbers but diluting the folk-arts atmosphere. A snapshot of the crowds in the Steve Heap years would show many people dressed in outlandish and/or distinctive folk costumes and clothes. Some would have been the international visiting groups who helped to give Sidmouth its world status in the Folk Arts. Many others would have been hard-core folk attendees from around the world.

Now, the crowds look more like those at any English seaside resort. Most of the colour and almost all of the spectacle has gone - and with it much of the atmosphere that made Sidmouth International Festival so special. The torchlight procession on the last night remains perhaps the best indicator of how little remains of what used to be taken for granted. In 2007, the organisers went to considerable lengths to attract more younger people to the revamped 'Bulverton Experience'. This was successful in as much as 'footfall' was much increased but once again the folk content (here judged by the quality of LNE dancing) may have been compromised.

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Article from the Sidmouth Herald 10 August 2007

Folk Week 2007 seemed to attract more than the usual number of stalls along the Esplanade. Many were selling all manner of probably shoddy and mis-described goods - the types of things holidaymakers spend their money on and then throw away when they get home. These stalls certainly impeded free passage along the Esplanade - a few extended almost half way to the seafront railings and some were set up against the railings - creating an obstacle course for pedestrians and wheelchair users alike. They were in place each morning by 8.30am and left little room for musicians to set up in the 'prime' area between Fore St and Station Road. There were also one or two examples of groups setting up to play amplified music - this is discouraged both by the Folk Week organisers and by EDDC. After all - you need to be able to hear the roar of the traffic to obtain maximum enjoyment from a stroll along Sidmouth's peaceful Regency seafront!

There seemed to be fewer 'ad hoc' genuine folk musicians and/or singing playing anywhere along the Esplanade, despite the generally good weather in 2007. On some days you had to walk the length of the Esplanade to find one! The key question is whether they didn't come to Sidmouth at all or were 'pushed out' by traders. The former is more likely as there were large stretches of the Esplanade (and other areas of the town) that were free of both traders and musicians for most of the week.

This could be the start of a worrying trend. Already there is concern that many of the good ceilidh dancers have abandoned Sidmouth Folk Week - indeed they have not been seen since 2004. Some have decided it is now just too expensive. Overall, the new style festival (still resolutely called Folk Week by a few people) is attracting maybe less than a third of the number of 'folkie' visitors compared to 2002/2004 when the official campsite occupied both fields and with tents and caravans packed closely together - and at a density that would not be allowed at many other festivals. Now, there is so much space that people can pitch almost where they like and with room to spare.

Daytime events at the Bulverton site ('enhanced' for 2007) also seem to have been well attended. However, the LNE (late night extra) remained on some nights a shadow of its former self, both in terms of numbers attending and in the quality of the dancing. In all, it was a distinct improvement over 2005 but it has a way to go yet. They key factors here are certainly the lower overall numbers of hard-core folkies attending at all and (part of the same problem) the absence of so many good ceilidh dancers.

There are also perennial problems with lack of campsite discipline. This may ultimately cost the festival significant revenue as every year a few attendees vow 'never again'.

Nevertheless, the public message remains upbeat - as would be expected in the age of spin. The following article is devoid of any analysis but once again it highlights the problem of trading on the seafront interfering with the Folk Arts nature of the event - although many casual visitors probably equate the two. The problem of 50 or more stewards not reporting for duty is also highlighted.

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It is a moot point whether many people ambling along the seafront know or care about the difference between amateur Folk Arts performers who have traditionally found Sidmouth to be a welcoming venue and the travelling street professionals who can quickly set up amplified music to attract large crowds. One problem with this latter group is that the music they produce can dominate a large stretch of the seafront, to the disadvantage of (for example) a child playing a guitar or violin particularly well.

It is not only the throngs of day trippers who don't seem to know the difference: the following abridged article is from page 9 of the Sidmouth Herald of 17 August 2007. The photo is from page 15. It is devoted to extolling the sights and sounds of the festival!

GOBMACKED that someone would book a seafront hotel room during folk week and then complain about loud music, a Sidmothian is asking why a group playing on the seafront was moved on by police. We were listening to a band that were playing wind pipes at around quarter past nine in the evening and two policemen came up and asked them to stop playing and move on.

They said they had a complaint from a guest in a hotel that they were too noisy. If these people book a room on the seafront for a week when the festival is on what do they want. The seagulls were louder. She said the festival brings vital tourism to the town. An EDDC spokesman said: EDDC had an officer on duty all day, monitoring the street traders and the public order situation.

There is a bye-law that empowers the council to ask musicians who use amplification equipment to stop performing if there has been a complaint. The council did receive a complaint and from one of the Folk Week organisers.

He said they had spoken to the group on a number of occasions.We had to ask the Police to attend to ensure that the group did comply with our request. In view of the source of the complaint, we feel our actions were completely reasonable.

A police spokesman said: "Police supported the local council in asking the group to move on. "The police were there mainly to prevent a breach of the peace."

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The Children's events, the Festival Showcase, and the Sidmouth Town Council Appreciation Society.

All of this seemed to go well.

Positive feedback centres on the children's events and the Festival Choir - although it was disappointing during the Festival Workshop Showcase on Friday afternoon to witness the extent to which someone of the stature of Eddie Upton went out of his way to bestow praise on Sidmouth Town Council - including emphasising that he had done so on local television.

There are two points here: it is the town council and its shopkeeper members in particular who should be enduringly thankful for all the hard work of the volunteer and unpaid people who have made Folk Week happen for three years. More seriously, if the festival genuinely is so desperately and deeply grateful for the 5000 of public money that is given to them via Sidmouth Town Council (by way of sponsoring the children's events) then the overall finances of the event must indeed be precarious.

Divided loyalties - a long way to go yet?

Continuing the theme of gratuitous praise, Eddie Upton emphasised the extent to which local people "the town of Sidmouth" felt that they "once again owned the festival" - the implication being that this was somehow better for the town than in the days when it was a far bigger event that returned far more money into the town! The organisers really do seem terrified that somehow 'the town' will turn against them in some way.

One could continue in this vein. In the good old days, East Devon residents got perks from the big bad management under Steve Heap - heavily discounted season tickets. These were such good value that they were purchased in large numbers and with a deep sense of gratitude - and there was a furious reaction when supplies ran out in 2004. Residents also got a world class and internationally recognised festival the like of which occurred nowhere else in the UK. Fast forward to 2007 and not only did local folk dancers not buy expensive season tickets (for the first time in decades in some cases) but there is increasing talk of just purchasing a few event tickets in 2008.

The new organisers have a long way to go before they can command the same degree of loyalty that Sidmouth regulars gave to Steve Heap. Yet the organisers have come a long way since the dark days of 2004, far further than many predicted would be feasible. Bringing back substantial discounts on season tickets for all East Devon residents would cost too much and in any case, EDDC no longer supports the festival with 60,000pa.

There seems to be some disconnection between the gushing public pronouncements aimed at propping up the newly forged and arguably pretentious PR alliance between 'townspeople and the festival' and stark economic realities. Certainly, the present organisers have managed to gain trader support (financial and goodwill) to a degree never achieved by Steve Heap but the actual extent in cold cash is largely unknown. In terms of 'ticket equivalents' it may not amount to much: for example, 5000 is equivalent to (only) forty 125 gold season tickets - almost within the 'noise level' for the overall event. In 2007, traders paid for the end of week fireworks - 2000 up in smoke!

Several thousand pounds a year may also be lost because of the numbers of people who decide 'never again' after experiencing what seems to be the increasing indiscipline of the official Bulverton campsite. Each family who decide to stay elsewhere will cost the festival over 120 and each individual nearly 50. The viability of the Bulverton food outlets will be affected also, and with it the price they are prepared to pay for their pitch.


Why blame folkies for what are inherent problems in Sidmouth?

The attitude of some Sidmouth shop assistants and residents to the annual influx of folkies is well documented elsewhere on this website - and has changed little over the years.

Two sentences in the following letter stand out - first, the assertion that there was "music around every corner" - not in comparison to previous years?! Second, by "bumping up profits" shops were "allowed to stay open later than usual".

It might be an apocryphal tale (and it might have been told to me just as a wind up) - but here goes: A shopkeeper in a Gloucestershire town was asked why she was so glad that the local fringe festival would not be happening the following year. She said that it created far too much business. Her staff were forced to work long hours, they were rushed off their feet and were exhausted at the end of the weekend. One can only assume that all the extra business and associated profits were as unwelcome as the opportunity to participate in local community events.

Another story from Sidmouth 2007 is equally illuminating. The owners of one of the town's cafes were asked if they would like to advertise in the official programme to help support the festival. Their reply was that they had no need to advertise because they were always busy during folk week.

Hostility to folkies has always been evident from some Sidmouth residents. Certainly there are problems in Folk Week: mounds of rubbish on the beach including a lot of broken glass (blame itinerants and lack of proper policing), litter everywhere (blame lack of proper law enforcement year round throughout the UK) and alcohol abuse and vomit all over the Esplanade (blame local yobs and lack of proper policing - it's much the same all summer). Shopkeepers complain all year about the lack of CCTV in the town and cite theft and vandalism as increasing problems. Local people are largely responsible. When these same events occur during Folk Week it is (of course) the great unwashed of the folk world who get the blame!

In the week following the 2007 festival a shop window was smashed in Sidmouth. The bill for replacement will be well over 1000. The person responsible was apprehended by members of the public - probably at some risk to themselves. The police response was to issue an official caution to a 15 year old boy. This tells you all you need to know about why crime levels are soaring. The official line of course is that crime is falling - but that is largely because so much crime is nowadays never reported because people are tired of wasting their time even talking to the police. And the police are tired of having to fill out about 49 forms every time they arrest a drunken underage yob. But I digress!

We 'folkies' are not thieves or deadbeats
letter in the Sidmouth Herald 10 August 2007.

MADAM -  I have just spent a wonderful weekend in lovely Sidmouth as my son's band was playing in the Folk Festival. The weather made everything just perfect with music around every corner and families enjoying themselves and joining in the fun.

I was disappointed, however, to overhear conversations by shop assistants either to each other or to their regular customers making derogatory comments about "folkies". We Folkies are, believe it or not, normal people and we can actually hear! I was in one very reputable store and one assistant said to the other "watch it, stock is already starting to go", as she looked me up and down whilst tidying her clothes rails. I in fact spent a large sum of money there and maybe to her surprise have a very high powered job! In one charity shop there was a "folk week rail" - this was a fun idea, which I am sure made them an extra pound or two, and I am sure much appreciated, but when the assistant referred to the "unsavoury invasion" and had a little laugh at the fact it was good fun people watching us "types" whilst sniggering, this really showed what a small world some people live in.

Once again, this lady was quite happy to take my money though. My son's band is young and vibrant; they are excellent musicians and very well educated young men. Maybe some shop assistants should take some time to listen to some of this music which is evolving all the time, unlike their dated attitudes. Whilst I understand some different characters must descend on Sidmouth during this week, surely it would be polite to be mindful of those who are after all bumping up your profits and allowing some of you to stay open later than usual and charge a little extra for the privilege!

I believe that this handful of people is not a true reflection of Sidmouth people who were otherwise very friendly indeed. Please do not assume we are all thieves and deadbeats and perhaps try not to be so judgemental next year and step down from your moral high ground!

CHRISTINE NORTH
The Herons
Weald Bridge Road
North Weald
Epping
Essex


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