21 April 2022

Did the Folk Festival go too far in trying to broaden its appeal?

| Ian Bushnell
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NFF closing concert

The National Folk Festival closing concert finale. Photo: Facebook/Ben Appleton.

Just pulling off a four-and-a-half-day event after two years of cancellations due to COVID-19 should be enough kudos to the National Folk Festival, but questions remain about whether its new direction struck the right chord.

The Festival’s return deserves to be celebrated and its organisers praised for making it happen.

Its board kept a lid on the complex internal tussle in the folk community over how the Festival could remain relevant and secure its future, but the eventual post-event review will need to confront these questions, including the perennial, ‘just what is folk?’

It’s hardly a new debate. Some still rue the day Dylan went electric.

Crowd numbers were down this year, which made for more comfortable dashes along EPIC’s streets to concerts and shorter queues for food, but that can be attributed to the ongoing effects of the still-in-progress pandemic.

There were fewer camping sites available and some regular festival-goers would have been nervous about booking and attending. Indeed, some artists had to cancel after contracting the virus.

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Festival organisers made no secret of the fact that they intended to broaden the scope of the event to be less traditional and embrace much more than the Anglo-Celtic roots of Australian folk in a bid to attract more young people and get up to speed with the country’s multicultural profile.

This process has been underway for some time, but the hiring of someone outside the folk idiom to be the Festival’s Artistic Director ruffled some feathers and took it down a path to a wider menu of music.

Katie Noonan’s musical credentials are undeniable and anyone who has heard her sing will attest to that, but she may have leant too much on her own connections and applied a tick- the-diversity-box selection criteria to the event that diluted the Festival’s essential nature.

Without any international artists, the Festival became all-Australian, posing challenges for programmers needing to fill slots across the weekend.

That may have also contributed to the broad church of artists assembled.

Even headliner Kate Ceberano had to be convinced she was the right fit for the National, and while her performance with a terrific band was top-notch, is it what you’d expect at a ‘folk festival’?

Pop, rock, country, jazz, soul and world music was all on offer amid the more expected styles, and some will wonder who didn’t make the cut.

Two women on stage

Charm of Finches: one of the young acts which augur well for the future. Photo: Ben Appleton.

There was still plenty of ‘folk’ to find but how broad and diverse can the Folk Festival be without simply becoming just another music event?

While the argument has been that the Festival’s audience is ageing and attention needed to be paid to attracting a younger set, many of the bigger names on the bill were hardly tuned to that audience.

But there were some brilliant young musicians and songwriting on show, which does auger well for the future of Australian folk music, if they stay with it and not head for the more lucrative pop scene.

As Eric Bogle once mused, that’s where all the good folk musicians end up.

Ironically, during the pandemic, one of the biggest names in the pop world, Taylor Swift, produced a couple of quality folk albums, showing that artists can move freely between genres.

Local string quartet Phoenix Collective also showed how to adapt to a setting with a diverse but fitting repertoire.

Perhaps there should be more promotion of younger artists instead of relying on name recognition.

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The new main stage under the big top filled for the opening and closing concerts but was underutilised across the weekend. Some strange programming meant some venues were full while artists more at home in an intimate setting played to a sprinkling of people from the main stage.

There were format changes that may have disappointed some, such as switching the opening concert to the Friday night, and the cutting of the organised dances and campfire.

The ticket structure and prices may also have deterred some potential punters.

Previously, cheaper evening tickets were available for those who could not afford or not attend the all-day affair, and these were usually the younger roll-ups.

But this time it was all-day or nothing.

Sound problems plagued some concerts, including the closing finale which turned into a bit of muddle, but did not deter the generous crowd leaping to their feet to join in the mass singing of Blackfella/Whitefella, part of the very strong First Nations flavour at the Festival.

And for God’s sake, surely one can get a decent cup of tea at a folk festival!

But the much more important question of where to now for next year will involve honest evaluation and reflection on the Festival’s identity.

There is no doubt that folk is an ever-evolving idea, can embrace many forms and that the Festival cannot stand still. Getting the balance right is the trick.

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Louis Armstrong once observed that “all music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song,”

ChrisinTurner7:49 pm 22 Apr 22

The appeal was unfortunately broadened by decreasing the folk (village) music content. Is it now just another a music festival with a fringe folk content? Months before the festival all camping options expired which would have discouraged many interstate people attending. With season tickets for individuals, with camping, costing more than $500, no overseas artists and reduced stalls it was not good value.

Although there has always been some very welcome diversity at the NFF, this year it went too far and there weren’t many of the Australian and Anglo-Celtic acts that are at the core of our folk tradition. If this keeps up then people will vote with their feet and go to other festivals.
Also, I agree with an earlier writer who said that there was a bit too much bias toward Canberra-based acts when it is supposed to be a national festival. Another problem is that there are some acts that seem to have life tenure, coming back year after year, seemingly unimpeded by their limited talent.
Finally, my biggest gripe, the alcohol sold on site was not up to standard. Although it is morally dubious, the assignment of monopoly rights on alcohol provision at a major event is probably quite lucrative for the organisers. However, consumers always feel aggrieved when there isn’t a reasonable choice available. And they get really annoyed if the beers aren’t particularly palatable, some of the mixed drinks taste a little ‘strange’, and (so I am told) the wines provided happen to be sub-par and the red wines are served just as chilled as the white.
I believe the ACT Government should make it illegal to assign monopoly provisioning rights at events such as the NFF. With a little bit of competition, everyone will be happier in the long run.

Thank you for bringing our NFF back to us but I do have some issues.
As a dancer I am not really interested in sitting and listening to concerts unless there are singers/bands that I particularly follow.
From this point of view, the acoustics in the Coorong Building were very poor. Sound curtains are usually installed to improve this but this year we’re missing.
Extremely important also are the places where it’s possible to sit and drink a leisurely cup of coffee between events.
This year there were only2 very overworked vendors and the cues were so long and there was nowhere nearby to sit. This definitely needs to be addressed for next year, please.

Given the challenging circumstances it was great to be back and to hear some old friends and discover some new ones. Just a couple of irks. First, the street groups were hard to find and sometimes were shuffled from their programmed locations at short notice with no update to the app. Secord, MORE coffee outlets please! There were more beer outlets than coffee. Next year it would be good to see more food and retail stalls.

As someone who has gone to every day of every National Folk Festival since 1992, it was as good as ever. One of the bands on the last night said “The Nash is Back” to a large cheer. Slightly different themes, but that’s OK. There were as many organised dances as normal, but less well attended because of COVID. I didn’t dance this year because of COVID, but will next year. Mzaza were my favourites, but also great were Archie Roach (what a backing band!), Fred Smith, Mal Webb, Green Mohair Suits, Yothu Yindi, All Strings Attached, Ukulele Death Squad, The Water Runners, Balkanski Bus, Firinn, Spooky Men, Bill Chambers, Lior and Domini, and no doubt others I didn’t get to see. Unusually there was no blues or bluegrass for some reason. Agree with you about the cup of tea, and only two coffee places with continually long queues. For the first time no Hare Krishna food van, or Jerry’s Vegeburgers. I also missed the Wine Bar venue, but I think the guy who used to run it may have retired. It would have taken courage to put on a large festival with who knows what new COVID variant around the corner, so congrats to the organisers.

If the National Folk Festival wanted to become the Canberra Festival it went a fair way there. As a Melbourne friend said: I would go to Canberra to experience traditional and contemporary folk music from across Australia and international acts in all folk incantations and genres but I would not go to Canberra to see Kate Ceberano and the like. You only have to stand still long enough to see these mainstream acts in any city in Australia.

It’s turned into an elitist middle class event due to the exorbitant ticket prices. So much for ‘folk’ unless of course that refers to ‘rich folk’

The option of volunteering addresses the issue you’ve raised regarding costs. If you look around at the costs of staging such a large event over so many days you’ll find that this is comparable. There are some excellent performers and they deserve to be paid commensurately. So if the amount of money is too much for you to pay then volunteering is the way to go.

I saw lots of poor people there, there were kids begging on the street.

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