10 May 2024

National Folk Festival looks to leaner event after horror financial result for 2024

| Ian Bushnell
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trio of string players

String trio Apolline wowed audiences at the 2024 National Folk Festival. Young artists were a feature of the event. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

The National Folk Festival will take drastic measures to ensure the survival of the 56-year-old event after suffering a disastrous financial result this year.

A company update sighted by Region details the dire situation of the annual festival staged at Exhibition Park each Easter and reveals some tough decisions amid the changed economic environment impacting music festivals across the country.

As expected, the festival took a hit in ticket sales, but the scale of the loss means that while the event will continue next year, it will have to be smaller and leaner to cut costs and become more viable.

“At this stage, we are looking at an operating deficit of about $450,000 – a result that cannot be repeated,” president David Gilks told company members.

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The update says the festival will need to shrink its staff and management team, rely more on volunteers and sell its Mitchell headquarters so it can fund the business and future events.

It is expected the leaner operation will no longer need premises of that size, and renting a smaller office will also save money.

Festival organisers met with Arts Minister Tara Cheyne in the past week to discuss the challenges and pursue whatever opportunities there may be for government support.

The update says that despite strong cost controls in the current environment, ticket sales lagged, and the festival failed to meet its budget.

“While there are numerous factors that have contributed to this outcome, in many respects, the key takeaway is that it is the continuation of a trend seen in the 2022 and 2023 festivals,” Mr Gilks said.

“Audience behaviours have changed significantly since the end of pandemic restrictions and the return to pre-COVID norms that many expected and planned for has not eventuated.”

The update says the festival will also review its internal processes and governance.

woman with red hair

National Folk Festival Director Heidi Pritchard says it was a beautiful festival, but many people just didn’t show up this year. Photo: Supplied.

Director Heidi Pritchard told Region that the Folk Festival was in the same boat as other music events in the country but promised there would be a 2025 festival.

Ms Pritchard said ticket sales were down about 25 per cent on last year, which equates to about 10,000 fewer patrons.

But interestingly, ticket sales to 18 to 30 year olds were well up, and they were the future of the festival, she said.

Ms Pritchard stood by the festival as presented, saying the artistic directors put together a beautiful event and a really creative program.

What a smaller festival would look like, she could not say.

“Right now, we are fiscally responsible, and we are going to talk to our community about what this looks like,” Ms Pritchard said.

“It may be fewer days, but we don’t want to do that. It might be one less stage; it might be a smaller footprint.”

She said the festival was looking at a range of measures to recover its financial position and was working with all levels of government.

The ACT Government was sympathetic to its situation, and Ms Pritchard said the team received a positive reception from the Minister.

“I feel there is a real recognition in the ACT Government that we are essential for the Canberra festival season,” she said, adding that there were many ways the government could support the festival.

Ms Pritchard said that, like the Woodford Folk Festival, the National would continue reaching out to folk music fans to support the event by buying tickets.

She said, “The live music industry is in crisis, and the only way to support it is to buy tickets.”

“We need the support of patrons.”

She ruled out any increase in ticket prices to meet the shortfall.

Mr Pritchard said the full evaluation of the 2024 festival was expected by the end of the month.

The just completed Canberra International Music Festival, which compressed its format to a five-day event this year, appears to have turned around a big loss last year and is expected to break even or post a small deficit.

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Organisers had feared people would not turn up, but the smaller format and the late rush of ticket sales seemed to have saved the day.

Music festivals across the country have been struggling, with some notable cancellations, mainly due to the rising cost of staging events, including insurance, and the cost of living crisis hitting ticket sales.

A federal parliamentary inquiry into the live music industry is underway, and Music Australia is conducting its own review.

The Folk Festival has made a submission to the inquiry and has been talking with Music Australia.

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Lefty Boomer9:39 am 14 Jun 24

As a folk musician of some 50 years I gave up on festivals a long time ago although used to enjoy them when they were rotated around the capital cities. I get more out of sitting with some people in a pub or longe room playing or playing at the occasional dance. I’m also so over my generation of Boomers, sorry. I run a mile from groups of so called ‘Like-mined’ people,, so predicable and lacking in vibrancy..

Would love to have been there but far too expensive

Patrick Power4:23 pm 16 May 24

I have to admit, and it’s horrible of me to say, but this is really some karma coming back to bite them.

I remember while it was on, another major music festival (sorry, not a festival person so I can’t remember what it was) was cancelled, so of course the news was going to interview the organisers of a festival that was ongoing at the time, and the tone of the interview was essentially just “Heh *crosses arms*, we’re doing fine because we have a vibrant choice of music acts unlike those OTHER festivals.”

Of course I’m paraphrasing there, but that’s the gist of the interview, and at the time I thought it was pretty deeply insensitive and arrogant, and as it turns out incorrect too.

A big reason for us not going was the smoke. I doubt if we weren’t alone in not going for that reason.

FFS what genious decided it was a good idea to pollute the city with smoke from burnoff on a long weekend? Ie burning off could have been put aside for a couple of days.

NFF should be seeking compensation.

I attended the 2014 National Folk Festival for the full 5 days, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of the more negative comments on this article made me feel like we must have attended different festivals! I thought the program was excellent, and I know many others who attended felt the same. I’m a folk-festival tragic who goes to lots of festivals, all of which are different in mostly positive ways. I think the 2024 NFF got most things pretty much right, and that the reason for the downturn in ticket sales was much more due external economic factors than anything to do with the festival itself. Festivals in general are struggling, and I wish the NFF all the best with its financial difficulties. I – and many others – will happily continue to support it in the future.

Ian Bushnell, I am confused. Your article of 24 February was headed “Strong ticket sales”.

I was a volunteer from 2014 to 2022, but I have totally skipped the last two festivals. My alienation from the NFF began with the increasing amount of Blue Grass being presented at us, and the declining amount of Celtic music in recent years. However, the absolute deal-breaker for me was the fact the NFF did single-supplier deals for all beer, wine and spirits sold on site. In my opinion, these drinks were not very high quality and the willingness of the NFF to sign up to these deals shows a lack of respect for the festival goers.
A final observation, the steady increase in the ticket prices, accompanied by the declining quality of the acts being offered, these are classic signs of the staff ‘capture’ you often see as an organisation gradually gets taken over by professional staff. These paid staff inevitably start to make the organisation meet their own needs, and not those of the people they are meant to serve. So perhaps a little bit of down-sizing and a greater use of volunteers could be a good thing.

CanberraMatey3:49 pm 11 May 24

I am not surprised one bit. The times are different, tickets were hideously expensive, seeing everyone is struggling at the moment, and line-up was nothing to rave about. I thought about going for the day but could not justify spending that much money.

Siobhan Nic Anrai3:28 pm 11 May 24

Ive been a regular at nationals since before it became a canned thing – I didn’t go this year for a couple of reasons:
1. Costs were positively prohibitive; and
2. I could see very little on the program that interested me.
Others made comments like “there was a token amount of folk” and “a lot of acts on the bill we’ve brevet heard of”. A national folk festival should showcase quality folk acts, not sideline the genre – the clue is in the name.
I guess they may need to re-examine what a folk festival is.

What she said.

Deirdre Russack3:18 pm 11 May 24

As someone who has attended the NFF almost every year it has been in Canberra I found the 2023 festival was disappointing So the combination of 2023 disappointment and too many acts I had already seen multiple times I did not attend in 2024.

I only went for one day this year, the program seemed a bit thin. A Fri – Mon festival would be fine, the 5 days can be an endurance event. As a National festival, the board shld consider programming fewer ‘better’ artists, international or local, who exemplify: Excellence; Eclectic folk styles; Engagement.

Folk festival down year on year, can’t make ends meet, while Summernats was record breaking, sold out. But you know Canberra and its snobs — want to pour public money into the failing folk festival and shut down the successful Summernats. 🙄

Deirdre Russack3:23 pm 11 May 24

It is not down year on year and it does not negatively impact broadly like Summernats does.

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