For a number of years now I have volunteered as a stage/venue manager at the National Folk Festival (NFF). I enjoy the camaraderie of the team and the festival itself, and it is a way of using my event management experience to give back to the festival community.
This year’s festival was a struggle and I’ve decided to review it from the perspective of my 40+ years’ of experience in theatre and events, and as a case study for other festivals. This is not an artistic review; I’m looking at how festivals come back after a major setback.
The artistic merit, choice of acts and discussion about “What is Folk?” is being hotly debated in a Facebook group.
I’ve attended many music festivals over the decades ranging from Bluesfest with over 100,000 attendees down to a festival in Gulgong with only a few hundred. No matter what event I’m at, I can’t help myself analysing what they got right or wrong or more importantly why the event was memorable.
What they all have in common is the volunteer workforce, because without those volunteers festivals would have to charge gate prices that would be unsustainable.
The NFF has run at a loss for a number of years. This has been attributed in part to an aging demographic. According the 2019 Annual Report the attendees over 60 represented 36%, with the next largest demographic, the under 18s at 23% (52% were over 50 and 48% under 50 – so actually a fairly even spread).
In the 2019 Annual Report the President, Jacqueline Bradley stated
“Unfortunately, the Festival ran at a loss in 2019, as anticipated by Chair, Gabrielle Mackey, in her report at the last AGM. This year there were several unexpected costs arising after the budget had been set. While increased costs in operations and staffing contributed to this loss, we also saw a decrease in ticket sales from the projected budget. This loss is a warning bell for the Festival.”
The outgoing Festival Director (2013 – 2019) Pam Merrigan said in the report
“The National Folk Festival operates in a continually changing and competitive event landscape. If it is to continue for another 50 years it must, without compromising the integrity and ethos of the event, respond to change when it informs best practice for the organisation and find new, smarter ways of doing business. Significant changes implemented in the last year have been especially beneficial in streamlining processes for the organisation.”
And of the volunteers Merrigan had this to say
“Of course, underpinning our Festival is the army of volunteers who give so generously of their time and experience. This year some 1200 of them worked across 61 teams delivering over 24,500 hours of work.”
The NFF was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and during that time the board had a 50% turnover, not unusual. However, for the 2022 festival the entire full time staff had been retrenched or lad off – due to the pandemic and replaced with a new team, headed by Lynne O’Brien, who has extensive event and festival management experience, and had worked as a volunteer at a number of NFFs. The rest of the team were all new to the festival.
In the lead up to the 2022 festival this new team of five production and admin staff, plus the Artistic Director and Opening and Closing Producer, had to prepare for the event by working from home and experienced difficulty finding other key staff.
Between festivals the NFF stores their collateral in containers and one of the on-site pavilions. Due to the excessive rain the ACT has received a lot of that material was damage by mould. That didn’t help the preparations.
On Thursday afternoon as I walked into the site I thought to myself “I cannot believe this site is expected to open to the public in three hours”. It was down to the sheer determination of the contractors and volunteer teams that it did open, even though it was still not fully ready that night.
The one area that was ready was the 4,300 seat tent (more on that later) because it had a separate paid production company to set it up and manage it. Meanwhile, some of the production elements for the other stages, due to contractor shortages, were only confirmed a couple of weeks out from the event which had technicians scrambling to get set up in time. One tech actually slept on the stage because she was too tired to find her accommodation. These techs delivered in spades.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2019 the NFF attracted 10,410 paid visitors (3,380 season tickets and 7,030 day tickets). Non-paying attendees included 1130 performers, 1200 volunteers, 590 stallholders, contractors and festival staff for a total of 13,335. (47% from the ACT, 32% from NSW and 21% from other states and overseas.)
The day ticket holders are spread over 5 days so let’s be generous and say 2500 attend on the biggest day. The volunteers are generally split over three shifts so that means around 400 could be attending concerts along with a couple of hundred performers (who are not performing at the time) that then provides a potential maximum daily audience of around 7,000. So based on those figures why on earth would anyone contemplate a 5,000 seat venue?
The other main venue is the Budawang that can seat up to 2,000 (for 2022 the seating was limited to around 1750) with the other smaller venues having a total seating capacity limited to around 1,000 this year.
So back to the rebuilding of the festival following two years of lockdown.
The biggest challenge was uncertainly. I had a long chat to Lynne O’Brien who told me they had to prepare for a number of different scenarios around venue capacities. Would they be able to operate with no restrictions or would indoor venues be restricted to one person per two or four square metres?
The NFF secured $990,000 from the RISE Fund which was approved in September 2021. This funding was to be used for the 2022 and 2023 festivals ($450,000 for each year). This enabled the festival to hire the previously mentioned 4,000 – 5,000 seat tent and the production company to manage it and the opening and closing events.
The thinking was that if there were restrictions in place this tent could be considered an outdoor venue because it had no sides. Other temporary venues were also left open, including a large tent that functioned as a secondary sessions venue (the sessions venue is always the most popular for late night jamming). In addition, the seating capacity in the permanent pavilions was reduced (Budawang from 3,000 down to 2,000).
This is all fine but I believe it missed the most important thing – the actual number of patrons that could be expected to attend. In recent years the largest daily attendance has been around 7,000. The board were optimistic in thinking that they could increase attendances this year. They had two things against them – no overseas acts and the fact that the older demographic have been reluctant to travel and to attend events.
As I mentioned before the balance in previous years has been roughly 50-50 between under and over 50 years of age. This year’s figures have shown an increase in the under 50 demographic, however looking at the reduced attendance figures I would put that down to less attendees over 50 (which skews the balance to younger people).
So, I believe the NFF board got it wrong.
What they did was to appoint a new Artistic Director in Katie Noonan. I understand her brief was to revitalise the festival with some big names and to attract a younger audience.
Noonan was able to book the likes of Archie Roach and Yothi Yindi (great choices) along with Kate Ceberano (a choice that was greatly debated) and a 4,500 seat tent to showcase them in. I only saw that venue close to full twice – for the opening concert and for Archie Roach. Even the closing concert followed by Yothu Yindi only took the venue to around 60%. And there was nothing to attract a younger audience like crowd favourites 19-Twenty and another local blues band the Sun Bears. Or even another very successful local, Genesis Owusu. I don’t know if Katie tried for these acts, but they would have made a huge difference on the Saturday and Sunday nights, and to the bottom line.
So what went wrong?
Following COVID the first ambition should be to RECOVER – then REBUILD. The board went straight to “rebuild”. In order to recover one needs to assess the current strengths and weaknesses. Do a standard SWOT analysis.
First up they should have looked at the attendance in 2019 and aim to recover that attendance and to be prepared for a reduced attendance. Then tailor a program to get that audience to return. Sure there was a challenge to devise a program with no overseas acts – most other festivals were in the same boat.
Going back to the demographics. 36% of all attendees (including volunteers) in 2019 were over 60. This is the demographic that is most concerned about catching COVID and so are the most likely to not attend. The under 30s are much more prone to risk taking which is why music festivals (like Groovin’ the Moo at the same venue a week later) that are aimed at the youth market are bouncing back much quicker.
So if you are preparing for a best case scenario of around 7,000 attendees on your biggest day you do not need a venue that would take most of that for a couple of headline acts. Could Archie Roach and Yothi Yindi could have been accommodated in the Budawang pavilion?
In the planning stages, COVID spacing restrictions were still a moving target; the venue could easily have been restricted to 1,500 if the 2sqm rule was reimposed.
This of course highlights the dilemma – how can you plan for an event without certainty?
The only thing you can plan for is what you know.
The biggest issue though was staffing – as I mentioned earlier these festivals are lost without the volunteers. It didn’t start well. The platform the festival had previously used for volunteer registration and scheduling went out of business during COVID, so a new system was put in place and only opened for registrations weeks before the festival. Worse, a number of key teams were left off the list, including venue management. On the day the festival opened the venue management team leaders were desperately trying to find enough volunteer staff and to schedule them (forget software options – this come down to a whiteboard). The usual process was to have an experienced venue manager in charge with less experienced assistants. Some first timers had to be thrown in at the deep end. Many of the team worked longer or double shifts.
Other teams were also short staffed while some experienced people were so frustrated that they walked away.
In 2019 (as in previous years) there were 1,200 volunteers across 62 teams (73% were returning volunteers). The two biggest groups were 18 to 29 and 60 to 69 (around 26% each).
In 2022 there were far less volunteers – however a festival of this size has the same number of roles to be filled regardless of whether 5,000 or 25,000 people attend.
So how many did attend in 2022? – I’m yet to see the figures but I expect them to be down considerably on 2019, it could be as much as 20% which could be devastating for the bottom line. Normally bustling areas of the site were deserted at times and despite there being less camping spots available (due to COVID spacing) there was still limited space available in the camping areas that normally fill up.
I expect the board will make excuses about the festival being affected by COVID – it was, but they should have prepared for that.
While there was criticism of Noonan’s programming (mainly from old-school folkies), I don’t blame her. She delivered what the board asked for, despite her lack of experience with the NFF. Maybe a board member with a long time connection to the festival could have been appointed as Assistant Artistic Director with a brief to focus on the “folk” aspect.
So was it a good festival?
From my point of view it was. I didn’t get to see all the acts I wanted to, but I did get to stage manage great acts such as Archie Roach, Afro Moses, Bill Chambers, Miriam Lieberman and Montgomery Church. And I discovered the Little Quirks.
Will I be back next year? Hopefully yes – for the rebuilding mode. And I’m told, some artists who will pull a crowd.