Edmonton's Folk Music Festival is a special world. Magic happens; one senses it when candles illuminate the hill facing the main stage at nighttime, and the audience, wrapped in sleeping bags, sings along to Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds."
This magic does not just happen by chance. Since its inception thirty-three years ago, Folk Fest has deliberately followed an alternative business approach, and one that has unquestionably worked: the festival has sold out every year since 1995, tickets to 2012's festival sold out online in less than nine minutes and an endowment fund set up a few years ago is nearing the $2 million mark, protecting the festival's future against cuts in government funding.
Sign up for our newsletter
At this summer's festival I met producer Terry Wickham to discuss Folk Fest's business approach. Throughout our conversation, Wickham emphasized quality, environmental sustainability and social consciousness. What he was describing, I came to realize, was a philosophy that draws from the principles of folk music itself. This folk philosophy stimulates community engagement, and this in turn forms the foundation of Folk Fest's financial viability. Prioritizing peace and love, it appears, is actually a very smart way to run a business.
Wickham suggests that the festival's success firstly depends on doing good things. Perhaps most obviously, the festival prioritizes the environment. Food vendors use only biodegradable packaging, volunteers scrape and wash real plates (purchased for a $2 deposit) for reuse, and patrons separate waste into compost, recyclables and trash. There is no public parking at the site, so many people cycle and make use of the secure bike-storage area. The record tent is run entirely on solar power. A "leave no trace" rule means volunteers clean the hill every morning, and at the end of the festival, they replace any dead grass. These details cost money, but, as Wickham notes, "God is in the details. My first question is never 'how much,' but rather, 'how good.'"
Similarly, Folk Fest ensures equality and accessibility. "This is not a festival for the rich," Wickham states. "It is a festival for everyone." Each year, Folk Fest gives away over $80,000 worth of tickets to members of dozens of social organizations, residential neighbours and children 12 and under, the festival's future patrons. At the same time, the festival ensures people with hearing impairments, limited mobility and other disabilities can enjoy the music too, through dedicated viewing areas, wheelchair-accessible outhouses and free tickets for aids.
All of this might sound idealistic, but it makes sound business sense. Long-time festival volunteer and board member Cam McCormick, who is embarking upon doctoral research in hopes of teaching other arts and non-profit organizations how to apply Folk Fest's approach, notes that people want to be part of something good—in terms of both quality and principles—and engagement has financial implications. In Folk Fest's case, engaging the community means the festival now runs almost entirely on volunteer power. Over 2300 volunteers contributed to 2012's festival, and with an 80% volunteer return rate and average tenure of 8.3 years, there is actually a volunteer waiting list. These volunteers are the key to Folk Fest's financial structure. Such extensive volunteer support means the festival can invest more money in the music, further stimulating community engagement—and, of course, selling more tickets. A positive cycle is created.
Folk Fest's only problem, in fact, is its own success: demand for tickets has surpassed supply. "The traditional response," says Wickham, "would be to raise ticket prices. But we won't do that, because that's not the way of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and it's not the way of folk music." Next year's festival will likely depend more heavily on a lottery system. "With a lottery," Wickham notes, "you can't buy seats. You have to be lucky."