The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards celebrate excellence in folk music. A panel of about 180 experts (full disclosure, I’m one of them) make nominations in the various categories, these are collated and the panel then vote on the top four and the winner gets the award. Simple.
Except it doesn’t work like that.
The panel only make nominations in six categories: Folk Singer Of The Year, Best Duo, Best Group, Best Album, Horizon Award and Musician Of The Year. Best Traditional Track and Best Traditional Track are decided by a small committee with a semi-rotating membership, as are the various Lifetime Achievement gongs. And in the second round the panel only vote in five categories as Best Album is a public vote.
You don’t have to be a genius to see the problems with this. A public vote is a popularity contest and has nothing to do with excellence. If you convene a not insignificant number of experts why do you trust them to nominate the Best Album but not the Best Tracks? And so on. It’s schizophrenic and makes no sense at all. And it matters, because getting an award, or even a nomination, raises an artist’s profile significantly and leads to better and bigger bookings and audiences which, given the breadline existence of many musicians, is a big deal. The awards and the processes have been tweaked many times, it would be nice if they were again for next year and made consistent and sensible.
And as no Folk Awards post anywhere is complete without some sort of personal axe-grinding, could we replace the defunct but much missed Folk Club of the Year Award with a more all-encompassing one – Best Venue, Best Organiser, something like that.
No, this is not the latest subset of an increasingly fragmented genre but rather the glimmerings of behaviour previously more common in the more “commercial” pop field. In said field it’s usual for band or singer X to be hailed as the next big thing: ground-breaking, challenging, cutting edge, authentic, real, a breath of fresh air and numerous other clichés, and for writers and commentators to fall over themselves to proclaim X to be “the best I’ve heard for n years/since whatever”. Until fairly recently folk seemed pretty immune to such nonsense but in certain areas it seems to be creeping in. No naming names here, no need, its all pretty obvious.
None (or very little) of the ridiculous hype is the fault of any of the artists of course but it does seem that its perpetrators should rein themselves in a bit and take a deep breath before penning their next piece of deathless prose. I’m sure that many of them would defend their words along the lines of “But X really is that good” but are they, are they really? In the long term it doesn’t do the artists any good and surely writers are supposed to provide perspective and context, not act as an hysterical arm of the PR machine? Or is that naïve?
It’s a commonplace that there are too many festivals in the calendar, which leads to audiences being spread too thinly (apart from perhaps the mega-festivals) and every year a few going to the wall. Bad for the organisers but probably not so bad for the scene generally as whatever audience they had should be redistributed elsewhere. Except every year there are new festivals springing up so the problem perpetuates itself. And as with gigs there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of potential festival-goers out there so clearly not all festivals can be successful.
You might think this competition would lead to better festivals and it does, sort of, but only in the peripheral things. “We have the best toilets”, “we have the best food”, “park your car by your tent”, “we have the most stuff for kids to do” and so forth are just some of the “selling points” some festivals use. What they don’t say is “we have the best bill” because competition, rather than leading to an attempt to differentiate by music instead seems to lead to booking the same old same old because it’s safer. This of course assumes that people spending £100+ a ticket want to know what they’re getting and don’t want much experimentation.
I don’t think that’s entirely true, as whenever I’ve seen a “new” or different style” band play that people aren’t familar with, they frequently respond better than to an established act. The same old same old approach also perpetuates the problem, because there’s no point in going to more than one festival because half the acts are on at all of them. So perhaps a bit more boldness might pay dividends. It’s a risk, but a calculated one. We can but hope
There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the folk world about the gradual demise of folk clubs. Organisers retire and there’s nobody to take their place, those starting out are more likely to go to open mic nights, audiences migrate to arts centres and so on and so forth. You would think therefore that those that still exist would be doing their utmost to attract audiences, not just for their gigs, but because from the ranks of those audiences come the organisers of the future.
But it’s not like that. Two examples.
I’m currently helping an American performer organise some dates for next year so I’m spending more time than usual seeking out venues, primarily folk clubs, online and an awful lot of them are truly dreadful. Websites that look like they were put together last century, non-existent contact details, contact details that are out-of-date, arcane arrangements and little or no information for artists or potential attenders. A better example of turkeys voting for Christmas you couldn’t find.
But even that pales into insignificance beside the approach of one club I wanted to go to as a paying audience member. The band I wanted to see did the right things. They put info on their website and Facebook page and had tour flyers printed and distributed, one of which I picked up at a related gig and decided to go to see them. The website of the club i was planning to attend (for the first time) listed the gig but had no ticket prices or online links to buy them. Strike 1. Admission was by being put on a list, and to get on it you had to complete an online form and submit it. The club met monthly though, and they didn’t start the list until after the previous month’s event, and as the gig I wanted to go to was a couple of months away the was no point in me submitting a form. Strike 2. And to put the tin hat on it the blurb on the form said that in the event of a sell-out preference would be given to regular attenders. So I could have got on the list, made arrangements to go and then been bumped at short notice because Fred and Doris from down the road had decided to come after all. Three strikes and I’m gone.
This is not incompetence, this is arrogance. Fit in with us or don’t bother. It’s undoubtedly an extreme case and there are many good clubs out there that don’t fall into the first category either. But next time you read a piece bemoaning the decline of folk clubs remember that there they are all different. Good ones that do the right things will survive. Bad ones won’t, and they don’t deserve to.
How important is the venue when deciding whether to go to see someone play or not? For some people, not at all. They want to see the music and that’s all that matters. If their feet stick to the floor, parking is abysmal, the only alcohol is fizzy lager and the room itself is an indie toilet, no matter, it’s the music that counts. For others, very much so. They want a seat, a “nice” environment, perhaps the option of coffee rather than alcohol and if they can’t have those then they won’t go. Fair enough, it’s their money and their choice. The problem with the latter group though is that, like lots of people, they have preconceptions, and those are often, like lots of peoples, based on supposition rather than fact.
In Leicester a lot of folk fans won’t come to The Musician, where I put on a gig or three. It has ample free parking, excellent ale, the best sound engineer in town (and consequently the best sound), an atmosphere steeped in music, welcoming staff and a generally great vibe. People who come love it. But (some) people who don’t think: it’s not in the best area of town, it’s a “music venue”, it’ll be dark and dirty and so on and so forth. Which is a shame, because if they did they would find out what a great place it is and they’d have a great time. But they don’t, because they have preconceptions.
Every year the BBC Folk Awards throws up the usual “X should have been nominated, Y should have won?” debate which is essentially nothing more than special pleading for favourites and consequently something I stay well clear of. This year though there were two blatant travesties which shouldn’t go unmarked.
The citation for Folk Singer of the Year is “the artist making the most impact during the past year either through performance, albums or a special event” and it was won by Bella Hardy. Now, I love her music but essentially all she did this year was release a decent album and play live. Important, yes, good yes, but “the most impact”? Fay Hield had a case for her leadership of The Full English. But Lucy Ward, Lucy Ward makes a huge impact every time she appears. The way she looks and performs subverts all the clichés about folksingers and you only have to go to one of her gigs to see that a lot of the time she’s preaching to the unconverted. What could be more important and have a greater impact on folk music than that? Oh, and she released a great album. Should have won.
Then there’s the Horizon award, given to the best newcomer. There’s an argument for saying that Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker should have won Best Duo over Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin but there should have been absolutely no argument about their not so much winning but strolling the Horizon award. Clarke has one of the best voices of anyone of any age on the folk scene, Walker can stand foursquare with any acoustic guitarist you care to mention and their album Fire and Fortune was a magnificent blend of traditional and original pieces. Instead it went to a duo who, while I have nothing against them, indeed quite like them, are simply not in the same league.
Suppose that there are 300 folk acts – solo, duo, band – actually working in the UK. Further suppose that each of them wants to play 100 gigs a year. Suppose yet again that they’d like 100 people to be at each gig. That comes to 30,000 gigs and 3,000,000 attendees. Which is a lot.
But suppose every gig attendee could be persuaded to go to a gig a fortnight. That’s not a huge ask, particularly as a lot of these gigs will be in the cheap, £10 or less ticket range. As each act would play two gigs a week that’s 1200 a fortnight, with a total attendance of just 120,000. Which is not a large number at all, particularly when spread across the country.
Now, I have no idea of the exact number of at-least-semi-professional folk acts out there gigging. But it’s not going to be ten times 300. It might be twice as many, maybe even three times. And whether 100 attendees is a reasonable average target is also up for debate. Some would be grateful to get that many on a regular basis, for others (particularly bands) it might not be enough.
But getting the exact figures is just fine-tuning. The point is that, in the light of the regular, well intentioned but sadly-rehashing-the-same-old-arguments threads you see on Facebook and forums about boosting audiences, the actual number of people who need to be enthused might well not be that large. Which doesn’t make the task simple, but it does make it easier than it might appear initially.