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.
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 Websites that look like they were put together last century, non-existent contact details, contact details that are out-of-date, arcane arrangements and little or no information for artists or potential attenders.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.
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.
The first time I went to a folk gig I was amazed to find that just as things were about to start a bloke got up on stage, said hello, told me who I was going to see, told me how long they’d play for, rambled on for a bit and then finished (eventually) with an unfunny story about the opening act. After the act had finished he got up again, asked me to clap and told me there would be an interval. He then repeated the trick before and after the headliner.
This experience has been replicated at any number of folk gigs since and I have still to see exactly what the point of it is. I know who I’m there to see, I clap as and when I feel it appropriate, not on demand, and I really don’t want to hear anybody’s unfunny and uninteresting anecdotes. In fact I’d go further. Comperes are not merely unnecessary, they’re an annoyance that detracts from the evening. And that’s just the so-so ones. Bad ones (and there are a lot) destroy atmosphere, drone on forever and often (at festivals) have done zero research about who they’re introducing in exchange for their free ticket. Rock bands don’t need this, never have. And nor do folk acts.
It’s one of the UK’s great musical anomalies. One the one hand we love American food, films and TV and music. On the other there’s country music, which we think is ridiculous, stereotyping it as Dolly Parton, sequins, stetsons and line dancing. But if you probe a little more deeply you’ll find that the a lot of the people who “don’t like country” do like Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions or love Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle, or regularly play the Eagles Greatest Hits, all of which are of course country of one sort or another. Others are folk fans who love a good ballad or a rapid fire reel, all of which country supplies in abundance. There are as many varieties of “country” as there are folk and as with folk, people can find what suits them.
Often it’s the broad church categorised as “Americana” and for those that have found their way there Maverick is the perfect festival. A beautiful site on a farm park with great food and beer and multiple stages showcasing the best in UK Americana (and the best is very good indeed and can stand toe to toe with anything from across the Atlantic) with a decent sprinkling of ace Americans and Canadians too. I was there last weekend and loved every second. Here’s some pictures to give a flavour, and if you want to see more, here’s lots more. Better still, have a listen to some of the performers. You won’t regret it.
If you’re a folk music fan then you’re living in a golden age. Whether your tastes run to trad, contemporary, nu-, psych or any other of the sub-genres there are great performers out there. Most of them are young too, either actually (under thirty) or relatively (under forty). Which is fantastic because it means they’ll be making great music for many years to come.
But will there be an audience for them? While the performers get younger the audiences seem to be getting older. There are a few cross-over exceptions like Bellowhead, and there are always a smattering of younger people at festivals and gigs but in the main the audiences can best be described as “mature”.
Whether folk music is something you come to later in life after the mosh pit gets too much like hard work, whether with the increasingly tribal nature of music (and indeed the world in general) there’s just too much other stuff going on for those under twenty-five to spend any time on folk, or whether it was always this way (with the possible exception of the Sixties folk revival) I don’t know. But it is worrying.