Folk and the City: Promoting Music and Community in Western Canada

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Gallagher Park, home of Edmonton Folk Fest.

Thursday is the kickoff of Edmonton Folk Festival, a four-day event that counts itself among the most popular of the city’s many summer festivals. The event routinely sell-out, happening within mere hours this year.

Beloved by many ‘folkies’, it nonetheless has its detractors as well. Some will criticize the lineup for catering too much to baby boomers at the expense of younger audiences (a charge Edmonton’s producer basically admits to); others will note how surprisingly difficult to get to the site can be – despite being relatively centrally-located. Finally, anyone who has ever attended can attest to the fact that even so much as breathing within the vicinity of their hard-fought for tarp spot will upset some of the most dedicated patrons.

Yet, the festival – like folk fests across the world – is a borderline on religious experience for many. It’s a time to relax, revel, and feel re-energized. Festivals have grown to be major events for many cities, and their merits compared to each other are hotly debated amongst music fans. In Western Canada, five major festivals happen throughout the summer – in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg. I examine which ones live up to their reputation in terms of delivering big names and value for their audience.

Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers at Calgary Folk Fest in 2010.

The 2012 Festivals
Using data available from Pollstar on average ticket prices, then recent (or upcoming) ticket price information for acts not listed there, I assigned an average price for each artist, assuming it was an individual (or headlining) show. For (usually) overseas artists or special performances (like the Woody Guthrie tribute at Winnipeg) that had no data, I assigned a value of $38, which was consistent with what I could find for similar events.

Edmonton and Calgary are four-day festivals, Vancouver and Regina three, and Winnipeg five. For the price below, I’ve used the value of a full-weekend, regular price festival pass (note: in the first two charts, the value for Calgary goes up about 100% each if you bought an early-bird pass at $145).

Value of Headliners
Looking at just the headliners (main stage acts), here is the value you get:

More Than the Main Stage: Delivering Overall Value

Danny Michel
Danny Michel (and Jill Barber) at a workshop in Edmonton. Danny later joined Loudon Wainwright in singing ‘The Swimming Song’, the kind of moment you can’t get elsewhere.

Now, as any attendee knows, the headliners are just one portion. One of the best features is often the workshops during the day, where artists often collaborate, and/or you hear rarely heard material. However, you also get abridged versions of individual sets, or acts who may not qualify for the main stage. To capture this, I assigned a value of $26 (based on 70% of the rare session value of $38) to each hour of workshops at the festival.

Wondering about the asterisk? Regina offers free admission to the daytime Saturday and Sunday workshops, which attracted 10,000 patrons in 2011, compared to closer to 4000 for the paid evening events. If you count this, it raises the value to $831.74, for an astronomical value of 808%

In summary, Edmonton and Calgary are, by these standards, basically equal, with Vancouver and Winnipeg lagging behind the rest.

Value By Capacity

The Crowd
From the back of the seating area at Calgary Folk Fest.

Now, one last way of looking at things. Every venue is different, and can dramatically affect your viewing experience. This is particularly true at these five festivals, which are all general admission. From experience, I can say that there is a dramatic difference between having a good tarp (which requires lining up, or having a friend willing to do so for you) and a bad one at Edmonton. The difference between good and bad spots in Calgary is less pronounced. So, I want to look at this on a capacity basis, which is a way of looking at the likelihood that you’ll have a good seat for enjoying your experience. Capacity is a ballpark estimate based on reported capacity or attendance in the past (Edmonton was the hardest to ascertain, but has reported attendance of over 100,000 for five-day festivals in the past). The Value By Capacity number itself is by and large meaningful only as a comparison between the five festivals.

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit
About halfway up the hill at Edmonton. Still relatively not a bad seat.

Again with the asterisk on Regina. Assuming you buy a pass and attend the free workshops during the day, a weighted means formula (based on the vast discrepancy in workshop vs. main stage attendance) still gives it a value of $94.97.

With the larger capacity, it’s no surprise that Edmonton has a lower score. Your experience probably matters a lot on whether you have a good seat or not. The other three festivals deliver relatively close value for their size.

Making Sense of Folk Fests
There are a lot of externalities not captured, such as the social bonding aspect, the relative convenience of getting to and from a location, and the quality of food and beverage. And ultimately, the experience probably comes down to one’s musical preferences. If they like the acts, they’ll probably have a good time. What I’ve tried to do here is look at what entertainment value these festivals are bringing to their cities, and whose doing well at it relatively speaking.

What is without a doubt is that all five deliver value above and beyond their sticker price. By my calculation, some – like Regina – punch way above their weight. I plan to repeat this analysis in the future (and possibly for other festivals as well) to see what trends emerge.

Making Folk Fests Work for Cities
The key is to find ways to leverage these events and create additional value to the host city. Vancouver and Winnipeg’s festivals are tourist draws, but if they do not lead to return (non-folk fest) visits or additional days spent elsewhere in the city, it’s a missed opportunity. Edmonton and Calgary’s festivals now promote shows year-round, and Calgary has secured a concert hall that also hosts its offices and provides community space. I see opportunities for both to cultivate greater exposure for the local music scene in their respective cities. As locally-focused non-profits, delivering quality music at great value is important, but just a first steps. The more these festivals expand and contribute in other ways, the greater assets they’ll become.

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4 Responses

  1. [...] don’t take my word for it. Check out this article by Alex Abboud, a “social scientist” out of Edmonton who took a look at the overall benefit to a city [...]

  2. [...] Relatedly, Alex Abboud looks at the value of Folk Fests across western Canada [...]

  3. thank you Alex..a thoughtful analysis. Your choice of photos is stellar.

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