The Folk Federation of NSW
Promoting Folk Music and the Related Arts in NSW and Beyond
20 October 2020
RE: Senate Committee: Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions
Committee Secretary Department of the Senate PO Box 6021
Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600
Written by Pam Merrigan on behalf of the Folk Federation of NSW, the State’s peak body representing the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector.
This submission specifically focuses on the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector with specific reference to the festivals that support and promote it. The majority, if not all of these festivals are not-for-profit organisations or companies limited by guarantee and many are registered charities. These events, while needing to be financially viable for their longevity are not to be confused or aligned with commercially driven festivals such as those promoting rock, pop and indie music. Festivals within the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector are generally independently self-sufficient with very little or no support from commercial sponsorship or public funding, yet the music and art forms practised by this genre carry our core Australian identity.
Public engagement with this sector is encouragingly increasing as demonstrated by the number of festivals and events within the Sector. The Folk Alliance Australia website lists over 75 festivals taking place across any year equating to 1.5 festivals each week. These festivals are the lynch pins of the Sector attracting thousands of enthusiastic and dedicated attendees. They include large events such as Woodford Folk Festival with an aggregate attendance of 120,000 people over 6 days to smaller regional 2-3day festivals with just 2000-3000 attendees. Not only do they provide the stages where folk practitioners share their craft, the format of the wider programming of these festivals fosters a high level of participation and engagement of attendees for whom these festivals serve an important social role.
This Sector is healthy and growing constantly in confidence and popularity but is often overlooked by government and public agencies as being traditional and amateur. Yet the very nature of folk is contemporary and tells a very distinct Australian story. The Sector deserves wider acknowledgement if it is to really thrive and fulfil its place as an important piece in the cultural fabric of Australia.
Specific terms of reference addressed by this submission:
The direct and indirect economic benefits and employment opportunities of creative and cultural industries and how to recognise, measure and grow them.
At the heart of the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector is the commitment, skill, talent, expertise and experience of diverse groups of individuals, businesses and organisations. While there is currently no precise figure on the total number of people employed within this sector it is typically characterised by high levels of self- employment, freelancers and those working part time or in relatively small businesses. Festivals within the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector provide employment opportunities and income for a range of professionals, contractors, trades people, suppliers and merchant traders including but not limited to, musicians and related folk arts practitioners (e.g. dance, spoken word and circus), the businesses that provide infrastructure such as temporary structures and stages, venue providers where festivals use existing facilities in a town or region, sound and lighting suppliers, managers and booking agents, professional services in areas including marketing/ PR and, itinerant market stall holders and food providers. In a recent survey (April 2020) of 15 festivals following cancellations due to COVID-19 the loss of income to those working within this sector was estimated to be approximately $16-$18 million. Multiply this by the 60 other FAA listed festivals that have since been cancelled and this cost is substantial.
The majority of these festivals are held in regional centres and small towns across Australia and each event brings huge economic benefit to those communities ranging from $100-$200K for smaller events into the millions for some of the larger festivals. For example, the National Folk Festival’s 2017/18 Annual Reportbased on an independent survey conducted by IER gives the economic impact provided by festival visitors to the region to be $4.68 million. These festivals not only enhance the economic capital of the regions or towns where they take place, they provide a reason for visitation highlighting those regions/towns as cultural destinations.
The non-economic benefits that enhance community, social wellbeing and promoting Australia’s national identity, and how to recognise, measure and grow them.
The cultural and community benefit of folk festivals is in their capacity to connect with and engage people in shared experiences. Folk culture is the expression of peoples, their communities and the times in which they live and is continually evolving and absorbing the influences around it. It is contemporary but may be informed or influenced by traditions. Folk aligns itself with cultural policies of community participation, cultural diversity and social inclusion and is a flagship for fostering and promoting our diverse national identity.
Folk festivals create a common ground for the expression of this culture through grass roots, community and participatory activities while at the same time juxtaposing these with entertainment experiences of the highest quality. They are important platforms not only for showcasing major artists but also those whose voices are just emerging. Folk music styles allow “entry level” participation while extending to the most excellent virtuosic performance. Such amateur-inclusive participatory forms create highly informed consumers which enhance standards of performance. (SWOT Analysis of Folk Music – Graeme Smith: 22 March 2018)
Folk festivals attract a broad audience across different ages, sexes, races and socioeconomic backgrounds with a strong orientation towards families. They are safe, affordable, well run events with inclusive and accessible programming. They are dynamic and responsive vehicles for dialogue between cultures and generations and actively promote and encourage exchange between artists and audiences and, participation in the folk arts through workshops, sessions, talks and interactive experiences. They are meeting places, major get-togethers that offer far more than just concert experiences. The accessibility of these festivals and their many facets of participation make a significant contribution to improving the health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life of those who engage with them.
Volunteers are a collective backbone and a highly valued element of the folk and related arts sector. This unpaid cohort is a significant part of the community that has grown around this sector and makes a very real and substantial contribution especially in relation to festivals. Volunteers provide a vital role in supporting these events and in turn these events provide a sense of belonging and wellbeing to the many volunteers who return year after year to engage with and be part of these communities. The inclusion of volunteers expands the base of this sector and enhances its sense of ethos.
Folk festivals provide unique cultural experiences playing a key role in highlighting a region’s/town’s identity as a place of celebration and providing a forum for creativity, custom, heritage and cultural practices. They also offer an important educational role through the many workshops and teaching experiences included in their programming and made available to attendees at all levels of development.
The impact of COVID-19 on the creative and cultural industries.
Festivals in the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector have stood the test of time. Many had been operating continuously for well over 40 years, some into their 50s when COVID-19 struck. This pandemic has had a devastating and far-reaching effect on all facets of the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector but especially on the people who service it.
When the impact of COVID-19 first started to shut down festivals in March a survey conducted across just 23 organisations from within the Sector estimated the minimum financial impact on these festivals to be some $18.25 million. This figure did not include the broader economic impact (i.e. local tourism dollars lost etc). A further impact of cancellations on actual festival income from this cohort of 23 is estimated to be another $18 million. Most festivals are now under threat for 2021.
The hardest hit in this sector are those who are self-employed and freelancers, often musicians juggling performing, teaching and other roles and living from gig to gig, pay cheque to pay cheque. For many of these people COVID-19 has caused not only financial but also severe mental stress. Without assistance many may never recover.
Conclusion and further terms of reference
Knowledge and insight about the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector in government and public agencies is variable and would benefit from specialist assistance and advice. A national policy where the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector is valued as a key asset to Australia’s cultural life would be beneficial and help to strengthen the Sector. Both individuals and organisations working and practicing their craft in this Sector would benefit from strategies to strengthen the infrastructures in which they operate including festivals. Access to funding is also important in achieving this and in supporting artists to make the most of their creative opportunities.
The folk and related arts sector has seen steady growth in interest and engagement over the past two decades from both audiences and practitioners and this has been accompanied by a significant rise in the standard of musicianship and performance skills from amateur, semi-professional and professional performers alike. Many young, talented musicians are coming through the festival scene which has expanded over time to accommodate them and their growing audiences. This sector however has serious concerns about how to sustain and increase this level of growth and, for the lack of recognition it receives as uniquely representing an Australian identity. Pursuing those issues and working to raise the profile of folk music and its related arts will greatly benefit this Sector.
Education is of particular interest and importance to the Folk Music and Related Arts Sector and has a vital role in the development of skills, knowledge and talent for the Sector. The informal contribution to education through festivals and other folk arts organisations with their workshops, master classes and interactive experiences has grown in strength and quality and, done much to inform the public on the value of folk culture both as a recreational pursuit and, as the carrier of our core Australian identity. Across the various state education systems however, there is a concern that folk music and the folk arts in general are not sufficiently embedded in the various curricula and their inclusion for the most part is tokenistic and/or out of date. This is not to devalue the contribution of many inspiring teachers however folk music and the folk arts would benefit from a more consistent approach across all levels of education and, where they can be properly exploited for their value in creativity and cross-curriculum learning.
There are many individuals and organisations who champion the value of the Folk Music and the Related Arts Sector and are strong role models and advocates for its aims and purpose. This Sector however has struggled in the past to mobilise with one voice and would hugely benefit from Government funding for a national body that would bring together the various strands, individuals and organisations and provide knowledge and insight to government and public agencies about the Sector, what it has to offer and what it represents.
Finally, since the 1980s there has been talk of a National Folklife Centre that would provide national focus for action to record, safeguard and promote awareness of Australia’s heritage of folklife. In 1986 Barry Cohen, then Minister of Arts, Heritage and Environment, commissioned a Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia with a resulting report, Folklife: Our Living Heritage published in 1987. Of the 51 recommendations made in the report none were realised even though the inquiry made it quite clear that the government was, and still is, responsible for the protection of the nation’s tangible and intangible heritage. Folklorists have not forgotten this and in a recent article published in The Conversation (what-the-folk-whatever-happened-to-australias-national-folklife-centre- 108678) Emily Gallagher writes: One can’t help but wonder what Australia’s cultural landscape would look like if the Australian Folklife Centre had been successful. Would bus-loads of school children, while making the annual pilgrimage to Canberra, visit to learn about the games, recipes, dances and rhymes of their ancestors? Might they even find the time to record their own lore for the next generation? In might be timely to review the need and feasibility for establishing a National Folklife Centre or similar specialist agency to support, preserve and promote Australia’s national identity.
The Folk Music and Related Arts Sector offers a myriad of possibilities for people to engage in and experience music and other related activities such as dance and spoken word from amateur involvement to that of the highly trained professional. It provides an increasingly sort after alternative to popular culture as it absorbs and responds to the unique elements of a distinct Australian identity. As it explores the countless sub-genres and emerging folk styles of a vibrant contemporary Australian society it draws together the cohesive threads and narratives to unlock the stories of Australian life.