Pt Fairy ‘Folk’ Music Festival Has Changed Over 20 Years. Can It Survive?

I’ve been going to the Pt Fairy Folk Festival for 20 years now and enjoyed it every year.  After 40 years, the change of director this year (from Jamie McKew to Caroline Moore) resulted in quite a few incremental changes that generally seemed positive.  But it caused me to reflect on how the Festival has changed from the first one I attended some 20 years ago.  It shows how a good organisation can – and must – adapt over time to meet changing demands.  What have those changes been?  And are they enough for the festival to survive in an increasingly competitive festival market?

Moving from ‘Folk’ to General Music

Listening to an old CD of the ‘best of Pt Fairy’, the music – as the festival name implies – was ‘folk’ music.  That is, it was generally stories about the old times, particularly from Ireland, the UK and (white) Australia.  Now, there is ‘world’ music, country, blues, jazz, rock and much more.  When Vince Jones singing Van Morrison albums occupies a whole afternoon, and is followed by a Melbourne busker with 2 hits in the Triple J top 100 (Tash Sultana) who is mobbed by teenagers, things have changed!  But it’s great to have young audiences involved and it’s good to have music greats like Vince Jones appear.

It’s now hard to find an old Irish group, or a UK ballad singer (Eddi Reader singing Robbie Burns was an exception this year), though Danny Spooner survives.  It’s hard to find oldtime stories, but it was interesting that political music made a comeback this year, on the back of Brexit, Donald Trump and his conservative acolytes.

Moving from Individual Artists to Electric Bands

In the past, I recall being enthralled by individual story tellers, such as Eric Bogle, John Williamson, John McCutcheon, Chris Withers, Guy Davis, Margaret Roadknight, Judy Small, Mary Coughlan, Mary Black and many more.  The clarity of their voices, their words, often acoustic, spellbound the audience. Now almost every singer has an electric – and loud – band behind them.    The recent development of looping, which enables an individual artist to act like a whole band (John Butler and Tom Richardson demonstrated at recent festivals, but Tash Sultana took it to extremes this year) means a single artist can still ‘appear’, but they act like an electronic band.  Personally, I don’t like this focus on electric bands, but it’s clear that audiences generally do, particularly younger ones.

Moving from Eclectic Instruments to Standard Bands

20 years ago, we marvelled at the wide range of instruments that were played.  Harps, accordians, weird string instruments, harmonicas, flutes, pipes and many more.  Now it is a pretty standard two or three guitars, drums and/or piano. All the bands begin to sound the same.  The variety now comes from the wider types of music.

Moving from Intimate Stages to Mass Concerts

20 years ago, you could just stroll in with your folky chair, take a liking to the music and find a space to sit down.   The development of Stage 3 – so dark on the inside it seems to create the night time appropriate for a pop band –the introduction of star international artists (Janis Ian, Judy Collins, John Butler) and the provision of some fixed and raked seating has enabled large crowds.  Now you need to be waiting for the gates to open at 8.30 to get a good seat at the front for a 10.00 concert!  Every effort is being made to accommodate large crowds and volunteers do a wonderful job, but it’s hard work to move between stages now.

Lots of work continues to be done to make the tents as far apart from each other as possible, but the increasingly loud band-based electric music and the physical limits of the area have collided.  Perhaps new spaces in other locations will be necessary in future, as some artists can’t really be heard due to the noise of the concert next door (particularly near Shebeen and Stage 3).

Increasing Aboriginal Presence

The Festival has made serious efforts over the years to include aboriginal artists.  But this year they seemed to be a significant presence.  Personally, I’m not a great enthusiast for aboriginal music, but I applaud efforts to include them in the program.  And my highlight of the whole festival was Yirrmal. I also really enjoyed Jessie Lloyd and Kevin Bennett while the program also featured Gawurra, Kutcha Edwards, the Mission Songs Project and Brett Clarke.  Let’s hope this development continues.

Moving from Similar Experiences to Customised Experiences

20 years ago, the discussion at the end of the day was about the quality of the individual artists.  Now my group of friends have totally different experiences from each other, due to the variety of events (music types, children’s program, workshops, storytelling, choir).  My Pt Fairy is not your Pt Fairy.  New guests we took this year were simply overwhelmed by the choices, the variety, the quantity, and took three days before they were able to begin to make sensible choices for themselves.

Can the Festival Survive?

This might seem a silly question, but the festival market is now very competitive and places like Womadelaide, Bluesfest, Brunswick, Falls, Woodford, Meredith and many other festivals have arisen to rival Pt Fairy.  And some have failed and stopped.  And Pt Fairy is a long way from major facilities, and has limited infrastructure.  In fact, its huge volunteer base and the importance of the festival to the town itself are major drivers of its success.  But can it attract the major artists fans increasingly demand?  Will price increases, lack of accommodation and the ‘old-style’ nature of folky chairs drive future customers away?

The Impact of a New Director

This was Caroline Moore’s first festival as director, taking over from a beloved icon in Jamie McKew.  Significant, but incremental, changes occurred, but the flavour and culture were preserved, while a different future was gently signalled.  No doubt next year’s festival will have even more changes after the success of this one.  Can’t wait.  We’ve already booked our accommodation.

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