Shakeup could save 2023 Vancouver Folk Festival, but board president warns long-term fixes needed
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is in talks with at least one potential financier to help cover nearly half a million dollars needed to resuscitate this year’s edition, but its board president is warning that the event needs a more permanent strategy for long-term survival amid ballooning costs.
Organizers revealed two weeks ago that due to rising costs and demands from vendors that some bills be paid up front, they would need to cancel the 2023 edition and consider dissolving the festival’s organizing body altogether. After a massive outpouring of community support, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society issued an open letter last Thursday saying “several parties have offered possible solutions.”
Board president Mark Zuberbuhler said this week that the festival’s options include an offer from an unnamed financier to float a 2023 edition, but that “at the moment, we have no ability to repay that. … It doesn’t help in the long term.”
The Globe and Mail reviewed the festival society’s most recent annual financial statements, and spoke with Zuberbuhler and numerous others who are familiar with the 45-year-old festival’s financial history, as well as the Canadian festival industry more broadly. Both this festival and others, they say, could be facing a dire year ahead.
Navigating these economic circumstances is “like tromping through heavy snow and watching for asteroids to hit,” said Marie Zimmerman, executive director of the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont. – which, like the Vancouver event, does not accept major corporate sponsorships as it tries to avoid pressure from outside decision-makers.
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s cancellation announcement, just weeks into 2023, sent waves of fear through Canadian live-music communities. Costs make running a music festival precarious in Canada, where many artists – including Canadian ones – are booked through U.S. organizations, with budgets falling victim to the weak loonie.
But other expenses are now ballooning, particularly as technical equipment companies either disappeared during the pandemic or shifted to other industries. Zimmerman says her costs for technical equipment have doubled since prior to the pandemic, and that both equipment and artist-booking costs are on a trajectory to eventually triple.
The Vancouver Festival Society’s financial statements show that a series of government grants, some of them pandemic-specific, ensured the festival had a surplus going into its July 2022 edition, which featured artists such as Allison Russell, Frazey Ford and the New Pornographers. But this, Zuberbuhler said, was when costs started getting out of hand and vendors began requesting more payments upfront.
That meant that the $184,000 surplus coming out of the Festival Society’s 2021 fiscal year, when no in-person festival was held, helped offset many of the following year’s costs. But the 2022 festival depleted those funds, resulting in a $24,900 deficit. The festival’s celebrated return after pandemic restrictions were lifted, it turned out, wasn’t sustainable.
In fact, in its open letter last week, the board said the festival’s “financial situation has long been untenable.” Others who were deeply involved in the festival’s history are willing to acknowledge this publicly. “It kept going on even though sometimes it was in debt,” said Gary Cristall, who oversaw the festival for its first 17 years and believes it can survive its latest crisis. The current deficit, he said, is “parking change for a $2-million event.”
Kris Klaasen, a long-time volunteer and former director, said in an interview that he believes one root of the festival’s financial instability is a historical lack of focus on fundraising – leaving “millions of dollars on the table” that lifelong fans would have happily donated. This could be one solution that comes up at the Festival Society’s annual general meeting March 1, where members will decide its future.
Another solution, board president Zuberbuhler said, would be to embrace corporate sponsorship far more than before. Though the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has “historically been strong opposition to corporate funding,” as its open letter said, Zuberbuhler told The Globe that “hopefully people will be open to new ideas and new ways to do this.”
He also hopes that other partners can step forward to subsidize the festival’s growing expenses, such as the costs of providing electricity and other infrastructure to its site at Jericho Beach Park. “Maybe there’s a way that that gets reduced,” Zuberbuhler said – referring to help that is “not necessarily cash, but a reduction in the price that we have to pay.”