It was a remarkable turnaround for a festival that was once on the ropes, unable to get traction amid a busy string of summer music events.
Mark Monahan, the longtime organizer of Ottawa summer mainstay Bluesfest, knew the folk festival was in trouble when the 2010 version of the event wrapped up. Attendance was in the four-figure range and the event was thousands of dollars in debt.
He contacted the members of the board that he knew and asked how he could help.
“I felt that I had an idea of where the Folk Festival might be able to go artistically to maybe build a stronger base and give it some success in the future,” said Mr. Monahan.
The two sides struck a deal in late 2010 that brought Mr. Monahan on to help stage the event in 2011. The first item on his list was to provide funds that would help relieve $200,000 in debt, which he said went a long way towards retaining the existing sponsors.
Then he got to work on rejigging the product that festival-goers would see the following year.
The biggest change was in the amount of money the event spent on artists. The budget jumped from about $150,000 to $500,000, which allowed the team to bring in acts such as City and Colour and former Rage Against the Machine frontman Tom Morello.
These are the sorts of “current” acts that helped bring in a younger audience made up of people in their 20s and 30s, Mr. Monahan said.
He also moved the venue to Hog’s Back Park from its previous location at Britannia Park in the west end. Mr. Monahan felt the central location would bring in more young people and visitors from out of town who are staying in downtown hotels.
The festival, as a result, started to see growth in 2011. Attendance went up from a few thousand the year before to about 16,000.
The extra money helped them bring in even more high-profile acts in 2012, which included Grammy award winner Bon Iver.
“He drew the biggest crowd and I think he’s someone that folk fests of past generations couldn’t have afforded or necessarily gone after,” said Mr. Monahan. “That definitely skewed toward a younger audience.”
Doubling the attendance for 2012 meant the festival also doubled its revenues, which should in turn create more money for paying artists for 2013.
Challenges remain, however, particularly when it comes to marketing. Festival organizers everywhere are trying to figure out a way to reach people through social media, said Mr. Monahan, while relying less on traditional marketing.
SIDEBAR: Folksy financials
The Ottawa Folk Festival’s main sources of revenue are ticket sales and concessions. This can create huge financial issues, such as in 2010 when a torrent of rain washed away the possibility of last-minute ticket sales boosting flagging attendance.
That’s why the new corporate sponsorship from Telus was such a welcome infusion of cash, said Mr. Monahan. This put it on a steadier footing and made it less dependent on other more variable revenue sources.
However, there is still a huge emphasis on bringing in artists that will appeal to ticket buyers. The traditional audience tends to skew local, with out-of-town ticket buyers making up about 20 per cent.
Mr. Monahan noted his network of contacts in the industry plays a huge role in booking acts that will excite the audience.
He can ask other organizers how a crowd reacted to a particular artist – whether people sang along, for example – and then decide to book them based on that.
Government money is also important, according to Mr. Monahan, but it makes up less of the funding pie than when he took over
Public money used to make up about 30 per cent of the festival’s financing, he said, adding the figure is now closer to 15 or 20 per cent.