A week or so John contacted me asking if I would be interested in helping set up a discussion to look at ways to raise the profile and support the UK folk club scene. I’ve been going to clubs since I was 5 years old and none of what I do today would have been possible without them. They have been a constant in my life since becoming a professional folk musician over 20 years ago, offering not only a valuable source of income but also friendship and inspiration. John has written the following blog as starting point, the discussion will continue on our FORUM.



The UK Folk Club Network

This year, a number of issues combined to make me think that I needed to raise questions in respect of the survival of the folk clubs as an important and intrinsic part of the UK Folk Scene. My background obviously colours my views on developments over recent years and I think I need to mention it because it highlights significant changes that have occurred within folk music.  I’m sixty this year and was resident at my college folk club 40 years ago. I got into folk clubs via interests in the original American acoustic blues players and the music of the Incredible String Band but was soon amazed by the music (beauty, depth, and variety) that I found waiting for me on the folk circuit.

I was writing by then and, at age twenty one, I was told by Alan White at Transatlantic Records that, although he liked my songs, I would make a much better husband to my new wife by pursuing my new profession of accountancy than that of music. So, after a lot of agonising, I decided to take the cowardly route but always to strive to perform at a pro level. Along the way I have played festivals, concerts and clubs with various bands and had songs covered by some very good names, and some of those songs almost adopted into the tradition. I am still playing and writing and have a five piece band that includes my 36 year old daughter and a 24 year old singer songwriter fiddle player. The bands I have played in have mostly had five members and it has never been possible to earn enough at our level to be able to even consider giving up the day jobs. However, we have loved every minute and hope we have made a contribution to the music we love over the years.

I mention all that because I fear that I could not have done any of the above had I been starting again now. It was easier for me then; I was semi pro, had a secure income, and there were clubs to play. What of the young singers / songwriters / musicians who are emerging now and what of the older professional artists who are still attempting to maintain some form of living from an ever decreasing circle. In addition, people covered my songs, often having heard me sing them in folk clubs or festivals, so how do the good songs being written now get heard and taken up?

There has, of course, been an enormous reduction in the numbers of folk clubs operating, and certainly those booking guests, over the years that I’ve been playing but I fear there has been a greater escalation of failures / closures over recent years and as the profile of folk music has been raised by the Folk Awards, the festival and concert circuits, the efforts of the AFO, Mrs Casey’s Music , Smooth Operations and the bigger agents, a large part of the club network has stayed behind and is “destined to die with its current generation of organisers”, to quote a very well respected agent.

I believe that the wedge between folk clubs and the Folk Awards and festivals has been increasing for a number of years but for entirely selfish reasons I started to consider the position again last year; we had sent out our normal flyers for festival gigs and had not had one confirmed festival gig for 2011. We were told that we were late sending out the PR information and in a lot of cases they were already fully booked. Those that did want to book us were saying that they were really struggling with fees and some wanted our five piece band and a sound man to travel miles for less than the fuel cost. This prompted me to seriously consider what was going on around me and to ask questions of people of different age groups involved in the music I love.

What I found was that some of the festivals were trying to book the biggest names possible at the top of the bill to draw the crowds, and that squeezed the rest of their budgets enormously in respect of the middle and lower order of the bill. They were also going out earlier to try to make sure they get the top names that they believed they needed to draw the crowds. As I said earlier, I’m an accountant and I fully understand economic realities but surely it is also common sense that the middle and lower orders of the bill need more paid work to be able to survive in the business.

Of course I know we are living through some crazy financial times and that organisation and individuals alike are having a tough time, and of course I realise there had been changes going on for many years but when I considered the whole picture I believed that I had to raise what could be the waste of a very important resource and a potentially enormously useful and strong foundation for the UK Folk Movement.


Some of the issues:

1. A lot of very talented young artists have already established themselves and young artists continue to emerge from various sub genres and backgrounds.

2. They are often, far better musically trained than most of us were in my day and I presume therefore they may be told to expect more, and have higher aspirations, than my generation did when we started playing.

3. There appears to be an expectation of starting at festival and concert level.

4.  There surely cannot be enough paid festival and concert work to give everyone the opportunity they desire and keep everyone (particularly at the lower end of the bill), in sufficient reasonably paid work.

5. There are large numbers of excellent, older, musicians who are not getting festival work and are trying to maintain a living in a declining club network.


What could a larger network of successful clubs do?

1. When I started singing there were clubs running every night of the week in most towns and some nights you had a choice of 2 or 3 to go to. I know that that is not feasible these days but it shows what was possible and any improvement / increase in numbers of the current club network would provide some additional work.

2. I’ m not talking about sessions or open mic nights (which I think will always do well because musos will always want to sing and play). I’m talking about clubs that would book guests and provide a potential living for some of the aspiring pro acts that are emerging that cannot just leap straight onto the festival stages.

3. The same clubs would also provide gigs for some excellent older pro acts that are not getting festival work and are getting less club work, and some pro quality semi pro acts (The way it has been for me for forty years).

4. A thriving club network could engage people in every town, form a very strong national foundation, interest even more people in folk festivals and generally help to raise the overall profile still further.

5.  It would also enable audiences to see some great musicians in those ‘electric’ atmospheres that can be created in small venues.


So why isn’t the club network thriving when the profile of folk music is on the rise?

Some of the issues and questions:

1. The younger audiences / potential organisers are not going to folk clubs and also some folk concerts (or organising them as far as I’m aware) — even when the younger acts are involved.

2. What are the reasons that keep the young out of the clubs?

3. Is there a resistance to young involvement from the older generation?

4. Can the two coexist in the folk club environment? They seem to do so at festivals.

5. People are allegedly cost conscious but will pay £30 and upward to watch football matches and ‘fortunes’ for festival and concert tickets and to see pop and rock bands.

6. Some organisers seem determined to charge very low admission prices and then struggle to pay reasonable fees. This doesn’t encourage people in because they question the potential quality of such a cheap night.

7. The general image of the clubs is poor and comments made by some involved in the ‘new wave’ seem designed to drive an increasing wedge between the two.

8. What needs to be done to the format /style of folk clubs to satisfy a potential younger audience?

9. What sort of format is needed — Concert style/ residents/ floor singers?

10. The value of separate singer’s nights?

11. Do the folk clubs need an organisation, like the festivals have, to help with the issues of managing change?

So above, are just some of the questions to get the discussion started. I don’t know whether it is possible to solve the problems that currently exist and to rebuild a thriving network of clubs that satisfy audiences across the generations but I do know that I saw the blues and ragtime guitarist, Reverend Gary Davis, in Wolverhampton when he was 73 and I was 20 while at age 60 I am thoroughly enjoying the new young acts on the current folk scene, as well as singing regularly with a 36 year old and a 24 year old. Music shouldn’t be about age; young blues players still revere and reference Robert Johnson, BB King, and the other great American blues artists, Eric Clapton and Peter Green etc. Young folkies rearrange material from Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Peter Bellamy, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones, etc. etc. Surely the power and love of the music should enable people across the generations to coexist if the basic organisation of gigs can be made acceptable to both.

So, in conclusion, I would love to see changes made to the folk club network with younger organisers and audiences coming in which I believe would then replenish a great resource for performers of all ages. Those starting out who may aspire eventually to the bigger festivals and concert halls; those that are happy to continue playing the clubs and smaller festivals; and those that may play the festivals and concerts with bigger bands but would play the club circuit as solo artists or in smaller groups, could all generate good regular work from a successful network. There is also a strong argument to say that young singers could find material that they might like to adopt from hearing some of the singers and singer songwriters (who they would not currently see at festivals) in a thriving folk club circuit.

There are also great advantages to potential audiences. The intimacy of folk clubs cannot ever be captured at festivals, or even at concerts. People can’t afford to go to festivals all the time because weekend tickets, to see such an array of artists, have to be so very expensive but going to your local club to see a particular artist (compared to the cost of say 3 pints of good bitter or a half decent bottle of red wine or a quarter of the price of a football match) is surely very good value. Audiences could also enjoy gigs with members of bigger bands (that are too big and expensive for the clubs) in smaller groups, duos, or as solo artists.

There are also advantages for pub landlords who I’m sure in this current economic climate would be delighted to see a room full of extra customers on a regular basis that a thriving club could generate.

As I said above, I believe that this would all contribute to the continuing rise in profile that folk music is enjoying and further increase the potential audience. I do have some views on what could be done to improve some of the struggling folk clubs and the circuit generally but I really hope that it’s time to hear from the next generation who I’m sure will see enormous benefit from a potentially excellent resource, if they are prepared to make some changes and take hold of the baton.

John Richards

March 2011

Discussion Group on our Forum

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  1. Mike Hardin says:

    The folk clubs of the 60 s happened because of 2 things
    The music was alternative and attra ted a young and mostly dissenting mob
    There were plenty of venues in pubs and coffee bars.

    The spirit of anger and dissent may be returning but the venues are closing daily.

    Perps we need more ad hoc meetings of committed people just doing the music for its own sake, free in pub rooms. Unfortunately the folk scene now seems to be regarded as just another way of becoming a star. For every young folk act sending me sruff that is inspired and relevant, Imget ten more sending me stuff telling me about their relationships.
    I should put my money where my mouth is and start a free fol night in Settle, the problem is that I’m all oveer the place and couldn’t be there every night. A hard one this, I’ ll have a long think

  2. FolkCast says:

    Why don’t young people go to folk clubs? They don’t know about them. After all, the first rule of Folk Club is: don’t talk about Folk Club…

  3. Ian says:

    John, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. It is an issue that I wrote about in an article that was published in the Jan 2011 edition of Folk West and was in response to Bill Pullen’s 2010 article detailing some of the same points. In my opinion, the reason why folk clubs are dying out is that they are resistant to new talent. I started my band Fingerprint about 18 months ago after a 10 year lay off from the folk scene. I found that the scene had changed quite considerably for the worse in those 10 years. Previously you would start with a few open mics, if you went down well, you may be asked to do a support slot and then hopefully graduate to being the main spot. Not so in the 21st century folk club.

    We did several open mics around the Midlands folk clubs and at everyone we went down a storm, not surprising as I have ex professional musicians in the line up. We were always asked to do more than the usual 2 or 3 songs. Folk club proprietors were very enthusiastic. However, when it came to discussions about support slots, it was a different story. One proprietor said, “I only book the big boys.” Another said that she saves her money from her open mics to put on just four acts a year which she picks from professional artists. I was told by another proprietor that I was too young to be in a folk club. I’m 49!! Everywhere we went it was the same story with clubs only booking established acts through the top agents and relying on the open mics to fund these gigs.

    So we decided to approach a couple of festivals. We turned up at the Isle of Arran and went down so well that they have invited us back this year. We were then invited to play Dougie MacLean’s Perthshire Amber Festival. We went down well and are hoping to be back this year.

    Dougie supports new acts by putting them on at his festival. He was very encouraging about our music and took time out to talk to me and other artists. When I explained to him about the difficulty we had in getting gigs in folk clubs he said that he had heard similar reports from other up and coming artists whilst he was on tour. He suggested we set up our own night. This we have done. Thanks to Tom Martin, who runs the Tower of Song in Birmingham we are putting on a regular event called Songs From A Wood where we feature new unsigned songwriters. When looking for artists to put on, we came across the excellent Songwriter’s Café in Digbeth Birmingham, where we have ‘discovered’ 8 songwriters who could easily perform excellent sets in folk clubs. However, all of them had encountered the same intransigence as Fingerprint had from folk club owners. We have so far put on 3 of these acts at our Songs From a Wood nights to great success and hope to put on the others.

    In conclusion, is it any wonder that folk clubs are dying when they are only interested in booking the same old acts and are not prepared to encourage new talent? Faced with a choice of playing decent length sets of your own material at folk festivals, acoustic clubs, songwriters clubs or getting to play 2 numbers before an audience of geriatrics who only want to hear Streets of London, it really is a no brainer!


  4. mike silver says:

    Having looked at the discussions thus far I am motivated to take part, but not sure where to begin or what to say that is relevant. I guess the only way is to start and see where my thoughts lead me.
    When the Folk Awards were instigated I initially thought; this is a good idea because the profile of our music will be raised and brought to a wider audience. This has worked but only inasmuch as the profile of the festivals, concerts and some concert clubs has benefitted whilst the folk clubs and a good number of fine, dedicated and hard working artists who perform in them have been left behind. On a personal note I feel privileged to have been allowed to sing and play as I have been doing since 1967; the world doesn’t owe me a thing. Being able to walk on stage in front of people, play and sing for them, talk to them, see and hear them enjoying my songs and my stories is a continuous gift of amazing and incredible value. Award or recognition by any official or unofficial body would change the value or my love of that gift not one iota. To put it another way, success is relative to the situation you find yourself in.
    Naturally, I would like to work more than I do but that is down to time, place, chemistry and luck of both kinds. I believe that pretty much anyone in my position would feel similar about the amount of work that is available to them. However, I digress: there are now probably more festivals than clubs and the effect of that is that the roots of our music, i.e. folk clubs; are dying because they are no longer fertilised by the new energy which is only available from the young. It is an extraordinarily simple concept but surely, a building without foundation will not stand up for very long and the bricks it is constructed from cannot be manufactured without straw. People leaving university with a degree in folk music and having been advised that expecting to walk into lucrative festival work is where they should start is ludicrous. That would be like starting work for a company and expecting to be on the board on your second day of employment.
    The problem with being young is that you are convinced that you know everything and listening to old gits talking about something with which you think you are fully cognisant isn’t something you entertain with any real enthusiasm. At least that is how it was for me until I woke up because the other side of that is that if you don’t listen you won’t even begin to find out that you can learn something until it’s too late. I have no education to speak of, I left school at 15. I am a self taught musician and so my abilities, such as they are, remain basic with my instruments (voice and guitar). I did not have the benefit of a formal musical education but what I did have were mentors; Gerry Lockran, Brenda Wootton, Cliff Aungier, Derek Brimstone and Ralph McTell as well, who listened to me when I first started writing songs, offered much needed advice and occasionally took me under their wing and taught me about stage craft; a subject that I find it hard to believe could be learned anywhere except by watching someone who is really good at it and listening to them when they tell you how they do it! Hmmm, just talked myself round in a circle I think.
    One of the most important things I learned from these people was that anyone; and that means absolutely anyone, who takes the stage to perform for a paying public, is there for one reason and one reason only, to entertain. Not to lecture, not to protest, not to change the world and not convert the audience to a different political persuasion. Okay, we all have things that we feel strongly about but it is no use standing in front of an audience with a raised fist, real or metaphorical and it is not entertaining to see an artist on stage who finds their own shoes or the inside of their eyelids more interesting than the audience. If you want to get something across to people then you have to be able to sell yourself to the audience. This is stage craft and it can’t be learned at university. We need to get young people back into folk clubs because they are tomorrow. In turn we have to find a way to convince them that they can benefit from knowing about us and where we come from. Mutual respect and appreciation are requirements to make this work. I stay open to all kinds of music, when I stand at the back of a club waiting to do my gig I always want the people on stage to be the best they can be, I am always hoping that someone is going to blow me away. I like people and funnily enough, I want them to like me too. If I am playing somewhere using my own sound system and there is a support act, I offer my services as a sound man and try to make them feel as comfortable as possible, in most cases this is appreciated and makes the evening and the journey etc. the more worthwhile. However it doesn’t feel that great when the support act, having used my PA decide that they have better things to do than listen to even a part of my first set.
    Folk clubs do need to take a look at themselves and how some of them operate. It is a case of striking a balance and the audience are entitled to get their money’s worth. They should not be made to feel anything other than drawn in to the performances they see and hear. There is a time and a place for everyone and everything. The usual argument is that each would be artist/performer has to start somewhere and I agree, Canterbury Folk Club in 1966 was where I started. I had been playing guitar for about four years, mostly in groups, had a thing about all the usual suspects, Beatles, Stones, loved the blues and was a big Dylan fan. I went along to Canterbury and heard Gerry Lockran, who played guitar and sang but sounded better as a soloist than a number of bands I had heard and I was completely smitten. I thought, I wanna have a go at that and asked the organiser, Clive Bennett, if I could come and play some songs the following week. He said I would be welcome to do so. So I went home and practised some songs, until I knew them well enough to play without a crib sheet or any blindingly obvious mistakes and returned to taste the thrill of playing for people, on my own in a folk club, which has still not diminished in over 40 years. As an aside and apropos mistakes; someone asked me recently on a workshop I ran, about how I managed to play without making mistakes. The answer came to me as I replied and I think it holds true, I said, “I still make mistakes every time I play, the longer you play, the better you get; at hiding the mistakes you make”. People often mislead themselves into thinking that singing and playing for a folk club audience is easy, who knows why? Maybe because of the more ‘down home’ atmosphere that is occasionally prevalent in folk clubs. However, it is not. It takes a great deal of hard work and concentration; you need to be at one with yourself and the situation you are in and/or to learn how to make that happen! This comes with experience and it is not learned in a New York minute and even being experienced does not mean you won’t get bitten on the bum sometimes. The thing required, to give yourself and the audience the best possible chance of enjoying the moment is to rehearse what you are going to do before you do it. If the performer is not enjoying the moment then there is little chance that anyone else will be either. Scratching your head before/during/ the song or introducing it by saying, “I did this last week and I forgot the words/chords then so I probably will this week”, is hardly likely to breathe relaxation or confidence into the audience or yourself.
    Having said all of this, there is a time and a place for people learning, to try it out; but should it be on guest artist nights? Perhaps but only after careful consideration at the discretion of a sensible experienced organiser. I feel though that in fairness to all, singer’s nights or singarounds are the best times for this. It is all very well to ‘let people have a go’ but is it fair on the audience to make them unsuspecting guinea pigs, when they have paid to see and hear a guest they have travelled a good few miles to see? And, this is a major part of the reason for this blog; how is anyone, young or old going to feel when they walk into a folk club for the first time to find themselves being not only treated like a guinea pig but not to be allowed to comment to their friends or anyone else about what they just paid to see when it appears to them that it is something completely different from what they read in the advert? What are you supposed to do, as a visiting guest artist, when you have stood at the back of the room and felt the audience palpably wilting because they are being made to sit through not just one but a number of a performances that have not been rehearsed or even thought about that much because nobody told the performers that they needed to do that? It makes you feel empty inside, for the audience, the performers and for yourself because you are going to have to follow it and spend a good part of your first set rebuilding the atmosphere to put the evening back on track. Only to have to repeat the process at the beginning of the second set.
    To sum up and ask for forgiveness to take this long to get to the point, could folk clubs perhaps take another look at balancing the professional with the amateur and find space for both? If this was possible it might, just might open the way for more people, young, middle aged, ancient, wrinkly or smooth, to show up for a night of music, and good entertainment at a price way below what it costs for a festival weekend ticket.

    Mike Silver

  5. Kate says:

    I think Folk Clubs are their own worst enemy. I am 50 and have been going to folk clubs for 30 years. I still feel I am the youngest there and was recently ‘shushed’ when I whispered whilst a terrible floor spot act was on! I felt like a naughty school girl and will be loathe to return. I know it is etiquette not to have a full conversation but times have changed and attitudes should to. You are NEVER going to get young people into that type of atmosphere. I also can’t stand the finger in the ear droning, or old men in cowboy hats (which we were treated to recently in a local club) – give me harmonies and well written songs any day

  6. Tom Bliss says:

    Best of luck with this – it’s entirely why I wrote in Living Tradition a few years back. It’s a little out of date now, but if anyone is interested, here is a link [Page 16 – http://content.yudu.com/Library/A14rpp/LivingTraditionMarch/resources/index.htm

    Have you got contacts with the Folk Club Organisers Forum (brother to Britfolk)? I no longer run this myself, but I think it’s still going. When I left about 150 clubs were represented. Lots of ideas an energy there.

    I’m also no longer involved with folkWISE, but my ‘club tips’ page still gets a lot of hits. If you tell me where I can send people, I’ll add a link.

    I think you have a Facebook page now? I really can’t abide FB, for all its usefulness admitted usefulness, and suspect it will soon go the way of MySpace. I gather you are setting up a working group? If so, then having a discussion space that can give you an overview of opinion across the board will be essential if you’re to proceed with any sure-footedness. The Yahou Group model works well for this, so maybe you all join the FCO group (they ought to have you), or if that is fading, then maybe set up a new one. If you do, don’t make the mistake I did of allowing non-club-organisers to join. We should have been like Britfolk, pros only. It sound undemocratic, but once you need to start discussing thing like money and political tactics everyone needs to speak from a position of experience, or the arguments soon go flabby.


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