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.