Vancouver Folk Music Festival looks to the future

Kris Klaasen makes no bones about the fact that when he joined the Vancouver Folk Music Festival board in 2005, the venerable organization was in trouble.

“Things were not good three years ago,” the festival spokesperson says, reached at home in Kitsilano. “But even though we’re still fighting a hard battle, and we still have a deficit, we’re really, really, really in a lot better shape than we were three years ago. We’re turning the corner.”

He’s alluding to the fact that the 31-year-old event has reduced its debt load from a crippling high of $460,000 to a more manageable $280,000. More than that, though, 2008 represents a turning point for the festival, with the departure of long-time artistic director Dugg Simpson.

Klaasen chooses not to comment on why Simpson’s contract was not extended when it expired earlier this year, other than by saying, “It was time for renewal.” But he’s frank about what he sees as necessary to the festival’s survival, including new corporate partnerships and the appointment of a full-time artistic director.

“We’re looking for somebody who’s going to uphold what I personally think has been a very high standard of artistic direction,” he comments. “I think we have, in all of our 31 years, presented a really diverse and unique kind of program.”¦and our new artistic director will be in sync with that. They’ll put their own stamp on that—but our vision’s steady, and if you want to talk in marketing terms, our market niche is pretty well defined.”

He praises Simpson’s efforts to attract a younger audience, noting that in 2007 the festival had “a bigger bulge in growth in that teens-and-young-20s demographic than we’ve ever had before”. And he points out that interim artistic director Linda Tanaka, although scaling back the number of dance- and dub-oriented acts booked for 2008, is continuing to explore lowering the average age of festival attendees. This year’s event features several young female acts, including Hayley Sales, Maeve Mackinnon, the Carrivick Sisters, and Jenn Grant.

“One of the things that Linda has done is to renew and revive the children’s area,” he says. “In the past three years, that area has become, more or less, just an extension of the general festival, although a little bit more family-oriented, perhaps. But one of the things that she’s done is to program far more specifically for that stage. And kids are free this year: kids under 12 are free, and that’s a first.”

Interviewed by phone from the folk-festival offices, Tanaka says that she has applied for the artistic director’s job on a full-time basis. But if the founder and former AD of the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival has a master plan for change, she’s not ready to unveil it yet.

“I don’t have any ideas about how the festival would change or anything like that, other than putting in better-known names,” she says. “I’m keeping it the way it is for now. Until I’ve been through a festival, I don’t want to be deciding how to change it.”

Modifications, then, will be minor. In the past couple of years, there have been some volume issues, with stray sound from Simpson’s drum ’n’ bass stages interfering with more acoustic-oriented presentations, but that seems to have been addressed.

There remains, however, a perception that the festival has been slow to pick up on a burgeoning freak-folk scene that would be a natural fit with its Jericho Beach Park location. Local performer Veda Hille—a festival attendee since she was 12, and the artist who was chosen to write a commemorative song cycle for the event’s 25th anniversary—identifies this seeming hole in the program.

“I’m quite surprised that we haven’t had anyone like Sufjan Stevens or Devendra Banhart or Will Oldham or Animal Collective,” she says from her East Vancouver home. “Perhaps those people are a little more expensive; I do appreciate the non–star system that our festival has always had. But I do think there’s a lot going on in the new songwriters’ scene that would be really great in a big park with all those lovely people.”

But Hille adds that whoever is chosen to lead the festival into 2009 will be aided by folk music’s inherently elusive nature. “All music can fit into that realm,” she explains, “as long as it has a truth to it.”

That fits nicely with Klaasen’s own hopes. “Our mandate is to surprise, excite, and inspire,” he says, “and we aim to continue that in the fine fashion that I think we’ve been doing for years.”