The “History” page on the National Folk Festival website contains the rather astonishing fact that the capital for the first NFF in Melbourne in 1967 was the grand sum of $100. There is no record of the number of people who attended but the Principal of the Melbourne Teachers’ College, where the event was held, was so concerned about possible riot that he insisted the police were in attendance. We know that the only riotous behaviour was on the dance floor and that the police “enjoyed the music”. (http://www.folkfestival.org.au/info/history).
Almost all of you reading this newsletter, either in an email or online, have attended the NFF over the past 45 years. Some of you may have attended every event, and most have been back many times.
The people who currently run and administer the festival, the volunteers, the board and the staff have always seen themselves as mere custodians of something wondrous and enduring that belongs to the wider Australian community.
Among the folk community there has apparently been a good deal of discussion about the National. This reason for this special newsletter is to share with our community the pressures facing the festival and to explain how we are dealing with them.
The NFF is a not for profit event where any profits we make go back into improving the festival. The NFF has never relied heavily on sponsorship or regular Government financial support, but rather has supported its activities by ticket, food, and bar sales, rent from stalls and the occasional sponsorship or grant.
Since 1992, the festival has generally made a surplus, a small loss or broken even. The surplus revenue was used to develop the Festival and most recently to assist with the purchase of adequate office space for the staff. Over the past two festivals 2011 and 2012 however, while our revenues have marginally increased and our attendances have been steady (close to 51,000 over the weekend in 2011 and nearly 52,500 in 2012) we have made sizeable losses that have severely depleted our cash reserves.
Before detailing the reasons for the losses, we would like assure you that we are now financially stable, as we have had some welcome financial support from an outside agency, and the planning for an exciting 2013 festival, with new Artistic Program Manager, Pam Merrigan, is well on track.
In the months since Easter we have conducted a major review of our business, recently assisted by consultants KPMG, We are receiving financial support as well for the KPMG services.
As already mentioned, the NFF has had a self-sustaining financial model in its time in Canberra. A number of factors were involved in the losses of the past two years:
First and foremost our compliance costs have risen; i.e. the money we have to pay for things like insurance, occupational health and safety, traffic management, on-site security, training of volunteers etc. We live in a nanny state where the risk and threat of legal action seems, in our view, to have over-ridden that old concept of personal responsibility. These requirements became so onerous for our staff and volunteers that we had to appoint a full time worker to deal with them and also employ safety consultants. Without these, we were concerned that we would not get the approvals necessary for the festival to take place. We have calculated that meeting these requirements has cost the festival in excess of $150 thousand for each of the past two years.
The NFF of 2012 is not the festival of 1993 or even 2003. Staging, ticketing, site design and management, compliance issues, volunteer training requirements, production costs, performer support and IT support are now more complex and increasingly require specialist skills. The NFF has long relied on unpaid volunteer support in our Canberra office but we suffered from volunteer and staff burn out and had to act to reduce the load on individuals. In 2009, we also finally put our full time staff on a proper, though still meagre, award rate to bring us into line with others who work in the arts area.
Having put compliance systems in place and developed the necessary plans and templates, we have now been able to reduce our staffing costs in the regulatory area, saving the expense of a full time position. Another administrative position which became vacant has not been filled. Recently, another staff member retired and that role will now be filled with volunteer and consultant support. Another staff position has been reduced in hours and converted to a contract position. Significant savings were necessary and are being made.
While our revenue continued to increase, mainly through increases in ticket pricing, we realised that there was a ceiling to what our community could afford. Like other major festivals, and indeed the retail sector as a whole, the global financial crisis and continuing economic instability made customers more cautious about discretionary spending.
In simple terms, the festival did not grow as anticipated from a record 55,000 gate entries in 2010. This was compounded in 2011 by a late, cold Easter combined with a five day long weekend coinciding with ANZAC day. It should be noted that while we have a core community who come to the event each year, we have always relied on sales of day tickets in Canberra and the region to make the event financially viable. While our income has continued to rise it has not kept pace with rising costs.
We are not alone in experiencing the pressures caused by the current financial downturn. Many festivals in Australia have seen ticket and other revenues drop by as much as 20% in the past few years, a trend noted by other music festivals around the world, particularly in the UK.
We are adapting to ensure we are among the survivors of the crisis.
Presenting an enjoyable, entertaining and engaging Festival has been and will continue to be our first priority.
Considerable efforts were made to redress our budget shortfall after 2011, by supplementing our ticket sales with some further onsite enterprise including running a wine bar and a coffee bar. We also made it clear to local authorities that increasing compliance costs under Workplace Health and Safety legislations, emergency requirements and site safety compliance were making the festival‘s financial situation precarious.
Since this year’s festival, the staff and board have indentified other areas for cost savings. A redesign of the site, including a small reduction in the number of venues will help us reduce power, set-up and compliance costs. Complimentary and VIP ticketing will be significantly reduced. Every area of the budget will have to share the burden of cost cutting and we ask for your understanding and support as we implement these changes.
At the same time, a decision has been made to hold ticket prices at the same level as 2012, while providing some extra assistance for families. Child and youth categories will be widened to encourage family participation. Tickets for over 80’s will again be free. There will be changes to the cost of some performer ‘supporter’ tickets.
We are also continuing negotiations with the ACT Government to seek financial relief from the extra cost burdens that the regulatory environment has imposed on us.
What you can do to support the festival
The best way that our community can ensure that the festival thrives is to buy tickets and tell all your friends about it. Give an Early Bird day ticket as a Christmas present to that significant someone to facilitate their attendance for the first time!
For our interstate and overseas supporters, if you haven’t been for a few years, 2013 is the Centenary of the founding of Canberra.
Easter is earlier next year which augurs well for a very pleasant camping experience. Early autumn is a delightful time of the year to be in Canberra and there will be additional attractions that may be of interest to visitors because of the Canberra Centenary celebrations. Plan now to join us!
Early Bird discounted tickets will be available in limited numbers from September 1.