Cambridge folk festivals of the future in a much bigger City of Cambridge


The festivals of the past few years have been with the backdrop of ever darkening political times.

Over the past couple of years we’ve had both the turmoil of post-EURef Britain combined with the climate emergency very much here and now. Interestingly, politics at the festival generally passed me by until Imelda May mentioned the impact that the EU referendum had had on everyone at the 2016 festival.

Imelda May on the Cambridge Folk Festival 2016, by 7Digital Creative.

I’m not going to pretend this year was one of the least enjoyable for me for a very long time – but that wasn’t because of any fault by the organisers or the musicians. It was mainly due to the ongoing poor state of my mental health more than anything else. And there’s still no solution in sight.

Walking thru the Folk Festival site on Thursday evening – you can see the bags under my eyes as I gritted my teeth to film this piece. 

The one from 2016 is here. Although I picked out Ralph McTell as the artist of note, buying a ticket this year was a relatively last minute decision, in part based on the slow ticket sales. Hence posting online messages that there were still tickets available. It’ll be interesting to see what the results are, but box office staff said that competition from other festivals had had an impact. Other acquaintances and friends also said that the festival had a lower budget to work with so could not compete on price.

I was also blessed with the bad luck of not finding my musical gang so give or take a handful of extended conversations with some familiar faces, I sat there listening to some songs from the sound track of Forrest Gump, which reminded me of this time 20 years ago when I was getting ready to leave Cambridge to go to university.

“I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining….because I’m free…nothing’s worrying me…”

Diversifying to incorporate the spoken word was the right thing to do

The Index on Censorship had a stall there, as did Extinction Rebellion who ran some public talks. As I mentioned in a blogpost about past festivals, folk music is about people and their lives/stories. The back catalogues of big names in the folk music world tell you this – such as The Levellers and Oysterband. I cannot remember a time when the general public has been so politicised on any issue – and dare I say it knowledgeable too.

In terms of lower – or rather slower than usual ticket sales compared to other years, I think there will always be peaks and troughs – often aligned with economic cycles. So in that regard I don’t think the downtimes will last into the distant future to the extent that the festival ceases while everything else carries on business as usual. Climate change means there is no more business as usual: The mega-heatwave that made Cambridge the hottest place in the country ever also resulted in unprecedented ice-melting in Greenland. The previous summer was that extended drought that made the ground at Cherry Hinton Hall rock solid – to the extend that spilled drinks would not drain away into the soil.

“So…how do you help make the Folk Festival more sustainable financially?”

In the grand scheme of things the organisers are doing pretty much everything right when viewed from the perspective of a local. They made a special effort to reduce their environmental footprint – especially with plastic this year. For me the bigger opportunities are with longer term sponsorship and support with local firms and businesses – especially given the limited funding to book more higher profile acts. That said, you only need two or three – one for each day, as your main draw. Personally I wanted someone of the calibre and profile of The Levellers or Oysterband as headlining bands. But that’s just a personal preference.

In my experience, the quality of the musicians I’ve not heard of before tends to be very good – nearly always I will come away having discovered someone or something new. Which is how it should be: the festivals should be an opportunity for new artists to showcase their talent to an audience of thousands.

190806 CamFolkFest supporters

While not wanting the festival to become overly commercialised – it simply isn’t that sort of event, I was surprised to see so few firms and organisations mentioned. (See above).

The Co-operative Group used to be one of the longer term sponsors of the Folk Festival. They are expected to open another convenience store at the old Budgen’s store when the renovation is complete. Which means there are ***three*** such stores on the walk from the railway station to Cherry Hinton Hall. (Clone town Cambridge anyone?) One group who could – should even – be jumping at the market of festival goers is the Cambridge Sustainable Food Group. Simply because there is a critical mass of people who go to the festival who are affluent, environmentally aware and share similar values.

The Cambridge Folk Festival as an event on the civic calendar

For me it’s one of the biggest civic events on the ‘town’ calendar. It always has been – how can it not be when 10,000 people descend on your neighbourhood, with people from all over the world? That said, as the city of Cambridge has diversified over the past couple of decades, I’m not entirely sure the same can be said for the local regulars. For some reason it really struck me that I was one of the few non-White faces at the festival – one in a part of town where I’ve spent over three quarters of my 40 years on this planet in. Which makes me think that part of next years publicity drive could involve encouraging local residents who have not been before to come along for the first time.

One of the reasons why having a steady, regular stream of local residents involved is that it reduces the likelihood that we’ll complain about some of the inevitable problems that arise with such a big event: parking, little, noise are all inevitable issues. The second is that some of those local residents are also potential future sponsors. A number of the new stalls and spoken word attractions new this year came about because of local links and friendships.

Supporting local music and arts generally

Last year I signed up to become one of the supporters of The Junction in Cambridge. It’s local to me, I go to events there, I’ve been going to events there ever since it was first built in 1990. Generally these days I take the view of supporting a smaller number of things and doing it well/make it meaningful. Otherwise I burn out. With the fallout of austerity since 2010, the number of good causes to support is not small.

Structures, systems and processes preventing Cambridge from making the most of its global brand.

The Cambridge Folk Festival is mentioned in the corporate sponsorship brochure tucked at the bottom of this page. It’s not been an easy time for Cambridge Live of late with the failure of the move to turn it into an independent trust that could apply for grants. It’s now back ‘in house’ with Cambridge City Council. Town activities are the poor relation to the money that flows into Cambridge University – which passed the £1billion mark ages ago. Part of the challenge here is persuading the university to invest in the wider city.

Again, my take is that Cambridge Town has an incredible history, and many stories to share. Collectively we’ve just not invested in it. I remain convinced that as a city we underrate and undervalue all of this.

Growing our local musical grass roots

For centuries, Cambridge’s musical culture has been one where we’ve been blessed with world class musicians playing in settings which people travel from all over the world just to be in. The acoustic in some of the ancient chapels are incredible. (The less said about some of the more modern spaces, the better!)

In terms of our folk music scene, the Cambridge Folk Club was founded around the same time as the festival – in the mid 1960s. Certainly growing up in 1980s & 1990s (south) Cambridge we didn’t have a culture of supporting music instrument learning outside of classical music and exams. Fortunately we have far more and far greater resources online to help these days. I remain convinced that the model of the East London Late Starters Orchestra is one that Cambridge can adopt and make a success of – and apply it not just to classical or folk, but to music generally.

Music making for adults – the East London Late Starters Orchestra, which also makes learning musical instruments accessible and affordable too.






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