What makes for a better Cambridge Folk Festival?

…given some of the problems that arose at the 2022 festival as highlighted by regular festival-goer Chris Rand

You can read Chris Rand’s review of the Cambridge Folk Festival 2022 here.

I didn’t go this year for multiple reasons, including health, and not seeing anyone on the line up that made me want to race down and buy a ticket.

“…the artists who appeared were excellent, but it was an underwhelming lineup.”

Chris Rand, 02 Aug 2022

Above – a line-up described as safe but charming – 3/5 in The Guardian in their review

It was never going to be easy for the festival organisers given the context of post-lockdown but Covid still around. Ditto the perilous state of many local council budgets means that without sponsorship it is difficult to bring in the big names. This has been a particular challenge post-EURef.

Even though I didn’t go this year, I have been to several festivals in my time – with the benefit of being able to walk there and back because Cherry Hinton Hall is in my neighbourhood. So when I lived at my late grandparents house I didn’t have to worry about toilets, showers, and where to sleep because I could pop back home and be back in 15 minutes. But in my more aged and less mobile state, festival facilities become all the more important and noticeable. Furthermore, accessibility is not only a legal requirement, festival goers expect higher standards than say back in 1974.

Above – Cherry Hinton Hall in 1974 hosting the Folk Festival – when the main stage was somewhat smaller! (Note the upright piano!)

In those days everyone sat on the ground. In the decades that went by, more and more people brought along portable chairs to the extent you can slouch in one all afternoon as the music and the breeze sails by.

For those of you unfamiliar with the layout of the festival, and where Cherry Hinton Hall is in relation to the rest of Cambridge, click here.

Above – Cherry Hinton Hall and grounds. Growing up we simply referred to the entire site as Cherry Hinton Hall – never differentiating between the building that we were never allowed inside, and the grounds which were taken over by the council just before the UK’s entry into WWII.

“Was Brexit to blame for some of the poor facilities?”

We know the Cambridge Beer Festival 2022 was cancelled due to shattered supply chains that were the result of both leaving the EU (***Lots*** more paperwork that put off suppliers from the continent from offering their services to the UK) and CV19 which would have put more than a few firms out of business due to the closure of everything in lockdown. Note there are still court cases going on about whether insurance companies are liable. See the House of Commons Library briefing on business continuity insurance and Covid from November 2021 here.

We’ll have to wait and see what the review of the event by Cambridge City Council makes of any supply chain issues. I agree with Chris in that it’s worth paying that little bit extra if it means more, better facilities – noting that people notice more when the things they take for granted are no longer there. It’s a bit like referees in football matches: If you can’t recall who the referee was, let alone what the referee did, they probably had a good game. It’s the same with the essentials such as ensuring regularly cleaned toilets that are properly serviced and don’t have long queues, to having a straight-forward, polite, and uneventful entrance at the barriers.

“Can’t Cambridge get some sponsors in to help pay for bigger headline acts?”

They can – and their sponsorship pack makes for interesting reading if improvement in that field is what you’re after. It’s the demographics that potential sponsors are interested in if it’s a return on their investment they are after.

“The Cambridge Folk Festival attracts over 12,000 people to experience a four-day showcase of the best folk and roots music from across the globe.”

Cambridge Folk Festival Sponsorship pack, p2
  • 24% come from Cambridge, 4% come from Cambridgeshire and 71% from the rest of the UK. 1% are international bookers
  • Most popular age group is 46-65
  • The majority read the Guardian or Telegraph
  • 96% are employed or retired, with over 50% of the total in full time employment
  • 70% have a degree or post-graduate qualification
  • 82% regularly use Social Media

12,000 people is a lot of people – and between 3-4,000 of those are local. They are likely to be educated, slightly older, more affluent, and politically/socially/environmentally aware.

For more than a few firms and industries, that is a dream demographic to advertise to – and also at the same time not an easy one to hoodwink either. Try any greenwashing and they will absolutely rinse you! And there are up to 12,000 of them as well!

There’s also an academic/social history research project waiting for someone to do, in comparing the demographics of previous years’ folk festivals with the most recent ones. What has changed, and why?

Cambridge City Council should look to their own history and the history of the Cambridge Folk Festival as their starting point for new festival sponsors.

The reason? Not only does the festival have it by the bucket-load, but something that is ‘authentically Cambridge town’ isn’t easy to come by in this globalised world of ours where multinational brands and high land prices have pushed out many-an-independent business. Furthermore, even the influential lobby group Cambridge Ahead is and has been calling publicly for more action from ministers and others over the cost of living in Cambridge – in particular for young people.

Their statistics for under-35s are striking – in particular that only 4% of households in Cambridge under the age of 35 grew up in our city. (Cambridge Ahead, p11, data from Feb 2022).

This means that the civic and social integration of young adults is a much more significant challenge than perhaps politicians appreciate. Something to return to.

That integration has to start with both public services and local history. Otherwise what are we as a city? A collection of old, photogenic buildings that people from all over the world come to see and photograph, surrounded by anonymous, identikit housing developments depending on the age/era they were built in, occupied by people going about their separate lives? No – we’re better than that.

I would say that because I’m a local historian who grew up in the area and have been to a few of the festivals in my time, my earliest in 1996, my latest in 2019. See this post on Lost Cambridge. The first 30 years of the Cambridge Folk Festival’s history was written in the mid-1990s. You can still find old copies for sale on AbeBooks.

Above – front cover of Thirty Years of the Cambridge Folk Festival (Lang/Newman, 1994, Music Maker Books).

Above – an aerial photograph from 1993 in the book – note even then how small the main stage was. Despite that, you could still hear the music down the western end of Cherry Hinton Road – only in later years did they bring in acoustically-dampening large marquees due to noise complaints.

And yet if you read through the sponsorship brochure, the one thing that is missing in it is the word ‘history’. Have a look at the Festival’s values on p3.

Values of the Cambridge Folk Festival and the people who make it happen:

  • Accessible
  • Sustainable
  • Support for grassroots
  • Gender-equal

Personally I’d rephrase that entire page (and format it properly too). Note the gender equality value is particularly important in a male-dominated music industry. The high number of women on the line up at one of the recent festivals was particularly positively commented on a few years ago.

Bringing in the history is more than just about listing some big names who have played at the festival over the past half century and more. There is a story about how the festival was founded – and how important the support from Cambridge City Council was in the early days to the present day. The book above is full of photographs credited to the City Council’s leisure department as was in 1994. And it hasn’t been all plain sailing either – whether it was the tent that burnt down in the late 1960s to the huge financial loss in 2009 – see Richard Taylor’s account here, and his commentary on the City Council’s report here.

“If your organisation is in Cambridge for the long haul – with all of the challenges our city and county faces, then you can help demonstrate this to the public by…”

…and let the marketing experts write the rest.

The desired outcome for me would be to get additional sponsors with existing, or a desire to build strong local links in and around our city, and who are willing to support not just the Folk Festival but town and civic arts in and around our city in the longer term – perhaps through multi-year sponsorship agreements. It’s not like there aren’t the opportunities. Look at the landing site and how few sponsors there are.

That’s not to say you want to go to the other extreme and have every possible surface covered in corporate banners.

I remember when a friend from many moons ago took me to see the fifth day of a test cricket match (England vs India) at The Oval. The one thing that was really off-putting both inside and outside of the ground was the very visually loud and intrusive corporate sponsor boards everywhere. It was so intrusive it was hard to avoid within the cricket ground, and actually detracted from what was a splendid innings by the legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar in one of his final matches – out for 96. My late grandfather – who also went to a few of the Cambridge folk festivals in the 1980s, was a prominent sportsman in his time before war put an end to his progress, specialised in cricket and hockey. Even he would have been in awe at the batting masterclass from Tendulkar that day.

There have been big name sponsors in the past – such as the Co-operative (who got their name into the event branding in 2010 and 2011) – which has its own long history in Cambridge.

Above from the DVD cover of 2011 highlights.

I can’t say that sort of branding to the extent the name gets changed has ever sat easily with me – to the extent that the media is required to name the sponsor similar to the old “League Cup” in football, which when the rules were changed to allow the sponsors to have the title rights. Hence the various name changes for that tournament since the 1980s.

Fortunately it did not go much further than that I recall. And in any case, the demographics of both festival and city would call out such saturation branding anyway.

“Where can the council and festival organisers start with next year’s sponsorship raising?”

First things first, I’m going to assume that the festival is both financially viable and desirable as an annual cultural event – even if that viability means for the next few years the city council has to provide a small subsidy to it. We won’t know until the numbers are crunched.

Secondly, The Museum of Cambridge has just published its plan for the next few years where they state:

“Our retail space needs to reflect the Museum’s identity, activity, and exhibitions, and we will ensure our offer links to seasonal considerations such as half terms, religious and cultural festivals, and annual holidays.”

Museum of Cambridge Strategic Plan 2022-27

I’d get a leading trustee of the Museum of Cambridge to sit down with representatives of the City Council, the Festival, and music venues such as the Portland Arms, The Junction and some of the newer ones on the new housing estates (Storey’s Field, Clay Farm) and work out proposals for a programme of co-ordinated activities that can lead up to the main festival itself. If they can do that, and put it together in a way so that some of the activities become annual events in themselves, that strengthens the case for multi-year sponsorship pitches. So rather than a one off festival pitch, it becomes something that potential sponsors can demonstrate a longer term commitment to the cultural life of the city.

And the longer such agreements can last, those sponsoring organisations become part of that shared history as well.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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