Sunday, May 18, 2008

Unlike Newport, smaller festivals keep it eclectic

Where star power isn't necessary
Unlike Newport, smaller festivals keep it eclectic
By Scott Alarik, Boston Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008
After years dancing uncomfortably between the worlds of folk and pop, the Newport Folk Festival is reinventing itself as a full-tilt rock and pop show this summer. If New England's most stellar and storied folk event is abandoning folk, you'd think the region's folksier and less-stellar festivals must be faring even worse.

Think again. Falcon Ridge, the Northeast's premier songwriter festival, had a total attendance of 32,000 last year, up one-third from 2006. Last year's Lowell Folk Festival drew 200,000, according to city estimates, down from 220,000 in 2006. But food sales, often a better barometer at a free festival, were up 10 percent. The annual attendance for New Bedford's Summerfest has averaged 20,000 for the past four years.

Examining why these low-key, non-star-driven festivals do well, when the pop industry is in historic decline, reveals how completely folk music exists within its own economy, with vastly different business models for presenters and career models for performers.

Uber-fan Doug Ashford, a manager at Sun Life Financial who attends around 120 shows a year, has been to Newport six times but goes to Summerfest and Lowell nearly every year.

"For an event like Newport, it's all dependent on who's playing," he says. "But Summerfest and Lowell have really developed reputations for interesting, eclectic lineups; so you attend almost out of habit, knowing you're going to see something new and surprising. They're very well designed, set in small, friendly, walkable cities, offering a fun experience for a wide range of people."

When Summerfest organizers say "the more the merrier," they mean people, not ticket prices. They charge $10 a day, $15 for the weekend (with children under 12 admitted free), and make up the balance through a combination of civic and business support. The emphasis on affordability creates an entirely different vibe, according to artistic director Alan Korolenko.

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