The effects of Covid on two popular festivals 

photo: Edmonton Folk Festival

by Joshua Nhan

Edmonton summers are vibrant, peppered with festivals every weekend, but as winter approaches, the city descends into a state of hibernation. Those familiar with an Edmonton summer would likely also be familiar with the Jazz, Fringe, or Sonic Boom Festival, but none of these are as anticipated as the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. 

For four straight nights, the EFMF hosts 20,000 people on the hill of Gallagher Park in early August, when the average temperature rests between 23C and 11C. In common with many Edmontonians, some of my fondest memories were made packed on the hill, singing and dancing with buds, suds and spirits.

It is an annual of a weekend getaway, where one would burn in the sun listening to rhythmic guitars and smokey voices, get refreshments in the beer tent to do it again, until it came time to wait in the taxi line.

The corona pandemic has forced the EFMF’s first cancellation since its creation four decades ago, but Terry Wickham, the festival producer, has a message to console the festival’s loyal supporters. 

The EFMF is a charitable non-profit festival that has an incredible history of booking top-tier international acts from all parts of the world, including artists like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Norah Jones, Feist and K’Naan among hundreds of others. Six stages operating simultaneously are curated as individual performances or workshops of up to five different musical groups and artists.

The workshops showcase an arrangement of artists, often from differing continents, improvising with one another and transcending genres to create a unique, live musical experience. Wickham recalls the anecdotes of Brandy Carlyle, John Prine and Mary Chapin Carpenter, all confessing to him that the EFMF is “head and shoulder above everything else.” 

 Wickham credits most of the festival’s success to the many, often multigenerational, volunteers. He reminds us that Edmonton’s title as the “City of Champions,” was popularized by 80’s mayor, Laurence Decore, in response to the community of volunteers that responded to the Black Friday tornado that hit in ’87.

The EFMF only retains six full time employees, relying on 2,700 volunteers that reduce the festival’s overhead, and subsidizes the cost of the 50+ artists, resulting in a ticket price of $90 a night. Children under 11, seniors above 80, vendors and volunteers get in free, making up almost 40% of the festival attendees.

Terry Wickham immigrated to Calgary from Dublin in 1985, beginning his career as an event organizer at the Calgary Centre of Performing Arts, now the Jack Singer Concert Hall, before taking on the gig as producer for the EFMF in ’89.

Wickham has continuously sold out all 13,700 weekend passes since he took the reigns, and while the EFMF might be Wickham’s most impressive credential, he is also responsible for a decade of producing the Calgary Folk Fest, where in his first year, he reversed and doubled a $100,000 deficit.

Yet for Wickham, Edmonton is definitely the “better place to do festivals. It’s more encouraging and the arts community is stronger.”

The Downtown Defrost is a much younger festival in Edmonton that takes place early February, showcasing local DJs and booking an up-and-coming international artist as a headliner.

Downtown Defrost video from 2015

This festival is organized by Night Vision, a multi-faceted collective of Edmonton DJs, headed by Sahib Quraishi, well known in the community for holding events at venues like The Bower, 9910 and the Starlite Room. The Downtown Defrost has been running for five years, recently joining the Silver Skate event in Hawrelak Park.

Quraishi has worked closely with promoters in Calgary, claiming that their electronic music scene, generally “doesn’t feel as accepting,” as they usually opt to book “commercial” artists.

He criticizes corporate festivals organizations, particularly Live Nation, which holds over 100 festivals worldwide, as “cookie cutter vibe festivals that book pop music to make as much money as possible,” leaving the experience “soulless.”

Is Edmonton more artistic and Calgary more commercial? Wickham praises Edmonton institutions like CKUA, CJSR and the University of Alberta, and agrees with Quraishi (and me) that there is something to be said about how the cities vote.

Does COVID-19 mean the end of festivals as we know it? “You can’t do social distancing at Folk Fest [because of the] beer tent, people sitting on your tarp, kids running around, people shouting, dancing [and] two words, porta potties,” Wickham reasonably states.

Thankfully, both the EFMF and Night Vision will not be in financial danger any time soon. The EFMF avoids large fees by not owning the venue, and wise investments in office and warehouse space makes for an abnormally low overhead. Wickham also implemented an endowment fund from any yearly surplus, that continues to grow, guaranteeing the survival of the festival for whatever is to come.

For Night Vision, the creation of a music academy has been sufficient to ensure the company’s survival.

Wickham admits that “a lot of festivals will go broke over this period, a lot of agencies will go out of business,” and Quraishi also expresses grief that the pandemic might end the Glastonbury Festival in the UK, and Bass Coast in British Columbia, along with many more. Both organizations eagerly await the vaccine, but are confident festivals will eventually return to a relative normalcy.

In a jovial Irish accent, Wickham jokes, “if I was a betting person, I wouldn’t put money on 2021, probably put it then on 2022.”