The Cambridge Folk Festival always has such an eclectic mix of artists. Who are you particularly excited about playing at the event this summer?
John Prine gets better with age and seeing it has been over ten years since we saw him at the Festival, and he rarely performs in the UK, that is really something to look forward to. Nanci Griffith and Keb Mo have always been Cambridge favourites too, and Gretchen Peters is riding a wave of acclaim with her recent album, so I'm sure she will be very popular. I'm particular pleased that we we've been able to persuade June Tabor to appear with the Oysterband as ‘Ragged Kingdom’ is a phenomenal album. If you're looking for eclectic, you don't have to look much further than their version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’! Also having The Unthanks with Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band will be really moving. For me it is often the newer names that really excite me the most; Dry the River, The Staves, Anais Mitchell, Phantom Limb, and the acts in our smallest stage The Den, such as King Charles, Liz Green and Skinny Lister. They are all names to watch for the future.
How do you go about picking the artists who play at the festival? How long does it take to organise such an event?
It's like building a jigsaw with no straight edges! The quality of the music is always the most important factor and booking performances that are unique in some way is critical. Clannad, making such a rare appearance with their original line-up, or Nic Jones returning to the live performance after so long, are both examples. There are a number of fundamental requirements to a Cambridge bill - the best folk from the UK and Ireland, country, blues, world music, the mix of old and new, popular choices balanced with more edgy and left field artists - it's all about getting the balance right. The Cambridge bill is always varied and means different things to fans of different styles of music. The process starts around December and whilst I like to be finished by March, it can easily go on longer. I'm not one for booking fillers and have to be convinced on the merits of every single booking.
What artists are you particularly proud of getting to play at the festival over the years? Whose performances have really stood out for you?
James Taylor was a real coup and put on a wonderful show. Nick Cave, upset some traditionalists (and the tuner who'd lovingly tuned his piano) but was amazing. Joe Strummer was a personal highlight and it turned out to be his last recorded show. Martyn Bennett's blend of techno and bagpipes was probably the most exciting. Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, Jimmy Cliff - there are so many.
How long have you been organiser of the festival? How did you become involved with it?
I replied to a job in The Stage for an admin assistant in 1990, then took on the programming when the Festival's founder Ken Woollard sadly died in 1993. Other responsibility has come over the years.
The Cambridge Folk Festival has been going since 1964. How has it kept up such a remarkable longevity? How are you able to keep it so fresh and different, when other festivals seem to have very similar line ups to one another?
The Festival is promoted by Cambridge City Council so it has always had to adapt to the changing political climate, and there is a continual drive for improvement and challenging oneself. We continually think about how we can make improvements, make things feel fresh and attract new audiences. We're never complacent - you are only as good as your last event.
With festivals like Sonisphere being cancelled and others such as Glastonbury taking the year off, many have suggested this is a sign that there are now too many UK summer festivals. Do you think this is the case? Has the market become saturated?
I believe the market has reached saturation point and the scene is currently re-adjusting. We all have to work harder to keep customers satisfied and whilst the stronger festivals are doing ok, the less established or those who don't offer value will suffer.
The current economic climate and the London Olympics are among several factors blamed for some festivals not happening this year. Has this affected your own festival? How have you been able to deal with this?
We asked our audience whether the Olympics would impact on their attendance and received a very clear message back that it would not. It has certainly led to some challenges but we're embracing the Olympics. We'll be showing the opening ceremony at the Festival, our crèche is doing Olympic themed activities for kids, and we've booked a theatre company to run our own "sports day". They tell me it’s not about the taking part, it’s the winning that counts!
Last year Michael Eavis said he believed UK festivals are on their way out, and even the likes of Glastonbury would be gone in the next three to four years. Do you think this is the case? Are festivals still relevant to the UK summer?
I love Michael, he always makes good copy. Yes of course festivals are still relevant, customers just want good value for money.
Many people complain that larger festivals cost too much to attend, something partly blamed on the fees artists now charge for playing. Does this affect the Cambridge Folk Festival and how do you get around this?
Yes, larger festivals driving up fees coupled with a decline in CD sales and a shift towards touring for artists to maintain revenue streams is an issue for a small festival such as Cambridge. Fortunately we have other benefits to offer artists such as a great audience of dedicated music fans and the ability to reach a far greater audience with national radio and TV coverage.
The Cambridge Folk Festival seems to avoid a lot of the advertising and commercialism that exists for other festivals. Do you agree with festivals that use such prevalent advertising?
Every festival is different, has a different type of audience and differing ways of engaging with them. There's no wrong or right way, just the one that is most appropriate for you and your audience.
Have the larger festivals got too big? Do they steal all the competition? Could their power in the market lead to the death of other smaller festivals?
Again different people like different types of events. We appeal to people who want to go to an international event with acclaimed artists, but still want to be able to get close to them, experience good facilities, discover music they've never heard which becomes a future favourite, and maybe even take part in the music making themselves.
The Cambridge Folk Festival was begun by political activist Ken Woollard who wanted to create a festival that expressed his own socialist ideas, covered a wide spectrum of music, and provided a friendly family atmosphere. Does the festival still follow these ideals now and how is this maintained?
The Festival certainly still covers a wide spectrum of music, is family friendly and treats people well. Credit also needs to go to Cambridge City Council who've promoted the Festival since the start and stuck by it over the years. The Festival's ability to win consecutive Greener Festival Awards owes much to the Council pushing the green agenda throughout all of its activities.
Assuming you could chose artists from any time in history, who would make up your own ultimate festival line up?
Each year we have a session on Stage Two with some of the best pickers appearing over the weekend, all playing with each other. Maybe we could have Hoagy Carmichael & Booker T on keys, Bill Monroe & Chris Thile on mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Django Rhinehart & Martin Simpson on guitar, Stephane Grappelli & Martin Hayes on fiddles, Norman Watt-Roy & Danny Thompson (electric and acoustic bass respectively), and Sharon Shannon on box...it'd make for an interesting session!
The Cambridge Folk Festival will be held between 26th and 29th July 2012 at Cherry Hinton Hall