Womad under pressure

Can the world music festival survive in its current format and location?

by Gordon Campbell
Images by Alastair Thompson (click to enlarge pictures)

Globalisation is not merely something to do with banking and trade. It affects art and culture as well, and the Womad festival is subject to the same forces of global convergence. In fact, it is a showcase for them. The festival launched by Peter Gabriel in 1982 now resounds to highly amplified music that may still be voiced in the languages of Mali, Cuba, Nigeria etc but is strongly influenced by rock and techno – just like the music that now prevails in the Third World homes of many of the Womad artists.

A combination of local and global factors are also impacting on Womad’s home base in New Plymouth, and on the financial viability of this unique festival. As everyone who has been there will readily concede, Brooklands Bowl in New Plymouth is one of the most beautiful outdoor venues in the world for listening to music, and the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT) have made a good fist of running the region’s iconic event. This year, Womad seems to have survived the recession in reasonably good shape. Despite a slow start to ticket sales that created dire fears of a disastrous outcome, this year’s Womad is likely to almost break even, says TAFT CEO Suzanne Porter with evident relief. In the end, there were 13,586 attendees – barely 600 down on the numbers from 2009.

“Quite early on,” Porter says,” we were looking at a 10 % drop on last year…. In fact what’s happened is that the numbers are almost identical.” Locals, she says, bought their tickets very late this year. However, a further breakdown of those figures indicates the uphill battle now facing TAFT, in its struggle to retain Womad in Taranaki every year.

Those 13,586 attendees for instance, include everyone on site – paying customers as well as volunteers, children, stall traders and other ground staff. The people who actually bought tickets, Porter says, numbered only 8,500-9,000. Despite initial fears last year that the cheaper tickets available to youth might skew the economic returns, this has not been the case – as Porter says, there were only about 900 youth tickets sold this year, much the same as in 2009.

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Chicago, USA)

The split between outsiders and locals used to be 70% (outsiders) to 30% (locals) apart from one freak result in 2009, when the ratio evened out almost exactly. This year, the balance seems to have been about 60% from outside Taranaki, to 40% local. Obviously, Womad’s ability to attract outsiders to Taranaki is one of its prime purposes, since the economic benefits to the region hinge on the premise that the Womad crowds will frequent other artistic attractions while in the vicinity, and will spend up large in retail outlets throughout the region.

To help balance the books, Porter has managed to elicit some $800,000 in private sector and public sector sponsorship contracts for Womad. While this level of sponsorship is healthy (particularly the private sector contribution from oil and energy companies) it may not be quite enough to secure the festival’s future. On the bright side, the partnership contracts are coming up for renewal, and Porter is hopeful of scoring at least one big new partnership. However, while she is reluctant to specify the breakdown of private sector vs public sector support, Porter did concede that the relatively low level of funding coming from a local council that is stretched by other calls on its revenue (eg the Rugby World Cup) has encouraged other local bodies to consider putting in a bid for Womad.

“Its an interesting one,” Porter says. “We have very good support out of the private sector…[but] our public sector funding has dropped since 2003.” Why is that? “That’s a very good question. And I think that now some other regions have realized how little there is put in [by local government] and they feel they can have a good shot at it. “

Right now, the fate of the Womad festival remains delicately poised. In 2007, which was the last time that Womad was a once every two years event, the festival turned a healthy profit. In 2008 and 2009 however, it incurred losses that have not only eaten up the surplus from 2007, but left a substantial debt burden. “We are carrying quite a big debt from the last two Womads,” says Porter, “which we are hopeful at some point in paying back, by getting to a surplus position. “

This situation underlines just how important it was for this year’s event to break even – which, against the odds, it seems to have done. Looking ahead, TAFT holds the contract to run Womad until 2012, with a right of renewal for a further six years. On the evidence, an annual Womad festival held in Taranaki is on the verge of being unsustainable. Would a co-hosting agreement with another city in New Zealand and alternating year by year, offer any significant financial advantages or relief, to TAFT ?

“We don’t know,” Porter replies. “ All we know is that there might be a potential to grow the audience. We know that at our last bi-ennial in 2007 we had a sellout. Then we lost that surplus in 08 and 09. Its something that TAFT has to explore, because we have struggled to get to break even. And we don’t have surpluses left now. It’s a ballsy trust, but it needs a little more financial security than where its sitting at the moment. “ Thankfully, TAFT had a successful arts festival last year in Taranaki. “And that,” Porter adds, “went straight into buffering Womad.”

An alternating venue anywhere else in the North Island would leave the Taranaki Womad competing with itself. So, has Porter been talking to anyone in Christchurch about co-hosting the event in alternate years? “ No. That’s the straight-up honest truth. We do have a city that we are in discussion with at this point. Its not Christchurch.” But it is in the South Island ? “ Yes, it is. Its just exploratory because our aim is to keep it in Taranaki and make it successful annually.. but yeah, it is all about financial stability for the festival long term, We’re a long drawn out skinny country and we know that our South Island visitation is quite low.”

Locally in Taranaki, there is still some potential legroom for growth. A couple of years ago, a Womad survey found that 12, 500 paying customers would be the maximum that the Brooklands venue could hold, before the unique ambience of the festival would be comprised. That is still quite some distance from the circa 9,000 ticket sales currently being achieved. Raising ticket prices in the interim does not seem an option. “ I don’t think its within the ethos of the trust,” Porter says. “We are all about making all of our festivals as accessible as possible. For us, its probably about getting a bigger partnership base.”

Artistically, Womad continues to meet a standard that constitutes reasonable value for money. At current ticket prices, the entertainment value of the ticket breaks down to roughly $7 an hour over the entire weekend. This year’s program for instance, offered the once in a lifetime chance of hearing Mahmoud Ahmed (pictured left), the famous Ethiopian star of the golden era in Addis Ababa nightclub music, during the 60s and early 70s. Ahmed had come into his prime just before Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown, and he managed to survive what came afterwards – when the Red Terror set loose by the Derg junta turned going out to a nightclub into a gamble of life and death.

Onstage, during one of the festival’s cosy meet-the artist interview sessions, Ahmed talked about how people would stay at the nightclubs in Addis until dawn, rather than risk being found out on the streets after curfew, and being killed by the Derg. Now 68, he also reminisced about seeing the film of Jailhouse Rock, and how Elvis had influenced the way he moves onstage. Clearly, the effects of globalization, in Ethiopia at least, have been a long term thing.

Ahmed though, was just one of several compelling performers on the schedule. The US band Calexico, fresh from the NZ Festival of the Arts in Wellington, seemed to relish the laidback atmosphere and played quite a few seldom heard items from their back catalogue. Nortec Collective – who brought a strange hybrid of Tex-Mex border music and whizbang electro-visual gadgetry to the stage – were another standout. I mention these successes mainly as a counter to the twin complaints that were being commonly voiced in and around the festival. One, that there were a lot of drunk teenagers on site and two, that the programme was too heavily rock oriented.

Amal Murkus (Palestine)

Given that the social ambience of the festival is a big part of its attraction, has the level of teen drunkenness this year been seen as a problem ? Such feedback, Porter replies, is always taken seriously. “We did have that [teen drunkenness] as more of an issue this year than we have in the past. So its going to be something we strongly review. We’re very keen on keeping three generations on site at any one time. ”

Personally, she didn’t see too much of it. “I walked around the site a lot late at night and didn’t notice very much – but then I’ve got a teenager. So I’m used to the behaviour, to some degree.” Similarly, the police and security staff were not at all perturbed – “ Because I guess they’re used to dealing with drunken youth in the middle of town.” One way that it could be handled in future, she says, might be to make the student tickets available only with the purchase of an adult ticket, which would conceivably build in some residue of adult supervision. “But we need to sit down and see what we can do. I’m sure we can get it back to where it was last year, where we had a lot of youths on site who were really well behaved, and who had a bloody good time.”

Some older people I ran into (or overheard) were pining for more acoustic music. These days though, the chances of hearing someone on stage at Womad playing the thumb piano from Zimbabwe or the Senegalese kora are pretty slim, just as they would be back in the countries of origin. Womad is not a museum and cultural subtleties are vanishing from the world, and not merely from the smaller stages at Womad. Moreover, this is a festival – and so it was hardly surprising that one after another, performers would dutifully provide the “Are you havin’ a good time / let me hear you say yeah’ exchanges common to all music festivals, worldwide.

Mariem Hassan (Western Sahara)

Despite all the stereotypes about Womad, the festival is not a gathering of hippies in house-buses. Probably, the cumulative cost of the tickets/the camping space/the getting to New Plymouth does eliminate a lot of the alternative lifestyle crowd. With that in mind, a South Island alternative venue could well attract more of the hard core from Golden Bay, or from the back of Greymouth.

The majority at Womad this year were of boomer generation vintage, with some serious cash to spare, Even a casual walk around the camping ground and its array of lavish tenting/expensive motor-homes was a testament to the affluence onsite. No surprise then, that the Womad organizers pay a lot of attention to regular cleaning of the Portaloos, and to the picking up of rubbish onsite – in this alternative world, the vibe is mellow and the amenities clean. For three days at least.

If Womad does have an identity problem it is more of a generational one. More so than the Big Day Out or Laneways, this festival is an all ages event, at least in theory. In practice, the mix meant a lot of teenagers roaming the site in groups, looking for a good time at say, the late night dance set by the New York DJ Nickodemus – while barely interacting with the Gabriel-era older contingent spread out across the hillside on blankets, and under their sun umbrellas. Just like at home, old and young didn’t really have much to say to each other.

Think of it though as a creative tension. As Porter explains, the festival do keep the overt techno factor down to just one DJ in any particular year’s line-up. She’s aware of the murmurings about the highly electrified quasi-rock bands. Artist selection happens to be a three way affair conducted by teleconference with Womad UK and Womad in Adelaide, with whom TAFT share the artist roster, and the related costs each year. “We do it [artist selection] in conjunction with Adelaide, which has a very similar demographic to their festival as well.” Keeping the balance between an older generation who might well prefer more acoustic stuff, and a younger crowd quite at home with rock and techno is, she says, ‘something we have to be very mindful of.’

To an outsider, a Womad held every year in New Plymouth always did look like it was never going to be financially sustainable. Since the festival made a self-sustaining profit back when it was happening only once every two years, is that an option to which New Plymouth can ever return ? Not really. As Porter explains, the decision to go annual was partly a response to pressure coming from Womad UK – because otherwise, the annual Adelaide version of Womad was being forced to shoulder all of the artists travel, accommodation and performance costs on its own, in every other year.

At every turn, TAFT’s hand is being forced. It has local business and local government seeking the economic benefits from having an annual event in their midst on one hand, and a Womad global organization that also wants New Plymouth to step up to the mark, annually. Yet it is an event that by its very nature will always struggle to turn a regular profit. If it could, the private sector would be clamouring to run it. It isn’t.

“The economic benefits to the region annually have been fantastic, “ Porter concludes ruefully. “And I think there is a possibility of there being a very successful Womad annually in New Zealand. But it may be that it is just not in one location.”