British Columbia

Crushed by post-pandemic bills, Vancouver Folk Music Festival won't return in 2023

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival will not be returning to the city in 2023, as the changing event landscape and rising production costs leaves the long-term future of the event hanging in the balance.

Members to vote on Feb. 1 on whether to dissolve festival society

Concert goers sit on the grass at dusk in the summer. A stage with musicians is pictured in the background.
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is pictured last July. The society behind the event has announced it will not be going ahead in 2023 and will hold a vote on the society's future Feb. 1. (Vancouver Folk Music Festival/Facebook)

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival will not be returning to the city in 2023, as the changing event landscape and rising production costs leaves the long-term future of the event hanging in the balance.

A statement from the festival's society on Tuesday said it would take an extra $500,000 to produce a festival this summer, which would be "unfortunately not realistic or sustainable" with its current cash flow.

"We came back in 2022 to find the festival environment greatly changed," read a statement from Mark Zuberbuhler, president of the festival's board.

"On top of costs continuing to rise, we are also facing new financing challenges, which makes the production of the festival unsustainable."

During an interview with CBC's On The Coast on Tuesday, Zuberbuhler described the news as "bittersweet."

"It's been a very, very tough decision to make," he told host Gloria Macarenko.

"I can assure you this is the last thing that we would want to do, but reality has set in, and therefore, we had to make that very difficult decision."

Featured VideoMark Zuberbuhler, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival's board president, explains why the board has decided to hold a membership vote to dissolve the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society on February 1.

The statement said it took "Herculean efforts and massively increased costs just to cover the basics of production" for the 2022 festival — the first to be held since 2019 — since the cost to host music events has risen sharply in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For example, many of our vendors now require payment up-front, which our cash flow does not allow for," said Zuberbuhler.

In a statement, B.C.'s Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport said that since 2021 the folk festival has received more than $400,000 in funding from the ministry, the B.C. Arts Council, and Amplify B.C. 

"The last three years have been incredibly challenging for people in the tourism and events industry in B.C," said the statement. 

Society's future uncertain

Beyond the immediate cancellation of any festival this year, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society (VFMFS) could be dissolved entirely.

The society — a not-for-profit, charitable organization — hosts year-round concerts and events in addition to the flagship, volunteer-run festival. 

"Given these difficulties and the current financial position of the society, the VFMFS board of directors has regrettably agreed on a recommendation to members that the society should cease operations by the end of March 2023 to help ensure the society meets its fiduciary obligations," the statement read.

Members will vote on whether to dissolve the society on Feb. 1.

An announcement about the festival's long-term future is expected the following day.

The third edition of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, in 1980, took place at Jericho Beach. (VFMF)

The three-day festival has been a fixture of the region's arts and culture scene for nearly 45 years. Consistently one of the most popular celebrations, the festival found success in its heartfelt community atmosphere and commitment to bring concert-goers music from all over the world — from bluegrass to Celtic folk and indie rock.

"This is a legacy festival, a legendary event," said Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association. 

"It's impossible to imagine the Canadian cultural landscape without it."

After volunteering with the festival for 35 years, Toni Serofin said she wept when she learned of the festival's situation. 

"I was shocked," she said. "I was speechless."

Vancouver singer Dawn Pemberton described the festival as "Christmas for musicians."

"It really was a definite marker and highlight in the lives of so many musicians."

The event prevailed in recent years even when other contemporary mega-festivals failed, including those in Squamish and Pemberton.

The folk festival, long held at Jericho Beach Park, did not go ahead in 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic restrictions on concerts and large gatherings.

Squamish festival faces similar situation

The Squamish Constellation Festival, an annual three-day musical event about 60 kilometres north of Vancouver, may face the same fate as Vancouver's folk festival.

In a statement from the festival, organizers say they are contemplating the viability of putting on the event this summer, citing decreased attendance and increased operational costs. 

"It is going to take lovers of the arts with an abiding passion for live music and appreciation of the positive impact music festivals have on people's lives and mental health, to reinvent this industry to some degree and help bridge this post-COVID chasm," co-founder Kirsten Andrews said in a statement.

Benjamin said the situation facing these festivals is contributing to a larger issue — the struggle for performers to find venues to play in and build their careers. 

"Live music in general ... continues to face numerous hurdles as a result of the pandemic and the economy," Benjamin said, noting that financial supports put in place during the early months of the COVID pandemic are no longer available.

"The implications are profound because an artist may not go on to have a career."

With files from Maryse Zeidler, Liam Britten and On The Coast