It Seems to Be a Time of Reckoning for Irish/Celtic Music Festivals

Boston and Eastern Massachusetts residents whose summer plans include a sampling of Irish/Celtic music festivals may have to work a little harder to whet their appetites. Some Massachusetts area summer events that have become familiar stops for Irish/Celtic music enthusiasts have been cancelled, or are on  uncertain footing, for 2009 - and possibly beyond.

Off the calendar are the Cape Cod Celtic Festival, the Western Massachusetts Highland Games and Celtic Festival, and the Blackstone River Theatre Celtic Festival in Cumberland, RI; the ICONS Festival also has ceased operations, although a smaller-scale festival may take place in its  stead.

There are some happy exceptions to the disquieting trend, however:  Worcester's Irish Music Festival  [] is slated for June 12-14, for  example, and the Blackstone Valley Celtic Festival has announced  plans for its seventh edition, on July 25 at Indian Ranch in Webster,  Mass.;  []. In addition, many  major folk/roots festivals in Massachusetts and New England, such as Greater New Bedford Summerfest and the Lowell Folk Festival, include  Irish/Celtic acts in their line-ups. Still, festival organizers say, there is undoubtedly a chill in the air for summer festivals, especially those with a specific focus like  Celtic music. Nor is it hard to identify the most immediate source of  this ill wind: the economic downturn and its far-reaching impact on consumer spending as well as corporate sponsorship. New England  weather also has to be considered a factor, organizers add,  especially for festivals where much of the events and activities take  place outdoors.

It is also possible, they say, that - financial crisis aside - the  Celtic music scene is in a general state of flux, having experienced in the past decade a considerable infusion of new performers and variedstyles, the influence of ever-evolving audio and video  technology, and increasing attention from a wider audience than ever before. In this long view, the recession could be regarded as the inevitable pause following a hectic period - an interlude of  consolidation, loss, and adjustment. Whatever such big-picture gazing, festival organizers ultimately have  to take the measure of their own respective situations, using the recent past and the foreseeable future as yardsticks. And more than a  few have concluded that for now, the numbers just won't add up.


Lew Taylor, president of the Cape Cod Celtic Society and director of  the Cape's festival, which began in 2003, explains that the four-day event's educational component of workshops and tutorial sessions  helped support its performance component; concert revenue alone, he says, would not have enabled them to get acts such as John Doyle &  Liz Carroll or Jerry Holland. This balance seemed to be working well, especially given the festival's limited geographical reach, "until  last year, when we got hit with $4 a gallon gas and $4 milk -  understandably, people are going to be reluctant to spend their money on a Celtic music festival, no matter how good it is."

Lack of corporate sponsorship and advertising dollars worsened the situation, but Taylor says the festival also needs an infusion of  fresh organizational energy and vision: Having closed his business and taken "a real job," he explains, he simply does not have the time to do all the behind-the-scenes work it takes to put on the event.

"I'm disappointed we're not having it this year, but I was so afraid that if we lost money we couldn't pay people," says Taylor. "Nor did I want to get involved in putting together a one-day event. If  someone else wants to, that's fine. Or maybe somebody can come in with a well thought-out plan to keep the festival on the scale it has  been. The festival situation has changed, my situation has changed,  so there clearly needs to be a change in how things are done."


Although based in northern Rhode Island, the Blackstone River Theatre Celtic Festival enjoyed a solid audience base in Massachusetts its first two years, according to director Russell Gusetti, in part because of the theater's regular offerings of Celtic and other folk music during the year. The festival has included a mix of local, regional and international acts, such as The Clancy Legacy, Trouz Bras, Paddy Keenan, Bua, and April Verch, and expanded from four to  five stages (one for dance performances) in its second year.

But Gusetti - who co-organized the Blackstone Valley Celtic Festival for three years - wasn't able to do anything about the weather last year: The festival took place "on the fifth day of a classic summer heat wave," with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity. What had been a healthy-sized crowd of about 2,500 in 2007 decreased by half in 2008, he says.

More ominously, Gusetti adds, was the less-than-enthusiastic degree of corporate sponsorship he encountered in the months leading up to the festival - which, he notes, was before the financial crisis came to a head. "I really felt that this was a kind of precursor. Corporate sponsorship is often a hidden, but incredibly important,  part of organizing a festival; it's a needed cushion." When he considered the festival's prospects for 2009, Gusetti saw a state unemployment rate of more than 10 percent and a general atmosphere of unease, and decided this was a year to miss. Gusetti acknowledges that there are risks and obstacles that come with taking a year off - for example, having to regroup the organizational structure once you decide to hold the event again - but concluded it made no sense to continue as before. "Everyone seems to be afraid, even if they do have a job," he says. 

"All the people we festivals rely on are having tough times, and are in a 'wait and see' mindset." Should the outlook improve, Gusetti would move the festival to June, which holds the promise for decent weather and not quite as  much competition for music lovers' dollars. The corporate end,  however, will once again play a prominent role in determining whether the festival can re-start, and in what form. "I think the days of one or two big sponsors are probably over," he says. "You could have more of a do-it-yourself thing, where you put together whatever kind of support you can. That could be better in some respects, because perhaps you'll have more freedom to do the things you want without worrying about your relationship with the sponsor. But thing is, it still costs money, and you have to find that somewhere.

"Of course, there's also the possibility of cutting back, maybe doing one stage, and with acts that are less expensive - but maybe also lower quality. But do you really want to run the risk of  disappointing people? They might get so turned off they'll decide it's not worth supporting you at all any more."


The situation facing the ICONS Festival is similarly uncertain. The festival, originally called Irish Connections, took place for years at Stonehill College in Easton before moving to the Irish Cultural Centre of New England campus in Canton in 2004, undergoing an expansion of scale and concept, and in 2007 changing its name to ICONS. Like Blackstone River Theatre, ICONS was bedeviled by a tightening of  corporate purse strings and a run of uncooperative weather. After enduring a deluge in 2006, the festival moved in 2007 to an August 

date, only to encounter blazing heat, and then last year to September, which broughtcloudy skies and light but persistent rain - and all this on the eve of the financial crisis. With less-than-hoped-for attendance results behind them, and a grim economic outlook in front of them, the management team that produced  ICONS, led by festival director Brian O'Donovan, decided not to put on the event this year. However, the Irish Cultural Centre of New England - which has operated the festival since 1989 - has been considering the possibility of organizing a festival for early fall that would most likely be closer to the older Irish Connections 

model. Interviewed late last month, ICCNE Executive Director Sean Grant said a  decision would need to be made by early July for there to be any hope  of a festival happening. "There certainly has been no shortage of interest or curiosity," said  Grant. "Our phone has been ringing off the hook, with people -  performers as well as members of the public - wanting to know about the festival.

"The board is trying to come grips with the situation and looking at any number of questions. What should we do to recognize the 20-year tradition of ICCNE running the festival? How do we do this in an  economic fashion? Can we get the volunteers we need to run the event? And, of course, we're trying to answer the question as to whether families would come out to the festival without tremendously affecting their income."

Reflecting on his experiences with Irish Connections/ICONS, O'Donovan  says blaming the weather may seem an obvious, even expedient, route to take - but there's no escaping it.

"We had a 'golden period' of great weather for many years, and then there were three out of four years where it rained, or it was blazing hot, and unfortunately, this made a huge impact on the festival. You  can have a hard-working staff and a great program of events, which we did on both counts, and you can devise the best possible plans and find ways to improve the operation from one year to the next - but if  the weather is bad, you simply won't get the turn-out you hope for." O'Donovan adds his voice to the chorus of concern over the decline in corporate sponsorship: "There's definitely a pulling-back, and the thing to realize is, it's not just in entertainment but in areas like  health care and other quality-of-life issues. So you really need a  strong commitment to not-for-profits, especially including those in 

the arts world, with support from government and cultural organizations, as well as the public. A tough time, to be sure." There may be better days ahead - how far ahead is a matter of  conjecture - for Celtic festivals, but organizers wonder what those days might look like. Lew Taylor thinks that the Celtic music scene may  have reached a saturation point and, financial crisis or no, was in  for a change one way or another.

"I see the 'Riverdance' phenom non as something like what happened with Garth Brooks and country music," he explains. "'Riverdance' 

helped to whip up a lot of attention to Irish music, and this interest has built and built, and now the wave has crested. Maybe eight to ten years from now, the wave will crest again, and there'll be another influx of new performers and new ideas. But for now, I  think things are starting to ebb. That doesn't mean there isn't, and  won't be, good music to hear and great performers to see, but the  interest that was there will not be on the same level." O'Donovan feels Taylor's view has some validity. "There seems to be, increasingly, a big divide in terms of public interest. Some people feel that it's not worth going to see a Celtic music event unless it's a big extravaganza, like a 'Riverdance' or 'Celtic Woman.' And then on the other extreme, other people are more interested in the small, intimate settings and venues, like in a club or a pub. That leaves a whole lot of territory in between, and it's not easy to figure out how to strike a balance that will satisfy both groups."

Yet, like Taylor, O'Donovan is confident in the staying power of  Celtic music. "These things tend to be cyclical. If you've got a  solid core, then you know you'll survive the ups and downs. The essence of the music will always continue in the background, because it's always been something shared by friends and family. That will not change."

Along the same lines, Russell Gusetti thinks the summer festival chill, along with other deleterious effects of the economic downturn, could help to reinforce the relationship between Celtic music and its aficionados - especially in this neck of the woods.

"Let's face it, in Massachusetts and New England we are very fortunate to have so much in the way of Irish and Celtic music, whether it's festivals, concerts, sessions, or simply this great community of musicians. I'm sure that on the one hand, most people appreciate what we have, but it can also be quite easy to  take all this for granted. The fact is, putting on a festival or a concert takes a lot of work - and then in the end, you're often at the mercy of the weather.

"So maybe, because of what's happening, people who love the music will think about going a little extra to support it: volunteering or  helping out somewhere, spreading the word, and all those 'little  things' which can make a difference."

BCM Fest

A column of news and updates of the Boston Celtic Music Fest  (BCMFest), which celebrates the Boston area's rich heritage of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton music and dance with a grassroots, musician-run winter music festival and other events during the year.