by Joel Schulz – Publisher and Michelle O’Keefe – Music Editor
Last Thursday, at Festival Hall, The Reel Can sat down with Debbi Salmonsen, Executive Director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, where we had a candid conversation about this year’s festival and the challenges facing the manager of one of North America’s most successful events. This is our first of many discussions with the people in festival leadership roles. It is Debbi’s second season with the festival and she brings to it a diversified management background, of several decades, leading successful not-for-profits, charities, and NGOs. Ms. Salmonsen shared her visions for the future of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, their new home at Festival Hall, and the nitty gritty of managing festivals.
What has always stood out, make that impressed, The Reel Can and our sister publication, Alberta Buzz, is the well-designed and managed environmental stewardship the festival has adopted to minimize the impact that tens of thousands of people would have on the long standing venue on Prince’s Island in downtown Calgary. What is conspicuously absent on the festival grounds are paper plates and bottled water. Attendees have to bring non-disposable water containers and would be given free access to drinking water at stations well situated throughout the grounds. This eliminates thousands upon thousands of plastic water bottles having to be disposed of or recycled, potentially ending up in landfills or garbage dumps. Recycling tens of thousands of plastic bottles is also not an efficient use of festival staff and volunteers. The festival chose to eliminate that need. Similarly, with food, the festival chose to have non-disposal plates where those eating had to pay a deposit for the plates which their food was served on. It is easy to ponder the nightmare for cleanup that ten thousand paper plates would cause. Debbi, shared a vision for this year that will further streamline the controlled environmental impact. As of this year all serving vessels must be compostable, including beer glasses.
Turning to the business aspects of running what is arguably the largest cultural event in Calgary, next to the Calgary Stampede, Salmonsen shared the visions she had for continued success. New to the Calgary Folk Music Festival, with its first showing this past year, The Folk Festival Society is now a year round operation. Calgary now has a folk music festival that convenes in winter. Not too far back, The Calgary Folk Music Festival moved from their offices in Bridgeland to Festival Hall in Inglewood. Most festival attendees do not get the opportunity to see Festival Hall, which is a venue in its own right for music and stage, even barista championships where Joel was a judge last summer. She iterated that Festival Hall provides a location for amateur theatre and music events to stage their productions year round. Festival Hall fits superbly into the fabric and culture of Inglewood. Additionally, Debbi Salmonsen shared that in tougher economic times, the festival has to work towards becoming a sustainable business model. This means providing a more engaging and affordable experience for attendees. Considering that the festival is now in its 37th year, we see a great future ahead.
The Calgary Folk Music Festival’s success depends upon the thousands of volunteers who donate their time for the weekend engaging attendees in crowd control, staffing the entrances, and being the ones who put into action the highly successful environmental policies. What should be noted is that the current volunteer manager, Emily McCormick, started out many years ago as a youth volunteer at the festival.
The festival has an engage local strategy and the services provided by private vendors are chosen from local sources. Local talent is also a major component of the entertainment.
We asked Debbi Salmonsen to share her personal picks from the line-up for the 37th festival. Her choices were American legendary country artist Marty Stuart, the iconic Canadian Ian Tyson, Americana singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cook, Alt-Country artist Robbie Fulks, and bluegrass musician Caleb Klauder. The Calgary Folk Music Festival starts on July 21st and runs through until July 24th.