Music Australia News

Taking Country Music To The Regions: Festival Of Small Halls

Graham Strahle
| October 29, 2019

People outside the folk music circuit may not have heard of it before, but Festival of Small Halls is an innovative concert project that started up in Australia six years ago that thoroughly deserves to be more widely known. It is a touring project run by produced by Woodfordia Inc, a registered charity in Queensland that helped create the Woodford Folk Festival, and essentially it takes folk musicians, both local and international, to a string of regional destinations across Australia. The distances are vast, but the destinations are the opposite: each may only have a small community hall to set aside as a concert venue – hence its name.

Festival of Small Halls strings the tours together in partnership with a series of folk music festivals around Australia that serve as anchor points at the start and end of each tour. Even just geographically it is impressive. On average, a single tour clocks up 4,000 km and takes in 20 towns, and there are four such tours per year. To give an idea, the next one is FSH’s Spring Tour 2019. This is with Scottish duo The Jellyman’s Daughter and Australian song-writing duo Sara Tindley and Ash Bell, and it begins at the Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival, in northern NSW on 25-27 October, and threads its way up through Queensland’s high country before finishing at the Queenscliff Music Festival, near Cairns, on 22-24 November.

Then comes the Summer Tour 2019 featuring British singer-songwriter Blair Dunlop (who is also an actor – he played the young Willy Wonka in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and roots music artists duo Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. This kicks off in Austinville in the Gold Coast on 20 November hinterland and concludes at Mapleton near Nambour on 15 December.

Some of the stops are tiny hamlets with under 200 residents, like Eureka, Eungella and Haden, while others are substantial towns such as Pialba, Cooroy and Yeppoon with populations exceeding 3,000. have one thing in common: a community hall and local volunteers ready to host a concert. Usually doors open at 6:30pm, and performances are supplemented by supper with tea and cakes, and may even be a barbecue beforehand if families and kids are coming – local farmers might donate lamb and lemons for that, in true ‘paddock to plate’ fashion.

Musicians are chosen on the basis of how well they relate with a crowd and tell a good story: these are heart-warming nights that combineboth  music and yarns. For more of a picture of what these touring concerts are like, just head to the Festival’s website. But for more about how Festival of Small Halls works, Music Australia spoke to its Producer, Eleanor Rigden. She came into the role in 2017 after working for just eight months as a lawyer before her firm hit the wall. Then at a bar she just happened to meet Karen McBride, Woodfordia Inc.’s Volunteer Manager, and was subsequently invited into the fold. It turned out to be a life changing experience for her, she says – “an ideal job in which I can look on the world with optimism”.

Festival of Small Halls belongs to a family of events. How did it originate?

Festival of Small Halls PEI (Prince Edward Island) was the first, and its founders aspired to the same sort of thing: collaborative experiences in community venues outside metropolitan areas, and adopting that into a touring model. It began here in Australia in the summer of 2013 with one tour, but we didn’t realise how big it would be. Then it became two tours in 2015. Now we have four tours per year, and the goal is to work it up to six. The Ontario Festival of Small Halls came after us, and a new one in Scotland may happen. This is not a commercial venture – we are a non-profit organisation. Our goal is participation in the arts. However, it is all is funding reliant and we do rely on our partners, both government and philanthropic. I think people want this project to exist once they know about it.

Where do the Festival’s tours go and how do they link in with the folk festivals?

We tour four states at the moment, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, so we’ve covered the entire eastern states. We moved into South Australia two years ago and have run shows there, although the future in that state depends on funding. We have eight partner festivals, which are the Woodford Folk Festival, the National Folk Festival [in Canberra] and the Port Fairy Folk Festival. We also have the Mullum Music Festival [in Mullumbimby], which is our oldest tour, the Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival, the Cygnet Folk Festival in Tasmania, the Illawarra Folk Festival, and the newest one in the family, the Queenscliff Music Festival.

We develop touring programs collaboratively with them – this festival is a rare example of a truly national curation event. At each destination we will also program a local act if there is one, and they will be co-billed, not “supporting”.

The tours might be seen as ‘doing such a great thing by taking music out to people who don’t have it’, but that’s not how I see it. The host in every case is the local community, and we really leverage that. Each hall has a community host and it is their show, their night. We are only facilitators. It is not about us. The hosts often involve local schools and use the event as a stimulus to growing their hall with an ongoing community program.

Can you tell us more about how Festival of Small Halls is curated and how you cover costs?

We curate the tours, but in consultation with our partnering festivals. The organisers of these collaborate with us on who will be in program, so again it is a national curation process. Folk festivals are blessed because they work so collaboratively; they are all fantastic people to work with. This program is all about maintaining relationships. We start our relationship on shared experience and build on that in terms of the experiences we all want people to have. It’s easy, because we are a community already. To cover expenses, there are quite a lot of strategies in place. Our aim is to protect communities from costs. The program could be self-sustaining if communities paid for everything, but we’re not asking them to break even. We provide funding, depending on their situation.

How do you fill halls and what size audiences do you get?

The ideal venue depends on the size of the destination. Some people might look at an audience of 50 as being a ‘failure’ and not worth spending money on. But if the town has a population is 70, that puts an entirely different perspective on it – because most of the town is present. However, 200 is ideal for me, or perhaps 150. We have a variety of publicity strategies, but it depends primarily on a grassroots approach. A lot happens by word-of-mouth where people get to know there’s a great event happening locally. If we spent $50K on an advertising campaign saying we’re the largest regional touring company in Australia, it might not work at all!

What impact does the Festival have on local communities?

There are so many stories that I could tell. One of my favourites is about Rowella, a small town on Tasmania’s north coast. A couple had moved there from the mainland, expecting things to be idyllic, but they instead found life was isolated and lonely. At the time the council was planning to dispose of the town’s community hall, and when they heard about this they contacted us hoping to stage a concert there. The lady, Jen Thompson, put together a committee and did the whole show. It sold out weeks in advance, and then she took the results back to council who reversed its decision. We’ve done tours to beautiful Rowella ever since. It was so inspiring and really highlighted my experience of halls – that they can bring people together and be used as a real public asset.

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