Officials with London’s longest-running music event, Home County Music and Art Festival, have cancelled the 2024 edition amid critical financial and volunteer recruitment woes, a serious hit to the local music scene, members of the city’s arts community say.
In a surprise announcement Thursday, the festival’s board of directors said they are pulling the plug on next year’s three-day festival, as the board assesses the “ongoing viability” of the summer event and the Home County Folk League organization behind it.
“We’ve been thinking about the future for the last year and a half,” board chair Sara Lanthier said Thursday. “We have to make sure we are financially viable to run a festival. We don’t think we are right now.”
The 2022 edition of the festival, its first since the pandemic struck in 2020, was smaller than the typical festival, Lanthier said, and sustained a loss of about $7,000. While the financials aren’t fully finalized on the most recent festival in July, a return to the full-fledged Home County to which people are accustomed, Lanthier said the loss to the organization is estimated to be $27,000 to $30,000.
If the board decided to push ahead with the 2024 edition of the festival, it is estimating a loss of up to $46,000, she said.
The other hurdle the organization is facing is a lack of volunteers, particularly in leadership roles, Lanthier said. The group, except for a part-time artistic director and office manager, is entirely volunteer run, she said.
“It’s been really hard to find and retain leadership volunteers. These are people who come on board and donate an insane amount of their personal time to run the festival,” she said. “We’ve found that, since COVID, there’s not as many people who are willing and able to make that kind of commitment.”
Launched in 1974, Home County has drawn an estimated 50,000 people annually to Victoria Park for the multi-day summertime music festival that has drawn performers such as Sylvia Tyson, Fred Penner and Steven Page during the years. The admission-by-donation festival receives some grant funding and also is supported by revenue from vendor booths, Lanthier said, adding securing corporate sponsorships has been something with which the festival has struggled.
The board will hold an annual general meeting on Nov. 28 to discuss the organization’s financial position, the options for its future and determine which one makes the most sense, Lanthier said.
“There are lots of options we’ve been looking at and analyzing and thinking about non-stop, but there’s also the human factor that can’t be forgotten,” she said.
Grant money alone won’t save the festival, Lanthier said, because there are many organizations vying for the same finite pool of money. Even a one-time cash injection, such as a crowdfunded donation, isn’t going to be the silver bullet.
“We need a lot of sustainable money,” she said.
Home County always has been both a destination for accomplished musicians and a welcoming place for emerging talent, the head of London’s music office said Thursday, adding the hiatus is a serious blow to local musicians and artists.
“It’s tough news to hear, especially with how established it was in London. They really have been a pillar,” said Cory Crossman, the city’s music industry development officer.
“Home County is a particularly important event because of the presence they have in the local community. They create a lot of space for local artists. The workshop stages are particularly important and their relationship with Fanshawe College has been great.”
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That Home County has been forced to re-evaluate its future is not unheard of in the music festival space, Crossman said. Earlier this year, the Vancouver Folk Festival was forced to call off its 2023 edition, citing ballooning costs and other pressures.
The London Arts Council is planning to meet with Home County officials to see what it can do to help nudge the summer festival toward a more sustainable future, council executive director Eunju Yi said Thursday.
“We’re hoping for the best because we don’t want to lose this this significant organization,” she said. “It’s such a significant part of London’s culture scene. We will navigate and figure things out together.”
The London Arts Council, through city hall’s community arts investment program, supports Home County annually, Yi said. The council also helps Home County by administering its Canada summer job opportunities program, a federal initiative that provides wage subsidies to eligible non-profits for summer workers.