“My immunity is compromised, so I can’t go anywhere,” says Terry Wickham.
Wickham is one of the individuals considered at high risk of infection from COVID-19, causing him to be hyperconscious during these unprecedented times. Working from home, Wickham’s days consist of answering emails, attending online meetings and listening to new music.
But personal challenges have not been Wickham’s only concern. He also has to consider the safety of the community in his role as the producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
To protect everyone involved, festival planning came to a halt last spring due to the rising coronavirus cases. Despite Wickham and his team’s desire to keep the event afloat, the decision to cancel was made and announced on April 21. The Calgary folk fest announced the same decision two days later.
“It was a relief to finally pull the plug,” Wickham recalls. “I was getting frustrated that no one else was willing to make the obvious call, so when we did, I was relieved. Not happy, but just accepting the obvious.”
Growing roots in music across the world
Leaving folk fest’s iconic hills empty was one of the biggest decisions music-lover Wickham has had to make since he took over running the festival 31 years ago. However, he may end up having to make another tough decision regarding the festival’s plans in the coming year, leaving the festival with an uncertain future.
Wickham’s love for music was sparked during car rides in his native Dublin with his father, listening to Eric Clapton, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
“Music is in the air in Ireland,” says Wickham. “You can’t help but pick it up because there is such a strong folk tradition there.”
His journey to Canada began with a student exchange through his studies at Trinity College.
“It just struck me,” recalls Wickham. “Calgary was booming. There were lots of jobs and they were easy to find, easy to meet people”.
Wickham moved to the vibrant city, and worked as an independent promoter for bands. But, with no financial backing, Wickham had to wait on one show to make money in order to book another, teaching him that some shows will make money, and some will lose.
“I found myself getting caught up in it. I just really enjoyed it,” says Wickham. “I learned a lot from the ground up, from small shows. You learn a lot more from when shows are unsuccessful than when they’re successful.”
Wickham’s knowledge and achievements came from exploring the music industry, tagging along with his brother and producing small shows, later granting him the career launch he was waiting for.
A famous Irish folk group was looking for a promoter and Wickham was lucky enough to snag the position.
“The Chieftains contacted their agent and they were looking for a date. It was February 1983, and I did that. I worked it hard and it was very successful.”
That success with the folk group only increased his love of the genre. “It was financially successful, artistically wonderful, and my friends and I had a lot of fun,” says Wickham. “Hard to beat that hat trick.”
Hard work leading to the dream job
Wickham’s dedication and achievement was noticed by many people within the music industry and led Holger Peterson, the Edmonton festival’s artistic director at the time, to believe that he was the right candidate to replace him.
“I thanked him very much and promptly turned him down because I was living in Calgary,” says Wickham.
While interviewing for the general manager position for the same festival, a friend of Wickham’s was asked why he had not yet applied for the job as artistic director? After giving it a second thought, Wickham reached-out to the festival.
“I got the job and haven’t really looked back,” says Wickham. “I love all aspects of the job.”
Wickham believes the Edmonton Folk Fest stands out in comparison to other festivals thanks to its wide audience, pricing, fair seating, family focus and its continuous improvement.
Through his position, Wickham has full latitude on artistic and financial matters, driving him to work year round to create an event that is constantly evolving and acknowledged by renowned musicians such as Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Mary Chapin Carpenter and many others.
“You can look at things as stress or you can look at things as excitement, and there is a thin line between both of those. If you don’t like what you are doing, it’s probably stress. If you like what you’re doing, then it’s excitement. I always look forward to going down on a Thursday night and just seeing it all come together.”
The planning comes full circle in August most years, when the Edmonton Folk Festival’s yearlong planning process finally comes to life through talent, food, beer, underpriced admission and seating.
“It’s never perfect and it can always be better, but we’ve been very happy with what we’ve had,” says Wickham. “We built our budget up to the point where we’re spending more than any other Canadian folk festival.”
Because of that budget, the festival’s primary indicator when choosing performers is talent, followed by genre, where they are from, the balance between electric and acoustic and the ratio between men and women.
“This year we were actually going to be 50/50 [gender equal], not because we mandated that, just because that’s the way it worked out,” says Wickham. “We work hard to try and balance it as best we can.”
By the time March came around, Wickham and his team had finalized some big plans for the 2020 summer – although he was still searching for great headliners.
“There was still two or three hundred grand I wanted to spend to fully flesh it out, but I didn’t get the right deal and the right person at a fair price.”
But the rising number of coronavirus cases meant Wickham was unable to complete this spending, as he came to realize the festival was in trouble – like many other events around the world.
“The Olympics were supposed to end the same weekend we were on. I know it’s a completely big difference in scope, but the theory was the same; it’s crowds gathering from different places.”
Following his instinct, Wickham knew that in order to keep himself and the community safe, he would have to cancel the festival. He recognized that singing, dancing, and drinking in tight quarters were considered dangerous activities, and would accelerate the spread of the virus.
“We put the brakes on,” says Wickham. “We’re not spending any more money. We don’t know what’s happening yet. Just put everything on hold.”
The indoor and outdoor gathering restrictions were changing quickly, and made it unrealistic to consider running a festival in 2020.
“We’re the first ones out and we’re going to be one of the last ones back,” explains Wickham. “We can’t hold a festival where everybody is wearing face masks and we can’t social distance down there.”
Despite the fact that the community would be disappointed about the festival’s cancellation, Wickham was ready to make the decision.
“I’d been prepared for it two or three weeks before we announced it. It is disappointing, but it was another in a long line of disappointments,” says Wickham. “Another one bites the dust.”
Due to the folk festival’s importance in the city, the team had concerns the community would not support their decision to cancel. But people showed compassion and understanding.
“No one said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have done that,’ says Wickham. “People just accepted it. The folk festival [community] knows that we’re straight shooters. We don’t bullshit.”
With the cancellation came uncertainty; Wickham believes it will take years of an effective and widely distributed vaccine for the public to regain confidence in attending the festival again.
“This isn’t going to be a three-month thing. This is going to be a year or two years or three years, who knows, to get a hold of this thing.”
Changes to the festival’s seating, bathrooms, food and beer tents, and transportation could also take months to put in place, leaving Wickham with a 50/50 chance of producing a festival in 2021.
“It’s going to take public confidence to come back and I’d rather do it properly or not do it at all,” says Wickham. “My job is to try and keep the spirit of the festival high and to keep the finances in shape, so that when we do come back, whenever that is, then we can come back strongly.”
Wickham hopes that the government will continue to support and fund the arts, and the festival will be able to make a comeback once COVID-19 is contained.
“I really think it comes down to safety,” says Wickham. “To a huge extent, that’s not going to be our decision.”
Wickham is ready to adapt the festival’s size, but if Alberta’s COVID-19 gathering restrictions surpass less than 1,000 people, the folk fest will not be held.
“We like the size it is, but if we have to trim it down, that’s okay.”
Despite the unpredictability brought forward by the novel coronavirus, Wickham plans to find a way to feed the community’s love and appreciation for music, as long as it is safe to do so.
“We’ll adapt either way.”