21 April 2024

New Folk by the Sea director targeting sustainability as performer interest swells

| Kellie O'Brien
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man playing the banjo

The Water Runners band member Neil McCann has taken on the role of festival director of Kiama’s Folk by the Sea. Photo: Chelsea Pearl, Caligari Photography.

Long-time musician Neil McCann has swapped his mandolin and banjo for the role of festival director of Kiama’s annual Folk by the Sea, with a goal to ensure the event remains sustainable in the long term.

Having performed at the annual folk festival since 2016 with popular band The Water Runners, Neil said the timing was right for him to contribute differently.

He is taking over from Illawarra Folk Club stalwart and fellow Kiama resident Judy Cork, who helped establish the festival with her late husband, Rod, in 2014.

“I’ve been associated with folk festivals for many years as a performer, but I’ve never taken on a management role, mainly because of my full-time work,” Neil said of his position in the Wollongong Catholic Education Office’s leadership and professional growth team.

“The Water Runners are having a break, and I have moved to three days a week with my job as a transition towards retirement.

“So when I was asked if I was interested, this was probably the first time certainly in the last 30 years that I could take it on.”

Neil said he would work towards a couple of goals for this year’s festival, to be presented by the Illawarra Folk Club at the Kiama Showground on 20-22 September.

“Our aim is basically to break even, but festivals are getting pretty challenging for a number of reasons,” he said.

“So what I’m trying to achieve is I want to make sure that anything we set up this year can be sustained.

“I’d also like to broaden the audience for folk festivals, especially in Kiama.

“I don’t think people quite realise the quality of the performers at folk festivals.”

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Neil said because they weren’t mainstream entertainers, people often never became aware of the calibre of talent in the genre unless they attended a folk festival.

He said to broaden that audience, which included attracting a younger audience, this year’s bill would feature a range of styles, ages and genders.

And it seems that can be achieved, with the festival receiving 250 applications for the 40 spots.

“We should have a really strong program, judging by the applications we have received,” Neil said.

“I am particularly impressed with the young artists who have applied and believe they will bring a lot of energy and broaden people’s perspective about folk festivals.”

The 66-year-old former schoolteacher and principal started performing as a teenage banjo player in bluegrass bands, played electric bass in rock bands and double bass in orchestras, and spent a decade in the legendary Illawarra folk band Wongawilli, where he played with Folk by the Sea artistic director David De Santi.

Neil and Water Runners frontman John Littrich also had a three-piece rock covers band for about 10 years before they formed The Water Runners in 2016, where Neil added mandolin to his skill set.

He also ran one of Haworth’s music shops for a year.

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Neil said folk festivals such as the Kiama event were important for artists and bands like those he’d performed in.

“They’re basically what we thrive on,” he said.

“The reason I can still play music, I believe, is because I’m not a professional musician, but our aim is to make sufficient money to keep producing music.

“So the festivals are the time we get the biggest audience and the biggest audience who are interested in our sort of music.

“I’ve played at pub gigs all my life and the music goes down well, but that’s not why people are there.

“Whereas with folk festivals, that’s why people go and, for performers, that’s who they want to perform to – people who like going to see the music.”

While admitting he was sorry not to be on stage at Folk by the Sea, he was excited to be on the other side of a music festival.

“I feel that the management and organisation skills I have from running schools and the music shop are very transferable to a festival, combined with my experience as a performer,” he said.

“And I will have a good team around me who will help me grow into the role.”

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