On The Rocks: The Story Behind How We Almost Lost Our Biggest Cultural Event

When festival-goers flock through the colourful entranceway into the Folk on The Rocks site this weekend for the festival’s 36th year, few may realize how close the venerable event came to not happening this year, and how fragile Yellowknife’s largest cultural gathering remains even after months of organizational CPR.

“We’re alive, but we didn’t know if we would be,” FOTR board president Ryan Fequet tells EDGE when we sit down to discuss the festival’s financial situation, which has long been rumoured to be in seriously rough shape. Just how bad is it? Well, in the dark days of January, says Fequet, “we realized that if anybody called in their debt, we’d have to file for bankruptcy. It would have been the end.”

What they hadn’t foreseen was a further $50,000 in unpaid, and entirely unexpected, bills that materialized in January.

At the end of the last summer’s festival the organization was more than $50,000 in debt — that’s after two years of significant net losses, which together amounted to roughly $170,000. The FOTR board knew this much in November, when their financial statements were made public, says Fequet. What they hadn’t foreseen was a further $50,000 in unpaid, and entirely unexpected, bills that materialized in January.

All of sudden, the volunteer-run board that had just fired its executive director was looking at $100,000 in debt, zero cash flow, and the daunting prospect of planning a festival six months away with no staff and absolutely no money to play with.  

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“I think all of the board members had that scary flash before their eyes of what it would mean if there was no festival, and that’s part of the reason everybody was willing to put in so much time to make sure this year’s festival happened,” says Fequet.

The fact that the festival is going ahead this year at all is thanks to some insane hours put in by all eight board members, a very flexible business community and artists willing to take a gamble and come North without much financial guarantee.

But FOTR is not out of the woods yet. A sunny weekend with stellar ticket, beer and merch sales would go a long way getting the festival back in the black, according to an imploring, if hopeful, Fequet. But that puts the ball in your court, Yellowknifers: if you’ve been thinking about skipping this one with the expectation you can always go next year (‘Folk always happens right?’), you might want to reassess and get your butt to the beer garden this Saturday.

What happened?

Just how the festival found itself flooded with unpaid invoices and facing a near-death sentence a few months ago isn’t wholly clear. As open as Fequet is in discussing the festival’s financials, there’s a deep silence at heart of the narrative, tied up as it is in dismissals, threatened lawsuits and months of mediation through the Employment Standards Act.

(EDGE: Why was David Whitelock fired?

Fequet: “Obviously we can’t say. No Comment. HR Issues we’ve just dealt with for six or seven months. We’ve learned what we can and cannot say.”)

What we do know, without casting blame one way or another, is that for the past two years the festival was spending much more than it was taking in.  

“If you look at our expenses, most of them were in line with our budget, within a normal variance,” says Fequet. “The budget was actually tight. The problem is, you can’t spend that money if you don’t get it. So it was the revenues that really killed us, because we didn’t get a lot of the revenues and not enough time was spent on securing our budgeted revenues.”

Grants, corporate donations, sponsorship deals: “All those things that never happened,” says Fequet. “The grants didn’t get submitted, or they didn’t get picked up, or we didn’t get [them] approved, or the corporate donations that we expected… you know, conversations never happened with people that were supposed to.”

According to the financials presented last November, the total amount of “donations, grants and contributions” received in 2015 was $30,000 less than in 2013; in 2014, that amount was $70,000 less than received in 2013.

This put them $54,000 in the hole by November. Then the mysterious $50,000 in unpaid bills, which Fequet claims FOTR only learned about in January of this year.

Where did that come from?

“That’s a little more sensitive,” says Fequet, with the caginess of someone trying to dodge a lawsuit. “In January, after we severed our employment relationship, the board became aware of an additional $50,000 in outstanding payables. That’s all we can really say about that. There’s probably a multitude of different reasons. We obviously didn’t have much cash flow. That’s just a reality, that’s not someone’s fault, people can extrapolate or connect the dots if they want.”

David Whitelock, for his part, declined to comment as to whether this “financial surprise” (Fequet’s phrase) had to do with his threatened lawsuit or a severance package.

Wherever that extra $50,000 came from, no one involved was in a particularly great position for the first several months of 2016.   

Digging out of the hole

Things began to turn around, says Fequet, largely thanks to Yellowknife’s business community, which was owed tens of thousands of dollars by the distressed organization.

“We had to call every single person we owed money to, and be like, this is the shittiest conversation ever, we love you for supporting our festival, but we can’t pay you.”

“We had to call every single person we owed money to, and be like, this is the shittiest conversation ever, we love you for supporting our festival, but we can’t pay you,” says Fequet. “It could be $50 to some people, but to some it could be $10,000. And basically the business community was amazing and every single person said fine, pay us later.”

The board, now officially staffless post-Whitelock, contracted event organizer Carly Bradley early in the year; she began a storm of grant writing. The board members themselves began working 30 hour weeks — “to be honest, it was another full-time job,” says FOTR vice-president Ashley Makohoniuk — doing the range of things that had usually been performed by staff: booking, marketing, design, supply management, and so on.

The artists were also highly accommodating to the situation, says Fequet. “Normally, it’s standard practice for performers to request a deposit. We said: we can’t give you a deposit, but we want you to play. That’s kind of a big risk for them to book us in on their tour, and know you’re not getting paid until at the festival when you show up.”

Over the past three or four months, enough elements have slowly fallen into place to make this year’s festival happen, including landing a large chunk of money through the GNWT’s new operational funding grant, announced earlier this year. And they’ve taken some steps to try to start wriggling out of the red: the annual budget was slashed by $200,000 by reducing the number of acts from around 30 to around 25, cutting the tent stage they introduced last year, working out more in-kind sponsorship deals and, most importantly, moving from full-time to contracted staff (the last move saving an expected $75,000). If ticket and beer sales come through as hoped this year, Fequet expects the organization could eliminate its debt, and perhaps even end up with around $25,000 in the bank — not much, but a start.

And for all the cuts, Fequet maintains people won’t notice a difference, except in a positive direction. The kid’s area  — now called the “Little Folker’s Forest” — got a serious makeover, bouncy castle and all. There’s now a “mist bar” to keep you cool. And smokers, frustrated last year when they had to leave the beer garden to have a cigarette then wait in line, will be pleased there’s now a smoking area in the beer garden.

And even if none of these novelties are up your alley, if you want to do your part  to make sure the festival doesn’t nosedive into oblivion, come on out, says Fequet.

“Close your eyes: picture the sands of Long Lake, the fresh smell of water, sun shining down on your face, cold beer, music, kids, smells of good foods, and then wake up and the festival doesn’t happen this year. That’s a horrible feeling. And the only reasons Folk on Rocks has survived for these 36 years is because the community supports this festival. They are this festival.”

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