Flawed folk fest ticket system needs an overhaul

Bonnie Raitt closes the folk fest Sunday

The “Weekend Pass” for the Edmonton Folk Music Festival may soon be on the endangered species list.

One of the historic appeals of this festival is that it’s a place you can go every year to see an astonishing variety of music over four days for a reasonable amount of money in a fairly hassle-free setting with a bunch of like-minded people who are friendly and laid back – and very much into the music. But lately the event has become so popular that it’s reached a point where even getting in is a challenge – and it’s all because of technology.

Last year, I bought a ticket on-line. I was lucky. Five minutes later, the system crashed. By the time it was fixed, the tickets had sold out. The folk fest went past capacity to accommodate the people who lost out. This year, they reduced the number of tickets allowed per customer and didn’t start selling on-line until an hour after the ticket office opened, so it should have been easier. It wasn’t. The system didn’t seem to be working at all for the first four minutes and by the time I got in, tickets were sold out across the board. Four minutes? How the hell is that even possible?

There’s been a steady 10,000 people attending for several years (20,000 if you count people who get in free, children and seniors, and this is the last year seniors get comps). But even as late as 2010 it was perfectly possible to walk down to the Folk Festival office around noon and come out with a ticket. Between 2002 and 2009 you could make a leisurely phone call sometime during the day, or even a day or two later, and still get tickets.

The answer is that the Internet has created a new industry – “secondary sellers,” which use software or individuals to scoop up tickets almost instantly and resell them at an inflated price. In Alberta, the laws against this are apparently non-existent. Some politicians are starting to look into it.

Fortunately for me, I had a friend who had a sister who had a friend and got a weekend pass. Edmonton fan Rhiannon Lines said she got a Ticketmaster confirmation for her pass only to find it mysteriously wasn’t confirmed after all. She found another way in. Many long-time folk fest fans weren’t so lucky.

There were a number of people trying to get rid of tickets outside the gates on Thursday night, but it wasn’t clear if it was any more than usual. They didn’t look like scalpers (whatever scalpers are supposed to look like). They looked like folk fans. One woman was selling her weekend pass for “best offer.” No one seemed to be interested.

In this year’s program in his “View From The Hill” column, festival producer Terry Wickham writes, “This was likely the last year when there were enough tickets for all of you. Next year it will be an in-person lottery for tickets also,” and talks about renting Telus Field so it will be more comfortable for people waiting in line. The days of casually and easily obtaining tickets are over.

It’s a shame to blame technology. Technology and music have always gone hand in hand, whether it’s the mechanics and physics of musical instruments themselves, the electrification of instruments in the post-war era, the old controversy of Bob Dylan’s “going electric,” synthesizers and sampling, or any of the fine technology the festival uses to present the music from the giant video screens to the fabulous improved sound system.

On Thursday night, as the festival opened, the band David Wax Museum played everything from the jawbone of an ass to electric guitars; Painting With Ella blended together sweet vocal harmonies. Bluegrass-flavoured Trampled By Turtles used their wailing violin to build a sound like an air-raid siren around their mournful vocals as the thumping bass cranked up the velocity to that of a runaway train. Later, Corb Lund’s bass player slapped his bow percussively across the strings for an irresistible rhythm to set the pace for the singer. This festival is a great place to see a huge assortment of music. It shouldn’t be a mighty effort to attend or to depend on luck, or fans will start looking at other options – like this year’s popular Interstellar Rodeo. That’s going to be a hot ticket, too.