Bellowhead, one of the UK's more successful folk groups which sold 60,000 copies of their 2012 album "Hedonism."
This year's U.K. BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards showed one thing about the U.K's folk music scene: With increased coverage on the station and on digital TV, the awards proved what we'd all been suspecting; that folk is thriving.
Says Jeff Smith, Head of Music at BBC Radio 2, "the latest RAJAR [Radio Joint Audience Research] figures show that Mike Harding's weekly folk show attracts an audience of 890,000. Performances from the likes of Don McLean and The Dubliners resulted in 710,000 people watching the show on the Red Button (digital TV) and online via the Radio 2 website."
There has been a renewed interest in recorded folk as evidenced by British Phonographic Industry (BPI) figures, which show that sales increased by a whopping 20% during 2011,the highest amount sold in a century, accounting for 1.6% of all album sales in 2011.
Acts such as Mumford & Sons (Island), Johnny Flynn (Transgressive) and Laura Marling (EMI) whose last album "A Creature I Don't Know" sold 75,000 copies in 2011 according to Official Chart Company figures) are leading a revival which draws on and feeds back to the more "traditional" acts.
So how is folk surviving where others might be flagging? One answer might be that folk artists have never expected to make a packet in the first place.
Jon Boden is a solo musician and member of 11-piece band Bellowhead signed to Navigator and probably the U.K's most popular live folk act. He says, simply, "Nobody's raking it in on the folk scene. We are probably one of the most successful live acts and we sold 60,000 copies of our 2010 album 'Hedonism.'"
Eliza Carthy is daughter of Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, British folk's most illustrious family. She was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 1998 and 2003, her 1998 solo album "Red Rice" (Topic) has sold 40,000 so far, 2003's "Anglicana" (Topic) 30,000 and "Neptune" (released last year on her own label HemHem) around 15,000. Yet, she jokes, "I'm living with my parents!"
Eliza Carthy, from the cover shoot of her album Neptune.
But there are a few folkies making a decent living. Jim Moray is one of the more successful young artists, known for his slick, electrified interpretations of traditional songs. He set up his own label Niblick Is A Giraffe in 2003 after winning the BBC Folk Awards Horizon award.
"When my first album "Sweet England" came out I sat in major label limbo for a year or so while deals that came to nothing were sorted out," Moray says. "I had lots of interest because the folk world has always liked a fresh young person who might break through to the other side." He was and is touted as folk's bright young thing but, nonetheless, he laughs, "A lot of the time I can't get arrested. I sell out very few gigs but I can pull a crowd of 200 people anywhere in the country and 400 or 500 in a big city. In folk terms I am middling." Moray says he sold 25,000 copies of "Sweet England, "Now I expect to sell around 10,000 of the next one [Skulk, released in April this year]."
But Moray, who also produces other artists from his home studio, cannily owns the rights to everything he does; "all the masters, the artwork, I even pay for the photographs outright, though I have a manager and outsource distribution." As he wryly observes, "but "3,000 of that 7.000 to me is a much better deal…"
Boden agrees, "It's possible to earn an ok living in the lower levels of the folk scene much more so than the lower levels of the pop scene. There, you either make loads of money and hit the big time or not. In folk, when you start you get paid for playing immediately. You can easily become pro or semi-pro."
There are 100+ folk clubs in the UK. Promoter Dave Farrow (who also manages Bellowhead) says, "There's a really healthy circuit of small clubs with 100 capacity, which are easy to sell out, so the artists can easily walk away with £800 (about $1,280) per night."
Bellowhead shifted 20,000 tickets in November in a sell-out UK tour and 28,500 tickets have just gone on sale for their next tour (at £18/£22 [$28/35] a pop). And with folk lending itself well to the festival scene, Farrow points out, "they get two bites of the summer cherry. They can play T In The Park [a music festival in Scotland] as well as the folk festivals. Rock or metal bands can't do that."
Farrow thinks the piecemeal nature of the scene might also be key to its survival. "The musicians are often teachers as well as performers, they play in each other's bands and they spread themselves across projects. Some acts also manage to get Arts Council funding or get paid to take part in community events."
And there's merchandising. Says Farrow: "Most folk musicians sell their own CDs at the gigs and they often sell T-shirts and things like that. I pressed a limited edition of 10,000 (Seth Lakeman) Barrelhouse CDs with no barcode and sold the lot on the road before Christmas."
Adrian McNally runs Rabble Rouser, home to latest U.K. folk darlings, The Unthanks, a band he also manages and performs with (he is married to Rachel Unthank). The band signed a license deal to EMI back in 2009 after a Mercury nomination in 2008 and three albums on Rabble Rouser under the name Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.
In some ways the DIY option can actually be a better deal than the major label says McNally. The Unthanks' third album (and their first on EMI) "Here's The Tender Coming" sold 30,000 copies, he says, "and our latest, "Last (Rabble Rouser)," has done better than that, but we struggle to make a living -- now we have higher overheads. We were actually more successful as a four-piece band with half the audience…" But McNally says it's important not to see major labels as the enemy of folk. "Without EMI we wouldn't have made the album we wanted to make. What we really need is the major labels to continue funding smaller acts."
Marc Carthy says that folk's popularity is cyclical.
Martin Carthy, folk stalwart and member of Waterson Carthy, U.K folk's most famous family, says folk's popularity is cyclical. "There are always going to be young people who seek out different music," he says, "I think that kids (18-24) get fed up with being told what to like and they'll go and look at things that are desperately uncool and find something they like there. It happened in the sixties and at the end of the eighties in the UK."
Guy Hayden signed The Unthanks and is now EMI's VP marketing. He thinks there's a resurgence, simply because, "there's a revival in interest in music that is personal and heartfelt yet that also speaks directly (and often simply) to the listener without the studio trickery, production tricks, techniques and beats that are so dominant in the mainstream pop world. " He adds, "The democratization of the way people can now discover music means that there are spaces for these people to find their fans and then grow with them. The traditional media can support some of these artists knowing that they have talent and fans enough that they can help them reach new audiences whereas in the past there might have been a sense that the might actually be turning their own readers and listeners off and might not have taken the 'risk' to support them."