The Independent Spirit: In Conversation with Jody Ackland
It’s certainly not easy to carve out your own pathway in life. Forge your own road. Go your own way while marching to your own drum beat. But those with the passion and courage to do so are those few individuals who end up leaving their mark on this planet, breaking out of the box, inspiring those around them along their journey through this short spark of existence called life.
One such individual is independent programmer Jody Ackland. Based in Ireland, Jody is the creator and artistic director of the renowned Festival of World Cultures – a unique and colourful international arts and music festival that celebrated the spirit of multiculturalism and various artistic traditions, voted by Songlines magazine ‘One of the top 25 music festivals in the world 2010’. After her ten year tenure with the festival, Jody now works as a freelance independent programmer, curator and producer of festivals – specialising in worldwide music and traditional performing arts. We caught up with Jody about her approaches to being an independent programmer, the challenges that come with the territory of being an independent, and about her experiences in India at this past IndiEarth XChange.
IndiEarth: Can you give us a background about your work as an independent programmer, and producer/programmer for festivals?
Promoting music from around the world has been a life long passion which started in 1989 in Edinburgh working for Heart Beat World Music. The agency was one of the first to bring ‘world music’ groups into the UK for concerts, tours and for an annual festival series at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; artists such as Toumani Diabate, KandaBongo Man etc. In talking with artists from across the world, I discovered kindred messages of respect for cultural identity and the environment, and it was these messages that I wanted to bring to a wider platform in the form of festivals. A move to Ireland a few years later saw this work continuing and through the jigs and reels of various music roles I launched a festival in 2001 in Dun Laoghaire (5 miles south of Dublin) to mark the millennium and respond to the changing face of Ireland’s demographic. The Festival of World Cultures was an international music and arts festival that became the largest festival in the country (attracting up to 280,000 each year) and as its Artistic Director I programmed artists from over 30 countries; over 200 groups/artists participated in each edition.
The festival made its final edition in 2010 and with a change of direction I became an independent event producer, programmer and consultant, working with a variety of festivals, special events and artists, such as Love:Live Music (Ireland’s National Music Day/Fete de la Musique); Earagail Arts Festival and WOMEX Horizons, amongst others.
IndiEarth: How do you approach curating festivals/scouting talent from around the world?
I refer to programming as a giant jigsaw puzzle. Of course there is a system, as a programmer you are sent information, you research, attend conferences, concerts and listen to the grapevine. However, I believe that what gives a curator their style is their own personal investment and the way in which they reflect this experience. My ultimate source of inspiration is to travel, as often and as widely as possible, to understand where the music comes from, its people and their values. I prioritise travel, sometimes up to four months in a year, checking out music and arts scenes, visiting the artists that I have programmed and making new discoveries along the way. This does sound like a privilege and it is, but it’s a vocational choice that requires thrifty saving and the forfeiting of certain home securities, it’s not a lifestyle for everyone.
IndiEarth: What inspired you to create the Festival Of World Cultures? What was your vision for the festival?
As mentioned above the millennium brought with it a dramatic shift in Ireland’s cultural demographic (significant immigration from Africa and Eastern Europe), and with this came resistance from certain Irish mind-sets but also a collective surge from the arts community to channel these social inclusion dialogues. Personally, I have always seen festivals as tribal gatherings, an invitation for like-minded people to come together. Certainly for the Festival of World Cultures the experience was just as much about audience-audience interaction as the actual programme of events, it became a social movement. The agenda that underpinned the artistic, educational and environmental policies was to create an environment that allowed people from all walks of life to connect, to demonstrate the value of a multi-cultural society and to harness the positive contributions. We worked just as much with audiences as with the artists.
IndiEarth: How do you approach getting funding for the performing arts and music/arts festivals? What are some challenges you´ve faced, and how do you propose overcoming those challenges?
Mainstream corporate sponsorship has always proved to be a challenge. Competition is extremely high now that we are in recession and if your ethos is to only work with organisations that have a clean ethical practice the pool is even further reduced. Because of this I have had to seek funding from a wide spectrum such as generating revenues, arts and tourism applications, crowd funding, export offices etc. But in my experience the largest and most valuable contribution, certainly to festivals, is in kind support. The concept is similar to the old community point system and something that we should be exploring much more; the less money needed the better! In fact the banking crisis has given rise to this system of exchange and it’s having a very positive impact in Ireland. People that never collaborated in the past are now having to share resources and you are seeing some truly inspired projects emerging out of the depths of recession. However, to travel the arts does require funding and certainly I believe the biggest challenge we face is culture and politics, both ethically and in terms of its sustainability (Festival of World Cultures along with many others lost its funding in 2010). Practitioners have little other choice but to apply for cultural funding which is administered by government departments who have created the eligibility criteria, simply put – ‘politics defining the cultural output’. Applications are designed to be unintelligible to most artists, and so the same funding goes to the same applicants time and time again, maintaining the elitist model. Maybe better than challenging the system is to find alternative sources such as philanthropy.
IndiEarth: Can you tell us about your impressions of India as an emerging music market?
Both exciting and overwhelming, to be honest. With regional co-operation and the new trade agreements across Asia and Australia, I believe we are about to see a shift in the orientation of the market which will naturally bring international media and investment. But of course there are significant challenges to be addressed within India across sector co-operation, management training, media lobbying, audience development and of course the Bollywood industry. In addition, I believe it is critical for foreign investors to agree to fair trade business policy. There is a lot to do, but with technology moving at such a rapid pace, and particularly in India – commitment from the Indian music and arts community and international partners – it’s only a matter of years before there are structures in place. Willingness for local collaboration and transparency is where it starts and IndiEarth XChange is offering this space.
IndiEarth: What were your impressions of/experiences at the IndiEarth XChange?
Relating directly to my answer above, IndiEarth XChange has already proved to be the platform where this debate is taking place. What I experienced was the coming together of a movement that is being facilitated and strategically guided by Sonya and her team. The delegates, many of which are highly experienced and successful in their fields contributed generously which to me demonstrates a great sense of trust in EarthSync’s agenda .
I felt there was a number of contributing factors to the event’s dynamic energy, the diverse delegate profile – leaders in their field exchanging with young and emerging musicians and producers; the multi-disciplinary programme of music, film and media and the eclectic and refreshing showcase programme that gave a true reflection of musical landscape. However, all this said, what struck me most was the authenticity of IndiEarth XChange. It’s not a ‘manufactured’ experience like so many of these emerging conferences, it’s coming from the grassroots up, which in my opinion is always the right direction.
IndiEarth: Can you tell us more about your panel discussion at XChange – ´The Independent Programmer´ – and the topics of debate that emerged out of it?
Both myself and Christian Allex were able to present two very different trends, the commercial programme and the cultural programme and I would have liked to explore this in more detail, but panels always run out of time! There were three threads that I found particularly interesting: Audience development and how programmers are looking at deeper engagement such as interactive and participatory programming, collaborations and commissions. How festivals are adapting to the current economic climate, one case being the emergence of small boutique festivals, the other the Live Nation monopoly. And the other I touched on above, relating to the channels that exist (or lack of) for informing cultural funders of emerging grassroots music / defining the cultural output.
IndiEarth: What is in the pipeline, for any future plans/projects/ideas you have?
Currently like so many I am experiencing the moving tides of the industry. Ireland doesn’t have the resources at the moment for me to realise my own ambitions for a new festival which I developed a couple of years ago as the next generation of the Festival of World Cultures. This concept, which waits patiently in the wings, is for a state-of-the-art programme that through artistic collaborations explores the relationships of world traditions and technology. In the meantime, though my career as a freelancer continues to unfold, I have a few Arts Council funded projects on the go (exploring the new wave of traditional Irish music) and a couple of festivals including the Cape Town World Music Festival. I am always looking for opportunities to get involved in new or existing projects worldwide and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2014 brings.
For more on Jody Ackland, please visit www.jodyackland.com