Just how do they do that?

 

Festivals that were once free to the public are now charging for entry or not running at all. But the very-enjoyable Street Performance World Championship, with its brilliant but simple business model, is thriving, and this year is adding Cork dates to its Dublin festival. PETER CRAWLEYlooks at an economic miracle

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of corporate sponsorship, it was the epoch of financial collapse, it was the season of free festivals, it was the season of mass lay-offs, it was the summer of hope, it was the winter of despair, and Mark Duckenfield and Conor McCarthy, neither of them professed fans of Dickensian superlatives nor harbingers of economic doom, were simply getting on with outlining their tale of two festivals, one in Cork and one in Dublin.

The Street Performance World Championship, now in its fourth and biggest year, is nothing short of an economic miracle. On the face of it, the business model makes no financial sense. For a start, admission is free. Cork’s Fitzgerald Park and Dublin’s Merrion Square will resemble an outdoor carnival.

You amble up to a crowd of viewers who have clustered around an entertainer – perhaps a juggler, or a unicyclist, or a double act, or dancers, or a man who propels a cabbage from a home-made industrial catapult onto a helmet lined with nine-inch metal spikes. And once people have been sufficiently entertained, there is technically no onus on the families, couples, or floating good-time seekers to hand over any money when somebody passes the hat.

And yet they do. Sometimes people will queue for ages simply to place money in the performer’s hand and to thank them. As directors of what they believe to be the best street performance festival in the world, Duckenfield and McCarthy have scoured the earth for outdoor entertainers who have turned both their performance and their sales pitch into an art form.

The Space Cowboy, a regular guest to the festival from Australia, tends to conclude his charmingly daredevil routine by declaring, from the top of a nine-foot unicycle with a sickle, a knife and a burning torch in his hand, “This is how I make my living. Please don’t run away at the end. Give me whatever you think the show is worth to you. If you can’t afford to pay anything – if you really can’t – then this has been my gift to you.”

It’s the last line that always gets me reaching for my wallet. Beyond the pleasure of the performance, there is something beautiful about partaking in this simplest transaction in an economy of fair play.

“Can you imagine if cinemas worked like this?” asks Duckenfield. “If you went to the cinema and the film you saw was shit and you were allowed to leave 50 cents at the end, but if it was amazing you paid the full price? If that happened I’m sure that the cinemas would not just be rolling out advertisements. They’d be making better films.”

As befits a weather-dependent outdoor event, the Street Performance World Championship has always been a model of blue-sky thinking. But is it prepared for a rainy day?

A long-held ambition for a festival has been to make it an all-Ireland event. As the festival extends its reach to the south-west this year, holding its first event in Cork’s Fitzgerald Park, Duckenfield and McCarthy are growing their business at a time of general commercial and artistic entropy.

Some similar festivals are now either folding or starting to charge ticket prices. The Analog music festival, a free event in Dublin’s Docklands, didn’t happen this year. The Cork-based Indie-pendence music festival began life as a free event, but is now charging. When I spoke to a festival specialist recently about events that are dependent on State subsidy and corporate sponsorship, his analysis was grim: “That model will have to be entirely rethought.”

Duckenfield and McCarthy are concerned but not unnerved by the change in the economy. This year they have brought new sponsors on board, including the advertising giant Titan and MTV, which have added to an extremely canny roster of sponsors: a free festival, after all, lives or dies by its attendance, and free advertising goes a long way.

In the interest of full disclosure, The Ticket is another sponsor. And its title sponsor is AIB, an ally that last year looked as safe as houses and this year is one of the recipients of a €7 billion Government rescue package. Things change fast.

“It’s not impossible,” McCarthy says of running such a festival, one that is dependent on subsidy and sponsorship to administer the event and to pay the salaries for which there is no hat to pass around – namely theirs. “If you were starting out now and trying to get a sponsor, there would be no chance. The big guys stick to proven projects.”

And because the Street Performance World Championship has proved that it can generate a big impact and be a thoroughly enjoyable event with comparatively few running costs (no big sets, no dressing-rooms), the organisers are optimistic about continuing those relationships. The festival’s contract with AIB runs out this year, and Duckenfield and McCarthy will soon be negotiating for another one. Meanwhile, banks are seeking to reassure investors and customers that they are here to stay and are keen to maintain a public profile. A free event can be worth an awful lot.

“It does feel like a unique situation,” says McCarthy when the pair can think of no business models that compare to their own. But McCarthy and Duckenfield are a unique breed. Both of them left behind “proper jobs”, (McCarthy was a software engineer, Duckenfield sold a paper-shredding service) to develop and promote something that couldn’t pay them a fee in its first year. Now both of them balance the office job with a responsibility to see as much street performance as they can manage. They are as comfortable in suits and ties as they are in faded T-shirts.

“When we go to meet the corporate bodies, we’re there to impress,” says Duckenfield. “When we’re meeting street performers, they’re there to impress us.” It’s a balance that would give some of us vertigo, but it has become second nature to them. Much like the strange combination of calculation and risk that goes into each of their festivals.

Right now, Duckenfield is scrutinising the weather forecast and monitoring their publicity. Rain can mean a washout, too much sun can mean an enormous turn-out. Too few people and the event lacks luster, too many and it’s over-crowded. “It’s like the economy of Goldilocks,” he tells me. “It has to be just right.”

There’s a contagious optimism from the directors of a festival which itself essentially runs on goodwill. “We’ll deal with problems when we come to them,” says Duckenfield, as his mobile bleeps out another weather report. “But with the ‘current economic climate’ this is something that is good for Ireland. We need a good summer and more things like this.”

Last year when the English busker Beautiful Stu concluded his artfully ramshackle routine, and nearly won the entire championship through sheer, brass-necked charisma, one guy queued for 15 minutes to put money in his hat. The punter proudly put €5 into Beautiful Stu’s bowler, made eye contact and announced: “And I’m on the dole!”

“That fiver meant an awful lot to that guy and he wanted to give it to Stu,” says Duckenfield with no small amount of satisfaction. In a way, the good time and transparent transactions of the Street Performance World Championship work like its own economic recovery package, restoring confidence in honest work and fair play. You invest in it, in the best sense of the word, and, if you do, you get exactly what you pay for.