Max MacDonald & Joella Foulds:
Team Cape Breton

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2004

Before the music starts at any given Celtic Colours performance, organizer Max MacDonald can be found out in the parking lot, scanning the back ends of cars and trucks.

"I look at the license plates at every show," he admitted with a broad grin.

Why? Because Max loves seeing just where people have come from to see the talented musicians on display at the thriving Cape Breton music festival.

Held each October, the nine-year-old international festival has quickly risen to become one of the premiere music events in the world. Far from being the new kid on the block, it's already serving as an example to others of its kind. But a festival like Celtic Colours doesn't come together overnight -- typically, it takes years and years of building to create an event that attracts the notice of people a few hundred miles away, much less on other continents.

How, then, do organizers explain the rapid success of Celtic Colours, Cape Breton's annual, nine-day-long festival that draws fans, musicians and industry reps from the other side of the world to this one small, beautiful, oh-so-friendly island? The answer lies with Max MacDonald and Joella Foulds, co-owners and founders of Rave Entertainment since 1995.

At a meeting of music promoters, sellers and festival organizers from as far away as Denmark, Italy and Australia, Max -- midweek at the October 2004 festival -- explained that they got their start with the help of another big, long-established event.

"In 1996, Joella and I went to Celtic Connections in Glasgow with a dream. We were overwhelmed by the support and encouragement we received there," he said. "Now, we are simply passing on what we've been given. That's what makes our little world go around."

Still, even with experienced guidance, the Cape Breton program didn't come together overnight. "It was a two-year process from the dream to the reality," Joella said. "We had to talk to a lot of people to ensure there would be support out there. There was some concern, but very quickly there was support. ... We don't want to do anything that would in any way impact on our living Celtic culture."

Organizers worked closely with community representatives to ensure no damage could be done to local traditions, she said. Added Max, "It could not be a site-based festival. It would not work with our culture -- it's not the way our culture gathers."

In other words, instead of hosting numerous concerts at a large, central location, Colours hosts several shows each night at small venues in every corner of the island. The exception is the gala kick-off that starts each year's festival and the World's Largest Square Dance, which closes it.

"The opening show is an anomaly," Joella agreed. "We thought it would be nice to start off with something large -- but we don't really like the large."

Festival organizers take applications from potential concert sites throughout the island. They're forced to turn down 12 to 15 communities every year, she said. "The events cost more than the box office brings in because of the size of the venues."

Another problem at the outset was outside funding. "We realized early on, when we were researching this, that we were not going to sell this to the government as a cultural event," Max explained. So, to get government support, they pitched it as a tourist attraction, with projections to suggest the number of people it would bring to the island and boost its off-season economy. "We quickly exceeded those numbers," he said. "And this year, more than half of our guests are from away."

In both 2003 and '04, the breakdown between locals and tourists was close to a 50-50 split, Max said. In 1997, he noted, there were 275 visitors from the States; in 2003, there were 1,800. In all, he said, the 2003 festival drew 6,500 people from outside Nova Scotia.

"I am intrigued," he said. "We believed we would get people from Ontario east, and from the northeastern United States. I don't think we imagined getting people from 13 countries and 47 states and every province. ... It's really been remarkable growth."

In 2003, the festival had an economic impact of $5.94 million on the island. That's up from a $3.5-million impact in the festival's first year.

"The festival keeps the island open for business for an additional week. Without it, all of these businesses would be closed," Max stressed. "Culture is good for business. That's our message."

At last count, Celtic Colours includes the efforts of 350 artists from around the world. It has an $800,000 budget and employs the services of about 900 volunteers. The festival was the ECMA's Event of the Year 2005, received the Tourism Association of Nova Scotia's Crystal Award for Events & Conferences in 2002 and was named the American Bus Association's Top Event in Canada and Attractions Canada's Top Cultural Event in 2001.

That's a whole lot of attention focused on an island just 3,981 square miles big, connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a single causeway.

During a busy week at CC'04, Max and Joella sat down over tea to discuss the roots of Celtic Colours -- as well as its future as they see it. The dream, they remembered, had its earliest inkling in 1995, when Rave Entertainment "hijacked the ECMAs" from Halifax to Cape Breton. "A small group of us thought that, if it can go to Newfoundland, it can go to Cape Breton," Max explained. But once just wasn't enough. With a successful music event under the belts, Max and Joella "decided to keep that energy going."

Hitching onto Nova Scotia's "A Year of Music" promotion that year, the two wracked their brains for the proper Cape Breton hook. After all, Max said, "we had the Rankins, Natalie, Ashley -- a lot of Cape Breton artists were touring the world. We thought we could do it in reverse; instead of sending our artists out, let's bring the audience in."

Once they had a core of musicians lending support, "we knew we had to do it," Max said. "Nothing could stop us."

But a big music festival isn't made in a day. To research the proper way to do things, the team looked to one of the biggest and brightest stars in the Celtic music firmament: Celtic Connections, a venerable and highly successful yearly festival in Glasgow, Scotland. "We raised some money and found our way to Glasgow in January 1996 to meet people and hear musicians," Max said.

Then they came home and started making plans -- and contacts.

"The festival that now exists is the same concept we came up with almost immediately," Max recalled. "We were trying to create an experience, something more than just going to a concert. It's about becoming a part of the community."

They devised a five-year business plan, which required a whole lot of on-the-spot education. "We don't really speak the language of tourism. We're music people," Max said. "But we believed so strongly in Cape Breton, in its culture and artists. ... And we believe in celebrating excellence."

Joella said they built business relationships by "matching what we're already doing to the goals and aspirations of certain corporations, matching our market to their market." In some cases, they took support in the form of funding, she said; in others, they were grateful to accept loaner cars, fuel or other services to help keep their own expenses down.

With an island population of around 150,000, 6,000 or so visitors for a single week is not a huge business opportunity, Max agreed. But extending the tourism season is a boon for the whole island. For instance, he noted, "the hotels would normally be closed right now. But they're open, and every room is full."

Smiling, he added: "We are not bashful, not a bit, about directing visitors to those companies who support our festival."

Still, they admitted, there was a lot of risk in the beginning.

"We didn't have any security in the early years that there would even be a festival the next year," Joella said.

Now, they're thinking more about containing its growth. I mean, how big can it get, anyway? How many outsiders can the island handle? The sky, Max admitted, is not the limit. "We're close to the limit now," he said.

"Our concept is not about growth," he said. "We've had very measured growth. I'd hate to see wild swings in attendance -- it would create a very unstable environment. ... Remember, it's about building a better festival. A larger festival is not necessarily better. Joella and I are very conservative in some ways. Uncontrolled growth -- we're afraid of it."

Besides, he said, if the percentage of locals attending the shows shrinks, "it would dilute the experience."

"It can't go a lot further," Joella agreed. "The tourism people don't want to hear that, but the local people are a part of the experience. The 50-50 ratio is perfect, from our perspective."

Besides, they said, the concert venues are mostly small, and they can only handle so many venues at a time. "We're really close to the number of venues that can be handled, logistically," Max said. Added Joella, "We're on the edge all the time of trying to manage this. We don't own or control these venues. They're controlled and owned by the communities. And that's the way we want it. But it means a lot of work -- it's not like contracting a professional space."

Looking five years down the road, Max finds the future easy to predict. "We'll be retired," he said, and laughed. "Some very smart, young, energetic people who share our values will be running the festival." "We've talked about succession," Joella noted. "We've been working on it since day one. The underpinnings are a given to us, but it's not a given to someone else coming in. You have to have a certain philosophy about our culture and our communities. Everything has to come from that and a certain approach to the artists. That's what it's about. It's not about tourism." "Tourism is a byproduct," Max quickly asserted. Besides, Joella hastened to add, "We're not ready for it yet." "At the same time, it's enormously important that it happens properly," Max said. "If we retire and the festival goes with us, that would be the saddest thing. That would be a failure."

In the meantime, Team Cape Breton (as they lovingly call themselves) are helping other communities in the Celtic world to establish festivals of their own. But Max cautions organizers from copying the Colours formula too closely.

"People look at this festival and want to do something similar in their communities," he said. "But we keep telling them, you need to write your own story. Don't just copy ours -- this is a Cape Breton story."

Joella sighed. It wasn't for lack of enthusiasm, that much was readily apparent. But at midday, more than halfway through an immensely hectic nine-day festival, she was understandably tired. So was Max. But don't feel too bad for them, after all.

The night before, she said, she stood and listened to a fiddler play a set of tunes. She had errands to run, things to do, and her schedule was packed into the wee hours of the day. But that one short spell of music completely refreshed her.

"It made my day," she said with a smile. "We both come from being musicians, so we need that fix."

"This is why I love my job," Max added with a grin.

And now a word from the (former) chairman of the board....

Bruce MacNeil, one of the original Celtic Colours festival directors, stepped down last year as chairman of the board. But MacNeil is pleased with the progress the original vision has made -- and he has an optimistic view of the festival's future.

"We said from the beginning, 'If we do this, we're going to do it right. We're going to do it big, and we want to do it pretty aggressively from day one,'" he said. "Of course, we didn't make any money the first two years."

The festival's reputation has risen quickly throughout the international music community, and MacNeil believes he knows the reason. "Joella and Max have always known to treat entertainers right," he said. "So performers like coming here." In the early days of the festival, he said, organizers had to seek out entertainers from other countries. "Now they're seeking us out. That's a nice problem to have."

That doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of work ahead.

"There are always challenges," he said, during a recent break in the Festival Club's bustling Green Room. "How do you look at the sustainability of the festival in the long run?"

Despite the festival's international edge, MacNeil is confident the event will always retain a down-home Cape Breton atmosphere.

"It was always the intent from day one that the community be owners of the festival," he said. "We want to maintain it as it is without changing it too, too much." Part of that is keeping venues small and intimate, he said. Another is ensuring that concerts continue to be held near and far, in towns all over the island.

There were initial pressures from people who felt that concerts all over the island wouldn't work," MacNeil remembered. "But I think it's served us well. And that's what made our festival unique."

It's vital to maintain the current level of quality, he said, "but not necessarily by making it bigger and bigger." It might be wise to add more matinee shows, for instance, and possibly to branch into theater. But I don't see us making any major changes out of us continuing to do what we do well."

A key area that must be addressed is finances, MacNeil insisted. "If we have a bad year, what does that mean for the next year?" That, he said, has been their one big failing -- so far.

"The only thing we've been a little slow at is attempting to get corporate support," he said. It's vital to acquire "non-government, non-ticket sale revenues," he explained. "But we're not necessarily corporate savvy."

That, however, is in other people's hands. After seven good years, MacNeil is looking forward to stepping away from the center of the action. Of course, he intends to remain active with the festival -- as a volunteer.

by Tom Knapp
10 September 2005