Folk Music Audiences



Access Folk is a research project led by Dr. Fay Hield and funded by UKRI through the Future Leaders Fellowship scheme. Its purpose is to understand:

  • What is the place of folk singing in contemporary England?

  • How do people want to engage with English cultural traditions through song?

  • How can we facilitate participation in folk singing in England?

For folk singing to remain relevant in 21st century England, new singers and enthusiasts need to engage with both the music and the meaning of a shared English identity. To that end, the Access Folk research project explores ways to increase and diversify participation in folk singing in England. The project is built on co-production principles - this means that instead of academics leading how the work is conducted, the people who will be most affected by the results are given power in directing the research questions and are key decision makers about how the project’s resources are used. Access Folk will not only address the needs of existing musical communities but serve as an opportunity to meet the needs of a wider population seeking fulfilling leisure activities that align with their values.


In many settings, folk music continues to be a vibrant resource for contemporary audiences. Existing research in the folk music scene has largely been centred on participation, reflecting historical tensions surrounding the professionalisation of the genre. However, in this paper, we challenge the binary between participatory and presentational forms of music (Turino, 2008), positioning listening as a form of participation and highlighting the work done by audiences for presentational folk music. This paper presents the findings of a longitudinal, qualitative study of listening experience around the release of a new folk album by the first author: Fay Hield’s Old Adam (2016). Through a series of focus groups, eight participants gave increasingly personalised accounts of their relationship with the music, from first reactions to finding deep meaning in the songs. We draw on disparate strands of research including developments in music psychology and audience research, as well as theoretical literature on the value of storytelling, to consider how songs go from unknown entities to important emotional resource for listeners. We demonstrate that familiarisation with new music is impacted on by: live and recorded listening contexts, musical preference, existing knowledge of folk music repertory, and genre conventions. We show that while listeners may make their own meaning from music, they need to find resemblance between a song’s meaning and their own lived experience in order to connect with it deeply. While theoretical storytelling literature suggests narrative is important as a means of mentally rehearsing for future experiences, instead we found participants reject that notion, understanding rather that song stories act as a tool for reflection and in making meaning of previous experience. This depth of engagement shows that while these listeners may not be getting their fiddles out or leading a chorus song in a singaround, they are far from a passive audience.


Talk-based audience research has been shown to shape the engagement of research participants (Reason, 2010; O’Neill, Edelman & Sloboda, 2016; Pitts & Gross, forthcoming). Asking participants to articulate their arts experiences and providing them with the space to think out loud can prompt them to view the arts in new ways, simultaneously investigating and informing their engagement. However, it is unclear how this process fits within the academic paradigm of public engagement. If audience research functions as audience development or audience enrichment, could it also be considered as a form of public engagement?

This paper reports the opportunities and complications faced when employing public engagement and audience enrichment in a longitudinal study with eight folk music listeners, tracing their engagement with a new album and associated performances. The study offered a unique opportunity to investigate these concepts because public engagement was incorporated into the research design; alongside attending conventional performances, participants were also taken to a specifically-programmed ‘public engagement’ event, a roundtable discussion on the value of the arts that formed part of the AHRC’s ‘Being Human’ festival 2015. The study therefore functions as a form of public engagement in two ways: firstly, by providing a space to reflect on arts experiences through careful questioning to prompt new ways of thinking about their listening; and secondly, by sharing the findings of earlier research projects through a scheduled public engagement event.

The study uncovered deeply nuanced findings around the primary question of engagement, but it also raised questions for the ethical and methodological implications of developing audience’s experiences whilst simultaneously trying to record them. Despite this ouroboric paradox, incorporating public engagement activities may be beneficial to audience research, offering a way to access the musical experiences of self-conscious or increasingly ‘sociologised’ audience members (Hennion, 2001). By exploring the impact of taking part in the research on the participants, we question the distinction between ideas of audience enrichment and public engagement, and in addition, explore public engagement as research method.