In defense of music festivals—kind of 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MEGAN LALONDE - Half Moon Run performs at Squamish Constellation Festival.
  • Photo by Megan Lalonde
  • Half Moon Run performs at Squamish Constellation Festival.

Every summer that I can remember, my family bought passes to a local music festival.

It started off in 1994 as a small, traditional blues festival, featuring the likes of Clarence Clemons, Randy Bachman and Buddy Guy. Throughout those early years, I was pulled along in a stroller—kids received free admission—and was more excited about the cookie-dough ice cream cone I was promised than any artist.

As I grew up, the festival grew too, eventually becoming a massive, genre-spanning, multi-stage event lasting 10 days each July, routinely drawing upwards of 30,000 people a night.

I went from watching Sheryl Crow as a nine-year-old on my dad's shoulders to experiencing a Kanye West rant first-hand, to seeing Tom Petty perform for one of the last times before he passed away in 2017.

The festival, and its status as a family tradition, provided me with the opportunity to see countless legends and bands I love(d), as well as many artists I likely wouldn't have paid to see otherwise. It was my way of discovering new artists before the days of iTunes and Spotify, and easily my favourite part of every summer.

This year marked that festival's milestone 25th anniversary. It also marked the first year no one in my family purchased a pass. Where its lineups used to be occupied by high-quality acts night after night, the festival—which receives provincial funding as well as private sponsorship—has, in my opinion, been waning in quality over recent years, with Vegas DJs and mid-rank country singers now routinely filling headlining spots that were once occupied by Bob Dylan or The White Stripes.

This year, that trend culminated in a fairly underwhelming lineup—its top-drawing headliner was the Backstreet Boys.

But my once-favourite summer tradition isn't the only already-established festival in North America that's struggled over the years.

We've seen it in this part of the world, too: The Squamish Valley Music Festival abruptly shut down in 2016, the Pemberton Music Festival declared bankruptcy the following year and Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington state held its final iteration in 2018.

This year, even Woodstock50 was cancelled before it got off the ground.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the golden age of massive music festivals has come and gone.

It doesn't take a music-industry insider to understand that a boom, and subsequent over-saturation in North American festivals has allowed artists' rates to soar right alongside concert-goers' options—you don't have to look very far past the downfall of Pemby Fest to see that trying to book the biggest names on the festival circuit, particularly when you're paying American talent with Canadian dollars, is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, events like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and even Osheaga are still moneymakers that I can't see failing anytime soon, but from what I can tell, trying to replicate these events isn't going to work anymore. (Honestly, Coachella doesn't seem appealing these days anyways, unless you're an up-and-coming actor or ex-Bachelor contestant.)

Still, to see festivals fade or disappear entirely is a bummer. Music festivals allow fans to see so many artists for semi-affordable prices, compared to traditional arena shows, in a way better atmosphere, and it's difficult to think of something I like more than an outdoor concert on a warm summer night.

So how can we keep the festival spirit alive?

To me, it's simple. Think smaller, and manage audience expectations accordingly—there are enough massive festivals out there anyways.

The newly launched Squamish Constellation Festival seemed to hit the right mark. It didn't punch above its weight when it came to the lineup, but still attracted some recognizable names and a few solid up-and-coming bands. It may not have broken even the first year, but it was still a hit among locals. According to organizers, 85 per cent of the people who bought tickets were from Squamish.

The fact that it supported Canadian talent was a bonus—I didn't mind that the performers were nominated for Junos rather than Grammys, especially since it meant I didn't have to deal with the packed crowds or constant drips of strangers' beer and sweat that typically accompany a festival experience.

I've generally avoided EDM festivals, but hear that events like Shambhala and Bass Coast seem to have this figured out, too.

Or, if big names are what you're after, scale it down further and focus on fostering those festival vibes with single-day events in stunning venues—think the Gorge in Washington, Red Rocks in Colorado or even Olympic Plaza here in Whistler—rather than curating an expensive, multi-day lineup. After all, there are a lot of up-and-coming Canadian artists I'd rather see than the Backstreet Boys.

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