(THE STRAND) Searching for the Authenticity in Music Fests: Hillside Festival Still Gives Hope / by Clarrie Feinstein

In recent years, music festivals have positioned themselves firmly in mainstream consciousness, and what was once an alternative method of enjoying and experiencing music has now become a manufactured product of a growing industry.

Many festivals in North America, like Osheaga, Wayhome, Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo, are all big-time, for-profit festivals that try to recreate that Woodstock ‘69 dream, but are often merely transparent money-making machines.

Samir Baijal, Artistic Director of Hillside Festival—the Guelph music festival started in 1980—talked about Hillside and its objectives and goals as a non-profit music festival. “I became artistic director in 1998,” he said, “and Hillside’s grassroots community approach and diverse programming [are] what makes it different. It is a festival driven by volunteers and an incredibly open minded audience who literally check their tastes at the gate.”

Often, music festivals sell their shows by heavily promoting their headliners, who are paid handsomely to perform. “We don’t really have the idea of headliners here,” Baijal reflected on the process of choosing the music acts. “I mean some just sort of turn out that way, but we have always been more about bringing up-and-coming talent and supporting Canadian artists.

“There are strategic bookings based upon musical genre and cultural diversity, as almost anything goes at Hillside—every now and then a more widely known artist will close an evening at the festival on our main stage. There are many bands that have played on our stages over the years early in their careers and have come back to perform at the festival, like Feist (2000, 2006), Arcade Fire (2004, 2005), Broken Social Scene (2003, 2005, 2008) and Metric (2003, 2004).”

Unlike many festivals, Hillside receives most of its funding from ticket sales, and only a small part comes from local sponsors and grants.  The festival relies on the enthusiastic help of their 1,300 volunteers and coordinators. It also strongly believes in connecting the music experience to the physical environment and community-centric atmosphere, says Baijal: “We offer so many programs and workshops, like the drumming and dance area, healing arts, and environmental workshops, our crafts vendors, our amazing food vendors, which in some ways [are] just as important as the music…it all adds to the community and experience.”

One of the most controversial issues surrounding music festivals is their environmental impact: huge festivals often leave tons of waste, which then goes unsorted into landfills. Camping tents are bought for a weekend and often left behind, water bottles are discarded in vast quantities, not to mention the thousands of people driving to and from the event.

Hillside’s green initiative may seem progressive and forward thinking, but Baijal disagrees, claiming “it was just common sense. When people asked us, how did you just decide to not allow plastic water bottles? It wasn’t a big decision, it just made practical sense…why wouldn’t we?”

Hillside was the first festival in the region to provide a tank of drinkable tap water, which is sponsored by the City of Guelph. Festival-goers can fill up their canteens free of charge for the weekend. There are also reusable mugs for the beer tent, as well as plates and sporks that are collected and cleaned by the dishwashing volunteers. The permanent main stage has a living roof, and the bike and bus system promotes a more sustainable and environmentally conscious experience. But these systems have been in place for almost a decade, some for 30 years, and have naturally become ingrained over time, making these seemingly progressive tactics actually a simple reality of the festival.

While Hillside has continually managed to flourish and grow while maintaining its core beliefs and values, the festival faced major complications this past year. Wayhome, which had 35,000 attendees, was planned on the same weekend, and another festival was put on just 90 miles away with a similar line-up. “Our sales were affected by this,” Baijal said. “We still managed to almost sell out our weekend, but it was the first time in a decade.”

With the rise of music festivals over the past few years and their increasing popularity, Baijal doesn’t see healthy outcomes. “Sure, it is initially great for the patron to have so much choice, but there’s too many festivals, it’s this huge bubble that is just going to burst… it’s not sustainable.” Already in England, music festivals have been suffering due to a supersaturated market; 12 were cut in 2012, including Big Chill and Sonisphere. North America may not be experiencing that problem yet, but it could likely occur in the near future.

“The meaning of the term ‘festival’ has come into question,” Baijal explains. “I have a lot of respect for the folks who organize all events, but the concept of the festival appears to have become formulaic—especially on the larger scale. Fiscal reality has to be considered by all of us, of course, but there needs to be [a] relative balance of art and commerce.” Unfortunately, many festivals focus on the latter—once business sees profit, the integrity and authenticity of the project often vanishes.

If we take the pinnacle example of a musical festival and examine the footage of Woodstock, we can easily witness the relaxing and laid-back atmosphere. What made this event draw together thousands of people? Of course, it was to listen to fantastic music and observe historic collaborations. But it was also the sense of community and togetherness that the festival promoted.

Hillside will continue to grow and follow its integral pathway. As Baijal says, “What makes for an authentic experience is for people to feel relaxed and to just enjoy themselves. There’s no ‘How can I get to the front?’ It’s simply rejuvenating and stress-free.”