Design your own festival

by Bruce Mason

Crowd at Vancouver Folk Music Fest• For some folks, music festivals are all about getting wasted. But for more and more of us – along with a growing number of festival organizers – music fests focus on getting un-wasted: retreating into spectacular sites and participating in safe, environmentally friendly, diverse, full-blown, family-friendly celebrations of community.

Since performance began to outstrip recordings as a source of revenue, corporations have jumped on the bandwagon, with both hands. Festivals are an industry, big-time, but, increasingly, music fests aren’t being created merely for profit. They now include slow, healthy food, communing with nature and sharing much more than the attractions on the main menu – the cornucopia of live music that highlights the year on many calendars, often providing a once-in-a-lifetime memory.

Joan Baez
Joan Baez is featured at the 2014 Vancouver Folk Music Festival

The secret is to design your own festival experience. In BC, we are truly blessed; there’s something for everyone and more than enough to go around. A great place to start is the free, aptly named 2014 Ultimate Summer Festival Guide, a labour of love published by BC Musician Magazine. Virtually everyone could quite literally plan summer around the encyclopedic chronology, descriptions, websites and maps that stretch to Saskatchewan.

“We have more than 450 festivals on our database, ranging in price from free to hundreds of dollars,” reports editor Sarah Fahey. “It’s an enormous task, a work in progress, keeping track of new and cancelled events for our sixth annual edition. Something I’ve noticed is that more yoga, art and other components are now overlapping and complementing the music.”

Only 15,000 copies of the must-have guide are printed. Visit for more information, including 350 places where you can pick up a copy.

Location, we’re told, is everything. And some folks got it right from the get-go. Since 1978, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has held its own as one of the best outdoor concerts on the continent – three days and more than 70 hours of world, folk and roots music on myriad outdoor stages. Postcard perfect Jericho Beach Park is the ongoing headliner that keeps people coming back. So are Whales Tails and other treats, annual rituals for generations in the Festival’s food area, which is evolving into a mirror of the world music on-stage, feeding the increasingly acquired insatiable taste for food from trucks and street vendors served up on compostable plates.

“We are very sensitive to the park,” says artistic director Linda Tanaka. “The VFMF pioneered on-site recycling, something that’s been studied by other festivals and communities. We have 80 volunteers on our recycling team, encourage people to take transit, provide a monitored space for 500 bicycles and conduct tours by First Nations of the site’s plant and wildlife.” Linda also answered a question many of us want to ask, “How did another attraction – the vendors – appear on the beach?”

“We call it the Folk Bazaar,” Tanaka says. “Several years ago, the City asked us to organize and oversee the vendors who show up every year. They are now part of the festival and free of charge, 160 in all. We get applications from travellers in India, Thailand and other countries around the world, as well as local entrepreneurs. Canadian artisans are featured inside the fenced area.”

The VFMF runs July 18-20. Visit for more information on this year’s musical line-up. And while you’re online, check out to learn more about a smaller scale, first-rate festival experience hosted the same weekend.

For 30 years and counting, the Cowichan Folk Guild has been staging the iconic Islands Folk Festival in Duncan at the historic, yet innovative, Providence Farm, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The 400-acre working organic community enterprise has a guiding principle that “caring for the land together is by nature healing and therapeutic.”

New artistic director Bobbie Blue brings years of experience from the Filberg Festival, another event that benefits from a unique setting. (Filberg runs August 1-4 in Comox.) Blue says, “No big changes. We just want to get better, not bigger, a community festival for music lovers and their families. Our strength lies in our size. We only sell 2,000 weekend passes and people who purchase one become a member of our family for the weekend.”

Of all the artistic directors Common Ground interviewed, Doug Cox articulated one important point most succinctly and forcibly. “Studies show that festival fans are event goers, not concert goers. Rule number one: no assholes in the audience or on-stage. Anyone misbehaving is dealt with immediately.”

A touring musician, Cox, like other artistic directors, scours the world to discover and book artists whose work he wants to share back home on the Comox Fairground July 11-13. ( He is also well aware of 20 years of history, the importance of 1,300 keen volunteers, the river and Farmer’s Market nearby and the fact that extended families book the same site in the campground that sells out every year, before the lineup is rolled out.

“It’s a thrill to see an audience enjoy and discover the live music,” Cox says. “Often, without realizing it, the audiences actually create the festival culture themselves – generations of extended families, friends re-uniting, bankers chatting with bikers and welcome newcomers.”

Festivals bring out the best in us; imagine a world that lived in the same spirit off-site. For example, Country Celebration, a 36-year-old farm folk festival in Langley (September 13-14) has reduced and diverted 93% of waste from landfills. Another gem I discovered in the 2014 Ultimate Summer Festival Guide is the Tiny Lights Festival in Ymir, July 13-15, ( The small community on Highway 6, between Nelson and Salmo, boasted 11 hotels in the 1890s. Music, spoken word, theatre, art, dance and film are now presented in six historic venues including a bike-powered stage!

Organizers say, “Our festival is the core of a larger philosophy. We want to provide an event that brings together our community to appreciate and learn about performing arts, practical arts and sustainability. Our main focus is community engagement and benefit. We engage all ages in our festival, educating about our past and learning from our youth.”

There’s a lifetime’s worth of live music being staged this summer. Check out websites with family and friends. Design your own festival experience. Engaging in community and celebrating the Commons deserves a standing ovation, along with the music.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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