Toronto might be the greatest music city in the world, but it’s clear is that our festivals have a long way to go until they catch up with our bands. With CMF happening right now, Mike Haliechuk of Fucked Up asks: Who are music festivals for anyway?
The first time my band played South By Southwest (SXSW), the massive annual music (and more) festival in Austin, I got bad sunstroke, spent my last night freezing under a hot shower and then threw up on each of the three planes it took to get home. Like most artists who participate in showcasing festivals, I’d played too many shows, gotten too little sleep and was coming home to book a doctor’s appointment instead of a record contract.
The model established by SXSW, which has been replicated in dozens of cities all around the world, rests upon the premise that for the bands who perform, the potential for increased exposure to international music industry folks and fans is worth the sacrifices of time and money it takes to play these showcases. With Canadian Music Fest happening right now, it’s a good time to ask whether this home-grown festival is intended to benefit Canadian bands, and if a music industry conference in this city is really equipped to highlight what’s great about Toronto’s music community.
In this (micro) generation where musicians can transition from home recording to touring in a matter of months, if they catch a buzz on the internet, the notion of a music festival where bands are made to jump through the hoops of showcasing their talents for “the industry” is as antiquated as the idea that this is really how the music industry works anymore. As The Weeknd and Purity Ring (both Canadian acts who broke out in 2011) illustrate, bands can court labels and fans before they even play a show—the importance of the showcase has given way to Soundcloud pages and traded MP3s.
As the business of music shifts and changes, showcase festivals like South by Southwest, its Torontonian cousin, North by Northeast, and CMF make winners out of a handful of already high-profile buzz bands, as well as lifestyle, clothing, and soft-drink companies that use attendees as a captive audience to blast with free samples and billboards. And they make losers out of the hundreds of showcasing bands, who underwrite the process by paying registration fees and providing music free of charge, only to walk away with nothing.
In a cover story earlier this year, The Grid asked if Toronto was the greatest music city in the world, based on the fact that 2011 was a banner year for home-grown talent like Feist, Drake, Austra and Broken Social Scene—all of whom play music festivals all around the world, and all of whom have been notably absent from CMF. A cursory examination of the lineup at this year’s festival reveals a motley crew of random imported acts (Passion Pit, Slash), antiquated Canadian mainstays (I Mother Earth, Treble Charger), major-label tax write-offs (Marianas Trench, Hedley), and critical darlings (Cloud Nothings, Sheezer, Dinosaur Bones). Perhaps this discrepancy in quality can serve as a counsel for bands hoping to achieve international acclaim: The road to success is not paved with festival laminates.
While it’s still up for debate whether Toronto is the best music city in the world, what is clear is that our festivals have a long way to go until they catch up with our bands. In a city of such artistic capacity and diversity, the ideal music festival would serve to connect fans with these breakout acts, and help to encourage the development of new ones. Locally curated festivals like ALL CAPS!, Over the Top, and the yearly Wavelength anniversary shows reveal a wealth of talent in curation and musical diversity by linking larger international and local acts with exciting new ones.
The last time I went to SXSW, my band curated our own show with no record labels or industry involved, and hand-picked a lineup from a collection of friends’ bands. We’d hoped to put some power back in the hands of the artists, and to present a show to fans with no ulterior motives. As music festivals are further enveloped by industry speaker conferences, exclusive shows, and corporate sponsorships, it’s easy to forget that at its best, music will always be a relationship between the artist and the listener, the band and its fans.
Mike Haliechuk is a member of the band Fucked Up.
CORRECTION, MARCH 21, 2012: The cutline accompanying the Diamond Rings photo at the top of this article originally claimed the photo was taken last week; it was actually taken at Diamond Rings’ 2011 SXSW showcase. Diamond Rings didn’t perform at SXSW this year.