The tiny, family-friendly ALL CAPS! Island Festival happens this weekend. Here’s how it’s managed to break Toronto’s music festival curse.
Toronto may very well be one of the world’s best cities for music, both in terms of the artists who call it home and the feverishness with which we claim them as our own. But despite our embarrassment of talent, and our sometimes embarrassing devotion to said talent, this town has had a tougher time showcasing music on a large scale.
This summer, electro sensation Deadmau5 launched his own VELD Festival, which, with Drake’s OVO Fest, is picking up where Broken Social Scene’s Olympic Island–fest left off. But the sad fact is that no multi-day music festival here has become as iconic as, say, Glastonbury or Coachella. The few years that Virgin Fest occupied Toronto Island were marred by disorganization and ferry-ride chaos, not to mention a province-wide regulation that anyone who wanted to drink had to be corralled into beer tents. Though that rule was finally relaxed in 2011, Toronto’s festivals have still felt, at best, like second-rate attempts to capture the magic of contemporary fests around the world.
See, our problem isn’t so much about a lack of available performers or even audience interest—it’s a problem of personality and scale. The solution to Toronto’s dearth of longstanding outdoor music fests isn’t bigger bands and more beer, but the exact opposite. Indeed, our most promising music festival, ALL CAPS! Island Fest (which takes place this weekend), has built up a dedicated following by keeping things small, family-friendly, and interesting.
Founded in 2006 by the folks behind Wavelength, ALL CAPS! evolved from a monthly all-ages show into an annual all-day event in Dufferin Grove Park. But in 2009, when founder Ryan McLaren discovered Artscape Gibraltar Point on the southernmost point of Centre Island, the fest took on a whole new life. Artscape is an artist’s retreat where people live and work, but it’s also available as a venue space—and it provided the perfect location for ALL CAPS!’ mingling of musical genres, art installations, and community organizations. Last year, the two-day fest also offered camping on-site for 100 people (those tickets sold out quickly, and faster still this year).
McLaren was surprised to discover that this was actually the first time that any Toronto music festival had offered camping—an integral aspect of the festival experience overseas and in much of the U.S. It lines up nicely with the ALL CAPS! philosophy of presenting an experience that goes beyond having a bunch of bands play outside for an afternoon or two. McLaren says that it’s also a gesture to the kind of audience that might not necessarily be in the habit of staying out until 2 a.m. on a Thursday night to see bands play. A weekend at ALL CAPS! can be both a budget rock-cation for hipster parents and an off-the-beaten-path concert adventure for anyone else.
Camping is only one of many ways in which ALL CAPS! offers a unique music-festival experience. This year’s lineup includes Brooklyn noisemakers A Place to Bury Strangers, as well as solid local acts like Lioness, Maylee Todd, and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. But between the location itself (a beach!) and the non-music offerings, there’s plenty to do between sets other than drink beer (though there’s that, too). “You can create your own pace within the festival. It’s not like you’re penned in and you have to see everything and you can’t escape from it,” says McLaren.
In its own way, ALL CAPS! has aligned itself with the popular U.K. event All Tomorrow’s Parties—an intimate and interactive weekend where bands and fans stay at a waterside summer camp in England’s Somerset County. ATP began in 1999 and has since blossomed into satellite fests around the world. In addition to featuring artists playing classic albums in their entirety (well before this became a go-to moneymaker for many bands), ATP’s organizers encourage idiosyncratic performances like Oneida’s 12-hour jam or Caribou’s expanded Vibration Ensemble, one-off collaborations between artists, and the occasional high-profile reunion.
While the word “curated” is fairly overused, it happens to be what sets festivals like ATP and ALL CAPS! apart from corporate-sponsored musical catch-alls. Appropriately, McLaren says that although his festival has grown considerably in the four years it’s been on the island, he’s not interested in making it bigger, just better.