After last year’s explosion of large EDM festivals, three homegrown events will battle it out for another summer of sonic love.
Around this time last year, Toronto’s electronic-music lovers were absolutely spoiled with choice. Thanks to the global renaissance of EDM—“the return of the return” for the genre, as it were—the massive music festivals touched down for all the good little disciples that just couldn’t get enough. A frenzy erupted over a short few hazy, loud months last summer—and devout 416ers were not about to be left out. Onto our party schedules came shows of the biggest worldwide acts of the moment, like the Full Flex Express tour featuring the phenomenon known as Skrillex and HARD Festival starring French headliners Justice, both mounted at historic Fort York. Tack on the North American debut of Barcelona’s Sonar Festival last October, and all of Toronto was a stage in what felt like one giant, never-ending rave, the streets flooded with bass, synth, booze, and sweat.
More telling, however, were the three glittery new festivals dedicated to the dance movement that were birthed by us, for us: VELD at Downsview Park, Digital Dreams at Ontario Place, and Sound in Motion infiltrating all the venues in between. These three fests are the only ones to return for a sophomore outing this year, and they’re out to prove they’re here for good, and dispel the notion that the EDM bubble is really about to burst.
The first EDM love-in to take flight this summer is Digital Dreams, which goes down on Canada Day weekend (June 29-30). A brainchild of Live Nation’s Electronic Nation division (itself freshly minted in 2011 on the heels of the big boom in the U.S.), the Dreams fest came to life because, with the electronic world growing as it has, Live Nation saw an opportunity to go out and find people already established in that industry and bring them into the fold. This is the word from Ryan Kruger, Electronic Nation’s managing director since January 2012 and the creator of the World Electronic Music Festival at Algonquin Park in northern Ontario, Canada’s first multi-day outdoor electronic music festival and the largest of its kind. (The 2013 edition, however, was recently cancelled.*) “Toronto is a sophisticated city with a vibrant club scene, a great live music scene, and a thriving underground scene,” says Kruger, who notes that those are all important elements to any legacy festival. “Our goal with Digital Dreams is to create a landmark event, a true Canadian event for the world to know. We saw nothing [in the city] that really compared.”
Despite its infancy, Electronic Nation’s golden child is no small festival—it’s massive, spanning a good chunk of usually-silent Ontario Place’s 100,000-or-so-square-footage (the first time an event like this has been mounted there, FYI) and listing heavy-hitting acts like Tiesto and Grammy winner Dubfire on its talent roster. This year’s edition will also see an expanded footprint: 50 per cent more space—that’s basically the entire east portion of the island—will be open to the public. It’s a unique and brilliant venue choice, perhaps the most special of all the big-budget fests: right on the lake, separated from the city, but still downtown. Kruger is confident that issues from last year (wait times, line-ups at the gate) will iron themselves out with more room to breathe. Aside from a plush roster (the fest also features Richie Hawtin, Porter Robinson and more), I’m told there will also be vast improvements to layout and sound, as well the addition of new stages for tech and deep-house lovers.
The scene at Digital Dreams 2012.
The size and scope of Digital Dreams can be most closely compared to its biggest competitor, INK Entertainment’s VELD Festival, which will come to you live over Civic Holiday weekend (August 4-5) from Downsview Park. For its part, VELD seems to be operating on its parent company’s tried and true formula: beloved headliners, club music, and splashy everything else (see: Uniun). With approximately 70,000 people expected to trek to the open fields of North York over two days, VELD offers perhaps the most traditional festival vibe (except with subway access a 15-minute walk away). New this summer at VELD: a Ferris wheel and art installations—i.e., the makings of Coachella-like bliss on Instagram. Unlike Live Nation (who had to source an entire structure and network for Electronic), VELD entered the race with the strong support and fans of Charles Khabouth’s bloated club empire already behind it.
Several industry insiders and promoters say that both fests long to be the only one of their kind within the city limits. They’re in a battle for electronic supremacy, and the rivalry is fierce. The most delicious power play so far came when VELD leaked a glimpse of the line-up to bloggers mere days before Digital Dreams tickets were to go on sale, followed by an official announcement of the fest the following week. Gathering the talent pool is also like swimming with sharks: with only so many names in the game worth attracting audiences, and barely a month between dates, it’s often a scene for unforgiving negotiations. For their second instalment, VELD festival producer Talal Farisi has curated over 30 acts that “stretch across every niche possible, unlike last year.” Back again is headliner Deadmau5 and new is Kaskade, who was part of the inaugural Digital Dreams line-up in 2012. A good differentiation fans make between the two EDM fests, and many others, is the number of acts that produce original tracks versus the DJs that are simply spinning like it was any other Saturday night. Electronic Nation’s Kruger is a staunch supporter of the artists who pair big live shows with creative music production. “Those acts make these festivals stand out and attract crowds. Our artists have hits. It’s really no different than seeing another type of live show.” Farisi agrees: “This is beyond just ‘nightclub music.’ We’re bringing this club music and DJs to the outdoor, putting them on big festival stages.”
So what’s the antithesis to these big-box, corporate-funded fests? Sound in Motion (SIM) will join the dance on the second weekend of July. SIM is a vehicle for the StudioFeed family, “a social venture that supports independent music through technology development and community engagement.” Gearing up for its second weekend on the scene, SIM found its legs when StudioFeed founder John Alexiou, a former Bay Street exec, teamed with Sarah Lamb, a former political advisor at Queen’s Park with a love of music. “We were interested in throwing an event outside of clubs that wasn’t bottom-line driven,” explains Lamb, who’s known for throwing decade’s worth of jams under the Hush Lamb Collective. “We had this vision of supporting independent music throwing community events.” After a modest debut last year, attracting roughly 1,600 guests to Sugar Beach, Sound in Motion is changing its format with an open-concept, non-fenced, free event at Bathurst and Lakeshore’s Coronation Park. SIM promises tech exhibits for music professionals, as well as after-parties, short film screenings and panel discussions at other venues across the city. (The Great Hall, for example, will house a huge, two-room event on the Friday of that weekend, and Promise will host a special SIM party on Sunday at Cherry Beach.) The talent roster at SIM is also a lot less brash and gaudy. It’s comprised of new and local stars from across North America that don’t exactly have Deadmau5 or Tiesto’s star wattage, but play damn good music anyway.
But what of the spectre that EDM is really just the newest internet bubble waiting to burst? I mean, people have been talking about it for what feels like ever. “I was around since the last bubble, say 1999 to 2001, and now it’s something different, it’s multi-generational,” says Kruger. “People are heavily involved in promotion and artists of these festivals, and it will never go back to being this niche genre. It will be just like pop or rock—the fact that Calvin Harris has more hits in the U.K. than Michael Jackson says a lot.” Lamb is cautiously optimistic: “As a promoter, electronic music has hit a sweet spot, a place where it’s out of the underground. But you have corporations coming in and you can make assumptions on how things will change from past genres in the mainstream.”
Yes, EDM is big business. Duh. And any festival worth its weight knows that sustainability is secured when pre-sale numbers are on point and fans from outside the city take notice. For this reason, Digital Dreams offers ticket and travel packages through the Toronto Tourism website, and the board also advertises the festival as a destination event through radio marketing campaigns in a number of North American cities like New York, Chicago, and Montreal. There are also the partnerships with Porter and Starwood hotels.
Kruger assures me that out-of-town business happens “over time,” and, so far, 35,000 of the 50,000 available tickets for Digital Dreams (25,000 per day at $149) have sold, with about 20 per cent of attendees coming from outside a three-hour drive of the GTA. At VELD, Farisi says his sales, starting at $180.24, are “very healthy” and up 10,000 from this time last year. Both also offer pricey VIP and bottle service packages. (Digital Dreams is also partnering with a local promoter for an all-ages pre-party on June 26 at Tryst Nightclub to further hype its demo with a cost-effective solution.) Sound in Motion, for its part, does not take corporate sponsorship and offers a $50 full-weekend pass across all events. Operating under a non-profit model, it acts as a revenue stream to create more technology and growth within this burgeoning scene through StudioFeed projects. One such project is the organization’s Kickstarter-funded SubPac, “a tactile audio technology—it transfers low frequencies directly to your body and provides you with a new physical dimension to the music experience.” Proceeds from the Coronation Park event will also benefit a new centre for music that StudioFeed has in the works.
A more pressing question, though, is what kind of event does Toronto want: a large-scale, one-shot outing that’s easier on your credit card, or more of the competition we’re seeing now? “When it comes to building a healthy music culture in a city, variety is key,” says Nancy Chen, co-founder of Mansion, the popular events company known for big names and non-traditional venues, and this past spring’s Foundry project, which saw a bevy of artists play over four weekends in March. “We need everything from the large-scale Osheaga-type festival to the small home-grown indie festival.” Like Farisi, Kruger says his festival isn’t interested in becoming Osheaga. “That’s a pop-rock festival with a dance element, we’re a dance festival first and foremost.”
For now, all three major fests plan to return in 2014. But will they continue to charm crowds for a third time? Let the summer games begin.
Steve Aoki rides a raft at VELD. Photo: alexd of TRIBE
Pencil It In: Your EDM summer festival schedule
June 1: Sensation
Rogers Centre, 1 Blue Jays Way. Regular tickets starting at $125.50, deluxe at $250.50, tables at $7,500.
June 29 & 30: Digital Dreams presented by Electronic Nation
Ontario Place, 909 Lakeshore Blvd. W. General admission tickets starting at $149, VIP starting at $249, bottle service starting at $2,550.
July 11–13: Sound In Motion, presented by StudioFeed
Various indoor and outdoor locations. Online-only early bird full festival pass $50.00.
August 4 & 5: VELD Music Festival, presented by INK Entertainment
Downsview Park, 35 Carl Hall Rd. General admission $180.24, VIP $281.94.
CORRECTION, MAY 28, 2013: Due to an editing error, information about WEMF’s cancellation that was included in the writer’s original draft was accidentally omitted from the published version of this article. The information has since been reinstated.