Earlier this month, SOS Fest proved that a multi-venue festival is a sustainable concept in Edmonton. On stage with Shout Out Out Out Out at the festival-closing Sunday night show, I couldn't help but be compelled to reference a variation on a famous quote from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." That's the problem with big ideas: they always meet derision until they are given a chance to prove their worth, but they can only do that if they are allowed to happen. So many times they never make it out of the womb. Luckily for us, sponsors and the city supported the industrious Kaley Bird and we got to play the big city games for once.
Like many concepts in Edmonton (multiple metro lines, transit to the airport, mid-sized music venues), we are a little behind in our approach to what should be the necessities of cities. As much as we can hope for seasonal street closures and conscientious urbanization, it's only starting to happen now. It's surprising a festival like this is only just happening in 2010 when the positives and incentives for the city as a whole are so immediate.
Austin and South By Southwest are a great example of a music festival transforming a city's identity. Located in perceptibly conservative Texas, the liberal centre of the state (sound familiar?) took the initiative in 1987 to develop a music festival that harnessed local flavour with a sincere interest in promoting Austin to the world and vice versa. SXSW's focus is on breaking new artists from around the world, but it's also a great springboard for the cream of the local talent pool. In 2008, the festival earned the city around $110 million.
Yes, festivals like these are generators of tourism, which has been a hallmarked interest of the city for as long as it's existed. The equation is simple: cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Halifax that receive less live entertainment than the larger Canadian centres are more likely to find marketed festival-style events appealing. The audience cares more because they get less shows on average and performers from out of town enjoy the shows because they have a captivated crowd in a city that may not draw for them in other contexts.
Without the long-standing artistic identity of cities like Montréal, Berlin and New York, multi-venue festivals in other cities must manufacture a reason to exist, a narrative for their proliferation. While SOS Fest is currently focused on exposing musicians from the neighbourhood, my hope is that local promoters will be more involved in the next incarnations of the event. Take our locals, appeal to more developing bands from the west coast and add some big ticket acts and you've got a city-changing event on your hands.
People travel from nearby cities to perform and partake in these festivals, and the image of the city is ultimately connected to the experience these outsiders take away from such weekends. It was exciting to see a successful festival and it was exciting that it was in service of culture. People who would normally be staring at Taylor Hall lifting weights at the NHL rookie camp with a pint of Trad in hand in Hudson's got to watch the Whitsundays's Paul Arnusch freak out with a "weird metal sound stick" (theremin) instead. Maybe that won't translate directly into them slapping on some Cheap Mondays and jamming a Sublime Frequencies compilation, but it's a start.
The cultural impact of festivals is quite valuable. Not to take away from the Folk Fest and Jazz Fest, but our mark as "festival city" is more quantity than quality. We have various festivals, but they tend to focus on families or skew older. The young adult element to Folk Fest seems to be isolated to getting drunk on a hill: the music is aligned to a "mature" ethos that is in step with the perceived Albertan musical and cultural identity, appealing only to bands considered to be "organic." If SOS Fest can really gather moss, it'll finally expose Dirt City's electronic and lo-fi underbelly to the suburbs and beyond, the sound of nine months a year in the basement.
Many of these shows reemphasized the city's need for venues. The Weird Canada showcase in the basement of the soon-to-be-defunct Megatunes was amazing, but it reminded me of how outsider music is frequently ghettoized. In what you could call an off-SOS show, Makeout Videotape and Friendo made use of the Belgravia LRT station's plugs and natural tunnel reverb. The neighbours were unfriendly (naturally) and the overseers put a stop to it shortly. As I mused in a previous column ("Wide Open Spaces", Issue #727), one must consider why shows like this happen in the first place. Another "If you build it, they will come" situation.
Overall, we need to huddle around SOS Fest and really focus energy on it. In 10 years you could be looking at a different profile of our city, all because of a bunch of people playing at various locations at the same time. I remember when my friends and I would moan and whine about what things would be like in Edmonton if we were in power. When I looked out at Whyte Ave, I saw engaged people, young folks being inspired by the possibilities and potential suddenly available in our city. It seems like there has been a shift. Now that they are asking us the questions, what are our answers going to be in service of? V
Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton's Poet Laureate. His music column appears in Vue Weekly on the last Thursday of each month.