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The emergent landscapes of B.C.'s music festivals

The BC music festival industry is significant. It is a multi-million dollar influx of annual revenue that creates value for our tourism sector and local creative economy. In BC, there is a festival for everyone. We can’t all agree on what music we love...and we don’t need to. The diversity of genres and formats strengthens our music festival industry. 

Festivals as ecosystems

The most common festivals are intentionally designed to be as big as possible and have a mass appeal that can please extremely wide audiences. This model is similar to industrial monoculture. The familiarity of popular music and recognizable logos creates a sense of predictable comfort for some people. 


Other festivals can be best described as polyculture. When a festival is not solely driven by mass appeal, it fosters diversity. For example, The Vancouver Folk Festival has crowd sizes similar to Pemberton and Squamish Festivals. However, it is not designed for the sole purposes of profit and mass appeal. The content and brands are diverse and less predictable. You are more likely to have an unfamiliar experience.


Emergent landscapes of music

There is a third category of festival that is commonly described as counter-culture or underground. The art and music at underground festivals often reference the larger ecosystems of mainstream culture, but it is a source of emergent culture that surprises and inspires the spaces it envelops. 

Concepts of emergent landscapes (example in image below) are often discussed by Oliver Kellhammer, who is a Canadian land artist, permaculture teacher, activist and writer. He looks to the edges of our current ecosystems in abandoned "industrial lands that get covered in vegetation...colonized by a specially adapted cast of native and exotic species, which thrive on disturbance."

He is fascinated by what can naturally occur in the spaces that are not manicured landscapes. For emergent landscapes, "our rubble is just so much slow-release fertilizer; our wastelands, a virgin habitat." explains Kellhammer.

In his work, Oliver examines the impact of humans, the damage that is created and the way that species rapidly adapt and evolve. 

Image courtesy of Free Association Design
The Bass Coast Project is one example of an underground event that resembles emergent landscapes. After migrating from Squamish in 2013, this festival took root on land discarded by Merritt Mountain Music Festival. 

When Bass Coast took root, it was intentionally designed to respect people and planet. It is financially sustainable without sacrificing these priorities. This event has provided the healing benefits and diversity that is seen in emergent landscapes. This festival is not designed to have mass appeal or please an extremely wide audience. The organizers have decided to cap off the party at 4,000 tickets and focus on quality over quantity, even though the festival grounds once held over 100,000 during the days of the Merritt Mountain Music Festival. 

Respect was evident in actions taken regarding the ban of head dresses. Instead of capitalizing on a festival fashion trend, they banned it, because it was offensive to the local first nations communities. The story of this policy created controversy, international ripples and a little bit of backlash. Overall the primary result was gratitude. 

When festival headliners, Tribe Called Red (below) took the stage, they took pause to  thank the organizers for "treating them like humans rather than decorations". Their music is self-described as Electric Pow Wow. The performance featured a hoop dancer, referenced hip hop beats, electronic music and some traditional first nations music. 


When I asked Vancouver's DJ Sharps to speak about the importance of festivals like Bass Coast, he spoke to the importance of experiencing emergent cultural landscapes fostered at festivals.  

"The underground culture that thrives at festivals like Bass Coast is important because it gives meaning to people's lives, in ways that they don't find by being widgets in the mainstream capitalist culture. The art, music and festival space provide the setting for an escape from the day-to-day, and a chance to bond with your people.
In modern society, and particularly in the west, we've abandoned a lot of traditional, old-world culture, and these festivals are a blossoming of a new culture that's unique to our time and place."  explained Sharps.

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