2016’s Top Stories #9: Kootenay festivals experience upheaval

Starbelly Jam was cancelled while Kaslo Jazz exploded in popularity.

Argenta photographer Louis Bockner captured this image of Michael Franti performing for a drenched Friday night crowd at the 25th Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival

Argenta photographer Louis Bockner captured this image of Michael Franti performing for a drenched Friday night crowd at the 25th Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival

It wasn’t looking good.

First Crawford Bay’s Starbelly Jam, a mainstay on the Kootenay festival circuit, was cancelled. In January the organizers announced they were “victims of their own success” and were calling off the annual family friendly event because the volunteers responsible were exhausted.

Shortly after that other local endeavours, including the Kootenay Storytelling Festival and the Kootenay Spirit Festival, also called it quits.

The local festival scene, which includes events running the spectrum from the small scale intimacy of Ymir’s Tiny Lights Festival to Salmo’s 15,000-person juggernaut Shambhala, seemed to be reaching a tipping point.

“If it was up to the people who lived here, we would have a festival every single day,” Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism’s Dianna Ducs told the Star.

But because the industry relies on community buy-in and volunteer engagement to stay afloat, the directors of Tiny Lights, Shambhala and other in- stitutions were paying close attention to news of the cancellations. Paul Hinrichs, the executive director of the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival, called it a “wake-up call.”

“Volunteer burnout is a very real situation. And even if it’s a paid position, often there isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. So you end up with people who are unqualified or just not able to carry the responsibility these huge festivals require,” he told the Star at the time.

Hinrichs had formerly worked at Starbelly, and knew the challenges of the scene. He said often all the work “is on the shoulders of the few.”

“In Kaslo we’re dealing with a festival that’s been around for 25 years, and none of the volunteers that sparked that fire are here anymore,” he said.

“It seems like all these organizations are getting a little long in the tooth and there hasn’t been that commitment from the next generation on a broad scale.”

Stakeholders and festival-lovers believed one way to pool resources would be to restart the Kootenay Columbia Festivals and Events Association, but that idea didn’t get off the ground.

Despite the dire forecasts, many of the festivals enjoyed strong years. Tiny Lights Festival, Shambhala in Salmo, Unity Festival in Slocan and Kaslo Jazz all enjoyed strong performances and by the end of the summer a new festival had arrived in town Massif Music Festival, which ran at the end of September.

“This is not your typical Kootenay music festival,” organizer Jay Hannley told the Star before throwing the inagural event, which sold out the Legion and culminated with a punk show at Spiritbar.

“This is a celebration of music that’s under-represented in Nelson,” Hannley, who has been booking gigs in the basement of Kootenay Co-op Radio for years.

“When we first started doing our basement shows, we realized that there were all these local bands that had no place to play because they were too midlevel, or too aggressive, too punk. It was hard for them to get gigs.”

But once they were given a chance, the audiences appeared.

As the year comes to a close, more good news has rolled in on the festival front.

Hinrichs announced in December that Kaslo Jazz will double its performer budget following one of the most financially lucrative events they’ve ever held.

“Last year’s challenge was how do you turn this to a profit, our question will be how do we sustain that profit?” said Hinrichs.

They also hired a second full-year staff person, which he believes is a step in the right direction.

“I feel like festivals are going to have to start hiring a lot more people. We’ve put some pretty crucial positions in the hands of volunteers, and they’ve carried that responsibility for a really long time.

“But we have to accept that in this market, and with the level of production we want to provide, people should be compensated.”