During last year's Starbelly festival Coco Love Alcorn performed from the Moonbelly stage. It was recently announced the festival is taking a one-year hiatus.

Kootenay festivals struggle with low dollar, huge workloads

Organizers hope to inspire more community support and changes to granting system.

Kootenay festivals struggling to stay afloat this year face a number of challenges: a low Canadian dollar, epic workloads and a granting system that keeps them hanging from “the skin of their teeth” according to the organizers of Starbelly Jam and other stakeholders in the community.

“There has been a heck of a lot of retrospection and reflection,” Starbelly chair Galadriel Rael told the Star, in the wake of news that they will be taking a one-year hiatus.

“The irony is the festival is going great. I was personally pondering this concept that we need to always grow and be bigger. We’ve realized now that we’re a small town festival and we’ll always be a small town festival.”

But even at the stage things are at, their volunteer infrastructure is stretched to the max. And people are finding they just can’t afford to give time like they used to.

“It’s simple: it costs me money to be involved in this festival. Many hands make light work? Well, in such a rural location we don’t have many hands so the weight lies on the shoulders of the few. And the sacrifices involved are huge.”

Shambhala strong but still affected

Shambhala Music Festival owner Jimmy Bundschuh was a fan of Starbelly, and was sorry to hear of its cancellation this year. He agreed volunteer fatigue is a problem.

“It’s a big ask. People have regular lives and regular careers, and most people who work at festivals don’t get their primary income from it,” he said.

According to Bundschuh, the simple truth is most festival business models aren’t set up to offer lucrative job positions, and rely on passionate volunteers. And though his ticket sales are going strong, he’s feeling the economic pinch from the low Canadian dollar.

“It’s a double-whammy in that electronic artists are getting more and more while our dollar is becoming less and less. We’re struggling that way.”

Bundschuh said he would be happy to be involved in a collaborative community effort to support local festivals, and that he would participate if the community can successfully resurrect the Kootenay Columbia Festivals and Events Association.

“The Kootenay is the ideal location for festivals, and I hope to see more large-scale community and cultural events. It’s really good for the economy and for our community.”

Bundschuh said organizations like the City of Nelson or Columbia Basin Trust looking to support the arts would do well to funnel some of that money towards festivals.

“Festivals around the world are on the rise. It’s a growing industry.”

Volunteer apps and social media

Nelson’s Britz Robins, who works for both Shambhala Music Festival and Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism, is part of a team planning to launch a volunteer-organizing app later this year called Sparks Network.

“The idea is based on the need to have databases of volunteers for multiple festivals. We’re not releasing this to the public until July, but it’s something I’ve been working on as a side project.”

She believes this app could help with some of the coordinating and collaboration needed to address some of the strains on the local festival industry.

“It becomes a social network type idea where people are being recognized and rewarded for their volunteer efforts.”

Users receive “Karma Points” for their service.

Robins said she was surprised to hear of Starbelly’s cancellation because they have such a strong niche, something key to festival survival and something she admires in the Tiny Lights Festival.

“Out of all the festivals in this area, that’s the one with the biggest buzz,” she said.

Robins said festivals need to start embracing the outside world if they hope to survive. She routinely travels to conferences to meet industry contacts and learn what other festivals are doing especially if that involves social media, something that’s long been a Shambhala strong suit.

“Living in the Kootenays it’s really easy to live in our own little bubble, but there’s a whole glut of information and experience out where when you take the time to go out to these conventions. I find that kind of learning invaluable.”

‘Just write another grant’

When disappointed people contacted Rael about Starbelly’s cancellation, she felt they didn’t understand the pressures festivals face.

“We know we’ve got something good and we most certainly don’t want it to go away,” she said. “I wish people would understand the way the granting system works is it’s built to keep you hanging from the skin of your teeth.”

Last year they put additional funds in coffers to prepare for a “rainy day,” but were told having money in the bank actually jeopardized their funding.

“If people sat down and understood the budget they would understand there’s no money to pay anybody, and whoever’s getting paid is easily putting in twice as much time for free. It’s frustrating. And then you get comments like ‘just write another grant [application].’”

According to Rael, it’s not that easy.

Related story: Kootenays grapple with festival fatigue, Jan. 22

 

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