Sometime ago, after a trip to the Hillside Festival, I was inspired to get involved with the creators of something similar in Oshawa, a once thriving factory city of 150,000. The organizers called the Oshawa festival The Shwaltz. As a music writer based in the city I was tasked with sourcing bands. The Shwaltz ran for three years, it was a lot of fun and it was well received by the community, as insular as that made have been. It showcased acts with connections to the area, no big names, just locals with an indie or alt-country sound, the sound of Durham, what some artists from the region call BlackGrass, a darker moodier blue grass really.
The Sadies would be considered the high kings of black grass. They did not play The Shwaltz but they are playing Hillside 2016, backing the iconic artist and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Sadies also played River and Sky Festival just north of Sturgeon Falls, in a place called Field. The four-piece performed to a crowd of about 500 on a riverside beach gathered around a bonfire, underneath a clear sky and a full moon. It was beautiful, the soundtrack to a Tom Thompson painting, canoes included. The Sadies are the quintessential Canadian act but River and Sky and Hillside did not book them because of the nationality. They booked them because they are good.
In Sunday’s Toronto Star Joel Rubinoff wrote an article which says there are too many festivals, too many “indie rock” festivals and they are competing for the same crowd and some are losing. He says Hillside is losing. Yet neither Hillside nor River and Sky are indie festivals, (small point I agree but important). Independent yes, but “indie” no. "Indie" is a vague genre, a vague jangly melody first sound and while melody matters (its at the core of Canadiana) the bands at R&S this year were louder, noisier punkier acts; METZ, Ought, Nap Eyes, Courtney, all booked because they are good and not because they are "indie".
Beach Fossils from New York were also on the four day bill which also included many acts from Sudbury, North Bay and the surrounding areas. The festival is an opportunity to showcase the local music scene and all of the bands booked were booked because they were good, not as yet popular but good nevertheless.
So lets look at this competition covered by Rubinoff’s article. Hillside attendance is down almost 15%, for the past decade or so it usually sells out. The drop is due, it is suggested, by the increase in options throught the summer and Fall, most notably the mega-fest WayHome settling into Barrie north of Toronto which falls on the same weekend.
WayHome now in its second year has, as noted by Rubinoff, booked “indie” bands Arcade Fire, Metric, Bahamas, Arkells, Patrick Watson, BadBadNotGood, A Tribe Called Red, Shad, Braids, many who were first booked by Hillside as part of Hillside’s move to champion what is good, not as yet popular but good nevertheless.
Hillside is the Mom & Pop shop that hires the neighbour kids, giving them a start. WayHome takes them on when they are grown up and successful. Hillside is the corner store, WayHome is the Walmart. Rubinoff ends by saying Hillside will have to adapt, not compete, maybe even move its date so both festivals are not on the same weekend.
But that can’t be the answer can it to concede? Is there another way home for Hillside?
Possibly Hillside needs to reach out to its constituency, one built over its thirty years plus of existence. The folks of River & Sky are part of the Hillside tribe and so are the makers of The Shwaltz. There are many many more. As a music writer I have been accredited for WayHome 2016, not yet for Hillside although I have been to the island based fest for the past seven or eight years. Given the choice would I choose Hillside?
And it is a choice and it is a choice the organizers of Hillside need to ask the people they have supported over three decades to make, and yes I am talking to you now big name Hillside alumni acts being booked by WayHome.
If possible could you haven chosen Hillside? If just to give back; to return to say thank you; to show up in the crowd if you are unable to perform. You’re in the area after all.
This year Hillside needs to know that 30 years of making matters. It does for so many reasons. For its support of indigenous communities, for its green initiatives, for its concern for the planet, for its think global act local, for its food choices, for its lack of corporate support, for its grassroots and green roofed stage, for the opportunities it provides to the outsiders and for Hillside Inside during the winter, for its year round activism, for its location and passion and voice.
And you should support Hillside why? Because Hillside fosters, it supports, it builds community year around. It is not a one off one stop shop for all your music needs, it is there all the time and it has been for generations. People who grew up at Hillside are now bringing their own kids. It has a family vibe because it is a family gathering where the self conscious bookish kid who doesn’t talk to any of his cousins but plays the xylophone can find a spot at the family table. Dude wouldn’t make WayHome, too weird and he has no friends. The Hillside family would embrace him, and he would find a home and lifelong friends.
The family extends beyond Guelph, beyond southern Ontario, beyond genre whether folk, roots or "indie".
Whatever it may be Hillside is most definitely not an “indie” festival. Perhaps it is just a Good Music festival, music that crosses genres and borders literally. This year closes with Buffy Sainte-Marie but the road to Buffy passes by Mongolian act Ajinai, the Bahamas Junkanoo Legends, the balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punks The Lemon Bucket Orchestra, South Asian rockers Mekaal Hasan Band, French reggae act Mo’ Kalamity & the Wizards, New York folk-psychedelia from the Slambovian Circus of Dreams and Xylouris White, a duo featuring a Cretan music legend and an Australian post-punker. An “Indie” festival, not bloody likely but a festival of Good Music yes yes and yes.
Therein lies the choice we have to make as media and as audience - do we support the adventurous booking policy of festivals such as Hillside or do we go for the tried and proven marquee names festivals such as WayHome? It should be noted that without Hillside’s risk-taking there would be no WayHome (or possibly even Field Trip, TURF, Shwaltz, RIver & Sky, RiverFest, Sandbanks, Wolfe Island and others).
As an artist do you want to support a festival that takes risks on the music of the world, that prioritizes an environment conducive to new music or are you going to give your dollars to a brand heavy mega-mart that will book you only when you go from being weird to being popular?
Your call, in the meantime, the watch is ticking on Hillside’s very survival and that is bad bad not very good at all.