Festivals have become part of the fabric of summer life in Alberta. From Edmonton to Calgary, from Sylvan Lake to Slave Lake, from Fort Macleod to For McMurray, music and art draw visitors to these communities.
They entice visitors, and money, to the host region. They offer the opportunity for lasting cultural enrichment in the community. They encourage volunteerism, build community spirit and inspire the development of new venues. And they’re a lot of fun.
But festivals are also a great deal of work, and sometimes require a certain alchemy to find the right formula for success.
The Central Music Festival has just struggled through its third annual weekend. By all accounts, the music was tremendous at the site just north of Red Deer. The venue is inviting, if a little remote. The weather was uneven but not horrid. And the crowds were disappointing, at about half of last year’s 500 visitors over each of the two days.
Producer Mike Bradford is at a loss to understand the diminished attendance, despite an aggressive marketing campaign.
Part of the problem is the presence of a competing festival in the region: the growing and robust Jazz at the Lake Festival in Sylvan Lake appeals to much the same middle-aged demographic, and features indoor venues.
The Sylvan event is also less eclectic in its musical variety. The Central Music Festival has tried to reach a broad audience base, and may be suffering for its diversity — or perhaps has simply not grasped the potential of diversity.
In some communities, single-themed music festivals have set solid roots, from Calgary and Edmonton folk festivals (both about 30 years old) to Fort Macleod’s South Country Fair folk and roots event (again, 30 years), to Blueberry Bluegrass (24 years) in Stony Plain, to the North Country Fair near Slave Lake, which for 31 years has thrived by combining music and alternate lifestyle and green themes.
Across the province, fringe festivals, blues festivals, folk festivals, jazz festivals, street performance events and country music festivals have gained traction.
Near Innisfail, the Ivan Daines Country Music Picknic has been a success for 25 years by appealing to a core audience: country music and rodeo fans. In Benalto, an indie music event the last few years has drawn well, offering original Alberta bands to a young audience.
But the key to future success in Red Deer may rest with a different strategy.
In Fort McMurray, the interPLAY Festival just completed its 19th year. It regularly draws 20,000 people to a wide variety of visual and performing arts events, mixing fringe, folk, street performance, comedy and visual arts festivals.
It is a festival formula that should be embraced in Red Deer in the form of a broad-based festival week.
Part of the formula was offered up by Ignition Theatre this summer with its Bohemian Rhapsody, a multidisciplinary festival of theatre, film and visual art that ran over 10 days this summer.
Another component has been developed over seven successful years by Centrefest, which consistently draws thousands of spectators to downtown Red Deer for a summer weekend of street performances.
Some of the recipe rests with the ill-fated plan by Prime Stock to perform Shakespeare in the Park at the new Bower Ponds stage this summer (the stage wasn’t ready in time).
And the final ingredient is the Central Music Festival, which could maintain its eclectic program, but bring it into the city to take advantage of the new Bower Ponds stage.
Spread out over two summer weekends and one week, at a variety of Red Deer venues, a festival week full of variety could be a huge draw.
Taking advantage of indoor and outdoor venues throughout the city, and spreading volunteer burdens over a variety of music, theatre, visual arts and cultural groups, such a festival could be a huge tourism catalyst.
It could also become, over time, a huge showcase for local performing and visual artists.
And then Red Deer could truly weave itself into the festival fabric of the province.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.