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Toronto Summer Festivals: Quantity or Quality?

Toronto Summer Festivals: Quantity or Quality?

Posted by Dalton Higgins on June 04, 2014

It’s time to face facts. Toronto has gone festival mad. There’s festivals, festivals and mo’ festivals happening this summer than you can shake a stick at. Sometimes it feels as if there are about 1025 summer festivals running concurrently in July in Toronto – and that’s just in the west end of the city alone! In all seriousness, it appears as if everyone and their third sponsor produces festivals now. Some are music specific (NXNE). Others are genre specific (Toronto Summer Music Festival for classical music lovers). So you say you live in the Dundas West part of town? Then there’s a Dundas West Fest for you. Or how about if you live slightly south in Roncesvalles? You’re covered there too – a Roncy Rocks festival is sitting right outside your doorstep. Is Caribbean music your thing? Then Caribana, ahem, the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival has your name written all over it. And still other festivals like Luminato arguably blend all of the above influences into a 10 day mix.  If you think I’m too wrapped up in my own summer festival hyperbole, consider this. Even our public broadcaster, CBC, hosted their first-ever CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach last summer (this year it’s taking place in Burnaby BC).

Listen, I know you haven’t spoken to your distant step brother from another father in a while, but I’m willing to guess that after graduating from York University with a B.A. in  Economics, he’s been busy putting together his business plans to launch a (djembe drum roll, please) new Toronto area summer festival!

I have no issue having all of these festival options being presented to me ad nauseum as a long time 416 city dweller. For example, the Toronto music festival circuit is starting to remind me of the local film festival circuit. Toronto has the largest number of film festivals in the world, led by TIFF, which began in 1976, and is North America’s most popular film fest, with Hot Docs, leading the charge as the most complete documentary film festival in the world. If I need to see a film about some obscure conspiracy theory that was originated in Bhutan in 1937, I have no doubts that there will be a film festival in Toronto that will cater to that very specific need.

What I’ve been starting to wonder though is, much like the upsurge in condo developments in the downtown core, can our city get oversaturation with summer festivals? Does the vast quantity of festivals happening in Toronto, mean there’s a short shrift in quality in some areas? For example, have you noticed that many of the same local musical and dance acts end up rotating and playing around the festival circuit, across genres? Where are all of the new acts being developed, or are these newer talents simply not being given opportunities to test their mettle? For some, a well curated festival makes no significant social or emotional impacts on their festival going experience, because seeing a slapdash of nameless acts is what turns their crank.

Afrofest is one of the most curious Toronto summer festivals on the circuit. The African music and culture focused festival generates about 100,000 people over a two day period, and doesn’t even really seem to need any marketing campaigns or much promotion. It just happens, and people show up. Not a bad problem to have. That being said, Afro Fest has done something to help us re-think why we go to festivals to begin with. Is it to see marquee acts? Not really, if you are a patron of this particular festival. I’ve been going to Afro Fest since its inception in 1989, and for the vast majority I attended, I couldn’t run down the line-up of artists that have performed. While there have been a few years where genuine A-list international touring headline acts have performed, like Alpha Blondy last year, or Papa Wemba, Thomas Mapfumo, or Oliver Mtukudzi in years past, the actual musicians being programmed seems to come second. The real draw seems to be that this event presents that one time a year that the Afro-diasporic community comes together to mingle, celebrate, dance, eat and “reason” in significantly large numbers. Attending Afrofest has more to do with having a feeling, being around a sea of individuals from one’s own culture, and being surrounded by cultural outsiders who find black music and culture appealing.

While Toronto’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to our music festival slate seemed to come to a head during Drake-Gate, when the provincial governments Celebrate Ontario granting scheme doled out $300,000 to support the multi-millionaire’s two day OVO festival, just as other long time chronically underfunded (and mismanaged) festivals like the three-and-a-half week long Caribana received only $243,000. These decisions might have subtly signified that even bureaucrats are looking to freshen things up a bit amidst a crowded field of long running festivals whose potential has already been tapped out. In the end, if you can find the sponsorship, why not start a festival. After all, this is Toronto.

 

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