Sled Island’s success due to Calgary’s culture

After Sled Island’s third year in Calgary, it appears that the festival has finally honed in on a formula for future success. The perfect way to describe Sled Island was explained by Colin Newman on Jian Ghomeshi’s Q radio show: Sled Island is a culture festival, as opposed to a music festival.

This year, more than anything, the festival’s programming focused less on music and more on offering a taste of Calgary’s complete cultural landscape. Sled Island collaborated with the Calgary Market Collective and Calgary’s own place-to-be-seen-for-the-indie-kid set, the Factory Party — the name pretentiously channelling Andy Warhol’s famous parties of the ’60s and ’70s.

Working with the Factory Party organizers was one of the smartest choices festival programmers could make. It was an event specifically tailored to the festival’s audience — hip and fashion-forward fans of independent music. It also allows for a more sustainable festival; it shows out-of-town bands that played the party that Calgary isn’t just Stampede City, but in fact a young and vibrant metropolis filled with people who can be just as interesting as the hep cats in Brooklyn or Toronto.

This year’s film programming, too, offered another great aspect to the festival. The movies themselves were more focused on music — a good programming choice for a music festival — but in the future, the films could easily branch out into more cultural topics as well.

One of the complaints that seemed to be on some people’s minds was that Sled Island’s musical line up consisted of a bunch of bands that no one had heard of with a smattering of more famous ones like Holy Fuck and Andrew W.K. This criticism is understandable, but sad.

While last year had big independent acts like Grizzly Bear, Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene, Mogwai and Tegan and Sara, this year’s line up had a multitude of bands that weren’t as popular but just as good. Japandroids and Japanther may not have the cred that Mogwai does, but their appearances prove that Sled Island organizers were trying to be more forward-thinking in their programming choices.

It also shows that the festival was trying to be more sustainable in their artist selection — in a June 24 Globe and Mail interview, Sled Island festival director Zak Pashak admitted that the festival has spent the last two years in the red. Beause the festival received its first grant this year — from the Calgary Arts Development Association — these bands were the proper choice, especially considering the current economic climate.

Overall, Sled Island is poised to further refine their festival mission in the coming years. Newman’s suggestion that it has become more of a culture festival, as opposed to a music festival, is something Sled Island organizers need to think long and hard about. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because it opens up the festival to an expanded mandate. Furthermore, it will show forcefully that Calgary is a burgeoning cultural centre of Canada.

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