The Calgary Folk Festival: Grassroots or Corporate?
I have been attending and volunteering for the Calgary Folk Festival since 1996. As I’ve mentioned before, the Festival has grown during that time, offering more diverse and mainstream acts, and witnessing a bigger audience every year. As with any arts event that attracts a wider audience, the Festival also seems to be increasingly dominated by corporate sponsorship (and thus corporate signage). What was initially a few small banners decorating the sides of the mainstage is now an entire festival site taken over by corporate logos. Media tents and cell phone kiosks dot the Festival’s landscape, lists of sponsors are displayed alongside the dancers’ area in front of the mainstage, local businesses proudly declare ownership of sidestages through their donations (Stage 6 is now better known as the Conoco-Phillips Stage).
Is this a grassroots folk event, or yet another opportunity for corporations to attempt to generate goodwill through buying their piece of the Festival?
To be sure, Calgary is a corporate town. Average incomes are among the highest in the country; while other regions of Canada suffer from declining housing markets and rising unemployment rates, Calgary continues to grow, witnessing unprecedented population increases in the last decade. It is home to many of the country’s corporate headquarters, and despite an ever-present hard work ethic, Calgarians love to party. Just prior to the Folk Festival, the city erupts in a ten-day celebration for the annual Stampede (a western fair and exhibition), and nearly everyone finds an excuse to be out revelling with their co-workers. It is rare to find an event that isn’t reliant on corporate sponsorship in the city, and Calgarians are used to the easy collaboration between art and business.
But this is a festival that is founded on ideals of communal work and social responsibility, and evidence of that is also scattered throughout the Festival grounds. Meals are dished out on melamine plates that require a $2 deposit to ensure their return; compost bins are available for dropping food scraps and biodegradable cutlery; local energy provider Enmax has run the festival entirely on wind power since 2001. The Festival staff position themselves as bearers of ethical responsibility, not only in ensuring that the highest level of environmental attention is paid, but in drawing the line at certain forms of sponsorship. Cigarette money has been offered, but is always refused. Companies under investigation for unethical practices around the world are not accepted as sponsors. Suggestions that the Festival should follow the lead of other pop music events and not allow food or bottled water to be brought in by attendees so as to increase the on-site concession sales are dismissed by Festival staff.
So despite the visual dominance of large corporations, the Festival has managed to preserve the political and folk ideologies so fundamental to its existence. Calgarian audiences are used to corporate signage being part of their daily lives, so it is no surprise to encounter it on-site. Besides, these sponsors enjoy privilege in the form of free passes and a backstage dinner and party on the first night of the festival every year. There’s no special row of seats—to eliminate the tarp run that dedicated audience members sleep overnight in line for would be to lose a long-standing Festival tradition. And the Festival would rather lose an overly demanding sponsor than a devoted audience. So, as in many facets of the Calgarian existence, the balance between grassroots and big business is ever-so-carefully sustained.