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Atlin’s music festival breaks the rules, in a good way

With no cell service and the marketing kept to a minimum, this little festival is actually fun

Music festivals are a favourite of economic development officers. If you read the grant applications, you might get the impression that the main reason to put a tent full of speakers in a muddy field is separating out-of-towners from their money rather than delivering transcendental moments for the soul.

The number of festivals in North America has surged over the last 20 years. According to Nielsen in 2015, around 32 million Americans attend at least one festival a year. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry once you consider ticket fees, food, drink, accommodation, and the omnipresent “merch” tents.

It has gone so far that Paste magazine even worried that we had reached “Peak Festival.”

The standard formula is well known, although there are variations on the tent-in-a-muddy-field theme. It often involves a few big name bands, hockey-arena-esque prices for beer, massive lineups for overflowing portaloos and a frenzy of social media and digital marketing.

At one festival, some friends glamped in a luxury yurt instead of camping in a tent (glamping is glamour-camping, in case you’re wondering).

I thought about the music festival business model as I drove to the Atlin festival last weekend. As soon as I arrived, it was clear that this festival was straying from convention.

First, there’s the location. The cardinal rule of festivals is to locate them within a three hour drive of as many millions of people as possible. Atlin is at the end of a 98-km spur road, two hours from a city whose total population just 30,000.

Atlin attracted a few Alaska vehicles, including Subarus with Bernie Sanders for President bumper stickers, but nearly everyone else had Yukon plates.

Second, the food and drink didn’t cost much more than in Whitehorse. I know that, since most of my favourite Whitehorse food trucks were there. The beer in the beer tent wasn’t cheap, but the price point was the same as at a recent event I attended in Whitehorse. And judging by the number of parents drinking out of sippee-cups in the main tent, I am guessing many people brought their own cocktails from home.

Third, there was an eerie sparsity of marketing. Air North was an exception, but when their logo went up on the screen the people around me seemed glad that Air North was supporting the festival. There wasn’t a whiff of suspicion that the marketing analytics people at some big brand had surgically zeroed in on the Atlin demographic.

It was nice to see that in addition to Air North, the other “signature sponsors” included Barb and Jamie Tait rather than Global Megacorp Inc.

There was also no cross-marketing. The folks at the Atlin Inn seemed genuinely surprised when 50 sleep-deprived festival goers showed up on Saturday morning to watch the World Cup match. Instead of squeezing more cash out of us with exorbitant ticket fees, as they could have given their possession of the only satellite television connection on offer, they served coffee as fast as they could until the Bailey’s ran out.

There was no glamping in Atlin, other than people in their own comfy RVs. Indeed, one of the local economic development ideas involved investing $5 in orange spray paint and marking RV-parking stalls on a gravel parking lot. Our tent in the “quiet” zone got just soggy enough on Friday night to deliver an authentic festival experience.

Perhaps most amazing was the absence of social media, which is omnipresent at most festivals. Coachella’s Instagram feed had 276,437 posts this year. Atlin has no cell coverage and no one was rushing to buy spotty wifi for $5 an hour in the hut near the entrance to the field. I saw no selfie sticks and most people seemed to react to the lack of cell coverage by putting their phones away and talking to their friends. Instagram only had 321 posts from the Atlin festival as of the following Tuesday.

We thought we might lose track of our son at the texting-free festival, but the venue was so small we kept running into him anyway.

Perhaps the biggest delight was the music. We loved Willie Nile, the big-name guitarist from New York. Kudos to Charles Harrison, Patricia Cunning and festival organizer Angela Drainville for bringing him to our part of the world.

We also loved a bunch of other performers, many of whom were Yukoners. As Speed Control played to a packed main stage and beer tent on Saturday night, one millenial rushing to hear them was heard to say, “Hurry, we’ve gotta hear my old music teacher play.”

The festival has a positive community vibe. The Taku River Tlingit First Nation welcomed visitors with traditional dancing and drumming, a central fire pit served fresh bannock on Friday as everyone arrived, and a legion of volunteers from Atlin and Whitehorse kept the guests happy. Art, film, and literature sessions rounded out the music program, again with a lot of local representation.

If the Atlin music festival engaged any economic development consultants, the latter would undoubtedly be putting together a Powerpoint presentation this week about the festival’s business model and untapped opportunities to maximize profit.

If so, they should be ignored. The Atlin festival felt like a success, delivering a great experience without conforming to conventional wisdom. I think the crowd really enjoyed the weekend, and that all those violations of the standard business model are the reason why.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.