Music festivals strike an ecological chord

June 30, 2017

Prof looks beyond the music at festivals across Western Canada


This is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th Anniversary of Confederation. Watch for pieces connected to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.

If you want to head outdoors and take in some live music this summer, you don’t have to look very hard—a quick Google search brings up well over 100 music festivals in Western Canada to choose from. “Music festivals are now the most significant, fastest-growing area in the music industry,” says Dr. Michael B. MacDonald, an associate professor in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music program and a research development officer with Research Services.

The story behind those festivals and the counterculture that nurtured them over the past 50 years is an interesting part of Western Canada’s history—and its present—that’s worth exploring, says Michael. While researching his book, Playing for Change: Music Festivals as Community Learning and Development, he discovered that the success of many festivals—especially smaller ones—it turns out, is tied less to the headline acts and more to what’s going on behind the scenes.

“When I began this research years ago, I thought people were organizing festivals because of the music,” he says.“But that wasn’t it. They were doing it to build a village, to create a community. The stand-out experience at a camping music festival, in particular, isn’t anything particularly extraordinary and it’s not something that happens only once. It’s sitting down with people, eating together, and seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize that they are working and living together in an environment that is more open and social than anything they have ever experienced before.”

“ There’s an ecological stickiness to making music in natural places.” MICHAEL B. MACDONALD 

These music events—for many of the communities that host them, the people who organize them and the audiences that attend them—also have deep ties to the histories of communities, to sustainability and to ecology, says Michael.

“There’s an ecological stickiness to making music in natural places,” he explains. “The reason that folk festivals all happen in the grass is because they are intentionally ecological. Folk festivals in Western Canada all emerged from an early response to ecological degradation.”

The environmental degradation that the founders of these festivals were responding to, says Michael, is still relevant today—and tied to music in more ways than we might realize.

“I think it's necessary for us to begin to ask questions about how cultural expressions, like music, can contribute to or even accelerate the degradation of our natural ecologies,” says Michael. “I’m interested in looking at how music can contribute to the creative economy in a way that is both ecological and human-based.”

Michael will be returning to the festival circuit again this year and next, this time as both a researcher and filmmaker, digging further into the connections between ecology and music, and looking for an effective way to communicate the complex conversations, relationships and experiences that unfold in these temporary communities.

He hopes he’ll see you there.

“I would encourage people to go to as many music festivals—particularly out-of-the-way festivals—as they possibly can,” says Michael. “I think most people would be surprised to see how many musicians are out there performing in the world. They’ll see local artists doing important and fantastic work—something most people don’t often see in their everyday lives—and see and hear people expressing themselves in completely different ways. It’s an experience that really can be transformative.”

And a great way, we think, to celebrate Canada’s birthday.

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