Guelph’s Hillside Festival feeling the pinch from WayHome

Posted: Jul 19, 2016

Southern Ontario music festivals are struggling against increased competition

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This year’s Hillside Festival will be the thirty third annual Music Festival at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area. (Hillside Festival)

Too many music festivals, not enough weekends.

That’s the problem facing music fans in Ontario and Quebec this year, and some long-standing festivals are feeling the pinch, like Guelph’s Hillside Music Festival.

“It’s overwhelming the patrons,” said Samir Baijal, the artistic director of Hillside. “It’s made it so the market has gotten way too diluted.”

It’s the simple math that he said works against all the festivals.

“If you have so many things going on, it thins out how many people can actually go to the event,” he said.

That’s led Hillside organizers to consider different dates for the 2017 festival, in order not to compete with the new Wayhome Music & Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte. Wayhome is in its second year of operation.

“We’ve changed our dates to the middle of July for one reason only,” he said. “To get away from the same weekend as Wayhome.”

Baijal said the date change then removes any competition between the two events.

“Nothing against them, it’s not about that,” he said. “We’re not going to be stepping on anybody’s toes.”

More festivals, more problems

Wayhome, in Oro-Medonte, just north of Barrie, is only two hours away from Guelph, where Hillside has been held for 33 years. Both festivals run in late July, happening on the same Friday to Sunday schedule.

For festival organizers, it’s a fight to stay unique.

“You have to spend a lot of energy trying to assess how you’re going to deliver your festival event so that it still stands out,” said Baijal.

“It does make it so that you’re trying to program an event and maintain your identity.”

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Hillside Festival features performances from countless bands, music and art workshops and delicious food, all set in on the shores of Guelph Lake. (Hillside Festival)

During the first year of Wayhome, attendance at Hillside was down 10 per cent. According to Baijal, this year he estimates that ticket sales are down an additional 10 to 15 per cent so far for this year.

Hillside opens this Friday with artists Andy Shauf and The Milk Carton Kids, acts that are popular but likely less of a draw than LCD Soundsystem and Metric, who are opening Wayhome.

It’s a game of adaptation for a festival like Hillside, which is known for loyal follows and an intimate experience.

“We’ve historically been a festival about people coming and embracing artists that they don’t know,” said Baijal. “That’s kind of our story. The path we’ve been on for many years is starting to turn and we’re feeling it.”

Playing the headline game

The biggest competition music festivals feel is booking the actual acts. Getting a good line-up and playing the ‘headliner game’ has been crucial to attract new fans.

Festivals like Wayhome with corporate backers can afford to pay top dollar for acts. It’s something smaller festivals like Hillside can’t do.

“It’s simple economics. We’re not in a position to sit there and even try to compete,” said Baijal.

It’s why musicians that have played at Hillside in the past have opted to play bigger festivals this year. Like Arcade Fire, who played to a sold out Hillside in 2005, and will now be playing Wayhome Saturday.

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New and larger festivals are competing with Hillside, like Wayhome, out of Oro Medonte Ont. (Bryan Reid/Wayhome)

“There’s a certain level of really high profile stuff that we can’t even think to compete with,” said Baijal. “It would be pointless.”

But Hillside he said has always been less about headliners and more about feel.

“The way we deliver our festival is so different,” said Baijal.”That’s not really what we’ve ever been about.”

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