Music

Wildly Eclectic And Diverse Festivals Are Nothing New, Just Ask Calgary’s Sled Island

Allison Seto

There’s a social media account appropriately named @Bookmorewomen that’s become an essential follow for anyone interested in the music festival world. On their Twitter, Instagram, and website, they break down music festival lineups by revealing what percentage of the acts feature a “permanent member who is a female or non-binary person,” and then show what the festival posters would look like with just those acts remaining. It’s a noble project that hits on just how bad many music events are at putting together diverse bills, working to highlight the ones that actually get it right.

It’s a conversation that’s picked up a lot of steam in recent years, just as discussions about representation have grown louder throughout the music industry. This year we’ve seen Primavera Sound commit to 50/50 gender splits on their bills, and it should be expected that more major festivals will follow suit in the coming years. And while we are a long way from ever having this issue becoming a thing of the past, what does get lost in the conversation is the festivals that have been quietly producing eclectic and diverse lineups for years, not because of social pressure or increased criticism, but ostensibly because it is both the right thing to do and results in better music festivals.

One of the most distinct examples of this is Calgary’s Sled Island. Since 2007, the humble Canadian event takes over Downtown Calgary for a week in June, flooding everything from theaters and concert halls to bars and restaurants with incredible live music (that is, except for the year a literal flood devastated the city and forced the cancelation of the fest in 2013). Everywhere you look for a week’s worth of activities, you see young music fans in festival wristbands popping from show to show, eager to pack as much music into their days as possible. The wristbands are also seen on the employees of businesses that open their doors to Sled attendees, with everything from the massive Recordland record store to countless dining establishments offering discounts to Sled patrons. The whole thing feels like a true community effort, where a culture known for its niceties proves that hospitality is more than just cultural quirk. It’s a way of life.

But at the center of Sled Island is its curator program, and that’s really what pushes it over the top in terms of diverse programming. By recruiting past artists like Flying Lotus, Kathleen Hanna, Peaches, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor to help program the festival, it’s helped the festival incorporate the vision not only of their own forward-thinking booking team, but that of industry icons who in turn give the festival their own unique skew. This year’s curator continued that tradition, with beloved singer-songwriter Julien Baker taking the role as guest curator.

Speaking with Uproxx about her duty, Baker acknowledged her desire to “queer up the norm,” saying that, “I try to not let obligation to the presumed desire of the audience entirely govern my choices… Like, to not think about what everyone wants to see on a festival and think more about what I wish was at more festivals. Which is maybe selfish, but also maybe not? I don’t know. I get to see all my favorite artists perform, so I’m excited.”

Baker’s trusting of her own taste resulted in a bill whose seven highest billed artists all represent different perspectives than the typically white-male dominated landscape. After being in Calgary for several days, I noted at one point that I’d yet to see an act fronted by a white male, not deliberately, but by simply following the trajectory that the festival set up. Be it enjoying a church 1-2 punch from gentle songwriters Squirrel Flower and Jessica Pratt, a Friday night indie-rock double-header of Bully and Hop Along, or taking in the provocative psych-rock Saturday day set from Korea’s DTSQ, diversity wasn’t something that needed to be sought out at Sled Island. It’s intrinsic to the ethos.

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Baker populated the rest of the fest with acts like the left-field hip-hop of Jpegmafia and the quietly revolutionary indie of Japanese Breakfast, creating a program that felt entirely consistent with what is happening in independent music at this exact moment in time. Many were artists who might not make regular tour stops in Calgary, giving the locals a bit of an insight into what big music towns like Los Angeles and New York get to experience regularly. The biggest drawback of the event’s set-up was witnessed at the festival’s closing set from Baker herself, when the intimate, quiet performance was hindered by excessive talkers populating the venue’s back half, showing no interest in the set and obliviously ruining the vibe for many around them. Such is the drawback of the festival format.

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