It appears that the rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated. Much like Mark Twain, Calgary’s Sled Island Music and Arts Festival proved hard to kill by sheer speculation alone. But then, sheer speculation doesn’t consider the combined power of music lovers, festival fans and community.
When raging flood waters forced the cancellation of Sled Island a mere three days into the week-long festival last June, the financial picture looked very grim. Although the festival did carry insurance, none of the policies allowed for the unthinkable – full cancellation of programming across nearly 40 venues. About 70% of the festival’s expenses – costs like artists, marketing, rentals, production fees, deposits and travel expenses – were non-refundable regardless of whether or not events went ahead. With about half of the festival’s revenue coming from sales of tickets and passes, refunding all those ticket and pass holders would have put Sled Island about $200,000 in the red. That’s not even counting lost revenue from beer sales. Festivalling is thirsty work.
So festival organizers did the only thing they could think to do to keep from drowning in debt – they offered a full refund, but asked those pass holders who had the means to do so to forgo the money. And then they held their breath.
Policies were already in place to refund people holding tickets to individual shows, but Sled Island organizers had no idea what sort of response they would receive from flood-weary Calgarians who were already dealing with plenty of their own problems. It was a pretty big ask, and one that took a fair bit of chutzpah, but it was really the only option if Sled Island wanted to live to see its eighth birthday. Pass holders were offered three options – receiving a full refund, forgoing the refund, or receiving the refund but then donating it back to the festival and getting a charitable tax receipt.
Never a city to stand idly by and let a good festival drown, Calgarians responded in droves, with 70% of pass holders declining a refund. And this was no chump change either; all-access passes carried a price tag of $199, while priority all-access passes ran up $349 big ones. Many of Sled Island’s scheduled artists, as well as suppliers and partners, also waded in to help cut financial losses.
Proving that there is solidarity amongst festival-types, Sled Island then gotta whole lotta love from a sister festival who was no stranger to financial challenges. The Calgary International Film Festival threw out a lifeline by offering free film festival passes (worth $200 a pop) to the first 200 Sled Island pass-holders who agreed to forgo their refund. Having survived money woes of their own in past years, the Calgary International Film Festival was a fitting good Samaritan to help bail out a floundering fellow festival. Because they were introducing a new pass system with considerably more capacity than in past years, film festival organizers expected that they would have excess space at many of their screenings, which could easily accommodate those stranded Sled Islanders.
One festival stepping in to help to fill financial sand-bags for another was exactly the sort of altruism that defined Calgary in the aftermath of the 2013 flood, albeit on a slightly grander scale. And it paid off.
When the rescued Sled Island Music and Arts festival took over a bar in downtown Calgary in early March of this year, to reveal the first dozen headliners for the 2014 festival, the announcement was made with equal parts gratitude and triumph. Grins were wide and eyes got a little misty. Even steely-eyed and hard-nosed arts reporters who had seen it all got a little verklempt when they considered the very different outcome this could have had.
Not only is Sled Island no longer sinking, but the premier indie music festival is making a splash in ‘14 with such big names as Spiritualized, St. Vincent, Neko Case, Rocket From the Crypt, Joel Plaskett, Killer Mike, the Julie Ruin and Bob Mould. And those are only the teasers. When all 250 bands, film screenings, arts events and comedy shows are announced shortly, it will be a major nose-thumb at the flood waters that could not submerge this island. With the original riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame) at the helm as this year’s guest curator, expect a most righteous festival.
Sled Island will be back on Prince’s Island, June 18 – 22, 2014.
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