Update: Check out what the Calgary Folk Music Festival had to say about the future of the tarps.

It should come as no surprise that I love the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Even though  I’ve only been going for the past four or fives years, it’s definitely one of my summer highlights and this year was no exception. I mean, I already wrote 35 reasons why I loved this year’s festival.

But this year, there was something I didn’t really like about this year’s festival and I wanted to get it off of my chest.  Actually, I don’t like this issue  every year but this year it came to a head. So, if it’s okay with you and Calgary Folk Music Festival, I’d like to have a serious conversation about the tarps.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “Mike, we know you don’t like the tarps. You’ve gone on the radio about it, you’ve written columns about it and you’ve written magazine articles about it. We get it. You don’t like the tarps.”  But, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. This year, for the first time ever, I set up a tarp.  It was great. I went just after the gates opened, got a good spot and really enjoyed the whole experience of having central meeting point, a place to leave some of our things and more importantly, sit comfortably when it was time to watch the main stage.

Yes, I’m singing a different tune about the tarps, at least some of them.

But that doesn’t mean I think allowing tarps everywhere is a good idea and by my count, at least four of the main stage acts agree with me.

If you’ve never been to Calgary Folk Music Festival, let me tell you how it works.  Basically, people are allowed putting tarps all the way up to the stage.  Dancers, should you want to dance, are relegated to the sides of the stage. The dance areas have been getting bigger every year, but they still remain on the far side of the stage. The stage is huge, so to be on the far side, you’re really, really far away from the performer.

Which is where my, and the complaints of Rufus Wainwright, Fishbone, Amos Lee and Arto Lindsay come into play. Over the two nights I was there (I missed Thursday and Sunday night’s main stage) all four five (see update below) of these artists expressed frustration with the stage set up. Amos Lee asked the dancers: “Why are you all the way over there in the penalty box, did you do something wrong?”  And the answer is no, they didn’t. They did everything right, it’s just no one cares or is listening.

But it’s not just about dancing. Another complaint came from Arto Lindsay who looked out onto rows upon rows of empty tarps and asked where all those people were.  Who knows?  They could have been in the beer gardens, they could have been at another stage. Both of which they’re entitled too. But it’s certainly not fair to the artist to force them to play to a practically empty field, because a hundred or so people got up early and got their tarps in the best spot.

Update:  I also have to add Hydra to the list, who apparently said on Sunday night: “Why are all the dancers sequestered? That’s kinda weird.” And if you’re not familiar with the supergroup, one of their members is Feist, who is from Calgary.

I’m not sure why organizers are so insistent on keeping the tarp system for the first ten rows in place. It benefits so few, causes frustration for the fans of the music and now the artists. It’s something artists have complained about for years. Remember when The Swell Season got so mad that they yelled out to their fans to crash the tarps?  And if you think of how mad a paid artist has to be to actually say something about it to the crowd, well then that’s not good. That’s not good at all. And think about the artists who don’t say anything, but are likely thinking it. I’m guessing that’s a lot of artists. I think what bothers me the most is that it’s embarrassing. It’s cringe-worthy when you hear an artist complain about their experience in Calgary.  Again, to benefit so few.

Defendants of the tarps might say “But it’s tradition!”  Or, it’s not our fault the artist isn’t interesting. And you’d be right. It’s not your fault, I would suggest that maybe it’s the organizers. But that doesn’t matter. They’ve been invited, they’ve been asked to perform and we should appreciate that. I would add, that just because you’re not a fan of that particular artist, it doesn’t mean that hundreds of others at the festival aren’t.  And, unlike buying a front row ticket. You put down a tarp. You paid the same amount as everyone else. And if you’re there enjoying the show, great.  That’s awesome. But enough of you weren’t that many of the artists noticed. And that’s the problem.

I know that tarps are about of the tradition and I’m not saying we should get rid of all the tarps. Just maybe the tarps in the first few rows.  It would most certainly be a “first world problem” to think that moving back a few feet would cause you to consider not going to Folk Fests all together.

So, how would I fix it?  Well, I think it’s quiet easy. I think the first few rows should be rush, standing/dancing room only.  But, at the end of every act, the area is cleared out and if you want to see the next act from the same spot, you have to walk around the seating and go back in. This can be done when the next artist is setting up, which usually takes about twenty minutes. There would be lots of time. That way, the fans that are really excited to see that specific artist get the opportunity to get as close as possible. And that artist got to interact with his or her fans, like they have at every other concert they’ve ever done in their entire lives. How much would it suck to be singing to basically an empty field of tarps? And that’s sort of the problem with all festivals in general. There’s always such a variety of acts that perform on the main stage, it’s not like there are ever going to play for a crowd that’s only there to see them. So why not give the fans and the artists the best experience possible?

I’m not sure if the festival’s organizers are looking for suggestions on how to fix it, but if the fans and artists are complaining, I think they owe it to everyone to look into a solution.  My incessant need to worry about what everyone thinks leaves me stressed that these artists are leaving Calgary with a bad taste in their mouth. And to those artists I proclaim:  It’s not all of us that are like that. A lot of us love you and your music. We’re the ones in the way back or behind the fence. But we love you and we love that you came to our city. Please, oh please, come back.

Mike Morrison


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