TORONTO – A couple of hip hop and R&B’s biggest names will headline a three-day music festival in Canada this summer, bucking the convention that usually seeds one of rock’s top acts in the marquee slot.
The festival is not in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, but small-town Ontario, hours away from the nearest metropolis.
The 1,000 Islands Music Fest, running Aug. 13 through Aug. 15 in Gananoque, Ont., population about 5,300, is headlined by Snoop Dogg on its final night, and Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall and R&B chart-topper Akon will go on the main stage before him.
Canadian rockers Simple Plan will headline the second night of the festival, which also features rock band Plain White Ts, best known for their hit “Hey There Delilah,” the Original Blues Brothers Revue tribute act, and a host of other Canadian and local acts including illScarlett, the Arkells, Lights, Pilot Speed, the New Cities and Faber Drive.
The town has previously marketed itself as “safe, friendly and good” and the Canadian gateway to the picturesque Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River. But it’s now rolling the dice and looking for a new image, hoping to become a small-town music mecca for fans in nearby municipalities, who have traditionally had few chances to see a local concert.
With record sales consistently sliding and touring revenues increasingly paying the bills for musicians, the town is hoping to sneak its way onto the lists of tour dates for major acts that are looking to add another stop on the trek across Highway 401 between Montreal or Ottawa and Toronto.
If Halifax can land Paul McCartney why can’t Gananoque land some big names too, says festival president Rod MacDonald, who is launching the inaugural show as a means to make money, and not just to support the arts.
“For my business partners and investors and I, it was the interesting opportunity that is being presented by the changing dynamics of the music industry, and by that I mean the research has noted that more of the top names are going out on tours in venues that historically you would not have expected to see,” he said.
The town is hoping to turn the festival into an annual event, attracting visitors from the estimated population base of 500,000 in nearby municipalities, some devoted music fans a few hours away in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and some cross-border traffic from upstate New York.
The festival was originally envisioned as having a country and classic rock flavour but the music programmers hired to book the acts convinced MacDonald to try something bold and appeal to a wider audience with a diverse array of performers.
“We really wanted to do something that had never been done in the area and what we’ve done is created an event that over the three days spans the age demographics from 12-to 65-years-old and has crossed every genre,” said Rian Malloch of Watson Entertainment.
“We were trying to secure what would make the most sense and to some extent what hasn’t really been done.”
“We wanted to avoid doing something that is seen every other weekend at festivals around the country.”
Malloch said playing smaller locales is becoming less of a hard sell for big artists – money talks, he admits – and as an example pointed to Akon, who’s had huge hits with songs like “Don’t Matter,” “I Wanna Love You,” and “Smack That.”
Akon also played in Halifax and at the Exploits Valley Salmon Festival in Grand Falls, N.L., this summer on a lineup that otherwise consisted of Canadian names like Our Lady Peace, Tara Oram, Johnny Reid and Hey Rosetta.
“He’s playing very small venues all over North America because they realize there’s a big fan base for them in smaller markets and a fan base that’s really loyal and love to come out and see live music – and they don’t (usually) get the chance.”
Snoop Dogg’s performance in Gananoque will be the only Canadian stop on his tour and follows bigger shows in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago.
MacDonald is channelling the classic movie “Field of Dreams” and hopes if this year’s festival proves to be a success, they’ll build a major venue next and music fans “will come.”
“We decided to run a kind of a test case with the festival for this year and, of course, if it works we’re going to create a permanent venue and continue on in the years to come.”
But there are well-documented cautionary tales about launching a concert with an A-list act and assuming success.
Prince Edward Island’s taxpayers were on the hook for $400,000 in costs after an Alanis Morissette concert in 2008 bombed at the box office and attracted less than a third of the crowd promoters were banking on.
Only about 3,100 people went to the show in Alexandra, P.E.I., and Tourism Minister Valerie Docherty later assessed the venture as a risk that didn’t pay off.
MacDonald said he’s looking for a turnout of 7,000 to 8,000 over three days, which wouldn’t necessarily make much, if any, money but would prove Gananoque is a viable place to schedule concerts.
But he admits sales are still somewhat slow with less than two weeks to go before the festival kicks off, while finalizing logistics has been a challenge and organizers have been in “panic mode” getting everything finalized.
“It’s all coming together but it’s very multi-faceted putting on a festival of this magnitude, it’s quite an educational curve, I can tell you.”