How one Saskatchewan festival is developing lineup diversity for the Prairies

Despite being thousands of kilometres away from where the conversation about representation is happening loudest, Gateway Festival is still making strides to ensure the discussion keeps going.

Matt Williams
September 7, 2018

To get to Bengough, Saskatchewan you have to make your way to SK-34, a highway off a highway off a highway off the Trans-Canada if you’re coming from Regina, the closest major city. You can spot it from the familiar Prairie landmarks—a grain elevator, a Co-op—and a big metal sign with the silhouette of a wolf, cattle, and hills that declares the town more than greeting oncoming traffic: “WELCOME. BENGOUGH & RM40. GATEWAY TO THE BIG MUDDY.” If you keep driving south, you’ll find yourself in the badlands just a stone’s throw from Montana, which marks the northern end of the “Outlaw Trail,” a route that runs all the way to Mexico and was once travelled by nefarious bandits including Butch Cassidy and Canada’s own Sam Kelly.

Here lies Castle Butte, a giant rock formation full of prairie dogs and snake holes. It’s arguably the region’s main attraction (certainly the biggest), but some locals say that back in the day it used to be much more grand. Now it’s almost embarrassing compared to what it once was, apparently. Last year, on an early morning drive into the valley, a ragged coyote stood on the road as I rolled in slow, staring me down before loping back into the brush. If she hadn’t been so wily, the way coyotes are, I might’ve been able to watch her run away for days, like the old joke about dogs and the Prairies goes. But she was the same colour as the rock and the grass and the dirt of the place, and disappeared right into it, as ghostly and transient as any dust devils kicked up by the inescapable wind there.

All that to say: Bengough (pronounced ben-goff) doesn’t seem like the kind of place that comes to mind when most people think about the site of a vibrant music festival. But Gateway Festival, which takes place just outside of “downtown” Bengough, in what Artistic Director Michael Dawson calls, “a baseball diamond next to a cattle pasture,” is just that. According to the 2006 census, only about 337 people live in town, but that number balloons significantly for the final weekend of July each year, as people come in from Regina and Saskatoon and all the little towns nearby. People come from away, too, but Gateway is really for southern Saskatchewan. You can tell by the material in the program: multiple ads for farm equipment share space with a drawing of a sorrowful, weeping horse positioned above the Humboldt Broncos hockey team logo, a tribute to the 16 people who died in a tragic bus crash this past April.

Matt Williams

In the deep, rural Prairies—and some would argue that taste in major cities here is not so dissimilar as to note a giant difference—the consensus is that what sells tickets for musical events like Gateway is classic rock and country. A built-in audience of middle-aged farming folks all but guarantees that acts like this year’s headliners, ex-Barenaked Ladies songwriter Steven Page and ‘90s blues rockers Big Sugar had a good crowd of families parked in lawn chairs tapping their toes and nodding their heads. Last year it was northern Manitoba boy Tom Cochrane, of “Life Is a Highway” fame, and 54-40.

With the major discussion around music festivals being that of gender parity, Dawson, who is also the Executive Director of SaskMusic, admits that he’s well-aware that Gateway’s penchant for booking white, middle-aged dudes in their headlining slots doesn’t look great. The festival originally started as a fundraiser concert called Party In The Park and organically grew from there, having just celebrated its 14th edition. When Dawson took on the Artistic Director role in 2013, he wanted to turn it into something more multi-genre, like a folk festival, as opposed to a commercial country or classic rock thing. Now, while the fest is still relying on nostalgia acts and bands with radio history to get people through the gate, he feels more able to program a bit of a bait-and-switch: have the old hits sell the tickets, and then expose people to something new.

“Even though we really kinda hinge on those ’90s/early ’00s legacy artists to sell the tickets, it allows the rest of the programming to be a little more relevant,” Dawson said in the festival’s RV office in the festival’s backstage area. “I think [the festival]puts a lot of really smart songwriters, from William Prince to Terra Lightfoot, for example, in front of an audience that probably wouldn’t have discovered some of them otherwise. And then it also brings out a lot of really good people that help shape the vibe of the festival.”

It makes people uncomfortable to be faced with content completely outside their wheelhouse, but nevertheless it is still very important. We need openness and understanding if we are ever going to move forward and evolve.

Jill Mack

Canadian Women Working In Music (CWWIM) collects information for their annual Festival Report Card, where they examine the number of women-identifying acts at Canadian festivals. While their system isn’t perfect—women-identifying “backup singers” and ”side players” aren’t counted toward a final tally, as they don’t represent the “primary artistic voice,” which you may have a differing view on if you’ve ever played in a band you didn’t front—it’s a good place to find out generally how festivals are doing in the realm of gender parity.

Using the criteria CWWIM provides and the Gateway Festival program, this past July’s edition would score on the low end of a C grade, with 8 of 32 acts at the event fronted by women-identifying artists. Recently, Keychange announced that over 100 festivals around the world had pledged a 50/50 gender balance in their programming by 2022. More recently, the New York Times ran an article about the struggle major festivals are having with achieving gender parity, but focusing the headline on Iceland Airwaves’ success: “Some Music Festivals Balk at Booking 50% Female Acts. One Just Did It.”

But why have massive festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella failed to achieve gender parity for the last decade? It’s hard to imagine an act passing up the chance to play either, which is an oft-heard reason for fewer female acts. Couldn’t these behemoths have been leading the charge this whole time? When pushed to name what some of the obstacles to achieving gender parity at the Gateway Festival might be, Dawson is conscientious that any explanations just come off as justifications, which isn’t his goal. It’s hard to talk about it because I feel like I’m making excuses, and I don’t really mean it that way. It’s just the reality of trying to work through it.”

In the realm of the festival’s typical big draws, ‘90s radio rockers and nostalgia acts, he says it’s tough to find bands that aren’t fronted by old white men, and are touring, affordable, and down to come to Bengough. Gender parity wasn’t exactly a mainstream conversation when Tom Cochrane was first belting out “Big League” in 1988. According to programmers, some artists who were offered slots weren’t able to come through, too, which may have evened things out more.

Matt Williams

Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t want to alienate the people who volunteer their time, “literally driving around in tractors building fencing and stuff” in some cases, or the community the festival serves, by venturing too far from the AM radio vibe. It’s difficult to strike a balance but that’s what he’s working on, he says, and he recognizes there’s still a long way to go. Dawson has long been a champion of burgeoning new music—when asked what he’s big on right now, he mentions Saskatoon artists T-Rhyme and respectfulchild, as well as noting that Gateway alum Belle Plaine’s upcoming record is incredible. It’s likely he could book the festival in a wildly different way, that would bring in more outsiders. But then it might not really be for that community anymore.

The Gateway Festival is a not-for-profit—similar to SappyFest in New Brunswick and Lawnya Vawnya in Newfoundland—and run by the local arts council. The profits from the pancake breakfast that happens every morning of the fest weekend all go to community organization. Whatever money the festival ends up with goes right back into the community, for a new structure at the local pool or, like last year, a new fire truck for the town over. If Gateway became completely unrecognizable from the dusty rock ‘n’ roll party it started as, it’s not reaching to think it could lose its audience, which would mean failing to achieve what it set out to do—helping the community by having a good time. So then it becomes mainly a question of how to achieve lineup diversity and gender parity within specific parameters.

“I’m trying to find this balance at every step,” Dawson says. “To me, this is a really positive thing that happened in a part of the province that people don’t usually visit. I grew up in Estevan, [just over two hours southeast of Regina] where in my experience growing up if we had 2,000 outsiders come to town, which is literally almost 10 times the size of [Bengough], it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for anyone. It’d be very confrontational. So seeing it all work and the importance of it, I think that’s meaningful. A lot of artists want to come back.”

That last point is worth noting. Getting any artist to spend a summer weekend in a small, rural town where they don’t know what to expect is one thing; having them reach out to come back, like John K. Samson did this year, is another altogether. But Gateway fosters an incredibly friendly and chilled out environment for artists and workers in the backstage area. Out on the grounds, things are slightly different—it’s not as much of a Saskatchewan music scene reunion beyond the backstage gates—but also very positive. Scanning the food and drink tent for artists at any moment usually reveals longtime pals being pals: Belle Plaine, Megan Nash, and Blake Berglund taking in an act, Rah Rah’s Marshal Burns wandering around chatting in his westernwear, or the dudes from Bears In Hazenmore looking for trouble. You can throw a rock and probably hit someone who’s played in Library Voices.

Matt Williams

Amanda Scandrett’s first experience with the festival was playing there with that very band (which Dawson was also in) about a decade ago. She volunteers backstage, doing “a little bit of everything”—if you are anyone needs anything, she’s likely who you turn to first. It’s Scandrett who is primarily responsible for how comfortable backstage is, and during the two years I’ve attended Gateway, her presence was ubiquitous. She mentioned, while we were chatting in the office trailer this past year, that multiple women artists have remarked to her about how surprised they were to find such good vibes and a safe environment at a rural Prairie festival. As a veteran musician, she’s had uncomfortable and marginalizing experiences playing in the industry, and says that while the gender parity conversation remains important, that equity needs to reach far beyond lineups.

“A festival needs to create a safe space and a general culture and community of acceptance and respect backstage and in communication with artists,” Scandrett said. “As a woman I don’t want to be invited to a festival to fill a quota, I want to be there because my presence as a musician is valued and I am regarded as a musician who belongs to play. From where I’m sitting, Mike and the crew and volunteers at Gateway understand this.”

Scandrett says she thinks Gateway is doing a great job of setting up the conditions to welcome more female and non-binary artists to the festival, and doing that should be the first step before an artist is even invited into a space. Amber Goodwyn, the creative force behind “home-fi pop music” act Natural Sympathies, said her and her group of excellent back-up dancers, The Mutual Affection, ended up spending most of their time backstage due to some catcalling on the festival grounds, but “wouldn’t say that that’s particular to Gateway or Bengough, that’s just a symptom of the patriarchy and it needs to be CRUSHED.”  Indigenous songwriter William Prince—whose sparse and poignant set was a highlight of the festival—even noted Gateway’s knack for creating such a welcoming environment when he made up a tune on the spot, singing that he felt like he, “finally belongs at the show.”

I have no doubt within the next few years Gateway will be working with a more balanced lineup. In my opinion, they’re doing it right because with supportive and intentional capacity-building, Gateway is being set up to welcome artists with integrity and respect.

Amanda Scandrett

Goodwyn moved to Regina from Montreal, where she was the Music Director at CKUT, some years back. She’s now the Program Director at Regina’s CJTR, on top of being an experimental filmmaker and performance artist. She says she thinks it would be great to see more non-white people and non-binary folks featured at music festivals in general, and that the barriers for achieving gender parity at a festival in a place like Bengough are the usual ones that plague the music industry and music scenes:

“Fewer opportunities for, promotion of, and investment in projects that fall outside of the ones driven by young, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male musicians. I think this year’s festival did have lots of rad ladies, though I think that we were all white and cis-gendered. I was also super pumped to see a female sound engineer doing sound for the garden stage, which is something of a rarity. There are performers to consider, but sound engineering and tech is also difficult to break into for women.”

That sound engineer was Jill Mack—she’s worked numerous summer festivals, does corporate audio and studio recording, tours with The Pack A.D. as their front of house engineer, and works local venues in Saskatoon when she’s not on the road. This year was her third with Gateway, and her second as the front of house tech on the Garden Stage. She said she’d like to see more woman/non-binary/queer acts at the festival, but understands the difficulties in making that happen with the fest’s audience.

“In my experience, most of these people don’t understand the non-binary/queer world and don’t really want to be involved with it. We can always do better and strive toward further understanding, but how we do that in these rural places, I really don’t have answer.” She said she thinks the festival is headed in the right direction, though, coincidentally name-dropping Goodwyn’s Natural Sympathies as an example of that bait-and-switch Dawson has worked on, little by little introducing attendees to artists outside the mainstream.

Matt Williams

“It’s not an easy job creating a open and safe space in a little rural community in Saskatchewan,” Mack said. “It makes people uncomfortable to be faced with content completely outside their wheelhouse, but nevertheless it is still very important. We need openness and understanding if we are ever going to move forward and evolve. Many of the main acts are very much catered to the older crowd, because that’s who comes out and really is the majority of the paid attendees. So you are faced with draw versus inclusion. Not an easy task. Little by little there is progress being made and booking these “classic” acts does create space for these weirder/queer acts to start funnelling in.”

“What I would love to see is more female, trans, and non-binary artists at the festival,” Scandrett said. “I do see that capacity building year after year. If someone looked at the lineup a few years ago and compared it to 2018, they would see vast improvements. Like any work in the community, it’s about building capacity and sustainability for change. I have no doubt within the next few years Gateway will be working with a more balanced lineup. In my opinion, they’re doing it right because with supportive and intentional capacity-building, Gateway is being set up to welcome artists with integrity and respect. Considering this is a volunteer-driven festival in rural Saskatchewan, that’s pretty cool.”

That supportive and intentional capacity-building is just what made it possible for Terra Lightfoot to melt faces with her stomp-heavy shredding, Megan Nash to ease listeners into the evening with a gentle-but-powerful solo set featuring her ceramic “space cats,” and once-quitter Kathleen Edwards to storm the main stage with a heavy and heady set when the sun went down on Saturday night. Belle Plaine provided some groovy Americana, Kara Golemba and Ellen Froese brought introspective and clever folk, Babia Majora rocked and rolled, Amaya Lucyk’s breezy folk-pop kicked the whole thing off on Friday. And Natural Sympathies stunned on the mainstage with the help of The Mutual Affection, proving more acts should have members of their show who are there exclusively to dance.

But to have a truly national dialogue about representation at music festivals, the conversation should extend beyond the names on a poster, and there should be proper investigation at multiple levels into what steps will help achieve that representation.

In 2018, it wouldn’t be rare for a music festival with only 25% women-identifying artists to receive something of a condemnation from the more woke factions of music Twitter, if that festival was on their radar. But the majority of music media in this country resides in Toronto, where there is often little practical understanding of the factors that affect music events outside the Greater Toronto Area. And that’s not to say it’s all their fault—the resources of digital and print journalism haven’t made it easy to cover things in the middle of nowhere.

But to have a truly national dialogue about representation at music festivals, the conversation should extend beyond the names on a poster, and there should be proper investigation at multiple levels into what steps will help achieve that representation. It’s much more encouraging and productive to recognize the good moves festivals like Gateway are making, while of course not ignoring any of the questionable. Indeed, positive and still not-yet-fully-evolved incarnations of an event can exist on its journey to achieving these progressive aims.

The biggest obstacle festivals face on the way there, though, and the now-and-forever “real enemy” is the industry itself. Getting to where we all want to go—when diverse artists are put on the radio and albums are properly funded (with unrestricted artistic control)—will require unending work until the machine is dismantled at a systemic level and re-assembled in a way that spends money and time and resources on propping up and marketing non-binary, women-identifying, and POC artists to the masses. Like Dawson says, “if the music industry can make that change internally,” the audience will respond to it. The challenge for festivals like Gateway is that they don’t have access to that audience to expose them to something new until they’re on the ground.

Until the industry changes, Gateway is doing its part to continue progress within the capacity they’ve built so far, which is remarkable if you’ve ever rolled into Bengough in the sweltering Prairie summer. To stand on the shoulder of Highway 34 in the dead of night and watch a sky full of stars like you’ve never seen envelop all the dark plains is to know an isolation that feels primeval. And despite being thousands of kilometres away from where the representation conversation is happening loudest, Gateway is still making strides to ensure the discussion keeps going.

“Some people saw this as just like a local country music festival, and it’s how it survived for a while,” Dawson said. “But I think there are legs beyond that to do something special in the middle of nowhere, Saskatchewan.”

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