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Booming success — How Hillside festival managed to excel during the pandemic

'... the pandemic has been a test of the imaginations of artists and audiences;' executive director of Hillside Festival
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Hillside fun in 2017. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday file photo

It’s an odd notion that Guelph’s longest-running in-person festival would have to somehow switch online three times in the past two years of the pandemic. 

But it did and boy did it succeed.

“The viewership has been through the roof,” said Hillside Festival's executive director, Marie Zimmerman, adding the festival website has seen 58,000 unique views since the pandemic hit. 

“Normally for both festivals we have probably 11,000, attendees, and we've had 35,000 attendees from around the world.”

She said the team behind the festival — who worked around the clock to retain the festival’s focus of diversity, culture, and local talent — discovered the beauty and benefits of online programming so it could allow people around the world to take part in Guelph’s celebrated event. 

“It just presents opportunities for learning that have actually increased people's comfort,” said Zimmerman.

For the first time ever, the festival introduced music courses during the pandemic, such as audio recording and songwriting. It allowed artists to perform in the comfort of their home, their studio, their couch for viewers, anyone around the world to attend at a time convenient for them. More so, it put international eyes on local talent. 

“It used to be that if your favourite band was on the island stage, you couldn't also make it to the other stage for your second favourite. But in this case, you can watch all of these things. And you can connect to family and friends all over the world because they can experience the same thing,” said Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman said the organizers learned many things over the course of the pandemic to cater to the needs of the audience. They learned about the expense of live streaming, the challenges of audience comfort post-pandemic with many likely hesitating to return to crowded events.

“The industry as a whole is not really sure whether the live music events will bounce back right away,” said Zimmerman. 

So the organizers focused on its core mission. “Our priority was to serve our community, and to present great art, because that's our mandate. And so, we never hesitated about fulfilling our mandate, our mission and our vision,” said Zimmerman.

She said there was a real appetite for artists last year when everything shut down. Artists themselves were eager to perform and had to imagine crowds while performing in front of a screen while they were isolated themselves. 

“So really, the pandemic has been a test of the imaginations of artists and audiences,” said Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman said people’s creativity shone when they hosted backyard parties, workshops and watch parties for Hillside Inside.

She said initially when the festival announced that it was going to go virtual, people were very sceptical because it is not the way they were used to experiencing music. 

“As an artist in Guelph, when you first start out, it feels like how am I going to be seen and heard? I'm just one person so I think having that platform to have the opportunity to be heard by a bunch of people around the world is definitely an amazing, amazing thing,” said Sarah Felker, a singer and songwriter in Guelph who goes by her stage name Nefe at the festival.

Felker performed in a festival for the first time in Hillside in 2013 and has stayed ever since. “They took me from the baby stages and believed in me and put me on their stage. That was a level up moment for me,” she said. 

“It's a festival where they always find new talent, and it's not just a certain genre, it's all different music from all over the world that you just hear that I don't think that you would be exposed to if you didn't go to Hillside or you didn't notice that.”

Zimmerman said the initial scepticism for the virtual event quickly went down as more people realized they were missing something. 

“I think people found that it was too narrow a point of view, to say ‘I'm not going to participate in the online world,’ because it became such a robust and creative platform for people to enjoy, and it has this incredible flexibility where you can make it work for you during your time. You don't have to be in a certain place at a certain time,” said Zimmerman. 

The first day when the festival went live in 2020, their Youtube channel crashed.  

“It was kind of like a match, struck unexpectedly in the dark. We weren't sure how people were going to receive our first virtual festival, and we were exhilarated from creating this thing, but then really scared about how people would receive it,” said Zimmerman.

“We all just paused and went, ‘Oh my God’. We had three seconds to say, ‘Wow, that's amazing we're doing it’. And then of course we went into troubleshooting mode.”

Zimmerman said the organizers want to take the best parts of the online world and infuse it with the in-person experience in the future. 

“I don't ever think it's going to be 50% online and 50% live all of the activities that we do year round, but I do think that we may go up to as much as, say, one quarter, online activity in the future,” said Zimmerman. 

“Our national and international audience has grown astronomically.”

The festival will continue virtually this weekend once again. 

Zimmerman said the entire team is incredibly grateful for government funding and grantors who have understood their vision and tried to support them. She said it is Guelph’s baby and was treated as such.


Anam Khan

About the Author: Anam Khan

Anam Khan is a journalist who covers numerous beats in Guelph and Wellington County that include politics, crime, features, environment and social justice
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