Boonstock Penticton. A summertime zenith of hipsters, pop fans, instagram addicts and exhibitionists. An assessment of trail-and-error. A disruption of social harmony. When it comes to music festival culture, controversy is always the principal headliner. A clash of generations, emblematic of pop culture and diverging philosophies, the social experiment of Boonstock raises questions about law, politics, community, public relations and economy. Figuratively, the Boonstock anecdote reflects youth culture – contingent upon neoteric channels of modern day communication to feed its frenzy and promote its message. Stories scandalously appear in all facets of social media, littering Twitter and Facebook and other online commentary feeds and threads where the wildfire of “likes” and “dislikes” reposts, hashtags and tweets spread with reckless abandon. Amidst the haze of personal interpretation and opinion, a collective synthesis emerges. Most agree, Boonstock Penticton was, in its own way, a kind of revolution. Its maiden voyage set out to do and be what appeared at first, quite the impossible. Going up against well-established music festivals across North America, such as Coachella, Arise, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, Electric Daisy, Squamish, Shambhala, and Pemberton, Boonstock’s David and Goliath narrative proved early on, it had a lot to live up to. The proceedings were not without their fair share of melodrama. Struggling verily against the boomerang of local political rhetoric, issues concerning public safety and security, the potential consequences of an influx of a large external population, and the breakdown of conventionalism in the form of wild heathenism, (i.e. reaching for the lasers, dancing until the crescent sunrise, and existing in a dust bowl of empty beverage containers pursuing an army of squatting tents), Boonstock organizers and sponsors remained, (until the very last minute) locked in an uphill battle. The decision to host the event in Penticton British Columbia, was by far, one of the festival’s greatest attainments. A renowned summer mecca for wine-lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, sports fans, snowbirds and holiday makers, the town boasts of some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery.
Located in the heart of the South Okanagan Valley, the semi-arid climate situated at the tip of the Osoyoos Desert, makes sunshine a constant companion. Refuge can be taken in the mountains, along the waterfront or anywhere in between, with an array of activities, attractions and amenities that cater to all. The site for Boonstock was a calculated arrangement. Access to water was a necessity, (adjacent to Skaha Lake via a private path through a sanguine sandy beach) as well as tree’d and shaded retreats for overheated and zealous festivalgoers. Check. But then came the issue of security. Weeks before the event was scheduled to kick off, organizers of the festival announced they were seeking a new security company for the event following a termination of their agreement with International Crowd Management, who cited health and safety concerns with the Boonstock safety plan. However proponents were confident that the new company, 24/7 Security Ltd.. were ready to work with local event and security professionals, and were confident that Penticton, renowned as a festival city, boasts some of the finest water safety, event security and medical experts in B.C. This may be true. Penticton plays host to an array of highly-anticipated festivals and sporting events throughout the year which sees hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. If there ever was an ideal place to present a high profile outdoor summer music festival, it would be Penticton B.C.. Check. Two for two. But local politicians and townsfolk were quick to incite hysteria. Look at what happened in Gibbons, Alberta, the former home of Boonstock for the past nine years. A home invasion, an arrest involving a drug trade and a handgun, traffic troubles and safety deficiencies all contributed to the stockpile of Boonstock degeneration, prompting its move from Gibbons to Penticton. Drawing crowds in upwards of 8,000 spectators and festivalgoers a day, it seems likely that some anarchistic discrepancies would be observed. But surely it is a splinter group. For most of us in the 8,000-strong fold heralding from across B.C. and Alberta, we enjoy the delights of this transient, abbreviated community strung together by a collective of music, movement and the kind of visceral euphoria one gets from being apart of something.
In truth, music festival culture is in high-demand worldwide and has helped to create some of the most iconic events and places in modern history, putting more obscure towns like Nelson, Pemberton and Squamish on the global map. In doing so, music festival culture has labored to create its own kind of economy, injecting capital into tourism, hospitality, food and beverage and retail that reap the benefit of both short and long term returns. A well-established tourist destination, Penticton has the infrastructure to support and contribute to prolific events such as Boonstock, providing festivalgoers the full gambit of summertime activities and amentities outside the festival grounds, which will in turn, see them as repeating customers in the future. An opportunity to create something prototypical for the small gem-of-a-town in the heart of B.C.’s southern interior, Boonstock may just be the golden ticket. But then the dark cloud. Drug overdoses. 80 hospitalized and 1 unfortunate and terrible loss. A serious stain on the Boonstock image and a sobering admonition into the inherent dangers of drugs and alcohol. The backlash floods. Fingers point to deficiencies in security and police presence. Others blame the heat and the lack of free or cheap bottled water. But the real concern lies within the nature of the attendees themselves. How far are they willing to go? Just last month, the death of a 21-year old engineering student at Pemberton Music Festival sent a shiver through music festival enthusiasts, while two more deaths at the Veld Music Festival in Toronto over August long typified arguments against the entire culture. Penticton Council member, Katie Robinson was one of the first to speak out against the festival quoted saying, “I’m not a head-banging druggie, so I wasn’t interested in it whatsoever,” only later to revoke her remark in an open letter apology. But we all can’t help but wonder, are these individual mistakes representative? Is the music festival scene synonymous with drug and alcohol abuse? While it may be easy to point fingers in way of the organizers and the town itself, the truth is, no amount of security could reasonably stop young people from doing drugs or abusing alcohol. In fact, it may be argued that while Boonstock was denied its liquor license due to “unaddressed safety concerns” this subsequently lead festivalgoers to use more drugs than usual. The loss of alcohol revenue, may have also set a higher price on bottled water, contributing to possible dehydration in the 35+degree Celsius heat.
The truth is, most of us in that 8000-strong crowd believe in the community of Boonstock and in the carol of festival culture that takes root in a deep love for connection in music and people. And it’s here where our stories emerge. Most of them teetering on the unforgettable. A marked experience. A prodigious time. And we can’t wait until next year to do it all over again, bonded by an impartial boundless experience that will shape who and what we are tomorrow. The Mayor of Penticton, Gary Litke is now calling for provincial guidelines to be set for large-scale summer festivals, others insist in a direct liaison between festival organizers and city council members. Most agree that changes will have to be made. A liquor license should be reconsidered for next year’s event in the face of efficiently planned security that is adequately communicated, and while profit margins are a driving force, essential services such a water and first aid tents should be provided. In light of recent events, organizers at this past weekend’s Squamish Music Festival prepared a detailed security plan with free water provided at misting stations and bottled water at medical tents. However despite all these precautionary measures, the real responsibility lies within the attendees. Taking care to stay hydrated, to not over-indulge or abuse certain substances, and remain healthy, will only help to contribute to an overall positive music festival scene. In the end, the real message is of love and community – to share the passion we all feel for music and movement. That, above all, should be the real driving force behind such events. Why do we do it? To bring people together and propagate ideas for change. What is it good for? To create unrivaled experiences with positive impacts that mold the social, political landscapes of our time. So let’s be smart and do it right.
- Elizabeth Cucnik