The VIP Seating Area Is Killing Musicfest

Something is very wrong at the heart of Peterborough Musicfest. It’s been there for years, but most of us have simply chosen to ignore it. At times, when the crowds are small and the performances are intimate and quiet, it remains under control – benign, almost harmless. But as the acts get more popular, as the crowds get bigger, and as the music gets more energetic, it grows, consuming more and more of the park grounds, and threatening the very life of this potentially great festival.

Never has the problem been clearer than two weeks ago, when Canadian indie pop-rock stars Tegan and Sara hit the stage for an assembled crowd of 14,500 (if we believe Musicfest’s official estimates).

You see, I wanted to be as close to the action as I could get. So for me, the show looked like this:

Peterborough Musicfest - the 99%

It was pretty great.

A friend of mine was also there, and he also wanted to be as close as possible. So for him, the show looked like this:

Peterborough Musicfest - the 99%

For about, oh let’s say 99% of you, this second view is how you experience Musicfest: about a basketball-court-length away from the stage, less attending the concert so much as being the same park where a concert happens to be taking place. Only those lucky few, that elite 1%, get to see the show from the gated community known as The VIP Area – seated comfortably in white plastic chairs alongside such Very Important People as: People Who Gave Money To Musicfest, People Who Work For Corporations That Gave Money To Musicfest, and also a few Big Fancy Music Journalists, like myself.

Peterborough Musicfest

OK technically, it’s probably more like 3 to 5% of people that sit in the VIP area, but the whole “1% vs 99%” thing works so much better for the narrative of oppression I’m trying to build here.

At the Tegan and Sara concert, no one was more acutely aware of how bizarre this division was than the two people in attendence with the most experience with summer festivals: Tegan and Sara themselves. “I don’t know who you are,” said Tegan at one point, suspiciously eyeing the 1%. “But you must be very important people. You have chairs and you’re all sitting very… politely.”

Did you hear that? Politely.

Jesus. Is there any worse insult at a rock concert?

And that’s the deeper problem of it all: VIP seating isn’t just exclusionary – it actually hurts the concert.

A concert, especially a high-energy rock concert, isn’t just a performance, it’s a conversation between a musician and their crowd, a back-and-forth in energy and emotion. Tegan and Sara may be the ones with the mics, but what they get back from their crowd is what keeps the show going, harder, faster, stronger, and better. And in a crowd of 14,500, no one plays a more important part in this exchange than those in the performer’s direct line of sight: the front row.

Now at most concerts, this works just fine, because getting to the front of 14,500 is hard, crappy work. It means getting there hours early, braving the elements, enduring the claustrophobia of thickening crowds, and discovering too late the physical limitations of the human bladder. It’s self-selection at its purest, because the only people who would ever put themselves through this hell are the mad, adoring superfans – the legitimate 1%.

And that’s exactly who performers like Tegan And Sara (or Cowboy Junkies, or 54-40, or any of the high-energy acts playing the festival) need. They soak up all that wild adoration, they amplify it, and they play it loud enough so that everyone in the whole park can be a part of it, at least a little bit.

Peterborough Musicfest

Even from this high up, you can still see how boring they look.

Without a doubt, some of those in the VIP section were indeed superfans. There was a passionate (but very small) group standing up at the front of the stage, right where Tegan and Sara needed them – but for every VIP up front, there were three more sitting back in those goddamn white chairs, on their phones googling “tegan and sara” to figure out what everyone else was so excited about. Meanwhile, a hundred feet back, some poor kid who’s listened to nothing but Sainthood for the past five years pressed her face up to the iron bars and wept quietly.

Look, I get it. Sponsors are important. According to The Examiner, in 2010 the festival had a $450,000 budget, and only $100,00 of that came from the city. Without sponsors, great shows like Tegan and Sara simply wouldn’t happen, especially not for free, and it’s absolutely important to acknowledge that.

I would assume that the best acknowledgement a corporate sponsor could wish for is advertising, which Musicfest provides in spades – slathered across the stage, beamed onto the bandshell, announced to the crowds before and after the show, in booths in prime locations across the park, splashed across the Musicfest website, trumpeted on social media, and so on. Sponsors also get other perks, like musician meet-and-greets (which happen before or after the show, thus not affecting performance). And I have no objection to some VIP seating area – just not covering the entire stage. Would Darlington Insurance really back out if they didn’t get their 16 reserved spots every single show?

Clearly, this is a difficult balance, one that’s a struggle for nearly every cultural event in existence. But all I’m saying is that right now, Musicfest is an event that supposedly celebrates community, while simultaneously cutting the community in two with a locked gate, and that supposedly celebrates music, while simultaneously setting up the event in a way guaranteed to hurt the performance.


Aerial photos courtesy TVCOGECO Peterborough & Brian Crangle.

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