Bass Coast is the BC festival that’s still thriving

Despite the live music industry’s COVID crunch, there’s plenty of reasons why the Merritt-based event still draws a legion of dedicated partiers

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      The local music festival industry is not doing well. 

      In the past four months, several stalwarts on the calendar have shuttered. Constellation Festival—a promising upstart on the scene—has said its 2023 offering is “next-to-impossible to launch.” FVDED in the Park called the whole thing off. Folk Fest, which held court in Jericho Beach Park for more than 40 years, was “indefinitely cancelled” earlier this year, before clawing its way back.

      COVID, organizers say, buried the industry. Now faced with rising production costs, wholesale staff turnover, inflation, and a Metro Vancouver population that can barely afford groceries, it’s little wonder large-scale events have failed to get bums in seats—or, rather, feet on grass.

      But despite all that, Bass Coast festival is thriving.

      Nestled in Merritt’s Nicola Valley between a bend of the Coldwater River, the 15-year-old boutique electronic music event attracts 6,500 people each year to the inland desert to—as artist Gove Kidao puts it—“get silly to quite serious music.” Each of the four stages are designed with elaborate constructions, indiscriminately housing local and international performers. Giant installations, intimate panel discussions, and movement sessions are planned with meticulous attention to detail. Despite running in July, this year’s festival has been long sold out.

      Like others, Bass Coast has been hit by the hangover of “unprecedented times”: its organizers reference the challenges of building new relationships, entering new negotiations, and navigating new prices. But what’s allowed the festival to continue to flourish, says co-founder Andrea Graham, is its attendees. 

      “I think the main reason that we are still going is because we have a very loyal community,” she tells the Straight. “And without them, we wouldn't have even made it through the pandemic. People moved their tickets to future years, and that allowed us to continue. And they're also loyal and purchased their tickets early to come this year. And so it's created the ability for us to move forward as our community.”

      That people-first mindset is baked into the DNA of the event. Not just a one-and-done summer rave like many other local festivals, Bass Coast has spent more than a decade running mini-events throughout the year to showcase local artists and offer a rallying point for bass music fans. Even during COVID, Graham—who DJs under the moniker The Librarian—and her co-founder Liz Thomson, creator of art collective The Guild, organized live-streamed sets for long-time enthusiasts. The July festival might be the jewel of the events calendar, but the real Bass Coast, Graham suggests, is its creative community.

      “I feel like Bass Coast is a way of life,” she says. “It's definitely what we live and breathe year-round.”

      DJ Justin Martin performing at Bass Coast 2022.
      Visceral Photo

      Hussein Ahmed, a devout attendee of the festival, agrees. He’s been making the trip from Vancouver to Merritt every year since 2015, and has DJed the festival five times under his stage name, Handsome Tiger. Ahmed credits the love and passion put into the curation of the event as a big draw, and that the festival represents a place where his closest friends and family can gather to get weird.

      “I think a big part of what's kept it going is just everyone's mutual love for it,” he says. “Year-round, [people are] talking about Bass Coast to those who don’t know about it, and there’s a very strong community of people who are trying to push it forward, even outside of the main team who are involved with working [there]. So I feel there are a lot of diehard fans and artists that really do their best to speak highly of Bass Coast, and share what we have to offer here in BC.”

      More than anything, Ahmed adds, what brings people back is “the vibe”: the intangible feeling of creativity and openness that weaves through the festival’s wacky landscape. Both Thomson and Graham hear the term a lot. At the end of each event, the feedback forms are flooded with references to “the vibe, the vibe, the vibe,” they say: a feeling that the pair are unable to articulate but agree is the defining feature of the event. Asked to distill its essence into something concrete, the closest the organizers can get is “respect.”

      “One of our core values is called ‘room on the dancefloor,’” says Graham. “But what that really means is respect, and respect for people’s experience at the festival... People feel comfortable to be themselves at Bass Coast. I think it translates to artists coming and playing and being able to feel like they can play whatever really motivates them. Some people [in the crowd] love to get really involved in the theme with their outfits and like to express themselves through fashion... Open-mindedness—that distills back to respect. Creativity—everything, if you really break it down, comes back to that core.”

      At the heart of the festival is a blend of seriousness and whimsy. The opportunity to play alongside the best electronic music performers in the province and beyond is given a fitting weight, but experimentation is never at the expense of a thriving dance floor. The installations are often internationally exhibited art pieces, but—like last year’s “portal potty”, which created a tripped-out chillout space in a tunnel leading out from the back of a toilet—are done with a tongue-in-cheek smirk. The attendees bring an equal measure of both mentalities: flamboyant fashion, comedic signs, and out-there expressiveness, but balanced with an understanding of the privilege of sharing the space with others.

      “One of our other core values is ‘take your shoes off,’” says Thomson. “It’s just like walking into somebody’s house who you respect. You take your shoes off. And we expect that sort of care and respect at our music festival. Which isn't something maybe you would always align with an outdoor electronic rave. But that is one of our core values.”

      “We don't mean it literally, though,” Graham chimes in. “Please keep your shoes on because the rocks are dangerous. That's the highest incidence of first aid we deal with—not wearing shoes. So wear your shoes!”

      Respect isn’t just the foundation for creativity: it’s also a keystone for safety. And for a festival focused on creating a space for considerate self-expression, it’s hardly surprising that consent culture and harm reduction is top of mind for the organizers. A women-run event, Bass Coast has a publicized plan that creates and normalizes access to information, supplies, actions, policies, and relationships that can reduce the risks associated with off-the-grid partying, including substance use.

      “We are so lucky to have the most amazing harm-reduction manager and team,” says Thomson. “Stacey Forrester is our lead, and she works year-round in her life, not just with Bass Coast but in many different directions, to educate people on harm reduction and consent culture. With Bass Coast, she puts a ton of effort into that education and prevention. So that it's not something you just think about once you get on site. She and our team find ways to weave that conversation into our contact points with people throughout the year. Education is the best prevention and best way to create respect.”

      The same goes for drug testing, the organizers say. Recognizing that substance use is ubiquitous at all events, the pair use technology including FTiR machines, fentanyl and benzo test strips, and reagent testing for on-site evaluations. 

      “We are really glad to have that out in sight, because every city or town is faced with a poisoned drug supply, and more knowledge is your best way to make safe decisions moving forward,” says Thomson. “The nice thing about these repeated messages is I think people that have come to Bass Coast numerous times really embody that consent culture now, and you can see that people in the crowd almost teach other people about it.”

      Vancouver-based dance company Zynth & Co in their Robots Are The Future get-up at Bass Coast 2022.
      Taylor Kanary

      “You see attendees checking in on other people,” Graham agrees. “And they’re like, ‘How are you? Do you need some water? Are you okay?’”

      Bass Coast’s community-first mentality might be a key draw for attendees, but it’s also a rallying point for those hand-picked for its roster. A festival created by local artists, for local artists, the event aims to elevate its performers and makers not just within the BC scene, but around the world. Over its tenure, the festival has invited back multiple DJs—about 30 per cent this year have played the event before—as well as giving some up-and-comers their first big stage. Doing so, the organizers say, is an important part of the festival’s ethos.

      The pair is also dedicated to artists’ international growth. In 2019 and 2022, Graham and Thomson secured a streaming partnership with Boiler Room—a household name in underground dance music, which broadcasts shows live on the internet. The sets by Graham DJing as the Librarian, and by Vancouver underground legend Max Ulis, have together garnered more than 55,000 views on YouTube. Hoping to extend that reach further, this year the co-founders have secured a new streaming partnership with a yet-to-be announced broadcaster, which they say will offer “a fun and slightly different vibe.”

      “The West Coast of Canada has an identity that is unique, and so that comes through in the streams,” says Graham. “You look at the crowd and you see the engagement, and the style, and the sense of fun that happens at Bass Coast. And so I think that part of it is showcasing our community to the world, but then also musically, Bass Coast has always been very much aligned with the musical direction of Europe. And so it's a really great opportunity for our local Pacific Northwest artists that are world class to have a world-class platform. And so we really love seeing artists featured on there and then succeeding, long after the festival is over. It's really introduced them to a whole new audience.”

      Ahmed agrees. This year, playing his unique blend of self-dubbed “decolonized bass music” for the first time on the festival’s main stage, the Anishinaabe Métis and North African DJ credits Bass Coast for providing a career-making platform for his work, and for supporting Indigenous creators. Ahmed is working with Bass Coast’s performance art director to include a choreographed live show that includes traditional dancing and regalia, and is planning to play some of his own tracks in his musical selection.

      “I would say that, for lack of a better word, it’s given me a little bit of a golden ticket, which I'm very appreciative of,” he says. “There's so many amazing artists out there that work so hard and don't necessarily get the opportunities, or get to be booked for certain things. But I very much am grateful that I'm involved with the Bass Coast community because it has literally opened so many other doors for me in the electronic music scene—not just in Canada, but in North America in general. I think that's a big part of the work that they're doing, to showcase all artists from all walks of life. With the uniqueness and the weirdness of Bass Coast, there's just something for everyone.”

      The beneficiaries of the festival’s platform aren’t just the musical performers. Each year, Bass Coast becomes the largest temporary collection of installation art in Canada. Across its 15-year history, the event has seen interactive pieces including an organ that blows bubbles, an enormous talking robot, a tent filled with taxidermied crow feet that could be pulled from the ceiling to reveal a person’s fortune, blacklight doodle walls, and giant mushrooms that light up in a sequence of colours that form a high-score game. Thomson often repeats that art turns concerts into music festivals, and that the organizers are dedicated to elevating the profile of local creators.

      Big Art's Tunnel played with light and sound at Bass Coast 202.
      Lu Busca / Lubufoto

      “A lot of people just wouldn't be exhibiting if they weren't exhibiting at the festival,” she says. “It's where they got their start. And it's also where a lot of artists met each other, and has led to collaborations that have turned into businesses in Vancouver, in Calgary, in Victoria, and Canada. They have then gone on and created art that's also exhibited in different communities across BC and at other music festivals, like Burning Man. And it's been a place not only for them to gain the experience of exhibiting, but create friendships and partnerships and collaborations that you really need to go on and be successful as a professional artist.”

      There are many reasons why Bass Coast continues to thrive in a hostile festival climate. The tangible, measurable logistics are one—15 years of experience have allowed the organizers to form deep relationships with suppliers, distributors, and operations managers that permitted them to negotiate a post-COVID crunch. Another is the legion of dedicated volunteers poised to help make sure the event runs smoothly, and that the entire festival site leaves no trace in the Merritt forest. That Bass Coast is both a boutique event—and that attendance is capped—helps keep demand high, as does the organizers’ dedication to year-round community events.

      But more than that, it’s the intangible element of the festival—the vibe—that brings attendees back again and again. It’s the dedication to fostering openness, the space for unjudged self-expression, and the delight of unexpected community encounters that leads returning revellers to dub the event “church.” While both the lineup and the art is important, it’s the feeling that Bass Coast offers, the organizers say, that means tickets sell out long before either is finalized. 

      “I think Bass Coast reminds us that we have this incredible and intense creativity that lives within all of us,” says Thomson. “And when you come to Bass Coast, I think you get really ignited. You get really connected with that deep creativity. And then our hope is that you go out after Bass Coast and share that creativity, and draw on that year-round in your own community.”