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Inside the music: step behind the curtain at the venerable Vancouver Island Music Festival

Big Read: VIMF in the Comox Valley exemplifies the spirit of an Island summer music festival
Walk Off The Earth

It is the Granddaddy of all Vancouver Island music festivals.

Sunfest may the hot new kid in town, and the Symphony Splash might have a higher profile amongst those who seldom venture north of the Malahat.

But Vancouver Island MusicFest, hosted annually in the Comox Valley since 1997, perhaps best exemplifies the spirit of an Island summer music festival. More than 7,000 music fans gather in mid-July every year for a family-friendly mix of workshops, art, food sunshine and especially music — featuring an array of acts new and old, ranging from the obscure to instantly recognizable.

Last weekend, as Walk Off the Earth, Passenger, Ry Cooder and Arlo Guthrie headlined a cast of more than 50 acts, members of Black Press Media’s Comox Valley team stepped behind the curtain to provide you with a taste of what it’s like to work an Island event of this scope.

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The average shoot lasts about nine minutes.

The lighting is irregular and constantly changing, the subjects are moving and unpredictable. Tightly-packed fans are inches away from the back of your head.

But for photographers, being in the pit is an experience many would never trade.

For major concerts and festivals, there is a small area at the front of the stage - about five feet wide - where photographers, reps, producers and others involved in the production stand to watch the band.

Most people, including photographers, are tightly packed into the space, but the exhilarating rush of getting ‘the shot’ within the three-song rule is an experience unlike no other.

Comox Valley Record photographer Erin Haluschak has been very fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to photograph bands and musicians in a variety of settings — from dark, sweaty clubs to large stadiums and arenas; shooting in the pit is among her favourite moments of being a photographer.

Unlike many of the pits, the one in front of the main stage at Vancouver Island MusicFest is like stepping from a canoe into luxury yacht: there is space to move around, room to put down a bag and a (relatively) generous area to sit down.

On Friday night, photographers were shuffled into the pit, eagerly checking camera settings minutes prior to Ontario-based Walk Off The Earth taking the stage.

As soon as the band stepped on the stage, the clock starts ticking: photographers get only the first three songs to shoot, and then are escorted out, as to not block the view of those in the front rows.

Shooting concerts is an exhilarating experience, similar to shooting sports. The action is fast, the lighting is never perfect and the expressions are unpredictable.

Adaptability is a skill needed when shooting in the pit - whether it is the lighting you didn’’t expect, a band member positioned on the opposing side of the stage or management changing their mind and ushering out the media after one song instead of three (the big-name band shall remain nameless), you have to work skilfully, quickly and thoughtfully.

As for Friday night, WOTE was energetic as anticipated, with a variety of lighting changes throughout the three-song shooting window. Singer-songwriter Sarah Blackwood bounced around the stage with a ukulele in one hand and a microphone in the other.

Sneaking though the pit is a bit like a scene from Mission Impossible; you don’t want to block the view of other photographers nor the crowd behind you, but you want to move to get the right shot, then sneak back out again.

Once the three songs are up, the photographers are shuffled out to the backstage area, where, almost on cue, the shooters quickly hunch over the backs of their cameras to check their shots (‘’chimping’’).

Thumbs are quickly scrolling through the shots until you spot the one - the right angle, the right exposure, the right action and the right expression.

The rush of being in the pit comes second to that same feeling when you know you’ve found the shot.

And then you can’t wait to do it all over again.

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Three days after Vancouver Island MusicFest, the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds are nearly back to normal, except for a few trailers and a handful of port-a-potties yet to be removed from the field.

This transformation is thanks to more than 200 volunteers who worked tirelessly to set up and take down — part of the team of 1,300 volunteers who worked throughout the festival.

While most festival goers only witness the finished product, volunteers and employees had already been on the grounds for days, starting work nearly a week in advance to make sure everything was ready.

MusicFest production manager Cresslynn Brodhagen says she is tired but happy with the results. With four days of setting up stages, tents, booths and even unloading nearly 40 trucks, plus an extra three days of take down, Brodhagen says she can’t even guess how many volunteer hours it took to put the event together.

Kilian Barker could be found helping set up and take down. As a kid, he was lured into volunteering by the prospect of driving golf carts. That was 16 years ago, but he continues to give his time to the festival every year.

“I’ve been coming since I was a toddler and then my mom volunteered one year and told me you get to drive golf carts,” he says. “I started volunteering, did it more, liked it more, and now the golf carts are a little redundant.”

Barker says enjoys working with people who have a common focus and similar interests.

“There’s people you only see here that seem to disappear for the rest of the year,” he says. “You’re only here because you want to be here… and then you get a big party in the middle of it, then tear it all down.”

Brodhagen, who has been working with the festival for 20 years, says she sees many returning volunteers and knows of many that take time off work to help out at the event. She adds that not all volunteers are local and some come from all over the world including England and Mexico.

MusicFest staff will have a much deserved week off before some jump right back into preparations for next year.

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As opposed to using a heavy-handed approach, Kurtis Ingborg prefers to rely on “good old-fashioned customer service” when it comes to dealing with the masses at Vancouver Island MusicFest.

Ingborg — better known as Tiny — and his wife, Chariti Briosi, have been in charge of security at the annual gathering in Courtenay for upwards of 10 years.

There were no incidents of hand-cuffing at last weekend’s festival, and police only had to remove one intoxicated patron.

“During the day I’m the only one patrolling the site from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Tiny said. “I rarely have problems. We certainly have a more adult crowd now…Fortunately, our police officers who were assigned to the festival were woefully bored. We kept them inactive, which was great.”

Of nearly 1,300 MusicFest volunteers, about 350 help out in security over the course of the entire festival week.

“We have 18 licensed security guards, because beer gardens, they have to be licensed in backstage areas, anywhere there’s alcohol. Or concerns of liability, bag checks at the front gate. Checking people as they come in, basically. And a constant roving patrol of two to three guys for the whole weekend.”

It’s tempting to think the biggest problem security encounters is dealing with fence jumpers — which they don’t chase — or intoxicated people. But Tiny said logistics around getting campers in off the roads on the first day is one of the biggest challenges.

“It’s all in the approach. If you’re going to be heavy-handed you’re going to get resistance and make challenges for yourself,” he said. “The headaches used to be around camping, when it was strictly show up on Friday with a pup tent, a pack of hotdogs and a case of beer. As soon as we went to an online reservation system, we didn’t have the young crowd wanting to camp, because they won’t spend the money six months in advance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ‘Better fences make better festivals.’ You get big, eight-foot, solid, bolted fencing, and everything is easy after that.”

Other than denying entry to a few people, Tiny said security has yet to encounter a problem in any MusicFest beer garden.

“All in all it’s a great festival,” he said. “The biggest thing is improvement for next year. It’s an ever-evolving thing. The grounds don’t change, the stages don’t change that much, but the processes have to evolve. It’s a big site.”

Tiny has appeared onstage at a couple of festivals where he has performed a spoken word version of John Lennon’s Imagine, with the lyrics changed.

“The idea was to try to get the crowd to warm up to the fact that we’re not jerks, we’re not heavy-handed. You can do a festival as long as you have the ability to verbally de-escalate anyone at any time.”

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And then there is that one behind-the-scenes figure who actually has to face the crowd.

MCing a festival has its own challenges. It’s up to an MC to keep the crowd entertained, while the roadies tear down and set up, between acts.

There are duties that must be tended to - sponsors and volunteers to thank, public service announcements to make, and if there’s time, a little humour always helps. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that no one in the audience (with the possible exception of a family member or two) is there to listen to you.

Get in, say what you have to say, then get out. When it comes to introducing the bands, there are different guidelines depending on the stage.

In regards to main stage headliners, not much needs to be said. Get some crowd reaction, by asking if they are ready for the show, then introduce the act and leave.

But quite often with festivals there are side-stage workshops and collaborations throughout the weekend. Much like the sound crew, these stages take the most preparation for MCs as well.

There could be up to half a dozen acts sharing a stage, and while one act could be well-known, it’s vital that all acts are given equal billing, when sharing such a stage. One or two lines on every act/performer will help the audience connect with the show.

“I usually spend a few hours researching my shows, looking for nuggets about the acts I am going to introduce,” said Comox Valley Record editor Terry Farrell, who MCed numerous workshops at Vancouver Island MusicFest this year.

“But the biggest thing is making sure you know how to pronounce their names properly. ‘John Paul Jones’ is pretty straightforward, but ‘Rob Ickes’ or ‘Shakura S’Aida,’ not so much. This year, I actually Googled ‘Rob Ickes interview video’ and found one, where the host introduced Rob at the beginning. Problem solved. But otherwise, I will track down the artist backstage and ask. They’re always grateful.”

Farrell said the best part of MCing is connecting with the musicians on a more personal level.

“At festivals, a lot of the artists are in the area for a few days. When we are hanging backstage, we’ll talk about things to do in the community, what golf courses to play, what restaurants to check out, even some quiet swimming holes. At the end of the day, they are all just people, with interests and hobbies like everyone else.”

Farrell said that while he’s not one to be star-struck, one incident in particular has always stuck with him.

“I remember a few years ago, Lyle Lovett was playing MusicFest. I was MCing a workshop in the barn and he came in the back door with his camera gear. He sheepishly asked if I would allow him side-stage to take a few photos of a band that was on stage. I thought ‘are you kidding me? You’re Lyle Lovett. You can do whatever you like.’ But it was so cool that someone of that magnitude still had the respect to ask a volunteer for permission.”

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With clear skies and warm temperatures bathing the crowd at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, this year’s festival was “fantastic” according to the man who makes it happen.

Artistic director and producer of VIMF Doug Cox notes there were no major security issues or events over the course of the festival.

But even the boss has his moments where fandom takes precedence. And for Cox, the highlight of the weekend was meeting American musician Ry Cooder.

“It was really one of the most fun moments of my life. He is personally one of my favourites and I’ve been trying to get him to come for 22 years.”

Cox and Cooder snapped a rare backstage photo together and Cox says Cooder had a great time at the festival.

The musician wasn’t the only one enjoying the weekend; Passenger, otherwise known as Mike Rosenberg, was seen around the festival site following his Saturday night set on the main stage.

Cox explains he was having a good time, and spent all of Sunday exploring the music and sounds of VIMF.

“That’s a good sign,” he says, and adds previous performers such as David Crosby and Emmylou Harris have spent additional time at the site outside of their respective performances.

“(The festival) is far enough away (geographically) and I think they love that it’s not a huge music industry event. Sometimes they’re unsure of where they’re going to, and they might expect things to be a little bit rickety. But our production standards, especially on the main stage, are incredible. I hear that more and more.

“(It’s a festival) performers now have on their bucket list.”

The dates for MusicFest 2019 have already been set – July 12 to 14. For more information, visit

Jean Cameron, MusicFest coordinator of construction, and site crew volunteer, Maya Schaad, help with the final day of take down on July 18, 2018. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela
Ry Cooder will grace the main stage at Vancouver Island MusicFest on Saturday, July 14. The three-day, multi-genre festival takes place July 13-15 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds in Courtenay. Photo via You never know who you will run into a MusicFest. #lylelovett Photo by Terry Farrell