Since starting in 2007, Halifax's OBEY Convention has established itself by continuously rallying behind artists and sounds that exist along the periphery. Despite being based in a relatively isolated Atlantic Canadian city best known for its contributions to Celtic music and indie rock, that sees fewer touring bands throughout the year, the festival will celebrate their tenth anniversary May 25-28.
What began as a DIY showcase for founder Darcy Spidle's label DIVORCE Records, has grown into an annual multi-venue gathering that's seen performances from Canadian and international artists including Mykki Blanco, Tim Hecker, Julianna Barwick, Le1f, RP Boo, and more. For the 2017 edition, the organizers have put together yet another incredible lineup, featuring Philadelphia noise producer Moor Mother, Virginia-based experimental artist Elysia Crampton, Montreal avant-garde composer Kara-Lis Coverdale, and New York industrial duo Uniform.
We recently spoke with Spidle by phone, and creative director Andrew Patterson and executive director Kat Shubaly via Skype, to learn about OBEY's humble beginnings and the secrets to their success.
1. Have a strong premise and build on a community that exists.
The festival was born out of DIVORCE Records, the experimental and noise punk label Spidle started in 1999, as a place for "weirdos to converge." "When OBEY started it was the hangover from the 'Halifax-is-the-next-Seattle' thing. There was a lot of big acts like Sloan and Thrush Hermit, and there was this culture that you could really make it as a pop rock band in Halifax," says Patterson. "I think the really rich underground punk scene of bands like Be Bad and Torso were responding to that culture."
While experimental music often gets a bad name for being too academic or elitist, points out Spidle, the convention's goal was to present another side to the genre. "With the festival I wanted to show things that were exciting and weird, not stuffy or boring," he explains. "OBEY was trying to present another side of that: people making weird music in their bedrooms, not in universities."
2. You don't have to do it alone.
After four years of the festival, Spidle took a break and admits he wasn't sure he was going to come back. But spurred on by a friend, he registered OBEY as a non-profit, and started handing the reins over to people like Patterson and Shubaly, who both got involved around 2013. He says he still helps out where he's needed, but is "very, very grateful that they stepped up and took it over, and I'm excited to see where it goes.
3. Be adaptable to change.
Over the years, Spidle says OBEY has evolved from a punk and noise festival to bigger, soft-seater shows, graduating from venues like Gus' Pub to Fort Massey United Church. "We've had people like [free jazz saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann. I see the connection between what he does and punk music and noise music," he says. "Whether it's a New Age zither player or [power electronics act] Bastard Noise, there's a subversive element, I see it as a part of a similar rejection of the mainstream.
Shubaly adds that with the exodus of Halifax artists in recent years, they've looked to other Canadian scenes like Montréal, while including more international artists. "The term I like to use is 'underrepresented music,' which sort of allows for an openness of genre and identity, and culture," explains Patterson. "It isn't about punk music specifically or electronic music specifically, it's a platform for voices that otherwise go underrepresented in Halifax."
4. There will always be setbacks, but they'll help define you.
Even after building up its reputation, all of the organizers admit it can be difficult drawing acts to play at the festival. "There's a risk too. It's a catch-22. Do I spend the money on an artist, knowing I'll make half of it back? Will this person come, do I have enough money to entice this person to come, is there somewhere nearby for them to stop after?" says Shubaly. "You try and make it worthwhile for people that come here."
"Because we don't get a lot of touring bands, there's a lot of support for local music and the bar isn't set so high," Patterson says. "You're never going to see Brian Eno, but you can see Laraaji, and that's pretty amazing." Spidle explains the city's size and the experimental scene's size relative to that haven't hindered the festival at all, since "half our audience is typically out of province," which he credits to their marketing. "Logistically it's a very difficult festival to pull off, but it's a labour of love in a lot of ways," he says.
5. Don't repeat yourself.
"There's so many festivals," sighs Patterson. "A lot of the major festivals here, and even some of the indie ones all have the same headliners, every other year. They have this stable of artists because they know they'll sell tickets, just playing it safe on the business side at the cost of the aesthetic or the audience's experience. With us, someone always says 'God who else would book that band?' I think we have a role and are obligated in a way, but also feel grateful to hold that space."
6. Don't be afraid to dream (literally).
Patterson admits that at least several of the organizers' best ideas have come from the depths of their imaginations. Last year, they made OBEY free for everyone under 19, an objective that came to the founder in a dream. "It started with Darcy calling me and saying 'I had a dream last night where we did this, and I woke up and posted it on Twitter,'" recalls Patterson, who adds they hope to continue the policy for years to come.
7. Make it accessible to people outside your immediate audience.
"This year we were able to realize one of the dreams Kat and I have had for awhile, getting our festival posters printed in multiple languages," says Patterson. Through a friend at Common Roots Urban Farm, a Halifax community garden which attracts new Canadian immigrants as plot owners and volunteers, they were able to arrange the translation of a show flyer to Arabic, Swahili, and Nepali. The creative director views reaching out to these communities—who might not be familiar with the music—as underlooked opportunities to reach new audiences. "There's something special about OBEY happening in this town that's not totally tuned in to what we're doing," he says. "If you can convince someone to walk into a Moor Mother show, you're going to blow their mind."
To get tickets and find out more info about OBEY Convention X, head over to their website.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.