Atlin Arts and Music Festival: Not so Humble Beginnings

Thousands of people rolled through Atlin, B.C., for the Atlin Arts and Music Festival and camped nearly anywhere possible. Photo by Brooke Peloquin, July 7, 2017.

ATLIN, B.C. — From the back patio of her log cabin, Cindy Merry can see hundreds of campers clustered together in a large field adjacent to her home. Just beyond the rows of tents and RVs are stages where music will thrum late into the night.

Over the course of three days, thousands of visitors will roll through the small town of Atlin, B.C., for the ever-popular Atlin Arts and Music Festival, which Merry had once helped bring to life in 2003.

But the festival hasn’t always been big names and flashing lights — it all started with a small environmental group of Atlin residents, the Taku Wilderness Association, who were looking for ways to bring more people, and money, to their community.

“They were thinking, ‘There’s so many artists, how can we bring this to the world so they’ll come and appreciate the artists, which brings money into the community?”” said Merry, a member of the environmental group and the festival board’s former bookkeeper. “That was one of the things we came up with. ‘How about a festival?’”

In its first year, the festival drew in nearly 800 people, 70 performers, 30 artisans, 20 Atlin artist, 12 music and art workshops, three stages and two art exhibitions. A larger turnout than any of the festival’s organizers had ever expected.

Cindy Merry was one of the original board members that brought the Arts and Music Festival to Atlin, B.C. Photo by Brooke Peloquin, July 7, 2017.
“I don’t think any of us had any more expectations than, ‘Let’s just try this and see how it goes,’” said Merry.

Aside from showcasing the town’s thriving artists and musicians, the festival board had a very specific vision for the event: to be a “green gathering,” family friendly and culturally inclusive.

Atlin lies on the traditional land of the Taku River Tlingits First Nations, and the festival’s original organizers saw the festival as a way to bring the two communities together.

“We felt that there was this abyss that always came between us and we thought we could maybe just share because there are artists in the First Nations,” explained Merry.

Joan Jack, a First Nations Atlin B.C. lawyer, echoes the ability of the festival to act as a space to bridge the gap between the Atlin community and the Taku River Tlingits.

Important interactions between the two groups have their place at the festival, she said.

“We need to create spaces and places where we bump up against each other, kind of gently, where it creates a little bit of discomfort and a little bit of familiarity so that after you bump up enough times, then you have that relationship, you become acquaintances,” described Jack.

Despite the festival’s major success in its first year, like bringing the First Nations and Atlin communities together, there were still many kinks to work out.

As a community of only around 300 people on any given day, the first festivalgoers found themselves sharing three outhouses — which proved to be not nearly enough. For musicians, blown fuses were a constant problem because Atlin didn’t have enough power to run the festival and generators were an alternative source of energy.

But the Atlin Arts and Music Festival has come a long way. Dozens of outhouses are sourced from outside the town and a power pole has been installed to keep the tunes flowing smoothly.

“We’re a little more professional now. We’ve learned a lot along the way and learned from our mistakes,” explained Earl Clark, a longstanding volunteer of the festival, who now stations himself at the main gate to manage the throngs of visitors. “We now have a computer ticket system and we scan tickets with barcodes so we can eliminate ticket fraud. We can account for everything now, it’s a business.”

Earl Clark is a longstanding volunteer at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival and says there’s no better place to listen to music and come together as a community. Photo by Brooke Peloquin, July 7, 2017.

The festival’s popularity has grown exponentially over the past decade, but its organizers are confident it has stayed true to their original vision.

“I think it’s pretty true to its spirit,” said Clark.

“For nine months of the year, people wouldn’t even think of coming here because it’s so cold but after that, the summers are beautiful and what a place to listen to good music. What could be better? Nothing.”

Originally published on Stories North, July 10, 2017.