To get to Camp Wavelength, take the ferry to Toronto Island and journey toward the most southwestern beach of Gibraltar Point, past the outdated amusement rides of Centreville and the picturesque fountains. Depending on the time of day, a range of sounds will summon you: the guitar rock of hometown heroes The Wooden Sky, the experimental offerings of Montreal-based Doldrums, the blissed-out folk of Toronto's The Weather Station.The head counsellor for the weekend is Jonathan (Jonny Dovercourt) Bunce, artistic director of the inaugural Camp Wavelength and co-founder of its namesake organization, the grassroots arts collective Wavelength. Formed in 2000, Wavelength began as a DIY weekly music series that's evolved into an artist-run non-profit with a history of discovering local indie talent. (It credits itself with helping to discover Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and the Constantines.) Now in its 15th year, Wavelength is looking to add another milestone to its legacy: Camp Wavelength.
The three-day event, from Aug. 28 to 30, developed out of the Wavelength- and the Artscape-produced ALL CAPS! festival, which ran on the island from 2009 to 2013. With local titans The Wooden Sky, Holy Fuck and Do Make Say Think headlining, along with dozens more musicians and artists filling out the diverse programming, it is Wavelength's most ambitious project to date.
But Camp Wavelength joins a crowded roster of festivals that have set up shop in Toronto over the past few years. Along with Drake's hip-hop-heavy OVO Fest and the bevy of dance and EDM music events such as Electric Island and Veld, there's the onslaught of alt-rock affairs such as the Arts & Crafts-produced Field Trip, the new British import Bestival and the upcoming not-your-parents'-folk-festival TURF, to name just a few. How can a new entry set itself apart from a literally crowded field?
If Field Trip is the festival for toddler-toting parents to drink craft beer while jamming to Kevin Drew and Bestival is a psychedelic Halloween in July for twentysomethings, then Camp Wavelength promises an opportunity for adults to relive – or experience for the first time – the joys of summer camp with a helping of pan-Canadian indie music.
"We've all kind of lived through summer camp through watching Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer," says Bunce from a park bench in Trinity Bellwoods park, decked out in a green ringer T-shirt, cargo shorts and Wayfarers, resembling a camp counsellor. "This is a chance to act it out."
But despite Wavelength's long-standing roots as an independent music institution and Camp Wavelength's unique offerings – it's the only festival in the city limits that has camping – the competition for those coveted summer weekends is fierce. In the city's new saturated market, a small, mostly volunteer-run event such as Camp Wavelength (with a capacity of just 1,000 for the whole weekend) ends up competing for some of the same audience and acts as huge festivals such as Wayhome, the Neil Young-headlining juggernaut that debuted two hours north of Toronto in Oro-Medonte last month (itself running the same weekend as the Hillside Festival two hours away in in Guelph).
With music festivals nearly every weekend, is Toronto – with its newly coined "music sector development officer" and "music city alliance" with Austin, Texas – at risk of suffering from festival fatigue?
Perhaps, judging from the numbers. Many of Toronto's indie rock fests aren't exactly bringing in Coachella-level profits, which raked in $78.3-million (U.S.) in ticket sales alone in 2014. Bestival fell short of selling out, and local events such as Camp Wavelength, TURF and Field Trip all rely on government grants and sponsorship deals.
When Jeff Cohen dreamed up TURF in 2011, Toronto had the fourth largest live music market in North America, but without any major outdoor music festivals from June to September. "There hadn't been a roots festival since Mariposa Folk Festival left the city [in 1999], which was a long time ago," says Cohen, who is also the founder of Collective Concerts.
After two years of persuading Fort York to open its gates to concerts, Cohen and a small team launched TURF. "I won't lie to you: When we first thought up this idea for a three-day festival, we thought we were going to be the only one," Cohen says. "We were sort of surprised when Field Trip debuted in the same year, but I'm not surprised that all these people who are doing this came to the same conclusion we did, which is that there is a huge void in the Toronto market."
This year TURF has its biggest headliners to date with Wilco, Pixies and Of Monsters and Men, and has already sold more tickets than in its past three editions. Running from Sept. 18 to 20 at Fort York Garrison Common, TURF will be going head to head with the American-based Riot Fest, a punk-rock festival taking place the same weekend at Downsview Park.
"There's a danger in doing these things," says Cohen. "It's not like a brick-and-mortar business, like running the Phoenix or the Kool Haus, where you can have set costs and weather can't bother you. It's risky."
On top of direct competition for prime weekend spots, there is also the effect of radius clauses. Put in place by some festivals, a radius clause prevents bands from playing other shows within a certain time period of their dates. (The North by Northeast festival cancelled its radius clause for 2015 after backlash from the local music community.)
Yet Camp Wavelength is betting on its small-scale, intimate set-up to differentiate itself from the pack. Alongside the musical programming, Camp Wavelength boasts camp-inspired extra-curriculars: The Wooden Sky's frontman Gavin Gardiner leads a morning run across the island, art weirdos Posi Vibez host a capture the flag-style game dubbed Orbz, and those inspired by the Blue Jays' current standings can join a pick-up softball game. (Non-athletic festivalgoers can hunker down at the arts and crafts table with local DIY publication Static Zine.)
"You're not standing in a field burning in the sun drinking overpriced beer," Bunce says. "You're on the same level as the artists. You're on the same boat. You're camping out in the same field. You're part of a community for the whole weekend."
It's this intimacy that drew The Wooden Sky, who are touring Europe this fall, to choose Camp Wavelength as the one festival they would play this summer in the city.
"Wavelength is not a cash-cow promotion company. It's something people do for the love of finding new music," Gardiner says. "Being invited to be part of that community is important to us because we tour so much. We're not as tapped into that sense of community as much as we'd like to be."
And unlike events at Fort York's Garrison Common, Hanlan's Point beach or Downsview Park – all of which are hotbeds for festivals – Wavelength doesn't need to worry about its location getting swiped.
"We know it's important to our programming to have this kind of event," says Lisa Cristinzo of Artscape Gibraltor Point, which rents its space to Camp Wavelength. "We've had other requests for camping [events] and I will say, 'Nope, that's a Wavelength thing.'"
As for Bunce, he's confident the niche Camp Wavelength has carved out will fare just fine against the city's influx of new festivals. He's most concerned about an institution even more long-standing than Wavelength.
"Our biggest direct competition is people going to the cottage," Bunce says with a laugh. "That's more of a direct competition than any other festival."