Sundown 2017 and the Making of a Music Festival

September 22, 2017. The sun hangs high over the Toronto skyline, the needlepoint of its crown jewel rippling and undulating on account of the smog. A heat alert is in effect.

Around us, volunteers rush to their stations as undeterred students fill into the parking lot. Most seek shelter in the shade of the stage, a few standing, most sitting, all smiling. With help from DJ Intrinity and Jayemkayem, whose lively blend of dancehall and rap echoes across the lake, spirits are kept high. Everyone knows they’re in for a treat, and it won’t be hot for long — the festival’s called Sundown after all. That slow descent to darkness is punctuated by a series of moments that collectively offer a narrative arc of sorts; a night of looking back, looking forward, and making the most of the present.

Taking time to honour the legacy of hip-hop, The Sorority jams to cuts from Tupac, Biggie, and Michie Mee before cementing their own place in the genre’s lineage with their own take on Sway’s Five Fingers of Death.

Though one member short, The Skins refuse to falter and unanimously dazzle with their electric blend of rock that runs the gamut — punk, acid, and synth among others — and passionate R&B.

Coronating himself as the next king of the city, Sean Leon dedicates his performance of Fav Rapper / Hundred Million Religion to his most important fan, his daughter, with whom he briefly shares the stage in a heartfelt display of vulnerability.

Joey Bada$$ digs deep into his musical catalogue for a live rendition of the fiery, fuck-you anthem that is “Survival Tactics,” much to the (audible) surprise and appreciation of Pro Era enthusiasts in the crowd.

And in a grand statement before concluding his set, Miguel expresses his love for the people of Toronto. “You represent the unity and diversity the world so desperately needs right now,” he proclaims, urging those in attendance to continue setting an example.

As it has the whole evening, the roar of the crowd speaks for itself.

48 hours prior, we had the opportunity to meet with some of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) personnel behind this year’s Sundown Music Festival: Susanne Nyaga, President; Brodie Metcalfe, Events Coordinator; and Pamesha Pande, Orientation Coordinator. Given the increasing frequency of festivals and curated showcases, we wanted an inside look at the planning and execution of such events.

Ziyaad: Can walk us through the process of organizing a festival?

Brodie: The process mainly starts with the idea of wanting to do one, or in our case, needing to do one. We do one annually. For us, there’s more of an expectation that we come through with something special. That might be different for people not accountable to a membership base, which we are (to the students of Ryerson). But from the start, it’s about coming up with the concept. A lot of that is based on the scope that we want, and then identifying the genre that we would want to work within and present to audiences. Then we can start to look at spaces, building everything around that. It’s interesting in Toronto, because if you’re looking at venues that are around 1000 to 1500 people, or if you’re looking to do an indoor thing, then there’s lots of options for you. But as soon as you want to go beyond that, there’s not much you can do. There are only a couple sites around the 2500 and 5000 marks. When it comes to doing outdoor festivals, there’s just a series of parks or private lots that are available, but they’re in high demand because there’s so much stuff going on.

Jamaal: Brodie, you mentioned you’ve been part of this process for about 6 years now. How has organizing a festival changed in that time, if at all?

B: The cost of everything is substantially different than it used to be. Artists deserve good pay for their live performances, but the record industry has made it so that artists have to rely more heavily on live show money, and the costs of artists now reflects that. I think expectations have changed too. Like, the kinds of artists that are coming in, how relevant they are, whether they’re charting, and whether they have a certain level of popularity. I think there’s a greater expectation that artists of a higher calibre are brought in.

Z: Speaking of expectation, I feel like Ryerson throughout the years has become known for its music festivals. How do you maintain that level of quality?

Susanne: I think it’s about seeking direction from the membership and also looking at what’s feasible. We’ve had some pretty dope concerts, and we learn from those concerts by seeing what went well or what didn’t go well. We also make sure we’re presenting new artists to students each year. From the perspective of the student union, our festivals are lit but that’s not all we’re responsible for. We also have to make sure we’re allocating our resources properly so that we can sustain ourselves for the rest of the year. But we still want to put on a great show at the beginning of the year.

B: When it comes down to it, even though there’s a lot of work and resources that go into the show itself, the RSU is not an entertainment company. As Susanne said, there’s like a million things that happen through this place. That being said, responding to the membership, and being in touch with what people on campus are interested in and what would they would want to hear; that’s what helps us guide and direct the focus of this show. I think it’s nice that over the years, no matter what, we’ve been able to put some local artists on the bill as well and have that as an introduction to people — especially for a school like Ryerson. We don’t have a ton on international students, but we do have a lot of people who are commuters and are therefore not necessarily aware of certain music from around the city. So this is a way to expose people to new artists.

J: You’ve mentioned this curatorial element in terms of finding artists whom you introduce to Ryerson students. When do those conversations start to take place when you’re organizing the festival?

S: They’re always taking place informally. There’s no formal venue where we’re like, “Who would you want us to bring?” Students know this concert is happening, and the more attention it’s gotten in the past few years, the more I’ve been approached by them. I know other executives have been approached as well, and it’s really interesting to learn what students are responding to; to listen to their message and then try to relay that back to them when we’re booking artists. But it starts early (laughs).

Z: So what is that message that you’re trying to put out as the RSU?

S: I think the initial message is, we as the RSU are here to support Ryerson students. That’s our blanket message. This is a space for students, by students. When we look at this festival, we’re trying to show that, yes, this is academia and a place of education, but there’s also a fun side to our experiences. On top of the services that we run and the campaigns that we have, we can also throw fun, sustainable events that students can attend an affordable rate and still have a good time. And also, making sure we’re communicating to students that financially we’re good and not wasting their money (laughs). We’re supporting them with access to fun events.

Pamesha: This is my first year working with the RSU, and I can definitely attest to the fact that, throughout the whole process, students are at the forefront of our decisions from beginning to end. Which is very exciting as a student of Ryerson. The greatest part about this festival is that it’s affordable and accessible.

B: When it comes to organizing stuff like this, we have a unique challenge every year, in that, there’s a brand new executive team for the Union that takes over on May 1st. And our show always falls within the beginning of the school year, but it’s really up to the new team to decide if they want to do a show, what they want it to look like, and figure out how much is going to be allocated for it. So we can’t really start planning anything concretely until that new team takes over, os acquainted with their positions, and is then in a position to make decisions. Whereas many festivals may be planned eight to 12 months in advance, we’re trying to produce something that’s of similarly high quality in a much shorter period of time. Shorter than most teams would be accustomed to. Or want (laughs).

J: So you have this incredibly short amount of time, and you know that there’s an expectation from students to keep topping your last event. How do you make sure you’re in touch with what they want? How do you gauge their demands and their tastes over time?

B: Hire younger people (laughs).

P: I think it’s a balance between gauging what they want but also trying to provide them with something new every year. That’s what music is all about. There’s a lot of innovation in the industry, and following suit, we want to expose students to fresh talent.

S: Students will tell you. They’ll stop me while I’m walking to work and be like, “Yo, can you bring so and so,” or “Hey, we really like that you brought this person last time.” You can see through their response to previous events. Then you just look at what’s realistic. Like, who can you actually bring. Of course, we can’t bring Beyonce. Everyone would probably love that but, we don’t have that in our budget. It’s a balance between looking at what’s realistic and what students are responding to. Most of our students are heavily engaged with mainstream music, and love R&B and hip-hop. That’s a trend that we see. That culture is something we see on campus.

Z: It’s great that the students can rely on you to have that back-and-forth. Can you tell us of your background and previous experience that you bring to your positions? Like you said, you’re not an entertainment company, but you still manage to find a way to bring a team together and put on successful events.

S: These two definitely have more experience than I do with entertainment (laughs). I’m a Social Work student. Of course, I’ve planned events here and there, but smaller ones. The largest event I ever planned was a conference for 150 people. I think the main thing that I bring to the table is that connection to students.

P: I’m a Creative Industries graduate. I graduated from Ryerson a couple months ago. My program is essentially what I do here. It’s merging the business and the arts together to build entertainment for the community around you.

B: I’ve been working here for the past six years. With the sheer volume of events, doing them over and over again and getting a chance to refine them, it’s been a good experience for myself. I’ve organized a number of the concerts that we’ve done since 2012. I’ve also taken work outside of Ryerson and have worked with Pride Toronto, both as a curator and as the programming director this past year. And I work with an Indigenous record label called Revolutions Per Minute, and do some artist management with groups in the city too. All of it is centered around this industry. But it’s definitely helpful to be putting this together with people who are younger than me. Not that I’m old. Although Pamesha says I’m old all the time (laughs). I’m 30 and I haven’t been in school since 2010, so I can already start to see the shifts in taste, the difference between what I’m liking and what I’m into versus what a student might want. Every year I’m trying to find music that I feel people would like, while also discovering what it is that they want regardless of my opinion on it.

Z: Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced when putting this year’s festival together?

B: The Toronto Islands closure. Because generally, when you’re looking at who gets priority in the shifting and moving of spaces due to that closure, it’s organizations that submitted applications and have had those events in the runnings for months and months before there was ever even a concern that the flooding might happen. So I think when our organizing kicked into gear for this year, there was a long waiting game to see if we’d actually be able to get a space that was City of Toronto property. We ended up going with a private lot, which has its own benefits and drawbacks, but we’re very happy with it. That was an issue for many people this summer — something like 360 events.

P: The short timeline was also difficult, but it fostered a lot of creative problem solving. It was fun. All in all, the fact that it’s two days away is crazy. It’s happening!

J: What’s that sense of anticipation like? How do you feel when you’re a day away, or two days away, and how does it feel to see all the work begin to manifest in front of you?

S: I’ve personally never been a part of this process before, so it’s going to be really dope to see everyone come out. To see the floor plan of the space and then to actually be there and see what we’ve created from the ground up — I’m super excited.

P: The response has been great. We’ve been out on the street for a few days now, and what makes us excited is hearing how excited the students are. A lot of them have come to us and said something like, “see you Friday!” or “We’re all ready for Friday!” It means a lot to us, especially in the 48 hours leading up to the event. It’s pretty incredible.

B: I think, on my end, it’s different for each event. It depends on how many things are planned in advance versus how much last-minute stuff is happening. In particular, when it comes to coordinating transportation, hotels, and flights; I feel the best when it’s all done. Certainly, I like to take as many moments as possible during the event itself to step back and reflect on the process. For large-scale events that I’ve worked on, it’s kind of go-go-go until the very end.

J: Brodie, given how long you’ve worked on these events yourself, have you been desensitized to the scale of the events you’re planning, or does it still strike you as an exceptionally large undertaking?

B: I always have this funny feeling at the end. I think to myself, “How did we do that?” I look back like, “Wow. If I had to do that again, I don’t know if I could. It’s too much.” But when it comes to planning, I try my best not to think about the magnitude, and just do when needs to be done. So it becomes very task-oriented. And that’s a manageable way to approach it. It’s not until I’m reflecting on everything that it starts to seem daunting. Only in hindsight. I don’t get that feeling until it’s finished.

Z: So what are you expecting festival day to look like for all of you? What are your roles going to be?

P: A 6 a.m. start time (laughs). I’ll be focused on hospitality. It’s gonna be a long day for everyone.

B: There’s been a lot of long days (laughs). I’ll be taking on an oversight role. We have a lot of people in place to coordinate and execute different aspects of the festival, from ticket booths, to security, to vendors, to site and stage management, and everything in between. My role is to make sure all those things are going smoothly.

S: My role will be to help out in any way I can. I’ll probably be spending most of the day with Pam, assisting with hospitality. Any time someone needs help getting something done, I’ll be there.

J: Now, I imagine that as much as you plan things out, there are still certain things you can’t really do or predict until the day-of. Do you find yourselves obsessing over those details beforehand, or do you block them out until something actually happens?

P: The team that we have is really great at crisis management. When it happens, we know we’re all on the same page, so we know we can deal with problems as they arise as opposed to freaking out before the event. There’s no point in worrying yourself. If something happens, we work quick, work efficiently, and get it done. Brodie’s the one who taught us how to be like that.

B: I think that if the only thing you have to worry about is smaller crises that might spontaneously pop up, you’re in pretty good shape. It means you’ve planned everything else, right? I’ve found myself working on other projects where I’m filling in for a specific role, and I can see that there are certain things that haven’t been done in advance. Like general work that if done in advance, wouldn’t be such a concern on the day of the event. Because if any additional crises pop up, that puts a lot of strain on the organizers. In our case, we’re in pretty good shape. Right now we’re just confirming that everything’s in place. Instead of stressing, what’s more important is understanding how to spring into action when required. And really, that can only be learned by experiencing it firsthand.

Z: I think that might be one of the greater fears for aspiring curators and organizers. The thought of those unexpected crises might put them off of running an event at all. Do you have any advice for future festival planners, or even your successors down the road?

P: Your biggest challenges will occur way before you even get to the day-of. By that point, you’ll be used to handling those issues. Being afraid is pointless. You will encounter challenges, and it’ll be great regardless because it gives you the opportunity to think outside of the box. Thinking about it in a holistic way will definitely take you farther than fixating on smaller issues. Think about the big picture and then identify all your needs. Fear can be removed from the whole process.

S: You need to build a dope team. What makes our team great isn’t that we’re all perfect; it’s that we each have strengths and weakness that are complemented and supported by everyone else. You want a team with a diverse set of skills. You want a team that mirrors all the different aspects of putting a festival together.

B: I’d recommend starting way in advance. Sometimes you get an idea and you want to tap into it right away, but for anybody who’s planning a festival or any large-scale event, if you give yourself a year you’re good. It’s the difference between a smooth and steady build versus the very intense rush of trying to make it all happen at once. You need realistic expectations and a long-term vision. I think it’d be difficult to execute a successful festival if your plan is to only do it once. If that’s the case, it would be good to reflect on the reasons behind it. If you want them to be annual or even more frequent, they should be contributing something useful and meaningful to Toronto, and ultimately serve the wellbeing of your community. The experience should be beneficial for people. The last thing I’d suggest is just doing everything you can to minimize financial risks. For example, finding multiple ways to generate revenue for the event is really important. It’s great if you don’t only have to rely on ticket sales. That’s the most stressful thing: whether or not you’re going to break the bank. Give yourself time to work on partners, sponsorships, and media.

Thank you to the Ryerson Students’ Union for making the time to speak to us. You can keep up with their services and events on their site.

Were you at Sundown? What did you think of the show? Who would you like to see next year? What do you think the future has in store for Toronto and music festivals? Reply to the tweet below to join the conversation:

Photos taken by: Ziyaad Haniff