Masters for artists: Spaghetti Western Music Festival keeps things free and fair

Monday 15th, August 2016 / 16:54
By Arielle Lessard
With her bold, soulful country-folk, Justine Vandergrift shines a light at this year's Spaghetti Fest. 

With her bold, soulful country-folk, Justine Vandergrift shines a light at this year’s Spaghetti Fest.

CALGARY — The Spaghetti Western Music Festival is now a grassroots music production in its ninth year and still somehow manages to elude some Calgary natives and wide notoriety. With a solid audience of yearly returners and casual drop-ins, the Spaghetti Fest is a family-friendly festival built on free admission, strong community partnerships with the Bow Valley Music Club and the Calgary Downtown Association, and, most importantly, fair artist compensation.

Matt Masters, the festival’s creator and organizer year after year, chimes in and notes “we’re not a festival with a team and a staff, it’s such a small operation, we don’t send out a press release months in advance, we essentially just throw a party and it keeps working.”

With a fresh lineup every year, “One of the things we’re doing differently this year, while the festival is a fixed event on August 20, is incorporating a full roster of other shows the week leading up to the event.” Plans include daily shows on the Calgary Downtown Association stage on Stephen Avenue, a kick-off party at Wine-Oh’s the day before the event, and a Spaghetti Western songwriter series at the Ironwood. “All told we have about 20 musical performances planned throughout the week. It’s a good chance to get people involved when you’re at a fixed location,” says Masters, who’s most excited about having Steve Dawson headlining this year.

“[Dawson] is someone who’s been a performer at a high level for 20 years, has won a bunch of Junos, and was kind of an early adopter of the folk movement. He’s a world-class guitar player and we’re really excited to have him perform.”

Founded on the desire to have a free country music downtown, Spaghetti Fest differentiates itself through “eight hours of top notch high-calibre Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) winning artists. It fills a niche that doesn’t get filled otherwise.” In total contrast to something like Country Thunder or Stampede, Spaghetti Fest’s main mission is “to remain totally accessible and affordable” in order to bring a special kind of attention to country music as a diverse genre.

Masters and his co-organizer and wife, Amanda Burgener, make special efforts to have a 50/50 split between local and out of town – this year with four Calgary acts and four out-of-province acts. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Masters says, “We also try and have gender parity and representation from First Nations at all of our events. It’s important to us and to me as a presenter, I want to make sure that it is representative and accessible, that’s part of the drive to keep it free. I want to make sure everyone can come and experience our great lineup”.

“Historically, we tend to book bands a year or two before they do a big festival. The first time we booked Romi Mayes, she went on to win Western Canadian Music Awards three years in a row; we had Justin Rutledge two years before he won a Juno. All sorts of artists, some from the new country world, have worked with us and then gone on to an Alberta Country Music nomination. It’s pretty amazing to be able to hook them up when they’re just starting out or when they’re just breaking out West. That way they have a chance to get an audience and some network, and the next time they’re around they’re always a step further ahead. It’s great to watch that happen.”

Masters is all about the music, even the festival’s name, though it refers to old westerns, has a musical throwback. “Our tagline in the festival started as New Directions in Western and Country music, if you think of old westerns like the John Ford era of film, with John Wayne for example, there’s a lot of French horn but then when Sergio Leone started making spaghetti westerns he introduced electric guitars and distorted voices. Essentially, he brought some rock ‘n’ roll into film soundtracks and we were inspired by that to present an alternative to mainstream western music.”

There are a lot of noteworthy things about the Spaghetti Fest, least of which is their focus on paying artists with the bulk of their budget. “We spend almost no money on administration and we spend an incredibly high percentage of our entire operating costs on artist fees because what I want to do is give good music to people and give big money to artists,” says Masters happily. “The fact that we can run our event with next to no admin cost is great. It’s a totally different entity, which for us seems to be the path that works best, for the amount of time we have to run it we don’t have time for a not-for-profit, maybe in the future, but I don’t think we’ll ever charge admission and we’ll do our best to keep it as focused on artists as we can.”

The festival is uniquely supported by its partnerships and more recently, through the launch of a GoFundMe campaign, because they don’t generate any revenue and want to keep diversity in country alive. While there’s no actual spaghetti, the festival has plenty of acts to fill any appetite.

This year’s SpagWest Fest happens August 20 at Olympic Plaza.

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