While maintaining independent status is a challenge for any festival, Shambhala has kept its indie bonafides for more than two decades.
Taking place on a 500 acre farm — fully operational the rest of the year — in the Kootenay Mountain region of southwestern British Columbia this weekend (Aug. 9-11), the electronic music nexus started as a small gathering of ’90s rave kids into breakbeat, trance and progressive house. Jimmy Bundschuh hosted the gathering on his family farm, and in the last 22 years has evolved Shambhala into one of the most unique and buzzed about events on the North American circuit.
Shambhala’s 2019 lineup boasts headliners including Bonobo, TroyBoi, Excision, Griz, Zeds Dead and Silk City playing across six stages — semi-permanent structures that have been gradually built out to be bigger and more fantastic throughout the past 22 years. 12,000 attendees are expected.
Here, Bundschuh discusses staying independent, maintaining Shambhala’s zero-alcohol policy, and staying true to his farm roots.
How has Shambhala maintained its independent status for 22 years?
I guess we started small and just grew it slowly over the years. A lot of festivals try to get big really fast, or they do get big really fast and then they become a victim of their own success, or they just spend way too much money and throw in the towel.
A big part of our success has just been slow growth, and taking our time and being in the [electronic] genre before so many festivals were doing it. We started in ’98, and it was all about bands back then. DJs were relatively niche; now they fill stadiums. We’ve kind of been there before the industry got big, and before there were so many festivals doing the same thing.
Dance music culture is obviously something a lot of corporations have latched onto. As you guys have become nationally and internationally renowned, have corporations kind of come sniffing around your festival?
No, not really. No one has directly approached us, but I think people know us well enough that they know that we’re very different than most of the other festivals, and very, like, fiercely independent. We don’t even sell alcohol. I’m sure there would be interest, but I think people just know that that’s not us… Our model is completely opposite to someone like Live Nation. Really it’s opposite of the models of most festivals. There’s very few [independent festivals] like us. Maybe smaller ones, or Burning Man.
Shambhala is essentially in the middle of nowhere. Do you have competitors in your market and are you affected by radius clauses from other cities?
When Squamish was on in BC…they were near Vancouver and were on the same weekend, so we were competing for staff and resources. That was quite difficult. Lately, Live Nation has a few events in Washington; they’ve gotten more electronic and have some similar events fairly close to us, but I don’t really know if that’s taking people away from [Shambhala.]
We have very loyal crowd, and we’d been around a long time. People come to Shambhala because it’s Shambhala. We’re not a hundred percent reliant on the lineup. We’ve really stepped up our game. This year is by far our best line up ever, and we’ve always had the privilege of working with great artists — but it’s really the experience, the property and the history of the festival. That’s something that’s not so easy to recreate.
It seems akin to festivals like Burning Man, Electric Forest and even Coachella to a certain extent, where the setting is so much of part of the draw. Shambhala takes place in an incredible place that you just can’t get at other events.
Definitely. The location is huge. The farm, and the region itself. It’s really an incredible place. Being remote used to kind of be a problem, but I think now it’s an advantage. It’s not like we’re near huge cities where you get all the weekend warriors. The guests that come have to plan and work really hard to get here.
You mentioned the no alcohol policy, which is obviously an anomaly in the festival world. What drives that policy?
I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but the safety of our guests is super important. I just get afraid that if we had beer gardens, the violence or assaults would go up. Rally it’s been about maintaining the vibe and crowd safety. There’s a lot of people that won’t come to festival without alcohol, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
But really, prohibition doesn’t work. We do our best, but it obviously still gets in, but it’s subdued. It’s not like there are bars at every stage and people are drinking in the heat for three days and acting super crazy. And we’ve just always done it that way… We even get complaints that we don’t take enough booze away. People really want it this way, and I’d be afraid that changing it would change the vibe.
One of the big narratives about your festival is that you have a team onsite doing drug testing for attendees. Why allow that, particularly when you don’t even allow alcohol?
Well, like I said with alcohol, prohibition doesn’t work. We need to understand that people are going to do things no matter what. No amount of security is going stop people from consuming stuff. If it could work, people wouldn’t be able to get drugs into prison. There’s security at the festival, but you can’t just look at it that one way and solve the problem.
With the harm reduction, we just recognize there are problems, and we meet people where they’re at and try and help them in whatever way. We still have security, and we have a world-class medical team. We try to prevent, and we catch people when something goes wrong, but harm reduction is sort of in the middle.
The festival site is a functioning farm the rest of the year, right?
Yeah, we’ve got cattle and we grow hay. My dad has got a little saw mill… It’s a 500 acre ranch, and there’s a relatively small portion of it that we develop for the festival. The rest of the farm, we do everything we can to preserve the ability to farm it, so it’s pretty much pasture or hay fields or just forested land.
We really limit what we do to the rest of the land, and the stuff we do do is dual purpose: our water system is a fire suppression system; we spray water for dust but it also waters the pastures and the hay and the animals. It’s definitely it’s near and dear to my hear., I was born and raised on a farm and want to keep doing that, you know?