Image:
Anand Mohapatra

5 things we learned from putting on a festival during a pandemic

By:
Tarun Nayar, Executive Director, 5X Festival

We just put on a live music festival -- for real people, in real life!

After three postponements dating back to June 2020, countless livestreams, online activations, and even an app-based festival last year, we finally did it.

As a team, we experienced that ineffable joy and sense of satisfaction that can only happen when an organization does what it was born to do. In our case, that’s putting on festivals.


If you don't know much about us, let's get acquainted.

5X Fest is the largest South Asian youth event in Canada. Our mission is to create the essential festival and digital community to elevate South Asian youth culture.

In terms of vibes, think of a kind of cocktail party with Youtuber Lilly Singh, rapper Nav, and Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh, where the conversation touches on what we think about Donda, the farmer’s protests, and what Priyanka Chopra has done wrong (again…).

That’s where we live.

There are tens of thousands of South Asian youth in Canada alone, (and many more international students), many of whom are desperate for spaces where their hybrid identities can truly belong and thrive. These spaces do exist online, on social media.

And they exist in real life at here at 5X.

In normal years, we would put on a large Block Party in Surrey for 10,000-15,000 people, including fashion nights and art shows that display just a slice of the vibrant creative communities of Surrey and Vancouver.

It is our opinion that the Lower Mainland of BC is about to pop off in the same way that Brampton did 10 years ago, giving rise to an explosion of brown creativity, including the likes of Rupi Kaur, Jus Reign and even NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.


COVID has foiled our plans repeatedly, just as it has for many members of the "hardest hit" sector of venues and music industry professionals, dependent as we are on bringing large numbers of people together. It’s commonly understood that we were the first to close and will be the last to return to normal.

But last weekend felt pretty darn close to normal -- the closest we've felt in a while.

Much smaller than our ‘normal’ event, our 2021 Blockparty brought together a little under 500 people over three days at a small indoor / outdoor venue in Vancouver, BC.

Intimate and vaccinated were the order of the day, with over 30 music and visual artists coming together over the weekend. Although crowd sizes were extremely limited, we had a hybrid model in place with strong emphasis on YouTube content, streaming on Instagram live, and future broadcasts and ancillary content creation.

So what did we learn?

Well, a lot. Here's a list of 5 things we learned from putting on an in-person festival during a pandemic

1. It was a ton of work. We worked as hard to put on three days of small shows as we would normally work to put on a 15,000 person festival. COVID was the main source of this extra effort, with trainings, protocol implementation, and audience communications taking the brunt of our time. And then there were the postponements. Postponing the festival multiple times effectively kept the team working straight since March 2020, with no break or "post" festival relief until now.

2. It was a totally different feeling than doing something online, both for the audience and for the team, including the noise, the sweat, the energy, and the chaos. It was a a different experience that doesn’t fall into the same category as a livestream, because in-person festivals are about immediacy, impact and moments of transcendence. I’ve yet to feel that from a livestream.

3. It really meant something to people, and we could see the impact in real time. From the smiles on people’s faces, to the levels of enthusiasm beyond what we expected. There was positivity, appreciation, great energy, and it was overwhelming to feel those feelings again, and to remember why we do what we do. Despite the inordinate amount of time it took to put this small festival together, I had more than one team member wanting to do it again the next weekend.

4. Real shows are vital for emerging artists. For many artists on our lineup (7 of 20!), this was their first time performing in front of an audience. They blew up during the pandemic on TikTok and Instagram, and their dedicated followers were ready to finally see them shine. I think of Robyn Sandhu, an international student from Punjab, who lives in Surrey and works as a security guard in North Vancouver. He’s a poet turned singer with almost 400K followers on TikTok. He had never played a show. When he started into his first song, the whole crowd joined him and sang along. He couldn’t understand what was happening - he looked bewildered. He asked the crowd in Punjabi “how do you know all of the lyrics?!” He had no idea, until that moment, how big he was. How could he? He had never performed. I had goosebumps witnessing this moment, over and over again during the weekend, witnessing lives being changed, new paths being forged, and dreams growing much, much bigger.

5. Hybrid is the future, and there’s no going back now. Live is better, but it may be years before we’re back to "normal’," and honestly, we may never get there. But we’ve learned to use technology to connect over the last year and a half, and with live events starting again, I feel like we get the best of both worlds. Artists and super fans who are willing to pay a premium can come together in real life and get that very real hit of connection.  We can capture that connection in so many different ways; streamed, edited, re-broadcast, repurposed, for all of those who couldn’t make it in person.


What’s next? I think we get much better at the hybrid. I think we find new ways of blending in person and remote. 5X Festival is extremely fortunate to be the recipient of a Canada Council Digital Strategies grant to explore just this. We’re building a digital product with Invoke, creators of Hootsuite, to build resilience into the event and festival ecosystem.

Expect to hear more over the coming months.

And in the meantime, we’re sharing the highlights of our festival the old fashioned way: via a livestream this coming Sunday October 3rd. Register for free here, so you too can experience the magic and joy that is 5X Fest, and join the #5X Fam.

5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.

Related articles