When enough people visit your town to play music and leave describing the experience as one of the most enjoyable and heartening that they've ever had, you take notice. At first, there's not much to do with that information; you feel good about your city and try not to take its virtues for granted. Living in Guelph for 20 years now, I know that organizations like the Hillside Festival (and Guelph Jazz Festival for that matter) do things that a lot of other festivals do, but music fest patrons and artists also recognize that Hillside's approach and thoughtful touches are truly special.
First off, Hillside takes place in a conversation area with legit camp sites on Guelph Lake. It's beautiful and totally away from the city but, with its international food bazaar and mindful infrastructure, has all the comforts of home. In some ways, it might be better than your home. There's a network of local, progressive merchants and artisans. There's fresh air and workshops that get you dancing, drumming, stretching, breathing, and thinking about the world around you. There's even a full-on Children's Area with (non-pandering) music and creative activities for parents and kids. Last year my kid built himself an almost-functional guitar.
Fucked Up or Grimes or METZ or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy or Doldrums or Braids or Arcade Fire could be playing their sets somewhere on the island (actually, given Hillside's reputation for curating once-in-a-lifetime collaborative/improvised music workshops, all of those people could be playing together at once, on a single stage) and yet there's also space for tranquillity and peace of mind.
Over its 32 year history, Hillside has won awards for its "green" consciousness and ability to affect positive change without being holier-than-thou or dogmatic about it. As patrons catch on, they bring their own cups and cannisters and food vendors supply re-usable dishes. There's no bottled water (local tap water is sourced on-site) and literally not one corporate sponsor for this festival.
While other festivals take that big money and pour it into booking mainstream acts (usually Aerosmith), Hillside doubles down on supporting emerging artists and programming strong, cool headliners and eclectic bands from every corner of the globe. People who would normally command huge sums have even offered to play Hillside for free, just because they think the festival and the community it reflects is rad.
Again, people in Guelph are flattered that amazing musicians grace our town every summer for Hillside. But it's more than kind words for the festival; we're driven to continue when we hear those musicians praising us (or, in the recent cases of both Arkells and Yukon Blonde, write songs about us). In a country with over 300 summer music festivals now, Hillside makes a remarkable impression. We can't and won't stop.
Hillside: An Innovative Island