As Festival d’été de Québec gears up for its 50th anniversary this July, festival programmer Louis Bellavance is excited to bring a unique experience to festival-goers. We had the chance to catch up with him at Canadian Music Week for our Behind the Music feature to discuss some of the highlights of the festival, the special programming in place for the anniversary, and what it takes to successfully run such a large event.
Let’s start off by talking about your trajectory and how you got where you are. What were you doing in the music industry before you began working with Festival d’été de Québec?
If we go all the way back I was always into music. I’m a musician myself, and that was pretty much my only main passion in life. Music, and business because I come from a business family so I studied business and worked in regular business for a while, but the music craving was still there. I knew I couldn’t make it as a musician so what do you do? Programming a festival, I’m often asked, “how do you end up there?” You can’t really study programming, we all ended up in this position kind of randomly. For me it was a small festival in my hometown called Festi-Jazz in Rimouski and I was on the board of that as a business man and our programming guy left, so I took over as a volunteer. I did that for a couple years and realized that this was not a hobby, it was a passion and a job and I could make a living. I moved to Montreal, then I programmed the Montreal Jazz Fest, Montreal Nuits d’Afrique, Montreal FrancoFolies, went to work for Evenko, Osheaga and so I did the full round of all these festivals.
And then Festival d’été de Québec, they are a multi-genre festival, they were looking for someone who was able to talk about blues, jazz, world, francophone stuff, international stuff and that guy was me because I had done all those different festivals before and because of the business background, which was really crucial for them. The programming department in Québec City has a budget of 13 million at this point so you definitely need business skills as well, and thats how I got the job and why I moved there about 6 years ago.
What would be the biggest challenge of programming a festival as large as Festival d’été de Québec?
For us it’s all about the balance, the fact that it looks like we’re doing everything, it looks like totally random programming but it’s so not. So if you’re doing a niche event, like most festivals out there, in a way its a little easier. If you’re doing a hip hop festival, you think “who’s hot in hip hop,” you list 1-100 and you go for them. The way we’re doing this, this year the headliners are Backstreet Boys, Kendrick Lamar, Gorillaz, P!ink, Flume, Metallica. It’s all over the place, so we have to counter program every day to make sure that the second stage and the third stage and indoor, it’s going to be different from the main stage and the next night is going to be different from the night before. We have a francophone headliner to one stage on one stage every night and we need to keep that path together. So it’s a big excel sheet pretty much and you have to say, “okay here’s my francophone path, here’s my hard rock path,” and you have to balance all this and this is very difficult. For example, if Adele is not available, then you can’t go for a rock band – I need an adult profile to replace her. So I can’t go with the next interesting band available I need to find the next Adele available. It’s very difficult to do it this way but the end result is always very satisfying for us and we end up looking at this and go, “oh okay it’s working.” So yeah, diversity is cool but it comes with a challenge.
Speaking of those results at the end of all that hard work, what would be some of the highlights from programming the festival throughout the years?
Launching the lineup is always a great moment and a relief for me. It takes place months before the event and that’s when the entire festival team comes into play and they start working and sweating on all this while we are a little more laid back and we know already what it’s gonna be like because the sales are amazing this year and if they would not be we’d know already. So we know what to expect and this is the first really good moment when you tell the world, “these are our headliners and these are our small up and coming bands and this is what we’re excited about.” And then it’s always on the field, on the night of the show, going to see what a band will do. For example, last year when I booked The Lumineers, it was a bit of a gamble way ahead of the schedule and their cycle, and then a year later they end up on the stage and the timing is perfect and the songs are very popular and the second record was amazing. You don’t know what kind of crowd you’re going to get and what kind of vibe you’re going to get and you walk in the field, you look at all those faces and think “okay we did our job” so this is what we’re expecting — to find those moments where you pretty much look at the crowd more than looking at the stage to see if what you did was the good thing.
This year you’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the festival, so there’s a lot of special programming in place including a bunch of free events. How did you go about programming these unique initiatives?
It was important, like 50 is a significant number for any festival and we were concerned about this for years. Maybe we did too much, we stressed out about this for the past couple of years and we wanted the festival to be remembered as an event, not just one concert and I don’t want people to say, “oh last year was Metallica it was great” I want them to say “oh last year the festival was great.” It’s 11 days, it’s a marathon but now we have street art performance, like massive things that are going to be very visible after the shows late at night and we never do that. We have a series of concerts with tons of guests, mostly Québécois artists so it was very important that the Francophone part would be there on various stages and we’ll see lots of connections between artists. We wanted that to happen as well.
We’re working on a series of pop up shows so we’re asking the big guys “can you do an unannounced, unusual location to play during the festival?” We are doing this every year a little, but we want to do it more so that’s the kind of thing that makes it special, people will walk the street and say “oh my god, Metallica is playing in the alley!” I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I’d love it to happen so we’re working on that kind of thing. Everything that’s not just the concert because a concert is a concert. Everyone is able to go see a big name playing for 90 minutes and love it, but a concert inside a festival, inside the 50th anniversary of a festival it has to be something more and that’s what we’re working on. We’re working closely with P!nk for example to do a lot more in production with her because they’re open to do that so we’re hoping that this show will be unique. It’s all about the uniqueness of this. The Who is going to play their only Canadian performance at the festival this year. It was one of my goals when I started, I needed one of those legendary bands to play a Canadian show exclusively with us like we did with The Rolling Stones in 2015.
The festival has a strong sense of community and it’s one of the few large non-profit festivals so how do you remain accessible to your fans and to new festival goers while operating as a non-profit?
Well it probably helps because we don’t have to produce financial results for a board that might be greedy and therefore all the money is sent back into the lineup pretty much. We spend more on programming than anyone in the country, and this is how it became what it is. People want the lineup, they want the talent, they want to be there, and they want it to be accessible. We have quite a unique system where we are kind of overselling capacity and this is not a problem because the main stage is 100,000 capacity so even if we were selling 120,000 or 130,000 on any given night, not everyone will want to see the Backstreet Boys so it’s kind of working and the festival pass is still under $100 Canadian. It’s very affordable, very accessible and we also have all the small bands.
We have a free stage called the Fibe stage and we’re doing three shows a night with up and coming talent in a great location just at the entrance of the main stage. So everyone is walking toward the two main stages and they kind of have to go in that little park in front of Parliament. We’re doing those shows at 5pm, 6pm, 8pm before the big guys will hit the main stages and it’s great exposure for those small Canadian acts that we want to showcase and we want to build them into a bigger band that one day will be able to headline those bigger stages. Like, The Strumbellas are doing a headline this year on the second stage and it’s great so that’s the kind of thing we want to do for the community.
Are there any of those up and coming artists playing the festival this year that you’re most excited about?
I’m excited about Dirty Nil to name one that just won a Juno and also we’re trying to do something special with them. Common Deer is another one that I like. On the international scene there’s the Atomics, they’re a small band from LA. They’re a bunch of sisters and brothers that are very popular in the modelling business and now they formed a rock band and it’s kind of a cool buzz band so there’s tons of those really small acts that we’re excited about. What we want to see is those bands evolving and being able to book them year after year so this is always a big thrill for us.
What’s a piece of advice you would give for someone who wants to work in programming?
Never underestimate the business part of show business. This business is filled with passionate people and it’s not so hard to find someone who listens to music all the time and has a thousand records at home and is still buying CDs like I do. There are more of those people than there are business people who are passionate about music and that’s how you have to approach this because it’s all about negotiations, it’s all about money at one point and you need to be able to deal with that and you need to be passionate about music, thats a given, you really need to love it because otherwise it’s not worth it. The music part is important but the business part is equally important.
What would be a festival survival trick that you would give to someone who is attending the festival for the first time?
Well, drink a lot of water. We stay up for 11 days, I don’t know many festival-goers that can do that stretch. It’s very difficult so for us it’s all about how to stay alive and active for all those days but if you come for a couple of days, Québec City is pretty. The festival is all about the city and the festival so it comes together. It’s an urban festival so if you come for the festival you’re coming for Québec City as well. We don’t book music during the daytime, we start at 6pm. Make sure you have a schedule to enjoy the city and enjoy the outskirts and there’s amazing wildlife around it. You can do tons of things and turn that trip into something really cool and when 6pm comes, there’s like 7 stages happening and it starts over again the next day. Make sure you eat well and drink well and you should be good.
The festival runs from July 6-16, 2017 in Québec City. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the festival website.