You can’t escape history when visiting the capital of Quebec; Quebec City.
Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain as New France, a Roman Catholic French Colony located on the Saint Lawrence River Valley and home to 532,000 citizens, the area offers a stunning backdrop for one of Canada’s most acclaimed and celebrated international summer music festivals – the Quebec City Summer Music Festival (Festival d’été de Québec), now celebrating its fiftieth season.
This year, 130,000 all-inclusive transferable passes went on sale, giving you 11 days of performances for between 85$ and 105$.
The main body of the festival takes place in the Upper Town, a section of the city enclosed in a massive fortress of walls and classic buildings cut from imitation stone of Baroque Architecture, traditional in France.
The summer music festival began in 1968 with a group of businessmen and young artists showcasing Quebec’s street performers and musicians, then broadened over time adding major international musicians. The non-profit event generates $24.4M in added value for Quebec City.
On tap this year – here’s a few headliners: Kendrick Lamar, Nick Jonas, Metallica, Arkells, Kid Koala, Death From Above 1979, The Lemon Bucket Orchestra. Past seasons: The Rolling Stones, Keith Urban, Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Bon Jovi, Elton John – many others.
I caught up with programming director Louis Bellavance and communications director Luci Tremblay, and this is their story.
Is there a more ambitious music festival in the country?
Louis: I can’t speak for the other ones. There’s a lot of great music festivals in the country and it’s hard to compare them objectively. All I can say is that we are definitely trying to be the best one out there based on the strength and diversity of our talent lineup and the production means we are deploying to deliver those massive headliners night after night.
It’s year fifty. What’s being done to commemorate this achievement?
Luci: The FEQ will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a spectacular array of unique activities and installations! A collection of special concerts involving a lot of Québec artists, an exhibition with highlights from the past 49 Festivals and three original street performance shows are planned throughout the evenings.
The first weekend of the FEQ, all eyes will be on the French street theatre troupe, the Plasticiens Volants, and their amazing giant puppet installations (floating, stable or inflatable costumes). Transe Express with its scores of actors, acrobats, carillonneurs, dancers, percussionists, singers, violinists and other participants will give a stunning performance during the second weekend while dramatically suspended from a giant mobile!
There are ten venues in play – do each have a specific theme?
Louis: Not really. The way we build the grid is all about counter programming. Each stage has to present a different genre each night and we are also trying to avoid having two back to back similar nights on the same stage. It means that when we go hip hop with Kendrick Lamar on the main stage we are going in a different direction on the second stage, in this case indie rock with The New Pornographers and Wolf Parade and in a different direction again on the third stage with a francophone folk headliner, Bernard Adamus and different again indoors, with Tony Allen's tribute to Art Blakey, straight ahead jazz! The next night we’re “pop” on the main stage with P!nk and we shuffle all the cards on the other stages accordingly. This being said, the third stage is usually where you can find more world music and every stage has a certain flavour, but it’s less important for me than our counter programming strategy.
Quebec City is a natural setting for a culturally rich festival. Was this part of the vision fifty years back?
Luci: Partly yes, partly no. The seven young artists, inspired by Expo 67, the Montreal universal exhibition, who first had the idea of organising an art festival, wanted it to be international and attract all families of arts. A group of business owners gathered to raise funds to develop activities to animate the beautiful city throughout the summer season.
Mounting such a grand event depends on deep pockets. Headline acts are very expensive. What is the balance between ticket sales and outside funding?
Luci: Last year, the 26.8M$ budget included 13% of public money, 19% of sponsorships and 68% of self-sustaining revenues. Most of the FEQ revenues come from the sale of the passes: 130,000 passes are placed on sale every year.
Louis: Ticket sales is enough to cover the entire programming budget. We’re very proud of the way we were able to build a strong financial situation with sales, ancillary incomes, and private sponsorship deals. We also realised at one point that the more we invest in talent, the easier it is to be financially successful. This would be a mistake for us to try to save on talent because our business model is based a lot on our capacity to deliver that kind of headliner driven lineup year after year
How big of a role does Quebec Tourism play in promotion and investment?
Luci: We get money from both the federal and the provincial governments. Canada Economic Development (DEC) is a major financial partner and helps us promote the FEQ outside the province of Québec, in order to attract tourists. Québec Tourism (TQ) is also an important financial partner and helps us develop new projects.
We also work hand-in-hand with the Tourism Office of Québec City (OTQ).
How large a staff, and how far ahead do you plan for each season?
Luci: 40 people work year around for the FEQ and it gets up to 500 during the event. We have a three-year strategic plan that is shared with all the employees to make sure we all aim for the same goals. Every other week, the seven Festival directors meet and review the timeline, the operations, and the objectives.
Louis: We never stop. I have several offers out for 2018 right now. The programming team is about seven people year-round, of which only two or three are active in talent buying while the other are putting their efforts on budgeting, logistic, contracts, hospitality, immigration etc. But the festival is not our only gig! We run a small festival in September called Saint-Roch Experience. We are also the owner of Imperial Bell, a 950-cap venue that we run and program year round.
Anticipating which artists will draw and push ticket sales must be a challenge. Do you have a formula for this?
Louis: I hope I had one… This is the hardest part of the job. Each market is different. Of course, a superstar artist is a major draw in any market. Sometimes a “country act” can have less of a draw in Quebec than in Calgary and a “hard rock” band can be more appealing to our audience than in Ottawa… It’s a trial and error game. Especially with new trendy artists, deciding when to jump on them or wait for the buzz to catch up with our market before booking.
What is the financial impact both locally and provincially?
Luci: The last study was conducted in 2010 and a new one will take place this year.
Here are the numbers for 2010:
25.4M$ in added value for Québec GDP
470 jobs supported or created
7.4M$ in tax or parafiscal revenues for Quebec and Canada.
What is the percentage of free outdoor concerts to ticketed events?
Louis: Our main stage has an 80,000 capacity and our second stage is 10,000. They are both ticketed sites; so are all the indoor concerts. The free content is on our third and fouth outdoor stages, respectively focusing on world music and emerging talents. Smaller capacities but still lots of great music to catch there every night. So, in terms of the number of acts, we’re probably somewhere close to 40% of free content but the bigger names are obviously not available for free.
How many volunteers and what services do they provide?
Luci: Over 200 volunteers help make the event a success mostly by welcoming and informing the festivalgoers.
Relationships with all levels of government from policing, safety, permits etc. is crucial. Do you encounter much resistance or bureaucratic obstacles?
Luci: Not really, we have a close relationship with them, planning and organising the event in collaboration with the Major Events Office of the City of Québec whose purpose is to make it easy by gathering the right people around the table for permits, security, and police services.
With so much competition and new festivals on the horizon, how do you keep your event on the frontlines and an imperative summer destination?
Luci: At 95$ a pass for 11 days; the FEQ is the best deal on Earth! We focus on that, on the beauty of the city, its French way of life and European taste, the security and of course, its fabulous line-up of international stars and upcoming artists. The diversity of the Festival, presenting all music genres; is certainly a strong character.
Louis: We’re so different in many ways that it might be easier for us to stay relevant year after year. Meaning that I’m not going to try to get the hippest coolest possible lineup and compete bluntly with all the cool events out there. We’re really all about diversity. From the Backstreet Boys to Metallica and from Lady Antebellum to Kendrick Lamar with Francophone acts headlining one stage or another every single night. All of it being equally important. Who else is doing this? I would think no one but us! That’s how we stay relevant, in knowing who we are and what we’re good at. And it’s not only in terms of lineup. We are affordable, we are urban, we do not program any concert before 5 p.m. even on weekends, on purpose, and the list goes on. All this combined makes us who we are and we stick to it.
Are there regional events tied to the festival throughout the year?
Louis: Our team is behind many events, most notably our new baby event in September, Saint Roch Experience, that is a big block party in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood where we have our venue. It’s about food and arts and music, focusing on emerging talent for now. We are just starting with it but there’s an interesting potential. We’re also involved in very different events, like a wine event called Bordeaux Fete le vin among other things.
Do you interact with music education in the schools?
What is your greatest worry?
Luci: To stay up to date, listen to our festivalgoers wishes and needs and respond to these appropriately.
Louis: The Canadian dollar rate!! We are spending 6 to 7 million in USD each year, always going up, so with a dollar at 1.38 like it is right now we’re losing lots of power and it makes it more difficult to compete with the major US festivals out there. And then I always worry about, how the hell am I going to do better with the lineup year after year?? Will I find talent available, even if I can afford it? We seem to always find a way to achieve it but it can become challenging trying to outdo yourself. Eventually, there will be a line-up that the public deems ‘weaker’, as programming is totally subjective.
What has been the most memorable performance/production to date?
Louis: Stevie Wonder was magical in terms of performance. In terms of production you have to kneel in front of Rammstein and their crazy pyro effects!
How long after the festival until you meet and reassess the event?
Luci: End of September, all the directors (seven total) withdraw outside the office for four days to reassess, share the results of their departments, discuss, and adjust the planning next year.
Staging is grand. What is the size – the dimensions of your centerpiece in the Plains of Abraham?
Louis: The size is 226 feet wide by 81 feet tall by 80 feet depth. As far as we know, it’s the biggest stage out there only matched by the one Desert Trip used last fall on the Coachella site.
Are there enough accommodations in Quebec City to handle tourist and how early should they book?
Luci: 2017 is a very busy year with Canada’s 150th anniversary and the FEQ 50th edition, so the rooms fill up fast! There are plenty of high-standard hotels as well as smaller B&B available. In fact, there are 16,000 rooms available in the Québec City greater area. Of course, summer is the busiest season of the year, and with the Festival happening in one of the warmest months, booking two to three months in advance is key!