In our fourth instalment of How To Organise A Music Festival, DiS is leaving the Brexit-stricken UK. We travel to Canada, where we meet Dan Seligman, the co-founder and Creative Director of Pop Montreal, to hear the story of Pop. From a fortunate encounter on the train to the illegal parties and a search for a forgotten R&B legend, Pop has evolved as a showcase festival that makes its own rules. Martha Wainright, Arcade Fire, Butthole Surfers, and Patti Smith are all Pop alumni. Spread across 50 venues, this year's bill included John Cale, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Jean Michel Blais, not to mention new music, art, fashion and an industry conference open to all.
DiS: In 2016 Pop Montreal is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Back in 2002, what were your ambitions for the festival? Did you have a long-term plan?
Dan Seligman: I didn’t really think too much. I was 25. I'd recently graduated from McGill University, so I decided to take a year off and work part-time. The year before I started Pop Montreal my brother’s band, Stars, were releasing their first record. I was always a music fan, so I offered to help tour manage them and basically became their de facto manager for a couple of years. That was my entry into the music business, and out of that I put on a few shows in Montreal. Then I randomly met Peter Rowan, who'd recently moved to Montreal at that time. I guess it was around 2001 or 2002. He was one of the guys who started Halifax Pop Explosion. He managed Sloan, Eric’s Trip, and Julie Doiron. I literally I sat down beside him on the train between Toronto to Montreal. I was coming back from a Star’s gig, so I had a bag of vinyl. We started chatting and talked through the whole train journey. I didn’t really know too many people in the music world at that point. I thought it was interesting to meet someone who was living in Montreal and working in the music industry. We kind of just connected on that level. We kept in touch and I saw him again when Julie Doiron opened for Hayden. The Stars’ singer's parents were running a theatre and asked me to help out with a small summer music festival in their theatre. I contacted Peter to see if Julie would be interested in performing at the festival. He agreed, but in the end that whole thing didn’t work out. It fell through but he was like: “Why don’t we start a music festival in Montreal?”
And were there many festivals in Montreal at the time?
Just big commercial festivals like The Jazz Festival or Just for Laughs. There was nothing indie, or focussed on underground music; but at the same time Casa Del Popolo had just opened and this kind of underground scene I was connected to was percolating to the surface. So I thought: “Sure, I have nothing better to do with my life”. I had a part-time job and a cheap apartment. I didn’t have a huge debt and was interested in trying something. So we connected and decided to put on a festival in the fall when students come back to school. We contacted a few local promoters. At this point a friend of mine from McGill came back from a year in China. She was looking for something to do in Montreal, so she ended up taking care of sponsorship and the financial side of things.
It sounds like a very informal setup.
Yeah, it happened informally. We set up a few meetings at the beginning with musicians, artists, journalists, and other people connected to the music world. We had a few brainstorming meetings, then just went for it and booked a few acts. The first edition of Pop was literally put together in about 6 months, and ever since we’ve been building it up. In one way or the other it’s been organic, and now it’s really part of our M.O. We’re an organic organisation; we’re very community oriented and connected to the music scene.
And have you always been a non-profit?
Kind of. Technically, the first three years we weren’t even incorporated, not like a real company. Peter and I had a joint partnership and a bank account. Then three years later we realised that we had to take it seriously and make it a business. The model that we based it on was a non-profit. Most festivals in Canada are non-profit organisations because you can apply for grants and there are different benefits.
Speaking of grants, do you think it would be possible for you to develop and expand without this support?
The way we’ve kept it less commercial in terms of programming, taking chances and bringing people like Wally Badarou and John Cale is not to make money. Because we’re a non-profit, our programming can be a little more diverse and interesting. We’re not catering to a commercial public, but it presents challenges at the same time.
You’ve got a unique profile in terms of the artists that you champion and the scope of the festival. Essentially, you’ve got several festivals running parallel to each other: Film Pop, Art Pop, Kids Pop, etc. You've branched out in many different directions. Have you always envisaged Pop like this? If not, at what point did you start working in this direction?
Everything kind of happened at the same time in a very organic sense. A lot of the programming has come from local artists. People pitched us ideas, so we started getting this reputation as a bit of an outsider festival, taking chances on the under-appreciated, the unknown, or “legends of underground music” who maybe don’t have the same overall popular success but have a cultural significance, an impact on other creative minds. In terms of different segments of the festival it was the same; like a musician friend approached me saying: “I really wanna do art, a full thing on art!” And I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do Art Pop.” We came up with this idea of doing a flea market type event for artists. I guess at the time people started making artisan staff, so Puces Pop kind of exploded on its own. It happens three times a year now and always has its own crowd. The first couple of years we tried to do more of a trade show thing similar to SXSW; and it just didn’t have the right feel for the scene we were part of.
The Montreal community is a not super industry / commercial based, so in my mind the main objective was to challenge the strictly industry-oriented showcase model of events like SXSW and CMJ. At the time I was pretty naïve. I went to these showcase festivals with Stars and I noticed that they didn’t appeal to the public. There were often members of the industry at the back of the room talking to themselves; there was a certain disconnect there. And there wasn’t the same care given to the artists, so we thought: “Let’s make it about the music and the art. Let’s put musicians first, and the connection with the public; then the industry and the media will pay attention because the programming is really cool.” We were booking Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire before anyone knew them. If you look at the list of artists that have played Pop, there are a lot of bands that are now big festival headliners. What’s also good about Montreal is that there’s not as much hype here, not as much industry and not as much press, so you can grow. Grimes could play 100 capacity shows here before anyone was paying attention.
You now have 50 venues; I’m assuming that some of them are not music venues. How do you choose your spaces, making sure they’re right for the right acts and they all sound good?
It’s definitely a challenge, for sure. We do our best. In Piccolo Realto we curtained the entire space and brought in some extra speakers, so the sound there is better than what it would be normally. Obviously, we don’t have the resources to do that with 50 venues. Some of them – like Metropolis, Sala Rossa or Casa del Poppolo – are real institutions in Montreal, but we do like going into alternative spaces. When I was a university student in Montreal I was going to these loft house parties. It was a really cool vibe with people dancing and having fun. You know, it's 7am and the sun comes up... I wanted to recreate that experience. Montreal still has that reputation for having underground quasi-legal spaces where people put on shows and parties. First year we took over a tenth floor of a loft space downtown and had late night parties there every night until 5am. It was totally illegal: we didn't have liquor or any permits. We did that for a few years, then it kind of got a little out of control with cops showing up. Basically when we became a non-profit organisation, we were like, “Ok, we can’t keep doing this. We’re not punk kids anymore. How do we legitimatise ourselves?” So we came up with the idea of finding spaces, like our current Pop HQ, that used to be an arts school. We were looking for spaces like old churches and community halls… Buildings that are underutilised and have a historic value that you can’t really recreate. We wanted to capture the energy of these alternative spaces, the vibe of a sketchy late night after party but doing it legitimately – bringing in fire inspectors and getting permits. Now we don’t go passed 3am, but there’ll always be late night after parties. If you want them – you’ll find them.
So how has your role as Creative Director of Pop Montreal evolved over the last 15 years?
Initially my title was Programmer. I was in charge of programming, mostly showcases with emerging bands. For the last 13 editions I’ve been the Creative Director: keeping the spirit of the festival alive, guiding progression, keeping it growing in the way that I envisioned it. I work with the Art Designer to come up with the theme of the festival but my main responsibility is programming the music side. I’m very collaborative; it’s always been a team effort. People come up with ideas, whether they’re a staff member, or friends, or other musicians. It’s never been just my curatorial vision, more like working with the community to build something that people feel invested in. My main concern is making something that people feel part of and in charge of, something they take pride in.
How many people have you currently got within your team?
It goes from about eight year-round, then it expands over the spring and summer. By festival time there’s about 20 people in the office doing various jobs. Then we hire production managers for individual venues and staff for our HQ. It amounts to about 50 staff and 400 volunteers.
What were your festival inspirations?
In terms of the showcase format it was SXSW, CMJ, and CMW. They were almost like a prototype because we were trying to do it differently. When we started there was a real shift in the industry because the internet just started having a presence. Obviously, independent labels had been in existence for a while, but there was a seismic shift in how things were being distributed and consumed. All those things were changing and we wanted to be better than these other festivals. But now there are so many different festivals! The big outdoor festivals with three stages and thousands of people is something that I’ve never really been drawn towards. What I like about Pop is the intimacy of going to a club with a hundred people, three hundred people, or maybe a thousand people at most. I remember going to Lollapalooza as a kid and loving it. Now the idea of being in a crowd of 60,000 people is the last thing I want to do. There is a festival in Goiânia Brazil called Goiânia Noise. When I went to Brazil I was like: “Wow, these people really do know how to have a good time!” Party atmosphere is something that’s always appealed to me; but programming and curation are also important, so it’s trying to find a marriage of all those things. It's not just a party for the sake of partying. There has to be a creative stimulus. I also go to SXSW every year, so in a sense it’s one festival that I’m always judging.
Do you go because you have to, or because you like it?
I sort of hate it but always end up loving parts of it because I get inspired by music. I went to SXSW, saw Diet Cig and we’ve programmed them. I always see four or five artists I really love. People go to SXSW for different reasons; they may hate it but they always get something out of it. It is an overwhelming experience but you see a million people and you have fun. I don’t think Pop has the same impact overall. It’s still fairly niche and fairly provincial in that sense, but we've been an inspiration to a newer brand of festivals like Sled Island in Alberta. Even Le Guess Who? was inspired by Pop. And a festival in Poland called Green ZOO. Hopefully there is a new breed of mid-level of festivals, where people do interesting things, push the envelope and create. Pop Montreal is very much specific to Pop Montreal itself. To me it’s about Montreal; it’s like a reflection of what’s happening here, so if you want to start a Pop Glasgow or Pop Rio, you really have to be part of that particular scene and develop it within the community.
Would you say that you’re still a grassroots festival?
Oh yeah, for sure.
But you also bring in big iconic names and international artists. How do you choose those artists?
The way we programme is multifaceted. Sometimes artists are touring through and it happens that the schedule works with us and they're a good fit. We also solicit artists like John Cale, Annette Peacock, Patti Smith, or Giorgio Moroder and bring them in especially for the festival. They’re the ones we know we’re not going to make money on but they’re our prestigious headliners. Most of the headline programming is like that. In Montreal we have OSHEAGA, which is like the Coachella of Canada. We don’t have their kind of money, so we have to be better at programming and be more interesting.
What’s been you proudest moment, or the booking that you’re particularly proud of?
Many! Last year we had this woman Barbara Lynn, who had her hits back in the 60s. She is a soul, R&B artist from the south. She had hits back in the day and was even covered by The Rolling Stones. Someone played me one of her YouTube videos and I was like: “Oh my god! She's amazing!” I looked her up and asked a friend, who at the time was working for SXSW. He said I should connect with a festival called Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, Louisiana, run by a guy called Dr Ike. He does it every two years and programmes all these old school blues, soul, and R&B forgotten legends from the 50s and 60s. So I contacted him and he said: “Oh, she doesn't like to travel. She takes care of her mother who's sick. It’ll be really hard”. Turns out he also tried to book her and it didn't work out. This was four or five years ago. Then we ended up collaborating with him. We programmed three artists: Ralph Soul Jackson, The Velvettes, and Lil Buck Sinegal. It was an incredible show but I still didn’t book Barbara Lynn. We kept in touch; tried again a year after, no luck, the following year again, still no luck. Finally last year she agreed to do it. We brought her here and it was amazing!
Is there anyone on your wish list at the moment?
Tom Waits, obviously. We tried to book Tracy Chapman this year, which I think would be really cool, but she couldn’t do it. Giorgio Moroder took us three years to book. John Cale took four years.
Over the past 15 years you've grown from a small local DIY event to a festival with an international reputation and an audience of over 60,000. Is there room for more expansion?
Yeah, what we’ve done as an organisation was to expand horizontally as opposed to vertically. We do events throughout the year, we run this market in the summer called Marché des Possibles. It’s an eight-week beer garden, outdoor performance space, like a community-oriented market. We do programming through the summer through that. It’s been quite good for us. We’re always open to new suggestions and enterprises, and I think the Pop formula is special. We wanted to keep building on that but not radically changing it; just making it better and better. Maybe we’ll do an outdoor festival with two stages and that would be a different type of event. I would say we’re more interested in that kind of expansion. You have to keep your vision, otherwise your core base lose interest. It’s also a challenge 'cos you want new audiences coming in. It’s a youth festival in a lot of ways, but I’m 40 now. I’m basically old enough to be the father of a lot of people coming here. At the same time it’s important to keep connecting to younger audiences.
But as well as booking emerging talent from across the musical genre spectrum, you book people like John Cale and Annette Peacock. This takes your showcase event to a whole different level.
On an educational level, it's really important to me to bring these artists, so that 21- year old kids realise that music didn’t start with Allah Las or Angel Olsen. There’s this broad spectrum of popular music. It’s a tradition; The Velvet Underground had a huge impact on the musical legacy and what we listen to today. I think it's really important to try to connect people to a broad spectrum of music. I think a lot of journalists really appreciate Pop for that because they get it.
A lot of UK festivals are very streamlined and segregated in terms of musical genres. You'd struggle to find Colin Stetson and Kode9 on the same bill. I'm finding Pop to be a very liberating experience.
My tastes are very diverse, so it's probably just a reflection of that. Pop is really just an umbrella term; it can pretty much mean any style of contemporary music.
Is this kind of mixed bill common in Canada?
Yeah, if you look at the Jazz Fest here, it’s not all jazz. If you go to a folk festival, it's not just folk music. I think that’s pretty common. What I see is there are different levels of festivals. Bigger festivals have the same headliners on the bills over and over again, and obviously it’s appealing to a certain significant segment of the population and that’s why those festivals have to do it. They have to get those numbers, but I can take it or leave it. We try to be different.
A slightly sore point for artists in the UK, but do all artists get paid at Pop?
Yeah, it’s a sliding scale but all artists get paid. The base fee for a showcasing band is $100 and they all get wristbands for the festival.
Is this standard practice in Canada?
This is one of the things that we insisted upon when we started. I think in some ways it’s symbolic. Of course, 300 to 400 bands at $100 each adds up in terms of our spend, but to me it's important. We wouldn’t be doing this without the artists. It’s a token and it’s not a lot of money per individual but, I think, symbolically it suggests that you're valuing the art. We encourage the bands to go to other shows, do all the networking…
And do many of your visiting bands stay for the whole festival?
I think a lot of them stay for three or fours days, especially the ones from Toronto, Ottawa, or NY. Then you have a handful of bands every year flying in and staying for the whole week. We’ve had bands from all over the world, and I think they find it refreshing as well. To me it’s not necessarily about you coming here and getting signed; you come here and hopefully you participate within the community, you meet other musicians, and you make connections. Next time you come back, you’ll have a place to stay and maybe you’ll connect with a Montreal band and do an exchange. There is a whole industry based around artists working with each other before they have agents, just doing small shows. I think it's a really important thing to recognise and to encourage, and I hope that Pop plays a role in that.
For tickets and more information about Pop Montreal 2017 visit the festival’s official website.