June 25, 2018
By: Matt Williams
Quebec City is one of the country’s major treasures. On a clear-sky, bluebird day, it’s almost supernaturally romantic. Hell, on a rainy day, with the mighty Saint Lawrence River raging off in the distance, it might be even more gorgeous. This makes the experience of Festival d’été de Québec—a truly massive music festival right smack dab in the middle of the city’s downtown—all the more enveloping.
While most city festivals offer either a club-hopping format that allows you to enjoy the best dives the place has to offer, or a brief sit-down in a field likely surrounded by skyscrapers, Festival d’été, which runs July 5-15 this year, can serve up something quite a bit sweeter. It’s not at every large-scale musical event you’re able to take in centuries-old architecture alongside, say, The Weeknd, Lorde, or Neil Young. It’s even rarer that such a happening is a not-for-profit. As festival Programming Director Louis Bellavance notes, Festival d’été, “cannot be owned, bought, or sold.” It started in 1968, just a year before Woodstock, which makes this year the 51st edition, and it’s held strong to the values that inspired its inception.
“Those ideas were popping around the world, and there was a small group of students in Quebec City in theatre to be actors,” Bellavance says over the phone from Quebec City. “They were doing some plays and this and that, and their teacher went to France and saw lots of street art performances and music happening in the street and back alleys. And he came back and told his students, ‘How about we start something like that?’ So five or six of them right from the top said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do cultural manifestations of acting and theatrical play and music. All in the street, all for free—it’s gonna be not-for-profit.’ They decided that right there.”
Volunteers run the board. “They might get a sandwich here and there, but that’s about it,” Bellavance says. There’s a new president of that board every two years who doesn’t necessarily have any background working in the music industry. They could be a filmmaker, a marketing expert, an entrepreneur. They rely on the organization and don’t try to rule it from the outside. No one can take any profit from it, and yet they’ve had some people working with the festival for 20 years or more. Any profits go back into the festival the following year to pay for talent. “That kind of free spirit of a bunch of friends, and ‘we’ll do something great and we’ll give the people what they want, it’ll be in the street,’ it was always from a fan perspective,” Bellavance says. “And it still is to this day.”
That attitude is a big part of the festival’s success and longevity. Another big part, Bellavance says, is treating the whole thing like a sports team. If you don’t give the fans what they want, at some point they’re going to stop coming. That’s why the festival is committed to bringing the world to Quebec City—with those gigantic pop and rock acts, sure, but also with a vast array of different types of music. There’s always a stage that features genres like soul, jazz, ska, blues, and more. At one point in the ‘70s, the goal had been to become the world’s biggest Francophone music festival, and that’s another thing that has continued to have a huge impact on programming—every single day, there’s a Francophone headliner on at least one stage. As Bellavance says, “It’s all about diversity, balance, accessibility, and a top lineup, those heavy headliners.”
The Francophone programming is, of course, especially important. This year features the legendary Jane Birkin in a headlining spot, a show that Bellavance is especially excited about. But the effect on young musicians of seeing Francophone artists being celebrated on such big stages at such a high-profile event can’t be understated. Ariane Roy, a folk-pop artist who was born and still lives in Quebec City, is playing the festival for the first time this year—her first time playing her new tunes with a band—and believes it to be the city’s most important event of the year. She also thinks it provides especially good exposure for Francophone artists, and particularly French Canadian ones, because it brings in people from all over the world. This year, she’s pumped for Polaris long-lister Hubert Lenoir, but she caught Louis-Jean Cormier a few years ago at the festival-owned Impérial Bell, and credits the show with inspiring her to keep pursuing music.
“He was doing a show in July at the Scene, and it was incredible,” Roy says over the phone from Charlevoix. “We’d been waiting for hours and hours and it was so hot outside—everyone was suffering from the heat, you know. And there were so many people… It was one of the best shows ever. It was maybe one of the shows that pushed me to continue to keep doing music, and that made me think, ‘Yeah! I wanna do this.’”
Bellavance notes that the festival is proud of Francophone culture and wants to keep it alive, of course, but also that another reason for continuing to focus on Francophone artists is simply that it works. Quebec City is not Montréal, he says. It’s the Francophone heart of North America, and not a bilingual city by any means. That means Francophone artists draw there, and draw very well. But he’s also well-aware, and happy about, the festival’s role in showing young artists there’s a career to be had singing in their own language.
“If you’re a kid singing in French in the province of Quebec, there’s only FrancoFolies in Montreal, and Festival d’été, where you will have a shot at playing a big stage in front of thousands of people,” Bellavance says. “Or you play in France, which, good luck with that—it’s a tough market to crack. So it’s very important for these kids to be able to see there’s a career to be lived singing in French. And every night at this festival, the biggest in Canada, there’s someone singing in French. From France, or somewhere around the world, or Quebec City. He’s there hitting the big stage and having the time of his life. It’s important, we can do it, we have the tools and the means, and it is important for us.”
Festival headliners play at a truly special venue—the historic Plains of Abraham. It’s a sight to see, with close to 100,000 people filling up the Plains to see some of the planet’s biggest acts. But that wasn’t always the case. In the middle of a tough time for the festival, former General Manager Daniel Gélinas figured they should try for a superstar festival, booking a major act to play the Plains and potentially sell 100,000 tickets, in a spot where they’d been struggling to sell 10,000. They went for it and brought out Texas blues rockers ZZ Top in 2005, and people showed up in droves. Since then, they’ve earned a reputation for locking in one of the most stacked lineups in the country year after year. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Celine Dion have all graced the main stage at the Plains of Abraham. Every year since 2005 the talent budget has increased, and so has attendance.
But Festival d’été, and festivals in general, are no longer able to simply provide concerts anymore. They’ve gotta roll with the digital times, which means all sorts of experiences outside the regular ‘listen to some tunes and sing along with your best pals’ thing (which, let’s be real, hasn’t lost any of its appeal). So Bellavance and the festival’s team are constantly working to figure out how to provide those bells and whistles for the event’s environment—the streets of Quebec City. And those streets are packed with alternative entertainment that looks to put the concert-goer at the centre of everything, because that’s what they want, Bellavance says.
“They basically want to be onstage. They want to be singing. They want the lead singer to pull back and give them the mic. This is the new reality, the narcissistic reality of a human being in 2018, the Instagram and Facebook era. So we need to know and acknowledge that this is what’s going on. If you look at big, successful festivals, they’re aware of that. Rock In Rio was a good example. They have this crazy lineup every year, but everything on-site is about the fans: karaoke everywhere, Instagram platforms to take pictures everywhere, the sponsors are really connecting with the audience, giving them tools and pleasures. It’s moving, and we need to be there, and on top of that.”
Still, no matter how deeply festivals are drawn into the immersive, sponsored experience game, if people really remember something from these events, it’s the music. That’s why Ariane Roy’s favourite Festival d’ete memory is being wowed by Louis-Jean Cormier, and Bellavance’s is watching Stevie Wonder’s emotional 2013 performance. And the backdrop of Quebec City transforms what could be typical shows into the “sacred experience” that brings people out year after year and makes the locals proud. More than half a century after its first go, it remains clear that relationship is what makes the event special.
“It’s the biggest festival in Canada, and it’s here, in this town,” Bellavance says. “The festival is totally connected to the city. You can’t have one without the other. Love and marriage.”
The 2018 edition of Festival d’été de Québec happens from July 5-15, 2018 in Quebec City, Quebec. More info can be found here.