For a full 11 days in July, downtown Québec City plays host to the biggest, most eclectic and hands down the greatest value festival in all of North America (11 Days for $75 USD) This year’s edition of Le Festival d’été de Québec (aka Quebéc City Summer Fest) will feature 300 shows taking place in 10 venues from July 7th to the 17th. And best of all the wristband is shareable, so come only the days you want and share the wristband the other days – so basically split the cost with your friends!
Sting & Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rammstein, Ice Cube, Kaskade, Duran Duran, The Lumineers, Brad Pasiley, and Selena Gomez will each headline the massive, 100,000-capacity Bell Stage on the enormous Plans of Abraham. Other performers on the schedule include Bryan Ferry, The Decemberists, City and Colour, , The Tallest Man on Earth, Brandi Carlile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Peter Bjorn & John, Alessia Cara, Rae Sremmurd, The Cult,, Brian Fallon, and more.
If you haven’t had time to digest the lengthy schedule of events – give yourself at least an hour to do so. Louis Bellavance, Director of Programming for the Festival has his grid strategy working all year around, trying to fill more stages than any other North American Festival. How does the process start and what does it take to attract diversity, talent and big names to draw to the 100,000 + capacity Plains of Abraham venue? Bellavance might have the best non performer music job in the world, or the most demanding and strategic – read this revealing interview and you decide!
I wanted to go over some questions about the rather impressive lineup. When do you start to lay out the foundation for who you’re going to try to attract and how you’re going to get them. For example, bands like Rush, who never even play festivals, you were able to attract. Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters and so on. It’s a lot of acts even Coachella and Bonnaroo haven’t had yet…
We’ve done Placido Domingo and Metallica back to back years [laughs]. So that tells a lot. The way I work with this festival, it’s quite different. It’s not that I want to be so much different from anyone else, it’s that it is different. So I have to kind of work it very differently, in some ways that other buyers would not think of. And why it’s so different, first of all, we are running for 11 days. That’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s much different right there from your average destination festival all across America, where they need to get it done for three days with people all sleeping outside to get in in the morning, get out late at night, and you can have a sense of one general vibe with one festival in one day or one weekend.
While we are so spread out for so long, it’s urban so we don’t have one park, we have like seven sites, and each of them is different and is a destination for one night. We start at like 5 o’clock and there’s nothing during the day, everything is happening at night. So we are combined with the city. The way to experiment with this festival is to come to Quebec City and live the city. When you go to eat, you’re not going to go to food trucks, you’re going to go to super nice restaurants and sit down, then you just walk a few blocks and you enter a space and there’s something going on in one genre. The next night, that space will be totally different. So the thinking is completely different from the start.
So from having that infrastructure – where do you go from there?
Once we knew that, we tried and tried [to think] how do we do this? I realized that being so spread out and our sites being so big, I mean the main stage is 100,000 capacity, that’s more than the entire Coachella site. That’s just for one stage. So we have all this to figure out, and I realized that I needed to be very careful about the genre. How we get success here is being diverse. Diversity is the key for us. We need every stage, every night, to be different and I need to make sure I’m not doing the same genre on two different stages on the same night. When I start every year, I have this huge excel sheet with 8 stages from 250 capacity to 100,000 and I just write down genres.
I’m gonna start with the main stage, and say okay “I will start with Adult and the next night itll be Indie cool or have Coachella night,” let’s say. Next night I’m going to do hip hop. Next night I’m going to go for straight forward pop, mainstream stuff that you would not see in cool festivals much. You won’t see much Beyonce and Katy Perry and stuff like that. That’s the kind of thing I want to do. Because I can, I can do whatever I want [laughs]. It needs to be different. The next night, I’m gonna go country, then the next I’ll go EDM, as far as possible from the previous night. When I’m doing EDM I know that my pop fan from two nights ago might be interested, so I’m trying to make them not too close. The next night I’m going to go nostalgia. This year I’m going to do Duran Duran, the year before I think it was Boston, the year before was Journey. I do need those, they’re good for me, but I need just one night, one main stage play with that. If I do more than that, it’s not going to work. If I do less, I’m going to miss some people. The next night I’m going to do hard rock and I’m closing with metal.
So that’s basically the backbones of my structure for the mainstage. Once I have that done, I’m going to all the other stages and I want to make sure that when I have Country on the main stage, the second stage is Indie rock, third stage is Francophone, fourth stage is Discovery, indoor, punk rock, metal. Every night I need that perfect balance in genre. That’s how I do it. If I put two or three nights of rock and roll in a row, it’s too demanding. The fans need to go back home and skip a few days and come back later. I don’t have the same people every day. Our wristband is sharable. You won’t find that anywhere else. We are only selling one wristband for the entire festival, 250 shows. This is the only ticket you can buy from us and there’s Velcro on it. So you’re not going tonight, you just remove it and give it to the kids and they’ll see Selena Gomez. You ask for the Velcro wristband back two nights later for Duran Duran and the kids might take it back two nights later for Rammstein. What I care about as the programmer here is to bring the wristband back, no matter who’s wrapped around it. Spreading the genre, and doing the math very carefully will allow me to make sure the wristband is coming back. My 50+, my boomers, I want them to rest at least three days. My francophone lovers, they have one francophone headliner on one stage every night. You can see the ladder it creates as it’s moving. So that’s very different.
If you’re booking Coachella, you’re looking for 100 cool acts. You probably know that you’ll need 40 EDM acts, some heritage, and some cool stuff. You just pile them, and once you have them all available for the two weekends, you just say “okay you’ll play Thursday, you’ll play Friday,” it doesn’t really matter.
How do you know who’s available that far ahead?
We don’t, but we work year round on those guys. Sometimes for years. Most of the acts you see on the lineup this year, discussion has been going for years. It’s a matter of, at one point, since they know we’re around, they might manage one summer to make sure they’re going to be available for us. It happened with Gaga. I was trying to do it for a little bit and they said they’re going to tour next summer. I said “okay, now next summer is the year, can you make sure you’re touring plan will take you east in America, Canada in July.” They said “Okay we want to play and we know it’s going to be packed.” So they can manage, if I’m like a year and a half ahead, they can go “Okay, we’ll do Madison Square Garden two nights after, we’ll do Montreal and Toronto, and we’ll stop at your festival.”
Same thing happened with Foo Fighters last year. They were touring with the record and they said “we want to do it so we’ll manage to be down east routed with everything else.” Often times it’s not going to work. Muse toured in the winter and that’s it, but I’m going to keep talking to them and say “next time you’re touring North America you should tour in July and you should manage to be around.” You experiment with the play in the market. For those big acts, if you ask Bon Jovi, Gaga, Billy Joel, The Stones, I mean, Mick Jagger walked off the stage and tweeted “Not bad, 102,000 people.” He’s not doing that every night, and he is doing amazing things every night. This is special. That main field is very, very special.
Do you feel the artists talk among themselves and they’ve developed an inside passion for the festival such as “We can’t wait to play there”?
It’s getting there, slowly, slowly, slowly. It’s much harder because we are in a secondary market, to say the least. So we’re not on everyone’s schedule when they start looking at it, but you know we booked Eagles of Death Metal and they talked about it. The next year we were about to book Queens of the Stone Age, same family, same guys, same agency, because Eagles of Death Metal loved it. So Queens of the Stone Age, they were blown away. They were absolutely delighted. The year after? We got the Foo Fighters. They’ve got the same agent, know the same guys, they spoke, and that was all.
This year, the Peppers are coming and the Foo Fighters have that connection. This is definitely how I’m doing it. Everyone that played it, most of the time they want to come back. And we’re not doing repeats much. It’s very occasional that you’ll see a headliner here that played five years ago, maybe six or seven, but we try to stay away from it because we are in a market where those major acts don’t tour much. You would try to recreate that, but in another market you probably couldn’t. We have a 50 year old festival, lucky enough to have a 100,000 capacity field downtown, like two minutes walk from the main street just like Central Park, in a market where those big guys don’t come very often. Whoever I can have, most of the time it’s a unique once in a lifetime experience for the festival goers. Try to do that in Montreal, with Bell Center running every night with all those big guys playing all the time, and you are presenting Coldplay for the 26th time in the market.
When I do it, it’s going to be the first time in the market, and everyone will show up. [The bands] will do it in front of 100,000 people instead of 30, so there’s a lot of very particular aspecst of this festival. This situation is quite unique. Like in Montreal, again, for instance you have the Montreal Jazz Festival, which is massive, and all the underground and roots stuff, you have the metal festival, and you have the francophone festival. We are all of this.
How much of a music fan are you? How many shows do you go to year round in Quebec? I know there’s not a lot of venues, but say like Wilco comes to town. I don’t know where they’d play in Quebec City but in Montreal there’s dozens of venues. How do you keep up to date on all the music and what do you listen to as a fan?
Wilco would be high on my list, that’s for sure. The most interesting venue in town is the Imperial, and we own that one so we are booking year round now with the Imperial, and there’s another 200 capacity venue next door called the District. So those two venues are ours and we are trying to promote as many concerts as we can. I’m traveling for shows and festivals and conventions every month. One week a month or two weeks a month in the fall, I’m away seeing stuff. It’s a constant battle to stay relevant and it’s very difficult, especially when I’m supposed to be knowledgeable in EDM, country, cool stuff, classic rock. And I don’t like all this. I can appreciate it. When I’m traveling I’m going to see EDM. I’m not going to listen to it in my car, but I’m going to see it live so I know what Deadmau5 is all about, and what to expect from some of these guys that I wouldn’t be attracted to. But I can see that the live aspect of this is cool, I can see that the crowd is reacting. When I was at South by Southwest, I went to see AlunaGeorge, and I really dug it so I booked it right away to compliment the festival.
It’s hit and miss as well. Sometimes we think it’s going to be good, and it’s hard to know what is going to work in this market. What’s cool right now is one thing, but will it work for us? That’s different.
It’s interesting to think how much power do you have over the listening public. Say you decided to do EDM for six of the nights, that would kind of change the musical landscape across the board in what people listen to. Do you keep that in mind that you do have a lot of power with you put up on that stage and that it kind of represents a lot of what the general public will find?
That’s true, but we’re also very much depending on what the people want. The most important aspect of what I do is to figure out what are the people in Quebec City after. I was speaking about those genres, every year when I’m done, the post-mortem of all this is going to be “Okay, we did three rock nights, no metal, one EDM, one pop, we stayed away from hip hop this year. We need to balance this across all stages and I think we need a little less rock, I think it’s time to go for country.”
I did that last year, it was the first time in 48 years a Country artist has played this festival, and it went well. I’m doing that again this year with Paisley, but I’m double billing him with Sheryl Crow because I’m not so sure people are ready for country, so I’m playing it safe again. I’m trying to open that door, not because I like it but because it would allow me to find headliners for the next ten years.
With EDM, I tried that three or four years ago, never before was the festival into that, and it worked. The next year I said I’m going to do that on the second stage and the third stage and see how it goes. Second and third stage didn’t work. The 5000 cap, the 10,000 cap, it didn’t work. Main stage? Still massive. So I know what to think about EDM in this market. People are into it as long as it’s massive. Tiesto, major production, being downtown, they want that. They won’t see emerging club shows, good mid-level stuff. They’re not into that. They’re not a real EDM fanbase in this market. So I’m not going to go there anymore. What they want is the big fireworks, so I’ll give them the fireworks on the mainstage, and I’ll keep doing it as long as they want it. If the attendance is slowing down, if they don’t really want to go that path, then I’ll stop doing it right then and there.
I’m big into Americana. Ryan Adams, Wilco, that’s what I’m listening to. That’s my stuff. I know this market is not so keen on that. I’m doing it anyway. Like Brandi Carlile is going to open for Sting and Peter Gabriel. That’s weird, that’s my doing, I wanted to expose her in the market. I’m hoping to get something going for that genre, but it’s very difficult. But I’m doing small stuff as well. It’s a bit of a fight. In that sense, yes I feel a certain obligation and certain power to say, “I’m going to put these good acts in good situations and hopefully create a public for it.” If at the end of the day no one shows up Brian Fallon and no one is talking about it, or the Strumbellas, then I’ll say fuck it.
I have to ask this question, just because of the timing of this interview, did you ever try to get Prince?
I have a good story for you and no one has asked me before and I was very surprised that no one here in the local press called me about that. I was very close to the Prince team, since 2013. I tried so hard to have him. That’s the year he played at South By in a club show unannounced. Everyone at South by wanted to be there. He showed up at like midnight and played all night. I was on the short guest list because I was in the middle of cutting a deal with these guys. He was repped for the last ten years by this Scandinavian guy, not like a big agency, but just one guy. Everyone was asking me, other festivals and promoters, “How’d you get in touch with the Prince people?” It was very mysterious. They were handpicking shows like “We want to do this, we don’t want to do this.” We tried and tried in the past and I thought we had him that year. He was so close to being the headliner for 2013. The next year, 2014, I got this call late in the booking season and he said, “You know what? We’re doing it this year. It can work, we can do it. Can you send that same offer?” By then I started very early and Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, and the Killers were done quickly, so I couldn’t afford it anymore. I was like, “Oh no, I can’t believe this is happening. I’m not going to be able to do it, let’s try again next year.” Well next year was last year, and last year he was not available and we all said, “2016 we’re going to do it.”
It’s so, so sad for tons of reasons, but I worked so hard on this and I was kind of close to these guys. They were willing to do it and they knew about the festival. I thought we had all the time, and I thought if it’s not this year it’s going to be the next. But no. He will never play the festival. It’s very sad. I was a big fan. All those past years, I had the chance to see him live a couple of time because we were always in discussion. They’d say, “Oh we’re going to be in Montreal, you should come.” I’d go and when’d hang out and we’d be like, “When are we going to do this,” but we never did. It’s very sad. But I tried. I’ve never tried so much.
Do you find that the musicians stay in Quebec for the week? Obviously a lot of them are on tour but if they do have the extra day or two do they kind of hang out a little or is it just play the show, get back on the bus, and then leave?
Five years ago, my answer would’ve been they don’t stay here even for the night. We were used to guys flying in, landing, playing the gig, and then jump on that plane and run away. That was the typical set up for us, which is sad. But when they plan that massive tour, they say, “We have that Thursday night in Quebec City. Where is that? Let’s go play and move.” We’re so close to New York, you’re an hour and a half with your jet. It’s happened a lot, but this is changing more and more. In the past two years I’ve seen artists planning to stay here because they heard of it and because now they know about the festival.
Last year I had Keith Urban stay two nights, came to stage the first night and watched shows with me in my little box on the main stage. He was so thrilled to play the next night. Many acts last year came and stayed for the Stones, so we had tons of people coming to enjoy the city and the festival. This year I know more than ever many headliners will be there for like two night, three nights, and I’m super happy about it. We’re getting somewhere with that. I can definitely see and feel the winds turning and we’re finally maybe not the best kept secret anymore.
When Montreal had the Expos and a lot of players wouldn’t want to play there and called it Siberia, and when they got there they realized they were wrong about the area and loved it. Is there anyone who’s talked about that, like they had misconceptions about the city and what it has to offer?
We hear that all the time. Definitely. Billy Joel walked off the stage and jumped in the limo we had for him. The driver is one of my guys, so he’s the one who told me the story. He jumped in the car and looked at Dennis, his booker, “What the fuck? What just happened here? How the hell was it my first play in this market? That was amazing.”
We hear that all the time. We’re bringing Rammstein back this year, they played in 2011. We don’t do that often. They wanted to play the festival. I know Bon Jovi really loved it as well. Aerosmith, we got calls after. Bands want to come back. We don’t do that much, but if I would my job would be so much easier. But the magic would not be the same. If you’re book a 20,000 capacity venue or 30,000 capacity field, you can do it every two years and it’s going to be great. If you’re targeting 100,000, half of those, if not 70%, they’re not typically the usual fan of Lady Gaga. The usual Lady Gaga fan were in the first 20,000 in front. The other is just Quebec City regular people who aren’t into music that much, but they’re into the festival. They’ve heard of Lady Gaga. They know one song and they’re curious. They would not buy the ticket, but they’re going. And these people are what makes it magical because so many people are out there. Try to do it the next year and they won’t be back.
So is there anyone you have met that overwhelmed you or surprised you with how welcoming they were?
I never ask for anything, that’s a starter. That’s my politic. I just don’t do it. I’m not going to ask. When I see that the set up is, “You need to ask if you want to talk to the guys, “ if this is what it is, that’s fine, I don’t need that. I get it, as well. I understand that if you want to talk to Keith Richards you need to ask. I get that. But knowing that’s how he feels, I’m not going to ask. That would be something like, “We have a 3pm slot for you, you have ten minutes, only one picture.” I don’t want a picture. I don’t want an appointment. Let’s forget it. Keep that slot empty and make sure he’s enjoying himself. And I ran into him anyway at one point and shook his hand, and that’s it. Some others, I’m not asking, but it’s going to happen. When that happens, I’m happy. I’m not stupid. I’m a big fan. That’s not the important thing. When it’s happening, I really appreciate it, and I think they do. Sometimes they’re like “Oh you’re the promoter. Let’s talk about this and that.”
Like Billy Joel, he was on stage with a baseball cap on his head, watching Blondie by himself, no security, no one around him, and he was just kind of dancing. He loved Blondie. I was just on the stage on the side and I said, “Hey I’m Louis, I’m the promoter.” And he was just like, “Oh hey, I’m Billy. This is great. This is a great set up. I love this place, thanks for having me.” That was great. That was one of the most pleasant conversations I’ve ever had. Lionel Richie was so, so cool. Stevie Wonder, we did a Q&A with him, I was kind of leading it. I was so surprised because after I ended up backstage in his box for a little chat. I was talking besides Stevie. He obviously doesn’t know me outside of that Q&A, he’s obviously not seeing me, but he was like, “Hey, Louis!” He recognized my voice and he’s trying to shake my hand and hugging me like, “Thank you man, it was great! Stay in touch!” Stevie Wonder asking you stay in touch, you know it’s not going to happen. But he kind of meant it.
Did you actually keep in touch with him?
No [laughs]. No. But it was genuine. It was wholly genuine. It’s just not something that you can do. I’ve seen him again once in the CAA office, in Los Angeles, but it’s not realistic, unless you spend a week with him. I’m a bit closer with say Brandon Flowers from the Killers because I took him to my cabin for a swim. He had an extra day. He was playing twice; we did a small club show with them and then the big outdoor show. So we kind of bonded a little more, so when I’m traveling somewhere and the Killers are playing I’m going to show up backstage and say hi. That’s as close you can imagine. It’s difficult. I think it’s a good thing to keep it kind of separate. I have music friends in the market here in Montreal, I know tons of guys playing music, I’m a musician myself so I know these guys. In here, I have a job to do and that’s to bring the festival where it is and keep it there, and that’s a challenge. Getting too close to the artist might be tricky.