Culture  Your first gig

Student bands weigh in on how to break into the Montreal music scene

Montreal’s unique fusion of diverse national influences makes for a creative cultural atmosphere unmatched by most other North American cities. It’s home to some of the finest musical acts of recent years, including Arcade Fire, Silly Kissers, and Chromeo. It draws a variety of acts for its well-known festivals, Osheaga and Pop Montreal, from large-scale artists such as Coldplay to less mainstream but still well-established bands like Yo la Tengo. Such a large variety of musicians and the overall competitive nature of the music world can make getting involved in Montreal’s music scene intimidating. However, as I found out by speaking to three different Montreal-based bands, getting involved, even on a small scale, actually proves to be very doable.           
If you’re willing to commit yourself fully to your band, and really want to break into the music scene, then booking a few good shows might be all you need. “I think if you’re in a city, and you work hard and you play a couple of good shows, and you can kind of dedicate yourself to that, then it’s totally feasible that you’ll start to meet people who want to book shows for you, or just who like you enough to tell their friends about you” says Josh Frank, an East Asian Studies major at McGill, member of positive noise duo Hot & Cold, and former Daily editor. If you don’t have time to dedicate yourself fully to your band, however, the city offers a variety of other possible ways for you to establish yourself on your own terms.    
“There’s tons of venues in Montreal that don’t charge any initial cost to rent out the place for the night,” says Devon Welsh, a U3 double major in religious studies and drama and theatre, and member of The Pop Winds. Casa del Popolo, Bar St. Laurent 2, and Vinyl are favourites of these bands. “That’s just the easiest way; that’s just the most direct route to playing shows, and hopefully people will like it and maybe they’ll offer shows for you to play or you can keep putting on your own shows,” Welsh continues.          
Another of Welsh’s favourites was lab.synthèse, a loft venue on Beaubien. Loft spaces offer musicians an open place where it’s easy to interact with the audience and which doesn’t feel as formal as a classic venue. It gives the crowd and the musicians a more intimate dynamic during the performance. lab.synthèse recently closed down, but Edwin White, one half of psychedelic pop duo TONSTARTSSBANDHT, shared his experience of playing there with me, saying, “lab.synthèse is our…was our favourite place to play, because it had a ton of floor space, and a really good PA and a really wide stage, so you could see everyone in the audience and they could see you, and if you wanted to play on the side, or on the floor, you could still get tons of people surrounding you, so yeah, a good place, good space.”

On top of booking fee-free and DIY venues, there’s also the possibility of going and contacting bands directly in the hopes of playing with them. “If you’re a fan of a band, and you think that that band fits your sound, [you could say,] ‘Hey, I noticed there’s an open space for a local band, we love this band, and we think they’re kind of like equal counterparts for our style of music like that would a great fit for the show’.… If you can convince them, then you’re pretty much golden,” White said.

However, “establishing oneself” does not have to start or even end on a big scale – it can be something as simple as putting yourself on the map at school by, for example, playing a great set at a party. Beginner bands take note: “[New bands] definitely shouldn’t think that if they couldn’t play at a bar, they’re not a legitimate band,” Frank says. “Part of the fun is playing in strange places or in friends’ basements or living rooms, or making friends who have big living rooms.”   
All three band members also emphasized that it wasn’t about playing the biggest venue in Montreal, but playing a great set and having a good interaction with your audience. As White puts it, “it doesn’t really matter if you know, like, if it’s a prestigious place, but if it’s the kind of place that invites a good, like, a good kind of atmosphere, that’s where you wanna play a show. It’s very important to make a show go well. Even if you’re good, [if] you know the crowd’s not feeling it because all the different circumstances, you know, then you don’t have a good show for yourself.”

Regardless of where you end up playing, it’s about making the crowd really grasp what you’re conveying through your music. Opt for any space that can culture this kind of relationship. Frank sums this up by stating that “You kind of make the most of the space you have, and if you can make people forget that they’re in a living room or a dingy dive bar, because that’s the only space you could get, then that’s a success, I think.”