Nearly a decade ago, on a train from Toronto to Montreal, two independent music promoters, Peter Rowan and Dan Seligman, began their journey as strangers. Seated beside one another, they sparked a creative relationship in transit. Dan, a McGill graduate originally from Toronto, had been managing and touring with his brother’s band, Stars, for a year or so after the release of their first record. Peter – originally from New Brunswick – had helped kickstart the music festival Halifax Pop Explosion, and was managing big-name Canadian acts like Sloan, Julie Doiron, and Joel Plaskett. Sharing experiences and comparing resources, they realized they were in a position to collaborate and shine a spotlight on Montreal’s emerging artistic community in a meaningful and exciting way. With Dan’s friend Noelle Sorbara in tow, the three of them jammed their heads together and seven months later, the Pop Montreal festival was born.
Starting out with a budget of $8,000, the first year of Pop saw 150 bands in 15 venues. Now, Pop boasts a million dollar budget with over 400 bands in more than 50 venues, as well as corollary events like Art Pop, Puces Pop, Film Pop, Kids Pop, and Symposium. Despite the festival’s growing success, the economic realities of working as an independent music promoter remain stressful. Both Rowan and Seligman manage several bands and juggle side projects in order to make a living. While Seligman is currently Pop’s creative director, Rowan stepped down a few years ago for financial reasons, although he continues to help out with programming. When asked how many organizers the festival has lost since its beginning, Rowan replies “pretty much everybody. With no prospect of financial employment or remuneration, it was hard to attract quality people and make them stay.”
Although Pop is no longer in dire straits, fundraising is no simple task; it comprises the majority of the executive producer’s job description. The festival has been incorporated as a not-for-profit organization and has six paid positions on its permanent staff. Its budget is run largely off government grants, corporate sponsorships, and beer sales. “You can’t become entirely dependent on any one source,” Rowan tells me, “Stephen Harper might change his mind any second… and companies you go to one year might not want to dole out dough [on advertising] the next.”
Money-making is evidently of concern; however, it is not the festival’s ultimate goal. As a not-for-profit artistic venture, its founders tout an idealistic ethos. “We’re not about to slap on a big name headliner to the festival just to generate revenue,” Seligman insists, “it’s inevitable that we’ll have acts like The Dears or Arcade Fire who might attract wider audiences because they’re well known, but it would be out of character for an independent music festival to do [something like that].” Pop began as a festival to showcase underground and emerging artists, although Seligman happily admits that Pop is “no longer underground… We’re not interested in being unpopular. We’re interested in bringing good music to as many people as possible. We can’t be one or the other – [underground or mainstream] – and we definitely don’t see the emergence of ‘indie’ music and culture in the mainstream as negative, either.°
“Pop is a festival for music fans and musicians… we started it because we felt there was something really special about the artist community in Montreal. People here make music that’s less tarnished by commercialism because they’re operating outside of the spotlight of industry heads waiting to co-opt their product… they are making music for the sake of making music. People can be themselves as artists without feeling the pressure to conform to industry standards. People here are unafraid to be a little left of center and weird.” Seligman insists that the goal of the festival will always remain the same, “to reflect the culture of Montreal’s artist community.”
“Pop is not an industry event,” echoes Rowan, “we are an artists’ event. We started out organizing for our friends and like-minded people in an active community that’s been in Montreal since the 1980s.” Booking agents and industry people have, in the past, butted heads with Pop because “we’re far more interested in the music makers and consumers. We put on a music festival that is unparalleled and we do it mostly for the bands… If a band plays Pop Montreal, it’s 95 per cent likely they’re going to have a good time… we give them a good stage and a case of beer.”
Rowan describes Pop as “an honest effort put on by people motivated by music,” and the naïve idealism espoused by both him and Seligman is at once heartwarming and unexpected. “You have to be naïve to do anything like this,” he advises me, “we succeeded simply because we believed in our vision, we were stubborn, arrogant, and we knew we were dealing with one of the most interesting communities in one of the most interesting cities in the world, and there wasn’t anyone who could tell us that we couldn’t do it.”