A fair weather festival?

With a lack of compassion for its hometown, Osheaga muddies Montreal music culture

With countless talented and innovative local artists, and numerous venues in which to house them, Montreal consistently offers music lovers a veritable smorgasbord of sonic samplings. So, what results when a large scale festival like Osheaga arrives every summer, turning Parc Jean Drapeau into a cultural petri dish, and bringing a variety of international and national acts to mingle with this already dynamic musical environment? Fantastic performances and a lively atmosphere made the weekend a treat for the ears, but it seems that a unique Montreal festival experience was overshadowed by international stars and sponsors.

“I don’t think [Osheaga] affects [Montreal’s music community] too much, bringing Eminem to Montreal didn’t really change much,” Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids told The Daily in an e-mail. While many headliners contributed to a decidedly international presence, the inclusion of the Montreal based group Braids seems to have exemplified Osheaga’s attempts to include at least some popular local acts in the festival. The band has deep connections to the city, which Standell-Preston alluded to during their set, exclaiming, “We live here with you.” They have also been gaining prominence outside of Montreal, with the launch of their debut album Native Speaker earlier this year, which resulted in wide acclaim for the band. The album subsequently wound up on the short-list for the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s top music awards.

A performance spot at Osheaga may have been reflective of their new-found fame. Held on a large stage in an expansive outdoor setting, the show was distinctly different for Braids fans, who are accustomed to seeing the band in more intimate – if sometimes cramped – venues. As the band went through their pre-show checks, it was easy to doubt whether their sound could translate successfully to an outdoor festival setting. However, by the time the music swelled in their first number, “Glass Deers,” it was clear they had the power to pull it off.

It wasn’t just music listeners, however, who noticed a distinct difference between the festival and a more typical Montreal music experience. “I think that environment changes everything” Standell-Preston explained. “People tend to be much more excitable at festivals; festivals are outdoors, there are usually hot dogs and sodas, bikini’s are being sported, joints are being lit, people are just trying to have a good time. At a venue it’s usually dark, people have their arms crossed. It’s a much more serious event.”

While Braids were part of a relatively significant Montreal contingent at Osheaga, it seems that the festival’s size and international reputation prevented many local acts from performing, especially lesser-known ones. “ I feel that once you get to [Osheaga’s] level it’s hard to incorporate the little guys – which are the people who for me, and I feel for many people – define our music scene,” said Standell-Preston.

Another local addition to the festival was the Montreal based band Karkwa, who played to a large crowd on one of the biggest stages at the festival, a setting that seemed tailor made for the band’s high energy, folk rock sound. Karkwa has risen in commercial prominence throughout recent years, particularly after they became the first Francophone band to win the Polaris Music Prize in 2010. However, as one of very few Francophone bands to perform at this year’s festival, Karkwa seems to have exemplified the tremendous disparity that exists in the success rate between Anglophone and Francophone musicians, even in Quebec. In a telephone interview with The Daily, Stéphane Bergeron, the band’s drummer, acknowledged the relative linguistic inequality at this year’s festival, while also expressing a certain level of understanding for it. “Mathematically, yes, there were a lot more Anglophone bands than Francophone bands,” he conceded, “because [Osheaga] tries to book world wide, and international bands.” He emphasized that this disparity did not particularly bother him, and expressed a view that, from an artist’s standpoint, bands should be free to write in whatever language suits them. “I’d like to encourage people, if they speak French for the most part of the day, to create in French, but I don’t have a problem with people who sing in English even if they are Francophone,” he explained.

While artists like Bergeron may not have been bothered by Osheaga’s anglo-centrism, it seems that the festival missed an opportunity to distinguish itself from other large North American festivals by not taking advantage of the multi-lingual possibilities Montreal has to offer. “I feel that Osheaga could be in Toronto and it wouldn’t feel much different,” revealed Standell-Preston. “You don’t get that taste of Montreal when you attend it.”

Osheaga not only failed to exhibit Montreal’s musical distinctiveness, but also denied accessibility to many of the city’s music fans through its high ticket prices. Artists like Standell-Preston and Bergeron, however,  recognized that this was an unavoidable part of the music festival structure. “All festivals have higher ticket prices as there are many bands that you can see,” observed Standell-Preston. As she saw it, attendees were likely not drawn by any single band in particular but by the allure of the festival as a whole. It seems that festival organizers did, however, keep in mind the possibility of individual bands attracting distinct crowds by offering alternatives to the full festival pass, such as single day tickets.

A high price tag was not the only aspect of Osheaga that may have detracted from the festival’s musical focus. The proliferation of corporate sponsorship on the festival grounds was so heavy in many cases, that it served as a distraction, undermining both the music and the liveliness of the festival’s atmosphere. The festivals sponsors were, like much of the musical line-up, predominantly international. Osheaga once again missed an opportunity to make itself distinct by avoiding ties with more local companies, in this respect.

Festivals like Osheaga occupy a somewhat tenuous role in the musical culture of a city like Montreal. Certainly, the festival brought together a broad spectrum of musical talent, giving  Montrealers a chance to witness a slough of stellar performances over the course of just a few short days. As Bergeron observed, “Montreal is a city where you have a lot of music lovers,” and a festival like Osheaga undoubtedly caters to them. Even so, the festival, due to a variety of factors, such as cost or language barriers, remained inaccessible to large demographic swaths of the city it exists to serve.