The annual POP Montreal festival recently took place from September 21 to 25, drawing unprecedented crowds. POP was founded as a music festival and continues to identify as such – however, having embraced the hybridity of the contemporary scene, the festival has grown to encompass music, fashion, film, poetry, photography, and new media art forms. It has also grown in numbers: over 100,000 people attended the outdoor Arcade Fire show, performed in the Quartier des Spectacles outside the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. While this year’s festival saw corporate involvement on the rise, POP does not equate sponsorship with “selling-out,” nor should they. Founded as a non-profit organization geared towards promoting local artists in the community, POP continues to adhere to such foundational mandates. The only real change is that, with continual involvement of sponsors, artists, and volunteers, POP has grown from a grassroots movement to an international event.
In the weeks following the festival, I had the opportunity to chat with creative director Dan Seligman about the history and future direction of POP. Before starting POP, Seligman attended McGill as an undergraduate. When he began brainstorming about POP, Seligman was working as the manager of the band Stars – his brother Chris is the bassist – in New York. He started his career in music by tour managing, organizing promotion in Montreal, and helping out on the road.
According to Seligman, POP “began in a coincidental way.” He was on a train from Toronto to Montreal, with a bag full of records he bought there, when POP co-founder Peter Rowan sat down next to him. As it turns out, Rowan was also living in Montreal managing bands, including Julie Doiron and the High Diles. Having seen the success of music festivals in the Eastern Townships, the two thought up the possibility of bringing something of that sort to Montreal.
The initial platform was the product of a series of meetings with local promoters, artists, and journalists. It turned out people were keen on getting involved rather quickly, putting the first festival was together in a mere six months. Noel Sorbara, a friend of Seligman’s from McGill, also decided to get involved on the managerial side of things, having recently returned from China where she lived for a few years. Through fundraising, partnerships, and bookings, Seligman, Rowan, and Sorbara pulled off the first POP event with alacrity.
Ten years later, 2011’s POP festival drew over 100,000 people. Alongside corporate sponsors, the City of Montreal provided economic support and additional benefits – festival administrators received parking permits from the city, and the team worked with special fire inspectors at each venue who verified capacities, fire hazards, and alcohol permits. Seligman does not consider the involvement of the city and the generous donations from sponsors as an impediment to the festival’s cultural authenticity. Regarding the Arcade Fire show, Seligman concedes that it “wouldn’t have been smart to not do the show. The band is certainly careful and aware of corporate sponsorship and did their best to work with local rather than mega sponsors”.
The Arcade Fire are “obviously incredibly popular and it was an opportunity to do an event for thousands of people who had never heard of POP. POP has worked with the band and always wanted to do a free outdoor show, so it was a good opportunity to include it as part our tenth anniversary.” Although the event was a huge success and garnered a massive crowd, Seligman says that such large-scale productions “won’t be a regular occurrence.” While POP gained exposure from this year’s production, the event took a lot out of work organizationally. For Seligman, it was a “good learning experience to be involved with such a massive effort”.
But the massive effort will certainly be sized down. As regards the future direction of the festival, the primary vision is to “keep it more grassroots.” Seligman stresses that the festival should undergo “natural evolution”, since it is a “living, breathing thing” and no one at POP wants there to be “unnatural growth”. The administration and the team wish to keep the festival true to Montreal’s underground community.
Keeping the festival true to its identity seems important not only when booking bands, but also when determining broader programming. According to Seligman, Fashion POP and Film POP were part of the festival’s natural evolution – “Art does not exist in a vacuum. The first festival had one film, so it was natural to overlap with other disciplines. While music is probably the most popular art form today, there is still a lot of crossover in that respect.” Film directors, curators, photographers, and artists of other mediums began approaching POP with ideas, and the directors opened the festival’s agenda.
The festival’s subterranean roots are the most important aspect of its identity. After all, POP is a non-profit organization – so the benefits are intended to support the local community of artists and musicians. Seligman hopes that POP will continue to evolve without becoming “too big”, and this local focus, on both the artistic and the practical sides, will keep this hope at the forefront. The intention is to keep it grassroots and work on improving organizational capacities since, whatever size it grows to, a festival like POP is a “huge undertaking with a small staff and a ton of work”.