It’s the dead of winter. Snow is falling and it’s 20 degrees and dropping, but instead of snuggling up at home, 10,000 people are dancing to some techno, outside, under the stars, in the snow. It’s a surprising sight to behold, let alone partake in, but it’s that exact shock to the system that defines Montreal’s Igloofest, a dance music festival that spans over four weekends each winter.
Still, the biggest surprise about Igloofest isn’t the weather or the throngs of fans who gather in hats, gloves and snowsuits party to in it, it’s that eight years in, this festival has maintained its status as well-kept secret in the dance music festival circuit.
“There are a lot of festivals but not that many are unique,” says Deep Dish’s Sharam, who played Igloofest on Friday, January 31. “You have Coachella and Burning Man in the desert, and you have this. It’s the opposite of Burning Man.”
Each January, Igloofest organizers transform the Old Port of Montreal (a summertime tourist attraction) into a winter wonderland Thursdays through Saturdays for a month, this year starting on January 16 and closing this coming weekend, February 8. In addition to Sharam, featured DJs this year included Pete Tong, Art Department, Claude Vonstroke, Matthew Dear, and Billboard Artist to Watch Hot Since 82. RL Grime and Just Blaze are scheduled to play this coming weekend.
This past weekend (Jan. 30 – Feb. 1) drew more than 24,000 attendees across three days, the largest crowd of the season (the previous weekend pulled in 21,000 despite colder than usual below zero temps). Organizers estimate that about 80% of attendees are from in and around Montreal, with the rest traveling primarily from New York, Boston, Ottawa and Toronto.
Igloofest is projecting a total of 85,000 by the end of next weekend, surpassing the previous year’s attendance, thanks to positive word-of-mouth and an affordable ticket price of $20 a night. Not bad for an event that began on a whim by organizers of Montreal’s summer dance event, Piknic Électronik.
“It started as a joke,” says Igloofest’s co-founder and General Director Nicolas Cournoyer. “We were thinking, ok, people like the concept of electronic music outdoor during the summer, what could we do to have something original?”
Igloofest started in 2007 as a single weekend, expanding to four in 2013. Two years ago, Cournoyer says they were approached by Live Nation to partner on Toronto’s Brrrrr! Festival. Citing concerns about Toronto’s relatively warmer climate, they opted not to get involved, though the two festivals now share some similarities – from marshmallows to DJs (Brrrrr! Held its second annual event this past Saturday in the same snowstorm that hit Montreal). Still, Cournoyer says expanding Igloofest beyond Montreal is still a possibility.
“At the time, we weren’t sure if Toronto was really a winter city – it does rain a lot there,” he acknowledges. “The range of cities where we can do it is not that broad. We need that winter factor.”
Winter is indeed the theme of the festival. While Igloofest’s main stage dominates the landscape of the event with a massive LED wall that (somewhat) blocks the wind from the adjacent river, a smaller enclosed (though not covered) stage highlights local talent in a structure that recalls a Mad Max nuclear winter – with house music.
Beyond the two stages of music are winter activities including an ice sculpture slide, fire pits to roast marshmallows, and an igloo tent where wherein lies a contest for the ugliest vintage snowsuit. Alcohol sponsors make their presence known at the bars scattered around the festival selling beverages like spiked hot chocolate and mulled wine. Attendees can climb inside a giant yeti to have their photos taken too.
“Fifty percent of the crowd is not here for electronic music,” explains Michel Quintal, one of the co-founders and Director of Programming and Sponsorships for Igloofest. “They’re here for the experience, the fun, the party. Our job is to find those creative, interesting, artistic DJs who can also please those people too.”
Unlike warm-weather festivals that boast a variety of genres within electronic music, the thermometer dictates that Igloofest be more genre-restrictive.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Quintal. “Deep house might be too slow. Igloofest needs the energy of BPM. It’s cold. People need to move, otherwise they’ll just leave because their feet are freezing.”
Both Quintal and Cournoyer are clear that their musical directive is not a commercial one, but artistic, even though at times those two factors overlap.
“We’re booking people that in two to three years we won’t be able to afford,” Cournoyer jokes, citing Diplo and Bassnectar as examples of artists who have both graced the Igloofest stage before. Quintal mentions Hot Since 82 as an artist who could be out of the affordability range in a few years, though often the festival gets away with paying under-market rates for artists who simply want to be on the lineup.
“Most of the agents would say that we’re not paying a lot,” Quintal concedes. “In a regular festival, production costs would be 40% of the budget, here it’s 65%. That 25% difference comes from programming. So the agents will say no but the artists will say ‘I want to do this gig.’ It happened with Art Department. The agent didn’t want them to play, but they wanted to play.”
For some artists, playing in the elements is a rough adjustment. New York underground house producer Levon Vincent, who played on Saturday, February 1, struggled to negotiate his turntables in the chilly air before opting for a set on CDJs. It’s a challenge Montreal-based Claire Kenway, a house DJ who goes solely by her first name, can relate to.
“Normally I use turntables but there are issues sometimes with decks based on factors of wind, temperatures and the brittleness of plastic,” says Kenway, who played on Saturday night before Vincent, reworking her typical tech setup to go through a Korg synth module and her laptop. “I had a controller so I could sync everything. I’m not a CDJ person.”
These are minor challenges compared to the few weather incidents that have the potential to completely derail the event.
“The real bad weather is when it’s raining,” Cournoyer explains, referring to a wet spell at the beginning of January, during the event’s pre-production period. “The main problem we had is that all the ice sculpture carving had to be postponed.”
Wind can also wreak havoc on the festival. While they haven’t cancelled a night in eight years, they came close in 2013, when gale-force winds made conditions dangerous by the river.
“Snowing, no worries,” Cournoyer adds. “We’re shoveling like hell, but it’s magical.”
With the proliferation of EDM festivals in North America over the last few years, some promoters have attempted to buck the trend of warm-weather raving by holding winter-themed festivals. Lake Tahoe’s SnowGlobe and Colorado’s SnowBall music festivals have both capitalized on the pre-existing presence of young, predominantly male crowds (EDM’s key demographic) in and around ski resorts with outdoor events.
This year, SnowBall moves from ski town Winter Park, CO to Denver, taking shelter at the Mile High Stadium, reflecting an interest in expanding its audience beyond that of winter sports tourists and season pass snowboarders. Igloofest, and now Brrrrr! are standouts for being outdoors, and also urban.
While the music certainly remains an attraction, winter dance music festivals have an opportunity to truly expound on the oft-repeated mission of creating a unique experience within electronic music culture, rather than a DJ-centered event. Cournoyer cites the fans as instrumental in this for his event.
“We have a great crowd. People are really open-minded,” he says. “One of our mission was for us to democratize electronic music. We get all kinds of people, even the younger kids and that’s what creates the experience for us.”
Cournoyer adds, echoing a sentiment heard around the festival grounds: “One thing that makes us really proud is that people are looking forward to winter now.”
In a city as cold as Montreal, that’s an iceberg of an achievement.