On a massive stage, headliners Neil Young, The Weekend, Beck, Shawn Mendes, Future, Foo Fighters, Beck and Lorde drew as many as 80,000 people each night to Festival d’Été in Québec City earlier this summer, a unique not-for-profit music festival in an old Canadian francophone city with a population of a half-million.
“It was always the event in town,” Festival d’Été’s programmer Louis Bellavance tells Billboard. “It’s a small market; it’s a small city; it’s a gigantic event in a small city. It’s a big fish in a small lake.”
Held each July for the past 51 years on the historic battlefield of 1759, Plains of Abraham, with three additional periphery outdoors stages and a handful of indoor venues in the city, some 250 acts played over 11 days.
With an event budget of $30 million (CAD), artist budget of $13 million, FEQ reports an economic impact of $26.5 million.
The cost for a general admission ticket for all 11 days? Just $77 USD — that’s $100 CAD; raised to $110 after the early bird, the cost of barely one decent arena concert. To top it off, you’re even allowed to share the wristband day-to-day.
There are VIP tickets (free for employees, media and sponsors), but given Kendrick Lamar’s complaints last year about late comers, the original sectioned area in front of the stage was also given this year to the “true fans.”
In all, FEQ sells 125,000 GA, plus 2000 each for Bell Signature Zone and Silver Front Stage Zone; and 3000 for the Gold Front Stage Zone.
So how is it even possible for a city with a population of half-a-million to even pull this off? Where does the money come from and why isn’t it as Instagrammed of a music festival, as say, Coachella or Spain’s Primavera? Why does fellow Quebec fest, Osheaga, get more press and attention.
Now that this year’s festival is over, Billboard talked to Festival d’Été’s programmer Louis Bellavance to find out how they are able to pull it off.
Other festivals are very expensive, as much as $500 USD, and $1000 for VIP, for, say Coachella, and you have a lot of the same caliber acts. It’s been going 51 years, but when did you start booking marquee English language and international artists?
The 400th anniversary of Quebec City was in 2008. That was the first time superstars came and played on that field that was McCartney and Celine. But that wasn’t the festival. But it was on the festival site and it was run by the festival people, with new money, of course, anniversary money. And it was amazing, and they said, “Well, can we do that year in and year out?”
It started around 2010, so it’s fairly recent. Starting slowly, I remember the first big star was ZZ Top. It was massive because here we’re not so exposed to superstars, especially from the outside. ZZ Top must have been 2008, 2009 [ed. It was 2005], Scorpions the year after , and then 2010 was big, like Black Eyed Peas big. Metallica 2011, and then boom, boom, boom, until now.
When you’re reaching out to the booking agents, it must be easier now easier because you can say, “We’ve had The Rolling Stones and Foo Fighters.”
It’s a lot easier. I remember just trying to get a call back. Trying to go over the filters, “Sorry, who’s this, and what is it for? Quebec City? Can you spell that?”
How would you explain the appeal to a U.S. promoter?
What I had to do was go there. I have been to New York and LA a lot, just to sit down. I remember chasing Marsha Vlasic, the Neil Young booker, my first year here, 2011. I was in New York calling her office, “Hey, I run a small festival in Quebec City, Canada, can I sit in your office?” I couldn’t the first year, I think it took me maybe a year or two to get a proper “Okay, you can come and sit, what do you want to talk about?” And then, “Okay, listen to me, this is amazing, that field downtown, 80,000 capacity, now it’s 90,000 because we moved it a bit.”
Is this the first year Neil’s played?
Yes, I’ve been chasing him since 2011. Every year. I remember [Vlasic] telling me, “Why do you always come and see me? Neil is not doing much shows.” But she’s also booking tons of good acts like Cyndi Lauper, the Strokes, so we were talking about other stuff. We booked bands here and there, but I wanted Neil Young. He had never played Quebec City.
Ever in his career?
Ever in his career. It’s a first. That’s a massive thing. And it’s a Canadian exclusivity. So that’s kind of cool. That’s what I wanted to do. Someone is coming and they talk about it. Metallica played for tons of people in 2011 and talked about it. Then that was much easier for the hard rock and metal. I was struggling with [booking] pop. No one knew us in that realm; it wasn’t a pop festival until fairly recently. I remember we were always chasing the big rock acts, and then I said, “Why don’t we go and try to go with massive pop stars and see how that goes?” Black Eyed Peas was the exception to that rule and then I did Gaga , then Bruno Mars , and then Pink last year, and now a lot more. I think now everyone in the business knows about this thing.
People coming here for Festival d’Été , there’s no camping. It’s certainly great value for people who want to come here from the U.S. or Europe or even the rest of Canada — 100 bucs for 11 days — but are there enough hotels — and affordable hotels — to accommodate everyone?
There is enough accommodation. The city is not sold out. It’s highly touristic, so in the summer and even in the winter, because there’s winter tourism as well for this city. This is the main thing in Quebec; it’s tourism. There’s no big industries and blah blah blah. So it’s well equipped to face an event like this. There’s tons of small hotels, boutique hotels, in old Quebec, places with like 12 rooms and it’s lovely, in buildings that are 400 years old, or maybe not 4, but 2 or 3 [hundred]. So it’s easy and it’s all walking distance. Downtown is fairly small. You can walk wherever. So you come here, you find Airbnb, or nice boutique hotels, or smaller things, and you just walk the city and it’s amazing and very, very enjoyable.
Do you know the percentage of people that aren’t Quebecois at the festival. Many only speak French.
It’s fairly white and francophone. But it’s changing, slowly. The festival itself draws mostly from here. Province of Quebec, it’s probably 80 or 85 percent of whoever is here.
The Quebec music industry here is so different than the rest of Canada. You have your own gold and platinum-selling francophone stars and people can tour just in Quebec and make a living, hitting two dozen cities and towns. Booking these top English-language acts, how familiar do you think the population is with them?
Well they don’t know everything we program, definitely not. And it’s so multi-genre, and it’s so diverse, so they kind of trust us. That’s the nice thing about it. I don’t think there was almost 70,000 fans of The Weeknd; it was probably 20,000. Everyone else, they just went along. They like this festival, they want to come out, they want to be together, they want to be part of it. We did surveys on that, and we know that this is the only show they’ll see in the year. You ask around, “Are you a big music fan? Are you going to theatres and clubs?” “No, I don’t, I never buy concert tickets, but I do come here and watch shows 11 days, and that’s it, I’m good for the year.” It’s different. it’s a big party. They want to be part of it and they want to be there.
There are fans camped out in the front waiting for the doors to open, to get a good spot at the foot of the stage, but other than that, it’s very chill. There are big lineups at security, but no one pushing and coming out of the venue, people are just walking casually and patiently.
We can empty that main field, 80,000 people in 30 minutes. Quietly.
Why is that?
I don’t know, but it’s even true even on hip-hop nights, EDM crowd, it’s peaceful, I know bands are expecting trouble. I know Metallica’s always preventing promoters from selling beer, or if you can sell beer you can only for the first half-hour and then they close the bars. In an arena they do that, and people are pissed because they can’t drink, then those rock bands — when we did the AC/DC I remember they were like, “no cans. You can not keep a can of beer because people will throw it.” And I was like “No, they won’t.” And we’re always giving like a full can, and no one ever, not once, used it to throw.
You don’t take the bottle caps off the bottle either, like they do at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
And you have people walking through the crowd selling shots of hard liquor.
Yes, we still do it. We are selling tons of beer, and that’s part of this thing. It’s a big party. You might see one or two party animals out there but it doesn’t have like some events where you have drunk people all around.
Considering you had 90,000 people there for The Weeknd, and it was during a heat wave warning in Quebec, only a few people had to be carried over the railing to paramedics.
No, it wasn’t bad at all. I don’t know, the people are trained for this in here. I mean they wait all year for their festival. It’s not ours, it’s totally owned by the population, and it’s true, it’s a not for profit thing, no one owns this; it can’t be sold.
The acts you’re getting have to be a lot of money, like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes, like the top, top.
No one is telling me “Oh, you’re a not for profit, we’ll take 100k less.”
How do you determine that you’re going to charge $100? How does such a small amount make it profitable?
Well it’s math. We are selling a lot of those tickets, so it works. You do the math, $100 times 120,000 tickets. That’s a lot of money coming in. And then sponsors, they love this. This is the big thing in the market. So if you’re Bell Canada, and you want a presence in this market, then what’s better than that? We get a lot of sponsor money, government is there too, it’s 14 percent of our budget. We’re also running a bar, and there’s 80,000 people in our bar every night, or 90, in all the other sites, so that’s a big part of it.
There are a lot of festivals that have gone under the past couple of years. Do you have any insight on that? How they could have done things differently, or anything that you’ve learned over the years?
It’s more difficult than it was because there’s more festivals. I think everyone is trying and we’re still in the cycle where there’s too much. So more festivals will go down.
Is it the price that they’re charging?
It’s the price. It’s hard to get the talent. It’s hard to keep up with, like an average line-up, it’s very difficult. There’s always a better festival out there. We’re lucky enough to be one of those “better festivals,” but it’s difficult to come up with the talent and people.
They used to travel a lot for festivals. They used to say, “I’m going to this one,” no matter if you’re in Pemberton or wherever it is. And now, in every city, there is a fairly decent festival. When I got here in 2011, Lévis on the other side was not running a big festival; Rimouski, two hours down the road, no festival; Trois-Rivières, not that kind of festival; and right now, a couple of years later, Rimouski’s doing Avenged Sevenfold, they’re doing Billy Talent and stuff just outside the bridge, Trois-Rivières is doing bands at $200k, and $400k, while they used to pay $20k, so everyone is going at it.
The Weeknd has quite an elaborate indoor stage production. Yours has to be fairly simple?
Yes, it’s a different set up and then they ask us “What do you have guys?” Our basic technical rider is impressive. It’s over any festival I know other than Desert Trip, which was over the top, way better than what we’re doing. But no one was able to tell me there’s a bigger one somewhere. There’s probably, but no one has seen it.
How big is it?
I don’t know exactly, it’s massive [220 feet wide x 76 feet high x 90 feet deep], I call it the space ship. Every main artist going there, they look at it and they’re like “Oh my god.” I remember Keith Urban walking out of the limousine and he looked at me, shook hands and looked at the stage, and then we walked under it and then he stopped and looked at me and said, “I’ve played all around the world, I’ve never seen a stage that big.” Glad to hear it because I’ve never seen either. Well, Desert Trip was quite something.
But no, so technically we are over the top. We’re trying to be. That’s how we started. When I was trying to get calls back and to attract attention, what could we do? We said, “We need a bigger stage, the best production, we need the best catering, the best hotels, we need the best best best, otherwise they’re not going to come.” We have to be so good, that people loved it, and now it’s working and we keep improving everything as soon as we can.