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‘We Knew It’d Be Tough’: Nick Farkas, Co-Founder of Montreal’s Osheaga Fest, Celebrating 10 Years

Nick Farkas, vice-president of concerts and events at Evenko, talks to Billboard about the origin of the music festival and how it got off to a rather shaky start for a number of years until Coldplay…

Osheaga Music and Arts Festival wasn’t always the big draw it is today in Montreal. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend (July 31-Aug. 2) with a sellout of 135,000 tickets, the festival at Parc-Jean Drapeau will welcome about 100 bands, including Florence & the Machine, Of Monsters And Men, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Weezer, Ben Harper, Interpol, Alt-J and the Black Keys. Created and produced by Montreal’s Evenko, figures provided to Billboard gathered by Tourism Montreal put the festival’s economic impact on the city at $30 million (CAD) with hotel occupation more than 90 percent, and tourists from outside Quebec representing 70 percent of the ticket buyers.

Nick Farkas, vice-president of concerts and events at Evenko, talks to Billboard about the origin of the music festival and how it got off to a rather shaky start for a number of years until Coldplay — a change in weekend and some agreeable weather — essentially turned things around.

Were you the originator of Osheaga 10 years ago?

Yes I was. We weren’t called Evenko at the time. We were called Gillett Entertainment Group, but it was basically the same people, just a different company.

Around that time, Arcade Fire’s Funeral came out, the New York Times and others called Montreal the next music hotbed with acts like The Dears, The Stars, Chromeo, Sam Roberts and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Yeah, that was about 10 years ago. For us, there was all that talk going on. We’d been seeing what’s going on in Europe for years; seeing Coachella; seeing Bonnaroo, seeing what was happening with big festivals and there were a lot of festivals that toured Canada in that time period… Summersault and Edgefest and all those. The touring stuff never really reflected what people in Montreal were listening to, so we really wanted to create something where we could have a more Montreal flavor that would book the people that we thought folks here would want to hear, and bring people outside of the city. We’re on an island in the middle of the St Lawrence River — the festival — so to make the island into a microcosm of Montreal, food, arts, music, et cetera. That was the original plan.

Of course you knew the city could accommodate a music festival because you had the Montreal International Jazz festival for over 25 years at the time [now in its 37th year).

Montreal’s a great festival town. There’s one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world, one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world [Just for Laughs and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, respectively]. We promote over 1000 concerts a year now, but back in the day we were still doing 500 easy. We’d been promoting shows in this market forever and we knew it was a great market for live music. So it was definitely natural and we thought the beauty of this might be the draw of the city as a destination and we probably could do a pretty good job booking it.

Tell us about the festival site. That’s where Expo ’67 (the World’s Fair) was held.

There was already Île Notre-Dame and Île Sainte-Hélène, two small islands in the middle of the St Lawrence River, and when they built the subway here, all of the land that they took from excavating the subway they brought it out there and made those islands bigger to accommodate Expo ‘67, so the site that we’re on was part of the original site. There’s also the Six Flags amusement park, the other island right next to ours has the track, the casino.

What do you recall about that first year? How big was it? What was the draw? Was it the success you wanted?

No. No it wasn’t. We [Gillett] were very small, 12-15 people at the time. We were still doing the same amount of shows and we decided to do this five-stage festival on top of everything else. And we didn’t have staff; we did everything ourselves. And at the end we stood there and were like, ‘Wow we did this, hopefully we’ll get to do it again.’ It was Labour Day weekend and it rained every day. The turnout was light, as we say.

Who were the headliners?

Sonic Youth and Ben Harper. We had 50 bands that first year. We were focusing on the crowd experience and the band experience. We knew that if we wanted to keep doing this, we had to make sure that the people had a good time and the bands had a good time. So we focused a lot on that side of it to make sure the experience was good. So the first year the turnout was very disappointing.

When you reassessed for year two, what did you do differently?

Year two, we went out and got the Smashing Pumpkins one night and The Killers playing one night. It did similar weather, same weekend, similar numbers. And in the second year, we looked at what we’d done wrong in terms of programming. It was another significant financial hit and it took a lot of convincing to the powers-that-be at the time go to year two, and even more convincing to go to year three.

And then things gradually got better after that. Year four we had Coldplay headline and that was a huge thing just in terms of credibility, having one of the biggest acts of the world at the time, and still really, just opened people’s eyes and let people in the mainstream know that this thing actually existed. So that was a really big turning point. By that point, we knew that going into a five-year plan, we’d spoken to a lot of people and they were like, ‘The first years are going to be tough.’ So we knew it’d be tough. We didn’t know it’d be as tough as it was, but we persevered.

The Coldplay year was the year before the buyers came in and purchased Gillett and changed it to Evenko, so you went in with something solid by then.

Yeah. By that point it was actually a valuable asset and obviously the festival was part of the deal when Evenko started, when the Molson family purchased the Montreal Canadiens. We’re all owned by the same Montreal Canadiens group that owns the Bell Centre, owns the hockey team, owns Evenko.

What was the big expansion year?

The biggest expansion year was year six when Eminem headlined and we went from a 2-day festival to a 3-day festival. That really solidified the brand and people outside of Montreal really started to take notice. We also moved to the first Monday in August, which is a holiday in Canada, other than Quebec ironically enough. So the rest of the country really started coming out in bigger numbers. And the year after Eminem it was really apparent that we’d taken a big leap in sales. From that point on, we basically sold out. Eminem was huge — he’d only done two shows that summer, he did us and Lollapalooza, so for us to get him was just a major, major, major coup.

Is there something that you’re doing programming-wise that other festivals aren’t? What’s the draw to entice people to spend their dollars coming to Montreal versus anywhere else?

The groundwork that we did, taking care of the artists and the site and the fans, being amazing. Chuck Hughes is our artist caterer — he’s got 2 great restaurants in town. He beat Bobby Flay on the Iron Chef. He’s an amazing chef and he brings in a team and they cook. I think that the word of mouth of how we treat the artists, the food, the site, like I said, has really helped. And a lot of it’s been word of mouth; agents and managers have been like, ‘You guys, your festival, has great food and you have an amazing site.’

For members of the music industry, you also have Osheaga MEG Pro happening Jul. 30-Aug. 2 that has brunches, a panel and a cocktail reception.  How did this come about?

MEG, the Montreal Electronic Groove festival, happened to be the same weekend as we were originally.  We talked to them and they had a stage at the festival for the first couple of years. And when we moved to August, they moved as well because we had established a good relationship with them. The thing about MEG is they’re very European, so they’re bringing in a ton of European professionals to their festival, and we were drawing predominantly North American, you know, Canadian and American artists and managers. So we figured, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity.’

That must be unique. Most music festivals have a VIP section but you hang with people you know; they don’t offer official networking opportunities and programming.

I don’t know. I’d imagine that pretty much every idea we’ve ever had we stole from someone else. So I don’t know if it’s completely original, but it felt like it was good [idea]; we had all these people, let’s get them all together. It was just a logical progression of who was coming to the festival. And as a result, it creates this really nice environment where people can just hang out and have a drink and chat and talk about business.

Are you content with Osheaga’s size and how it’s doing or will you keep expanding?  And will you expand it outside of Montreal and come to Toronto, like you did with Heavy?

I don’t think there’ll be an Osheaga Toronto. Osheaga is an Iroquois word for Montreal. People have asked us about that. We would never really think of moving Osheaga because of what it represents. It’s a city festival. It’s very specific to Montreal. Would we do another festival in another city? Sure we would look into that. Would we call it Osheaga? No.