The Pied Piper of Canada
Nick Farkas on setting the stage for a music festival phenomenon
By: James Mullinger
Photographs by Tyler Warren Ellis
THE CO-FOUNDER OF THE OSHEAGA MUSIC AND ARTS FESTIVAL, NICK FARKAS, LOVED PUNK MUSIC SO MUCH THAT WHEN HE FIRST STARTED PROMOTING SHOWS IN HIS HOMETOWN OF MONTREAL IN THE LATE 1980S, THE BANDS WOULD SLEEP ON THE FLOOR OF HIS TINY APARTMENT. HE CO-FOUNDED GREENLAND PRODUCTIONS IN 1993 AND FOUR YEARS LATER WAS RECRUITED BY LEGENDARY MONTREAL PROMOTER DONALD K. DONALD. FOR THE PAST 12 YEARS, HE HAS LED EVENKO, THE TOP INDEPENDENT PROMOTER IN CANADA, BOOKING OVER 1,400 SHOWS A YEAR IN VENUES RANGING FROM SMALL CLUBS TO ARENAS AND LARGE OUTDOOR VENUES IN MONTREAL, QUEBEC, ATLANTIC CANADA AND VERMONT FEATURING EVERYONE FROM TAYLOR SWIFT, KISS, COLDPLAY AND JERRY SEINFELD TO MICHAEL BUBLE, DISNEY ON ICE, U2 AND ARIANA GRANDE.
Farkas also co-founded Heavy Montreal, the biggest metal festival in Canada. His first love though is Osheaga, which celebrates its 14th anniversary this year and is expected to break its own record with sales of over 140,000 tickets. Experts estimate that Osheaga’s economic impact on Montreal is over $20 million: during the festival, total hotel occupancy in the city is more than 90 percent, and of the 140,000 festival attendees, more than 60 percent are from outside Quebec, a tourism dream come true. In short, it is the first premium festival that manages to be both boutique and mass market at the same time, that has risen seemingly out of nowhere. Could this happen anywhere but Montreal? James Mullinger investigates.
[EDIT]: Osheaga has become the biggest music festival in Canada in an unprecedented fashion — it is respected and adored by fans and artists alike. How did you achieve this?
NICK FARKAS: Twenty years ago all the festivals that came through Canada were pretty much package festivals. It would be the same lineup from Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, to the Maritimes, always the same artists. But acts that would do well out west wouldn’t necessarily do so well here. There was never really a home run across the whole country when the package made sense for every city. Because Montreal is kind of unique, we thought the only way to do a festival properly in this market — that would reflect what people want to see and what this market is about — would be to create our own event. We started out as mostly indie rock, barely any radio play for the artists that we booked.
But we knew that in order to be successful we needed to draw people from all over. From the very beginning, how the bands were treated and what the fans experienced were incredibly important. We made a statement that, regardless of who the artist was, we would pay attention to the production, the sound and lights, the food, the art. We knew that doing that would be expensive, but long term we were hoping that it would pay off, which it has. It was definitely a labour of love early on.
[EDIT]: What were the landmark moments for you? When you realized you were going to be the first music festival to bring people not just from elsewhere in Canada but also from around the world?
NICK: Early on, we had no idea if we would be allowed to do it again! The first real benchmark moment I think was when we did Coldplay in year four . Up until that point it had been a struggle, even though we did shows all year long. It was still a struggle to get agents to sell us real marquee talent. To have a band like Coldplay gave us a credibility and a place on a North American map. People started saying, “Wow! Coldplay is playing at a festival in Montreal that no one has heard of!” We knew it was a big moment. Arcade Fire was also very big for us. They were a huge local act that we managed to get early in their career. I think the ultimate — what really took us over the top — was when we had Eminem in 2011 and went to three days. That was the first time we ever sold out. Those things early on were what allowed us to have the belief that we could keep going forward.
We started to realize how special the site was to artists, and we hired Chuck Hughes, who runs two of the best restaurants in Montreal. Chuck started cooking for the bands. That was a huge thing because that became word-of-mouth for the artists. I don’t know how many times over the years I have met people, and they are like, “Oh, you’re the festival with the food!” That reputation has taken us worldwide because what Chuck does and how he does it is unique. They cook on site, they prep on site, and everything is right there for the artists. There’s interaction with the bands shucking oysters. Chefs are rock stars, and rock stars are rock stars: there is a mutual admiration for the craft. Early on, it allowed us to stand out from other festivals because the city of Montreal is known for food, and to have that be our calling card was, in hindsight, a really smart move.
[EDIT]: Incredible culinary experiences are generally unheard of on the road, let alone on a festival site. And a happy client delivers a better job.
NICK: When Chuck and I first met, I said that we needed fresh food available at all times. Because there is nothing more frustrating than a band getting there at 10:30 in the morning, and them hearing that there is nothing until lunch, and then they have to sound check and they miss lunch… It just puts people in a bad mood. That is the way that most festivals have been catered: breakfast is at a certain time, lunch is at a certain time, and dinner is at a certain time. And just the idea of making a big statement with the food, cooking it fresh any time the artist wants, ensures that, like you said, everyone is in a great mood. They are hanging out, they are eating, they are drinking and they are getting ready to perform at a higher level because they have been fed properly and they are not eating s***ty food.
[EDIT]: Each year you want to top the one before, and you have to have that drive. How different is the strategy now that you know that you are going to be around for a long time? Are you planning five years ahead; are you constantly trying to plan new things?
NICK: I think a lot of our team’s production and booking people understand the importance of travel. We like to visit other festivals and see their ideas, which helps you be forward-thinking. We never want to rest on our laurels because what we have witnessed since we started is the massive increase in festivals in North America. At one time we were the only one on the East Coast. Now there are two in New York, one in Boston, multiple in Toronto, so we need to present an event that is always evolving and interesting. I talk about this all the time.
I want people to have a wow factor when they walk onto the site, even if they have been there 10 times — like the fountain that we’ve put in the middle of the field. The wow factor has to be maintained, or it becomes just another festival. People take it for granted, thinking they’ve done that, been there, and then they want to try something else. We want them to think it’s always going to be different. Our production team is always looking for new opportunities. Last year we were on a temporary site, and we covered water to make the dance floor. This had never been done before that I know of. Most people thought we were nuts to try it, but we did, and it was a huge success.
As the festival grew we needed bigger staging, and Stageline (Mobile Stage Inc.) didn’t have any. Traditionally, for festivals of our size, stages are built of steel and take three days to erect. We presented them with the problem that they were going to lose our business because we needed bigger staging, and they engineered the biggest mobile stages in the world. We love that kind of commitment from the people that we work with. It has been really exciting to see all these different companies grow with us. Some of them when we started weren’t really companies. Now they are doing the Super Bowl and stuff around the world. Their access to technology is incredible. To see that kind of creativity across the board in what we do means that the ideas and concepts that we came up with early on were not only embraced by our teams but by the companies that we work with. You have all these forward-thinking groups out there always looking at how to improve systems, how to improve the food for the patrons, how to improve the fluidity of the access points. All of this is a constant evolution.
We are moving to a renovated site next year. The production team has been there all the time looking at it. They have been working on how we can achieve what we have been doing for the last 13 years on a new site. We know that if it’s not as good, people will not come back the following year. We always have to try to make it better. I think it comes down to being willing to invest in the resources — it costs a lot of money to do what we are doing. But we are willing to do it because we know that the return is that we have happy customers who return year after year.
[EDIT]: While you are doing all of this, you are also booking 1,200 shows elsewhere each year. Do you ever get overwhelmed? How do you cope from a business side?
NICK: Over the years we have hired incredible people who can keep the pressure off by managing things on a micro level. I work more on a macro level now. I’m still in charge of booking, I oversee meetings. But because of the talent of other people, I’ve been able to step back to a large degree from the booking process. I can look at trends and forecast where we're going in future years — new festivals, new concepts. We added a punk-rock festival two years ago. We are always looking to maximize what we can do. It’s an interesting dilemma because as you grow it creates more work for everybody — if we were just doing closed shows or arena shows everything kind of comes pre-done. You don't have a lot of creativity in terms of what you can do. You can be creative in your venues, you can be creative on the marketing side with social media. Some mornings I wake up and think we really need to slow down. But it is in our DNA — people are coming to us with new projects all the time. It’s what makes it fun, but at the same time you have to figure out a work-life balance, which is the key to surviving in the music business. So you can actually be functional yet still operate at a high level. Twenty years later I still love my job. I still love the idea of booking Osheaga and Heavy. Having all the right people in place to be able to do all this stuff is the key.
[EDIT]: Do you still love it as much as you did back in the Greenland days when you had punk bands sleeping on your floor. Do you still feel that passion and drive? There are obvious differences between now and then in terms of scale, but what are the differences emotionally and personally?
NICK: The biggest change for me has been my day-to-day job. To take a step back and not be on the phone with agents all day has been huge. I consider myself to be a talent scout — that is what I did for a living. To do less of that, to be in more meetings (and I have to say I do not enjoy meetings). I wanted to work, I wanted to book, so to take step back from that into more of a managerial position and to embrace that and to find as much joy as I did from the booking side has been a big change. I have managed to maintain relationships with a lot of booking agents, so I am involved in that part of the business enough that I don’t miss it entirely. When we started Osheaga, we were maybe 15 people. The first several years we couldn’t hire more people because we weren’t making more money. For several years we were working weekends and doing other shows, so it was difficult, hard work. Have I lost the passion? Early on, I was doing four nights of shows a week. I still love everything about it, but today it’s a different kind of passion. Passion in your twenties could mean that you could work till four o'clock in the morning and get up and do it all over again. I think it is more the stamina that I don’t have today. But I still have the passion. I still wake up every morning and want to go to work. I still try to create an environment where people want to enjoy music. I mean if you love live music, what better job is there?
[EDIT]: What are the main differences when booking shows for the east versus central versus west. Is there anything specific or different when dealing with those regions?
NICK: We do shows in Vermont as well. It’s the only American area that we do any business in. Even though it is an hour and a half away by car, what they do there does not necessarily translate here. When I was growing up, Genesis were big here — the whole progressive rock scene, the capital of Quebec was the capital in the world for progressive rock. For some reason, death metal was huge here and in Denmark. Punk rock was massive in the nineties. Montreal was the second or third in the market in terms of sales.
There are certainly things that work better in the Maritimes than they work here. That’s what makes regional markets, regional promoters. We do most of our shows in the province of Quebec, and we go all the way east to Saint John and Halifax. I love doing shows out east. Now that there is a new arena in Moncton, word is getting out that there are more large venues, which makes travelling in that area more viable for big-name bands. The old lack of big buildings, with Halifax being the only big building in the East, was tricky. Now there are greater arenas in Atlantic Canada, like Harbour Station, like Mile One, and with the Canadian dollar being what it is worth...
You know country music is a perfect example. There is no country music here because there are no country-music stations. But there is a growing fan base in Montreal because people have access to music on the Internet. So why we book what we book at Osheaga, why we book what we book at Heavy, is because we are trying to appeal to our local market and book artists who really resonate here. But we have to book international artists who are going to bring people here. We had Half Moon Run on the second line of our poster two years ago when they played Osheaga. Talking to all these agents in the States, they were like, “Why is that band so high up on the poster?” They either hadn’t heard of them or had heard of them but not much. But that group sold out four Metropolis shows in a day.
Something that is completely regional and huge in one market does not necessarily translate down the 401 or out east or across the border. Bands like Blue Rodeo, Great Big Sea and The Tragically Hip have had tremendous careers in Canada but are not that significant outside of our borders. We are very fortunate to live in a country where the arts are supported and bands like those can do very well within their home country. It allows regional differences in a country. It allows markets to build in certain genres. A lot of the stuff that does well here does well in Vancouver and vice versa. Why this happens is regional radio, the power of regional promoters. Look at the East Coast music scene, which is very strong and very vibrant. Why certain bands work in certain places will always be a mystery, but in large part we can trace this back to certain factors. There is definitely more of a trend toward a niche, genre-driven culture. People are also looking to smaller venues, the 5,000-to-15,000 festivals. This creates a different experience. We have done this niche experience with our punk-rock festivals. Seeing other niche genres like alt country and different scenes starting to happen is really great.
[EDIT]: Thank you so much for your time.
NICK: I love to talk to anyone about what we are doing. It’s important to get the word out. And we are seeing a lot more people come to our shows from the East Coast, which is super important to us. If we lost this market, it would have a huge impact on us. We really appreciate the support from Edit magazine.
This story originally appeared in The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.