[CHRONICLES] The hidden face of Rockfest

[Nous avons eu beaucoup de demande de rendre l’article disponible en anglais. Entre autres parce que les répercussions dépassent le Québec (Montebello, c’pas pire proche de l’Ontario, tsé), mais aussi parce que plusieurs groupes y jouant étaient intéressés à comprendre la dynamique et les problèmes soulevés par rapport au festival. Alors voilà, have a good read.]

Since yesterday, several issues have arisen regarding the questionable methods used by Rockfest. Having refused to cover the event for reasons of ethics and values, we believe it is our duty to introduce elements to better understand the context. Please note that this is not a matter of attacking the organization or its founder, but there is some facts that go against the benefit of the music scene in Quebec that we feel we have to shed light on. As dedicated and passionate volunteers of this independent and local scene that is so dear to us, it is essential for us to keep it healthy and try our best to protect it. In response to this controversy, we have decided to publish an article written by Phil, a promoter of the local scene, to demonstrate how certain practices are harmful to the music scene in Quebec.

Let’s start with a quote from Alex Martel (Promoter of Rockfest) that made me nauseous all morning and has definitely pushed me to write this article: « Nobody forces us to book local bands. And if I can allow myself [you shouldn’t have allowed yourself] to speak on behalf of all promoters, our job is to sell tickets, not to develop artists. » Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the attitude that will kill your local scene (which is of primary importance to the culture of both Quebec and elsewhere).

The situation of local bands playing Rockfest

To follow up with the article published in « Le Droit » yesterday, it is necessary to summarize what is « Pay to Play », a method used by Rockfest. According to Jonathan Juneau, a major player in the Montreal local scene, it’s a dishonest, evil and unacceptable method that bums out even the most positive of us. Or, as Ska Jeff, indispensable member the local scene in Ottawa says, « pay to play, that is a ridiculous concept, and one that is mainly used on kids who don’t have any knowledge, are trying to get their first band out there and think this is how it works, by organizations who don’t care about them or their music, but only in making a quick buck ».

According to « Le Droit », local groups present at the festival will receive no money, food or beverages in return of their performance. By cons, to earn a spot on the festival, local groups must sell « at least 50 tickets to earn the right to go on stage. » Tickets are about $100 each, so it’s almost $ 5,000 each local group is contractually (and therefore under the law) obligated to give to the Rockfest organisation. In addition, all unsold tickets must be paid from the pocket of the local group, otherwise their performance may be canceled and the Rockfest have the legal rights to sue if the group is opposed to fulfill the contractual obligations.

In the early stages of a band, it is possible to raise some of the money that will help cover expenses (gas, merch, recording) and it is indeed by selling merch (shirts, cds, records, etc. .) that groups are able to gain the most important part of their budget, often selling their shirts for the modest sum of $10. At Rockfest, the headliners decide the floor price of merch. Therefore, when Rise Against will be setting the price for their own shirts, not $10, but around 30 or $35, setting the minimum price every other band will be able to sell their merch at 30 or $35. Thus, local groups will sell a lot less merch and their possible gain is reduced drastically. The Rockfest will then take up to a 30% comission of total sales from each local band as well. All this to finally realize that your group will play in front of 35 people, on a small stage hidden in a deep corner of the site, while 50,000 people watch the show on the main stage. Oh, so THAT’S the « great visibility » they promise to the local bands playing the fest ?

So after whoring themselves out to Rockfest, what kind of logistics does the fest have to manage the local groups performing? Groups receive regular passes to the fest without access to backstage (either the backstage of the main stages or even their own stage). Some band members who have performed at the fest in the past and wanted to remain anonymous said they feel pressure from the organization to pass flyers, sell tickets or to do other tasks promoting the fest. Qualifying this as harrassment might be a bit too much, but it dresses an accurate picture of the situation. But here is really the « Cream of the crop » of shitty treatments we have heard some of the bands receive : « We could not park anywhere near the festival site or the stage to unload our gear, we had to dedicate an hour before and after our set to carry our gear to and from the stage.  » Really ? … I mean, if at least free sandwiches were provided…

How Rockfest will spoil your cultural summer against your will

Many of the contracts signed by groups present at Rockfest state that said group cannot play in a radius of up to 200 km around Montebello (the city where the fest is held), 3 months prior to Rockfest, and 3 months post-Rockfest as well, so it’s a total of six months during which the groups have to refrain playing major cities such as Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau (These figures, however, may vary depending on the group). And this is even though some other huge festivals, in Montreal and Ottawa respectively, share their headliners (we can think of Jimmy Eat World playing both Osheaga and Ottawa Blues Fest), The Rockfest prefers to monopolize the Quebec music industry. And I hope it will slap him right back in the face one day and that he will understand that this is not the best strategy.

According to Jonathan Juneau, « Rockfest’s programming is built to attract the most different kinds of crowds possible, and that is unfortunate, because some bands on the program could’ve been on a festival that suits them better (and also better suits their crowd) or a tour of different venues in our respective cities, but the clauses in their contract prevents them from doing so ».

I myself am part of the organization of a relatively small festival [less than 1000 in attendance] in Gatineau-Ottawa, called Heart Fest. It is a benefit-festival, where all profits go to a different charity every year, that specializes in a very underground genre of music, hardcore. The Rockfest asked me to move my festival later in the year so that I would stop doing them competition. Pardon me? According to the website of Rockfest, there were 76,000 people last year, and they’re saying they’re afraid that my counter-cultural event, which could even be described as marginal by society, will be noteworthy competition to their mainstream event? Not exactly. Rockfest realised that hardcore was bringing out crowds and I think it’s exactly for this reason that a 100% hardcore stage has been setup for the 2013 edition of Rockfest. I was asked to reschedule Heart Fest, and between the lines, I understood that if I canceled my event, Alex Martel would be very, very happy. He also asked me to book and manage the hardcore stage at Rockfest. At first I agreed to help, but I clearly stated that Heartfest would not move of date nor place, etc… Then, I realized that what they really wanted was not my support, but to buy me out, and put Heartfest out of order. I didn’t get involved with Rockfest, and last may’s edition of Heartfest was a success that the whole organisation is very proud of.

According to Jean-Philippe Lagacé, very involved in the local scene of Quebec city, « it goes without saying that an initiative such as HeartFest, which presents itself as a respected event, spearheaded by and for members of the hardcore community, dangerously threatens the aspirations of a fanatic industry, blinded by its quest for absolute integration, seeking by all means to make itself the place of unicast musical culture ».

In conclusion, Rockfest is a great event when you are the spectator, but there are several gaps in the ethical level coming from the organizational team of this monster event. This article might come off as « bashing » the festival, but it is rather a public criticism, so that the situation improves, so that local groups are treated better and so they can be considered as musicians and not just as a wallet. The local scene is our most precious musical value, we must cherish it and not take it for granted.

– Philippe Roy

Translation by Alex Danis