For 11 days every July, Québec City emits a panoply of sounds thanks to Festival d’ete de Quebec (FEQ), the city’s 52-year-old music festival. Melodies emanate from stages located throughout the city, including in the UNESCO designated Vieux-Québec and on the verdant Plaines d’Abraham. While FEQ definitely has the corner on location — it doesn’t get more charming than Québec City, the 411-year-old French settlement that exists a bend on the St. Lawrence River — it also offers top-notch musical acts that include established groups as well as up-and-comers.
What sets FEQ apart from the myriad multi-day music feasts offered stateside is not only its duration, but also the array of genres on offer, which include metal, folk, chanson, EMD, pop, DJs, and hip hop. With more than 150 artists, it’s an exhaustive roster and one that takes FEQ artistic director Louis Bellavance all year (and then some) to put together. “It’s often discussions that have been taking place for a long time, often times several years,” explained Bellavance of the lineup process. “Someone like Imagine Dragons, I was trying [to get] the year before; when I realized it would not work for 2018 we switched to 2019.…So, I knew before last year’s festival that they would be headlining the next one.”
Bellavance also takes calculated gambles, frequently booking musicians who may be little-known but are generating a buzz. By the time they play FEQ, however, their popularity has often skyrocketed. “I remember when we booked Bruno Mars back in 2013, [which] was pre-Super Bowl, pre-lots of big songs,” Bellavance recalled. “By the time he got here it looked like a very smart move.”
While the headliners are an important aspect of FEQ’s line up, one of the most tantalizing elements of the festival is the heaps of new music available for discovering. For instance, Montreal-based musician Matt Holubowski, who has played FEQ several times, is a musical force to be reckoned with. I was immediately entranced by his thoughtful lyrics, dynamic melodies, and bewitching vocals when I heard him play an acoustic set at the 2017 FEQ. My ears were also pricked by Geoffroy — also from Montreal — whose sophisticated songwriting is immediately captivating. (See my interview with Geoffroy.)
Alternatively, FEQ repeatedly has been the first to premiere musicians who later become notable. “What happens more often, is the artist is not [famous] yet; people didn’t realize just how big they were [going to be] when they played for us.” For example, since his FEQ appearance in 2016, Travis Scott has become a double-platinum selling, Grammy Award-nominated artist.
Unfamiliar musical offerings are grand, but not necessarily what draws city residents to FEQ. “People in Quebec City come to the festival because that’s their festival,” said Bellavance. “They’re not always trying to figure out [which act to discover]….We’re just trying to tell them, “Trust us, go and see those smaller bands playing the smaller stage or the support slots. If we book them it’s because they’re meaningful and you won’t regret. Sometimes it’s a tougher sale but overall it’s working.”
This year’s festival has a schedule sure to appeal to all listeners. Headliners, who appear on the massive Bell main stage with an audience area that can accommodate 80,000 or so fans, run the musical gamut — Corey Hart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric LaPointe, alt-J, Twenty One Pilots, Slipknot, Mariah Carey, Imagine Dragons, to name few. Also on the bill are Lou Dillon, Coeur de Pirate, Buddy Guy, +Live+, and too many more to list. (See the 2019 FEQ artist line up here.)
I recently spoke over the phone with Bellavance, who has been booking festivals for more than 20 years and been with FEQ since 2011.
What challenges have you encountered as programming director for FEQ? As far as music is concerned I’m free to explore and find the right settings. So, it’s a lot of trial and error. I was the one who brought EDM into [FEQ]. Carefully at first, and then we created a branded side the festival, we call it the Electro Set, its always on a Wednesday. And it is now a kind of a rendezvous in itself and I’m very proud of that because, again, it’s going into diversity and that’s what this festival is all about.
It needed to be done properly step-by-step, and I’m trying to do the same thing now with country. Its difficult. … The answer is good, not great. We try [country] on a smaller stage and see if we have fans for it in the clubs. Can we do it in a 300-cap room and get people crazy, or not really? So, you need to know what’s the real fan base before you hit main stage. I’m always exploring. My entire grid is built on genre and demo. Who I am talking to about playing on the Thursday night, [for example]. Once I know who I’m trying to reach, [say] Adele is the number one pick for that night, I go for Adele. If Adele is not there — and she’s never there — then I go for the next best “Adele.” But I don’t book Iron Maiden because they’re available. I’m going to find my “Adele.” Maybe it’s not going to be as big [an artist] … but we’re going to have someone for that audience.
For the metal night, [for instance], once I have Slipknot I close the door. So, if Avenged Sevenfold is [available] or Iron Maiden, I say, “Guys lets go for next year because we have that one covered.” I don’t want to do two nights [of metal] because I decided months ago, looking at the results we’ve had in the past couple years, that I’d do one metal night, one classic rock, one nostalgia, one cheesy pop…. “Who’s going to be the Backstreet Boy kind of guilty pleasure this year?” I called the Mariah Carey team, and they said, “She’s not playing festivals, she never does that, so let’s do it.” Again, lets be these weird guys in Quebec doing stuff unexpected and book Mariah Carey back to back with Slipknot.
Are you trying to become known more outside of Canada? Yes, we’d love to… we’re doing it to a certain extent, but its not where it could and should be I believe. It’s hard to figure out why exactly, but its much better than it was 10 years ago, even five years ago. When you open Rolling Stone or Billboard they’re listing [what bands are playing] Bonnaroo, and so on; they never ever drop our name. Maybe [because it’s a] French name, maybe that’s too difficult to say Festival d’été…. [But] it’s a French brand. It’s 52 years old. We love Festival d’été de Québec. We stopped translating it years ago. It means “summer festival” basically… Will we get there? I sure hope so. I think if you’re a festival lover, if you’re the kind of person who travels for it, you should know about this one.
People can call it FEQ, if they’re too intimidated by French. FEQ, you know is quite new. We would never use FEQ before, I don’t know maybe four, five years ago. … We did it on purpose, we said, “Okay, lets help them out a bit and go with FEQ.”…It probably will help, you know, sometimes its just that simple.
It’s branding. It’s branding. It’s marketing. Because the product is definitely different. You often hear that people are disappointed that the same kind of lineup goes over from festival to festival and its always the same things just a different landscape. But if you come here, it’s a different lineup and it’s an unusual lineup and the location is much different, [in that] the entire city is a part of it. There’s enough uniqueness in it to convince people to travel and enjoy the city at the same time. You can’t have one without the other. It’s really Québec City and the festival, that’s the experience you are getting.
4•1•1 | Festival d’ete de Québec takes place July 4-14. See FEQ