POP Montreal 2020 is going ahead: How do you organise a festival in covid-times?

Lido Pimienta
Photo by Daniella Murillo

POP Montreal is one of Canada’s best mid-size festivals. It is also one of few festivals in the world this year that had the chance to go ahead live and not just in a virtual capacity. It gives festivals around the globe an inspirational example of how to organise festivals during covid-times. We spoke to the festival’s creative director Dan Seligman and asked him how you prepare for such a festival.

First things first: POP Montreal is a multi-genre music festival, with many emerging bands from Canada. It is a showcase festival, comparable with SXSW or the Dutch Eurosonic/Noorderslag. In past years, Arcade Fire, The xx, Nick Cave and Patti Smith were on the line-up, among many others.

POP Montreal takes place from 23 to 27 September in 2020. Because of all the uncertainty, the team was initially ready to just hold a virtual edition. They will still do this: shows will be livestreamed for free with a donation option. But they recently also received the official green light to go through with a small audience at the concerts. Which makes it one of the only festivals that goes ahead this year.

Backxwash, one of the most promising artist from Montreal. Photo by Bianca Lecompte.

No alcohol

How did the festival get ready? To prepare sufficiently, the organizers put in place several measures and precautions. Creative director Dan Seligman: “We prepared for the minimum, like mandatory masks, hand-sanitizing at the doors and physical distancing. We even went beyond the minimum: we won’t be selling alcohol, and we will be extra careful by preparing for contact-tracing.” The festival could have taken the easy path and make money, but the organisers decided against this. Other small measures were implemented: tickets will be non-transferable, there will be no re-entry at the venues and if it’s a group ticket everyone goes inside at the same time,

The focus of POP Montreal 2020 also shifts a little. Even more that normally, the festival will be about more than just music. For example, with Puces POP, there will be a small open-air market as well as a virtual marketplace. Film POP will be back, with movies to be screened at the Cinéma Moderne. POP Symposium is for artists and people from the music industry to have talks. Artists from multiple communities in Montreal will create Art POP. There will even be activities for Kids. Check out the full programming in the respective links.

When asked about the side programming and the necessity to make cuts, especialy in a corona-year where ticket sales won’t cover the expenses, Dan Seligman tells us: “This year was especially problematic. Of course, part of our pride is that we are much more than music. That makes POP Montreal interesting, even unique, and especially relevant in Montreal, which lacks these kinds of events. Every year, we more or less have the same debate and end up with not as many bands as planned. So yeah, we would cut from the line-up.

A line-up with local acts

Another one of the adjustments for 2020 is that POP Montreal will be even more focused on the city it takes place in. Of course, big international names won’t be able to make it to the festival. But while the line-up lacks big names for this 2020 edition, it takes its strength from the diversity of (local) performers. In the press release of the first announcement, the festival described the three headliners as follows: ‘mind-blowing metal rap’ for Backxwash, ‘ecstatic electric cumbia’ for Lido Pimienta, and ‘cinematic orchestral bliss’ for Flore Laurentienne. The rest of the program is as diverse and will perform in the usual venues, but also in alleys and other secret places.

With two female headliners out of three, Dan Seligman adds: “We are not really focused on quota. We always program diverse in term of style and gender expression. It is boring to only focus on one kind, whether that be genre or gender. So while we do not follow quota, our eclecticism in programming gives us some natural sort of diversity. POP Montreal has always been ahead of the curve on subjects like that so we try to stay true to our ethos and not put labels on what we do. Music is about more than one thing.

Lido Pimienta. Photo by David Barajas. Other measures

Closing fun fact: maybe you’ll get to meet Dan in Europe next year. He was supposed to go to Dour festival on a sort of exchange program, but because of the postponement, he will be in Belgium next year.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about POP Montreal and watch some amazing Montreal bands for free, head to the festival’s website or visit our festival page.