“The danger isn’t cold or snow”: a conversation with Nicolas Cournoyer, Igloofest VP

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Igloofest 2020
Photo: Ulysse Lemerise

Igloofest is Canada’s biggest winter open air music festival. This year, it will be virtual with five nights in iconic locations around Montreal. With the hope to get back to the festival grounds next year, we had a conversation with Nicolas Cournoyer, Vice-President of the festival. We asked him about the weather, the lineup and more.

No time to read everything? Here are the highlights
– Igloofest never cancelled because of the weather!
– Because of climate change, the festival can’t have ice sculptures anymore.
– The danger isn’t cold or snow: it’s wind and rain.
– At the heart of the crowd, it’s 10 degrees higher. So get in there and dance.
– How to convince the artists? Five to ten thousands festivalgoers wearing ski suits and onesies in a snowy field!
– Charlotte de Witte (who performed in 2020) was one of the most kind and professional artists that performed at Igloofest.

Montreal winter weather

What are the biggest challenges regarding the weather for an open-air winter festival in Montreal? 

“All the logistics related to the weather are a challenge. The last few years especially, with the changing climate. The problems arise when the temperature gets above 0, and it happens more and more. If there is a snowstorm, it’s ok, it adds to the experience. If it’s cold, we are still able to fully function, even if there will be less people. The risk with the warmer weather is the freezing rain. The ground gets icy and slippery and it’s like a rink. Also, before, we used to have ice sculptures, but it’s not possible anymore as they melt.”  

When you say that you can fully function in the cold, what are the measures in place? 

“There are many places to get warm. Outdoor fireplaces, but also a pavilion where people can get a drink or go to the toilets. There is also always dancing: we did an experiment with a Montreal weather website. And it showed that at the heart of the crowd, the temperature was 10 degrees higher than outside. Like the penguins. A drink or a shooter can help, of course, with moderation. In the first years, people would come in baskets, but they learned. Good clothing is key. And when the ground is icy, we have a special machine to break the ice and get the site secure.”

Photo: Soft Melancholy

The Montreal crowd learned how to cope with the cold at the festival, but how do you convince the artists? 

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“You know, a lot of these artists have played all around the world. So they are used to perform in big venues, festivals, big crowds, but obviously more in the summer. So what we offer is an experience. Once we had international artists, then the word of mouth got to some to the extent that some artists approached us. I would say that our situation is a competitive advantage because we host them well and they have a nice experience. They find themselves open air in front of five to ten thousands persons wearing ski suits and onesies. The snow and the festival lights are quite the sight. Sometimes they can take of the gloves, sometimes no.

For some artists, it’s unthinkable to come. But it also happened that some arrived and were “oh it’s outdoor”. We have appropriate clothing to make sure they don’t say no at the last moment. Even when they say yes, some think that nobody will come at the show. And we are like “no, the ticket sales are going well don’t worry”. And it often results in a magical experience, a communion with the crowd.”

So no artist ever cancelled last minute? What about a cancellation because of the weather?  

“We never cancelled a night because of the weather, ever. One almost did, but it wasn’t because of the cold, or the rain, or the snow. It was because of the wind. We are in fact at the edge of the Saint-Laurent river. That day, the winds were at 80km/h. It would have been too dangerous. But at night it went down do 40-45 and we went ahead.”

Igloofest lineup

This year is particular. How did the restrictions affect the booking?

“This year, it will only be local artists. We have a strong and eclectic lineup including Misstress Barbara and Jacques Greene. The borders are still closed, there is a mandatory 14-days quarantine upon arrivals. That’s why we went with a local lineup. But there is enough talent in Montreal and Quebec so it’s not worrying. And as the cultural scene is slow, it’s a good thing that we can give contracts to artists, but also technicians and all the layers of the music scene. Even the government which is giving the grant prefers a local program so it’s a win for everyone.”  

What about previous lineups? Do you recall hosting a Belgian or Dutch artist? (in 2020, Charlotte de Witte, Noisia and Reinier Zonneveld performed at Igloofest) 

“It’s been a few years since Charlotte de Witte was on our radar and among our favorites. She performed at Piknic Elektronic (the summer equivalent of Igloofest) but we only got her in 2020, and for the closing of the festival. It was a musical connection but also a human one. She was kind, down to earth, professional, but also on fire on stage. Always smiling, happy to be here. I was talking about the communication with the crowd, and it was special with her. We could have her every year.”

Photo: Ulysse Lemerise

For sure, having Charlotte every year would be delightful. What about a dream artist that you never managed to get (yet). My dream would be Moderat, have they ever performed? 

“We got Modeselektor, and Apparat, but never Moderat, which indeed would be awesome. There’s another German DJ that I’ve always wanted, but whose name I can’t remember.”

Boris Brejcha? 

“We almost got Boris Brejcha but it didn’t happen. But I was thinking about someone else. we got Carl Cox, it was magical. We also got SashaDigweed… but I can’t remember  the name of the German old school DJ I’m thinking about. But I would say Aphex Twin! He doesn’t play a lot but even if it’s niche, it would be great! The Chemical Brothers could work too.”

(after the interview, he sent me the name in a text: it was Sven Väth!) 

What about women on the lineup? I read that you got a 30% ratio in 2020. Is it something you’re working towards or was it an accident? 

“It’s been years that we think about it, to get this ratio up, especially in headliners positions. And these years, we have a lot of choice. We had Nina Kraviz and ANNA with Charlotte as headliners last year. Of course, there are constraints, but we are actively working on it. One year, we flirted with 40%.”

Any last word on Piknic Electronik 2021, your summer festival? 

“For next summer, it will depend on the vaccination program. We hope to be back on the festival grounds as soon as possible. But we have to hope and work optimistically. In the events industry, we are used to working under pressure and uncertainty. Of course, we just want it to be safe and we will be ready to host people. This year, we started Piknic Electronik Melbourne and it went well. We can’t wait to retrieve this energy in Montreal.” 

For more information, you can visit the Igloofest website. For more Canada winter festivals, click here.

Akram is a 26yo living in Montréal. After visiting Sziget Festival in 2014 (and 2015, and 2016), his love for live music started ascending and is yet to peak. His favorite bands are Arcade Fire, Radiohead, M83, Big Thief, Beach House, Sufjan Stevens...