Take North America’s only UNESCO City of Design, fill it with the continent’s most important digital arts scene, toss in some neon-glow ice cubes and then blend at full throttle – to the beats of some of the world’s best and biggest DJs come to play for Montreal’s notoriously fun-loving crowds.
This only begins to capture Igloofest, a one-of-a-kind festival that’s just wrapped up its eighth and largest year yet at the Quai Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal. Over the years, Piknic Électronik’s younger sibling has made quite the name for itself in the global electronic music community, and become an emblem of Montreal’s creativity and resilient joie-de-vivre that even the harshest Canadian winters can’t tame.
There’s not a city in the world that does this… and least of all at minus 20. But in Montreal, it’s just another weekend out, and this year between January 16 and February 8, there were no fewer than four to choose from – Montreal weekends, that is, the ones that begin on Thursday nights.
Whether it’s the international DJs or the thousands of fans that pack the quay, out-of-towners invariably leave awestruck from their first Igloofest experience. After his packed show on the first Saturday of the season, UK producer and DJ Breach told Igloofest how he and megastar headliner Skream kept turning to each other, dumbstruck, as the snow fluttered down over the jubilant mass of “skiers” during each of their sets. It’s “just totally crazy,” he says, wistfully.
Just crazy enough, that is, to spark a coup de coeur in this magic town, and send word out of a city that dances freely to its own beat – especially when dared by the winter gods. When it first started out back in 2007, only 4,000 people showed up for the single weekend – the result of a “joke” by Piknic Électronik co-founders Michel Quintal and Nicolas Cournoyer. Little did they know how seriously Montrealers would swiftly adopt the event. Since then, the joke (on winter, I guess) has grown into a flurry of neon and onesies with a record-smashing 86,000 partiers this year over 12 wild and icy nights.
“People come from elsewhere to experience this thing that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Quintal told The Gazette. No fewer than 20% of the crowds hail from out of town. “Last week I met people from Brazil,” he says. “They were tripping out. It’s like us going to carnival in Rio — it’s not in their frame of reference.” Deep Dish member Sharam, who played the main stage on January 31, agrees: “There are a lot of festivals but not that many are unique,” explains the Washington, DC-based DJ in an interview with Billboard magazine. “You have Coachella and Burning Man in the desert, and you have this. It’s the opposite of Burning Man.”
Yet all comparisons aside, Igloofest is pure and distilled MTL, with the city’s pulsing signature visible everywhere you turn. You see it in the breathtaking visuals and lighting design of our cutting-edge digital artists, which ricochet off the crystalline snow and illuminate the enchanting winter “village” in soft hues of violet and glacial blue. You see it in the stunning architectural design of the site-turned-winter-playground; in its bars, castles and slides all carved of ice, its industrial-aesthetic firepits to roast marshmallows over, or the siren lights encased within solid ice. You can taste it in the mulled wine and Tia Maria hot chocolates cupped between the mitts of winter revellers. And you spot it too, as Breach did, in the wacky and inimitable Igloofest style, from the ski goggles, neon onesies, tuques and (faux?) furs, to the riotous pastiche of head-to-toe costumes that seem pulled from a technicolour cartoon (or at times, nightmare…).
This year, some laudable innovations greatly improved the overall experience, the most important being without a doubt the second stage. Three times larger than last year’s and entirely redesigned in the form of a 360 degree open-air club, the immersive visuals and greater intimacy created an ideal environment for a break from the madness of the main stage. The impressive local-heavy lineup, moreover, provided a great platform to discover the ecclectically minimalist and deep sounds of Montreal’s budding talents, as the city’s place in the global house and techno world promises to grow in the years to come.
And yet the prognosis is not all rosy for one of Montreal’s iconic winter events. Igloofest, if anything, is quickly becoming a victim of its own success. It’s increasingly impossible to attend a Friday or Saturday night show where standing at the main stage doesn’t feel like lying on the ground while someone delights repeatedly in taking a rolling pin to your body. No one is a nice person in such an aggressive environment, and the significant change of vibe can’t help but chase away many of the core fans that have been with Igloo since the beginning.
Lured by the temptation of getting bigger and bigger, the organizers have also not been timid in allowing corporate sponsors to coopt and brand all the key components of the site, from the ice sculptures (now carved ice ads), to the sponsored bars (which serve only their mark of alcohol), to the “games” in the igloo village (interactive ads), to the stages which are now obnoxiously branded as well. Of course, there is a place for corporate partnerships in such events to help keep ticket prices low and pay for the world-class talent they bring in – and to Igloofest’s credit, some are socially responsible organizations like the STM or Car2Go. Most, however, are decidedly not, and the encroaching presence of the largest corporate sponsors has simply become abusive. Worse, they have not stopped ticket prices from leaping year over year.
As it looks forward, Igloofest faces the risk of becoming a commercialist tourist trap that draws big-spending partiers at the expense of the music community that made it what it is. I hope the organizers reflect on just how far they are willing to go to rake in more money, and whether a more tasteful and respectful balance can be struck.
The festival has quickly become an emblem of Montreal, but to remain so, it must stay open and accessible, and must remain deeply Montréalais.
Keep your cool Igloofest, but above all, keep it classy.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @Shawn_Katz
Photo credit: Nicolas Dupont