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Interview with Rockfest creator Alex Martel

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President and founder of Amnesia Rockfest Alex Martel says that he did not expect to be producing a festival of this caliber almost a decade down the road. This year’s festival will be the 9th edition and promises a line up of around 150 bands plus some major improvements. Amnesia Rockfest 2014 will be held in the small town of Montebello Quebec on June 20 and 21.

Martel first started Rockfest when he was just a 17-year-old music fan and now it is the largest festival of its kind in the country. For the 2013 edition Martel sought outside help to cope with the rapidly growing festival and the results were less than satisfying. Last year’s festival saw rancid sewage issues, mixed with poor conditions for out of town visitors to stay as well as general disorganization throughout. In January of 2014 Martel announced that this year he will be partnering with the production team for Le Festival d’ete de Quebec and its sister company 3E (event-experience-emotion) replacing the previous logistics team. They have also hired on Pierre Miron, filed coordinator for RBC Bluesfest and Ottawa Folkfest.

Here is what Alex Martel had to say about his widely expanding festival and the huge names he has on this year’s bill.

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What have you learned about running a music festival since starting when you were 17 years old?

Everything. When I started I was just a music fan and I was living in Montebello, which is a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing was going on here, especially for this kind of music and I just decided that I would go for it and just do something for fun. I had no knowledge, no help to do this, no contacts, nobody, I just started from scratch. The answer is I had to learn everything.

Did you expect that you would still be doing this nine years down the road?

I don’t think so. Sure I always had these huge unrealistic dreams; at least at that time I thought they were unrealistic. I don’t think I seriously thought that it would get this big and that I would still be doing it almost 10 years later. I am certainly happy that I am in that position now. I appreciate it for sure.

As a young promoter, what have you done to make sure that the festival grows every year?

Like I said, I was just a music fan. It’s not like I had this huge plan where, “ok year one is gonna be like that, year two, year three…” It just kind of happened in a natural way. I always had an ambition for sure to make it bigger. Every year we would get some bigger bands and these bands would talk to their agents and managers and other bands and the following year we would get bigger bands, it’s that spider web effect.

How has the festival changed since you started?

It’s totally changed. At The first year we had three bands and 500 people show up, which was still really big for the area here. Now we’re the largest festival of its kind in Canada, which is pretty insane. It’s huge, we have people from all over the world buying tickets, lining up, a lot more bands. Everything that surrounds the festival also evolved naturally. Just the fact that a super small town gets taken over by ten’s of thousands of metal heads, obviously it wasn’t like that when we started. The whole thing has changed.

What do you think makes Montebello a good location for what has turned into Canada’s largest rock festival?

People really like getting out of the cities and just doing a small road trip to the middle of nowhere, the countryside and its just such a weird clash of events. The music fans coming from all over the world interacting with the local residents, farmers, all that stuff. It’s something really unique. Lots of bands say that we’re one of the only festivals, at least in this genre of music that resembles most of the European festivals. Ya I think people really like the whole accent of the small town.

The new mayor of Montebello has said he is an “ardent supporter of Rockfest.” How has the city of Montebello supported you?

For the most part, everyone in Montebello is super happy because obviously they make lots of money. The local businesses pretty much make their year during Rockfest, which is great. They built a new highway just north of Montebello, so the small road that everyone used to take is pretty much dying. Montebello is on that road and lots of these local businesses tell us that if it wasn’t for Rockfest, they would be closed. It definitely helps the local economy and the local residents like it too. They rent spaces on their lawns; they are really backing the festival, which is awesome.

Last year’s festival saw some serious issues with the campgrounds, shuttle service, sewage and drainage, how do you plan to avoid these problems and improve on general organization?

Yes well last January we made a big announcement of a new partnership and major changes. We brought in a whole new production team, a logistics team. We’ve got Le Festival d’ete de Quebec, which is pretty much the largest music festival in Canada. We have also have the site coordinator of Ottawa Bluesfest and the guys who do the Beerfest in Gatineau. The whole thing has been restructured from the logistics standpoint and there are tons of changes. The first one that comes to mind is the fact that we’re actually mailing out all the wristbands ahead of time, so people don’t need to show up at the box office to exchange their ticket for a wristband. Obviously a better system of porta-potties and all that stuff, there’s more entrances and more exits. We also have a new campground that is walking distance from the festival ground. Basically instead of having a bunch of smaller campgrounds spread out around Montebello or nearby towns, everyone can just walk to the main one in Montebello so that pretty much eliminates the need for shuttles. Were still going to have them but there won’t be much of a need like last year. So yeah, I could go on and on, lots of improvements. 

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What was the deciding factor that made you decide to look for outside help with the festival?

I guess the first time was after Rockfest 2012. Everything went fine that year but there was a few things I was like, “maybe we need a more experienced production team.” At that time we basically had the same team that was there since the beginning, so every year it was always the biggest thing they had ever done. So I wanted to get a bigger team with more experience. That’s kind of the ironic part because 2013 I actually hired a bunch of people that used to work for Evenko, a big promoter in Quebec, they were actually the new production team for Rockfest 2013. Obviously it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to, and they’re not back so I really wanted to get the best this year and that’s what we did. Just working with these people on a daily basis, the difference is day and night. I’m confident we’re in good hands.

How did you solidify such a huge artist lineup in the midst of festival season? What accommodations need to be made to bring out big acts like Blink 182, Mötley Crüe, Weezer, NOFX, etc.?

Lots of money, for sure. Every year I just try to get the best lineup ever and it always depends on the power that I have and the budget that I have. Obviously if you look at the first couple editions, it wasn’t a super crazy lineup like it is now. I always had the same mindset and that’s something I spend the most time on during the year, just working on the lineup and making sure that all the different musical styles are well balanced. I really like to get some rare bands or bands that didn’t play here in like 20 plus years and I just always want to make sure that everything is great from top to bottom. That’s what’s really cool ‘cause there’s some people that I guess are more casual music fans that probably have only heard of the headliners, like Blink 182 or Mötley Crüe, they’re going to come and party with us and then there are some other people that just don’t care about the headliners and they’re going to look down on the poster and be like, “Cigar reuniting at Rockfest” or Bigwig or whoever else, there are so many bands. Yes, I spend lots of time on it and that’s what ultimately makes the festival.

Where does the budget come from? Is it money earned from the previous year’s festival or outside funding?

It’s kind of a mix but ya obviously we can do more stuff than we could have done at the beginning.

With 150 bands on this year’s lineup, how do you go about organizing scheduling, which bands play when?

Well that’s always a nice puzzle/headache each year. We always somehow pull it off. I usually try to book the bands having the stage that I want them on in mind when I send an offer and when I confirm them. Then it’s just like dealing with all the egos and stuff, on the main stages. Then it’s making sure there are not similar bands playing at the same time on different stages. After all that is done we have the schedule.

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Did you come across any issues when you were booking artists for this year’s festival? Were there any bands you wanted to get but couldn’t?

Ya, that always happens all the time. I guess it’s the same thing for any festival. I’d say that maybe for every five offers that we send there’s one that confirms. But that’s what we always have to deal with. Usually most of the bands that I try to get, if they’re not available for this year they’re available for the following year.

Was there anybody that you really wanted to play this year but could not get?

Um, I mean there’s a lot. One band that just never works in terms of schedule is Slayer. Every year we try and it just never happens. Hopefully at some point the schedules will align and it will work. But ya that’s just one example, there are more.

Are there any bands that have been particularly tough to deal with?

There’s been some bands that have been hard to get. Just this year Blink 182 was really difficult get to play because they’re actually in the studio working on a new album. I sent two offers and they said “no we don’t want to get out of the studio” then I tried like 10 more options, none of them worked. So at the last minute I came back to them with a new offer and they ended up saying yes. Another good example would be Rancid, the previous year. I really tried and tried and they were like, “no were not going to play shows at that time.” Then at the last minute I just randomly tried, sent an offer for the Transplants even though it was even less likely and then the agent just came back and said, “Hey you wanna do both Rancid and the Transplants?” So we ended up having both. There’s tons of stories like that.

You’ve said in past interviews that running Rockfest is a full time job and you are always looking into the future at next year’s festival, have you started looking at next year and how do you think it will compare to this year?

Well were working on a lot. It’s going to be the 10th edition, so it’s obviously going to be something big. But that’s all I’m going to give away for now.

Do you have another job or is Rockfest your full time job?

No it’s my full time job. It’s been since 2008.

How would you say Rockfest is different from other festivals?

This might sound pretentious, but I do believe it’s got the best lineups. I also think that the whole experience is really unique. As I mentioned, going out of the cities, getting on a small road trip and the camping and the small town that’s taken over by tens of thousands of punk and metal heads. The combination of these things makes it for a really awesome time. People party 24/7, here we don’t have a curfew, we don’t have a decibel limit, we can pretty much just all have fun. Another example would be the fact that we allow reentry. The usual rules that apply at most festivals don’t apply here.


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Interview by Griffin Elliot

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