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M for Montreal: How La Belle Ville Survived 'Next Seattle' Status to Maintain its Music Scene's Fire

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YAMANTAKA SONIC TITAN
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan at M For Montreal 2012. | Maude Perrin

In the early- to mid-2000s, propelled by the global successes of Arcade Fire, The Dears, Stars and The Stills, Montreal became considered among the world's most important music metropolises. It remains one today, in spite of those initial declarations that the Quebec city was yet another "Next Seattle," the music scene equivalent of the Madden Curse.

Proclamations of this sort regarding Montreal's scene were as ubiquitous as they were subtly damning, and most of the writers who bestowed such titles weren't based in Montreal.

The most well-known article of this strain was written by Spin's Rodrigo Perez in 2005; it sought to put Montreal on the map as "The Next Big Scene." This, despite the fact that Montreal had already been musically relevant for years (and on the map since, oh, 1642). People in Montreal still talk about that article, and sneer when they note that the article's illustration of St. Laurent Boulevard placed bars like Biftek and Le Pistol where they weren't located, or how Perez made the audacious claim that the Montreal scene as he saw it was birthed by the "No" vote in Quebec's 1995 sovereignty referendum.

Seven years after Perez's piece, eight years after Arcade Fire released Funeral, and nine years after The Stills' Logic Will Break Your Heart, the M for Montreal brain trust of founder/executive producer Sébastien Nasra and programming director Mikey Bernard sit at a table at the futuristic-looking SAT (Society for Arts and Technology), trying their best to not look exhausted. It's the first day of M for Montreal's 2012 edition, and delegates from all over the world are in the next room chatting and drinking.

The delegates are festival programmers and talent buyers, label owners, publicists, writers, and various other music industry riff-raff. Networking is what M for Montreal is known for but the sound we hear, muffled by the massive curtain separating our room from the main room at the SAT, is the engine that's helping drive Montreal's continued relevance.

M for Montreal, in its seventh year, isn't as well-known as POP Montreal or the Montreal International Jazz Festival, but perhaps does more to help Montreal's local scene maintain its relevance and legitimacy than either of those by pushing the city's talent outward. It was conceived as an industry conference with a mandate to sell Montreal bands internationally, and it has helped local talent become global talent.

"THERE WAS CRAP EVERYWHERE"

"[Sébastien] wanted to create opportunities for people, because he knew Montreal at the time had some momentum, and I think he wanted to help the local bands get known and get seen," says Bernard. "I just remember the music industry going down. There was crap everywhere. Music sucked, first of all, and the business was going down. Montreal had great music coming out of it, and there needed to be change in the music industry. Festivals [were] a new way to market a band, make money for them, and get them a following [so] they could actually have an income through festival touring.

"I think that was Sébastien's plan from the beginning — to have bands tour and get them busy, because a lot of them were just stuck here in Montreal."

Nasra is quick to give credit to Martin Elbourne, the British festival programmer whose name is synonymous with Glastonbury. Elbourne in effect brought European heavyweights to the table in Montreal by arranging a showcase timed in a complimentary way so delegates could stop in on the way to CMJ in New York City. Elbourne felt something was happening in Montreal and he wanted to be part of it.

"I saw a new opportunity to do what I had been trying to do for 10 years [with Avalanche Productions] -- push my bands out there. But whoa, what about bringing influential people here, and showing them, here, the bands that can work internationally," says Nasra.

As much support as Nasra has given Montreal acts, he's also cognizant of how much support he's received.

"Considering the competition for public money, it's pretty solid support that we're getting from federal and provincial [sources]. The city, it's been pretty slim, but it's on the rise."

This funding, he suggests, allows M for Montreal to play a vital role. "I don't believe in the 'one thing does it all' [theory] but I think we're an important catalyst. We don't really care if we're cool or not, we just want to be effective. We just want this to be useful."

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The modern-day M for Montreal -- the industry conference and the music festival -- started taking shape a few years into its existence, and has always suffered when compared to POP Montreal, which is a couple of years older but also exponentially bigger and better known. To wit: seven years in and a sizeable portion of Montrealers, and other industry folk, don't even really know what M for Montreal is, whether it's a conference for music VIPs or a festival for the fans. That confusion seems to be clearing, albeit slowly.

"M for Montreal is a fantastic concept and I truly believe it has showed, in a cool way, to people from all over the globe, what the hell is going on here and how important it is," says Oliver Corbeil, formerly of The Stills. This sentiment is echoed by his former Stills bandmate Liam O'Neil, currently playing in Eight and a Half (with another ex-Still, David Hamelin and former Broken Social Scene drummer Justin Peroff).

"I think it's a great format," says O'Neil, "Focusing all of the performances in a couple of venues so close to each other. You don't need to worry about going unnoticed as a band, and you don't need to worry about missing a key band, as a delegate."

The venues O'Neil refers to are Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo, which are across the street from each other on St. Laurent Boulevard, and where the majority of the M for Montreal shows take place. During M Fest, show-goers and delegates populated the two venues to the tune of full houses every night, where acts like Bleeding Rainbow, A Place to Bury Strangers, Eight and a Half, Goose Hut, Blue Hawaii, Suuns, and local art-metal darlings YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN held court.

M Fest showcases also happened just south on St. Laurent, at Divan Orange, Club Lambi, Cafe Campus, and Club Soda. Farther down St. Laurent was the SAT, and the Hotel ZERO 1, where the industry conferences were held and where the majority of the delegates were put up. As it is for the city itself, St. Laurent is the main artery of M for Montreal; lined with the majority of M for Montreal's conference and performance venues, it offers attendees a straightforward route from where they're staying to where the action is. The fest also boasts other venues such as the Corona Theatre, where Death Grips performed their futuristic hip-hop to scores of delighted onlookers, and a sweatbox on Parc Avenue where an after-party featuring the likes of Mykki Blanco and Majical Cloudz made hip kids standing shoulder to shoulder sway and writhe into the wee hours.

Watch Da Gryptions' "The Bixi Anthem" Video

"IT'S LIKE THE INDIE ROCK APOLLO"

Much credit is due M for Montreal, POP Montreal, and the various other Montreal music festivals (Jazz Fest, Pouzzafest, Suoni Per Il Popolo) for keeping the city's scene vibrant and relevant, but it would be shortsighted to claim that Montreal stayed "Montreal" because of organizations and structures such as these. A cross-section of local performers who played M for Montreal, and journalists who have made their bones writing about Montreal music suggest that there are larger forces at work.

"I suspect most outsiders now think of Montreal as a plausible place to go to make it in music, which is an element of its success which should not be underestimated," says Young Galaxy's Stephen Ramsay. "The music scene here has an air of possibility about it. There is a lot of infrastructure here -- there are promoters, festivals, organizations, venues, rehearsal spaces, etc. that help musicians take their first steps out in public in meaningful ways."

Patrick Krief, frontman for his eponymous band and guitarist for The Dears, puts it even more plainly.

"The 'non' scene is one of the elements that helps keep a band focused. If you're from Montreal, and playing in Montreal, odds are the hipsters won't come out to see you until Pitchfork writes up a great review," he says. "You get to play for real people, real music lovers. It's one of those cities where people in the audience actually know what the fuck is going on up on stage. It's part of what makes it so terrifying to play here! It's like the indie rock Apollo. That's what helps sustain great art here. If you suck. You will drown."

That intelligent audience, Krief suggests, is something that has been built and sustained over a long period of time. Many Montrealers and other Canadians in the music scene point out that Montreal's inexpensive rents go a long way towards allowing artists to exist and subsist in the city while not breaking the bank on living expenses and rehearsal spaces. This has paved the way for musicians to relocate to Montreal to make music, which has strengthened the scene tremendously by constantly reloading it with fresh, new talent.

"[That] there has been a fairly steady stream of strong new bands is the other major factor," says veteran Montreal music writer Lorraine Carpenter, music editor of Cult MTL. "The difference is that a lot of the bands make more abstract, experimental music, as opposed to the classic pop/rock sound of 2005. The Arbutus Records crew is an obvious example."

Jamie O'Meara, the longtime editor-in-chief and music editor of bygone alt-weekly Hour Magazine, suggests that "there are both economic and geographical factors at play here, as there always have been, but also a kind of creative critical mass that's evolved, which had its roots in the DIY indie scene of the early '90s.

"It's still far cheaper to live in Montreal than it is to live in either Vancouver or Toronto, and even though the super-cheap Plateau/Mile-End rents of the '90s are a thing of the past, there are still very reasonably priced studio/living spaces within easy reach of Montreal's nightlife. And, equally as important, the collapse of Montreal's manufacturing base -- the garment industry, in particular -- has left no shortage of cheap and accessible commercial spaces ideal for small studios, rehearsal spaces, indie labels and de facto crash pads."

Ramsay echoes this claim, suggesting that the industry -- in the form of small but noteworthy labels and promoters interested the city's talent -- deserves huge kudos.

"Institutions like POP Montreal and M For Montreal are extremely important in acting as the glue for the music scene here -- they take great pains to promote local music on a grassroots level. On top of that, there are lots of good labels in Montreal like Arbutus, Club Roll, Secret City, etc, that prioritize signing local talent."

"IT'S NOT JUST THE CHEAP RENT"

Surely the low rent factor cannot be ignored, but there is clearly something else afoot in Montreal.

"I think what attracts musicians to Montreal is the easy-going lifestyle, which allows for type of living that indie musicians are looking for," says Grimskunk guitarist and Indica Records developer Peter Edwards. "It's not just the cheap rent, but the lack of usual inner-city rat race."

Funding on the provincial level, by way of SODEC, has been immeasurably beneficial to the scene, most specifically the Francophone scene. The Anglo scene probably benefits more from the existence of institutions like POP Montreal and M for Montreal, but also because it is, at its heart, smaller than people think.

"The tendency is to find yourself in the same places, venues, knowing the same people, etc, as every other Anglo musician," says Ramsay. "So within a week of being in Montreal, you might find yourself meeting or hanging out with all the members of the bands that live here."

Pat Sayers, who has drummed for Winter Gloves, Melissa Auf Der Maur, and Ariane Moffatt, says all of the aforementioned support is part of the cultural fabric and framework of the place where the music itself gets made.

"It isn't just the music community that's healthy here. The film and fine-arts communities both see strong and long lasting support in this province as well," he says. "Montreal and Quebec in general takes a certain pride in supporting its own.

"We are a culture that supports culture."

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