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Amnesia Rockfest in Montebello celebrates a decade of heavy music

06/17/2015 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT
Alex Martel has spent every waking moment of the past couple of weeks making sure even the most minute details of the next Amnesia Rockfest are hammered down.

Festival founder and president Martel has been firming up accommodations, finalizing band contracts and making sure the festival grounds are ready before June 18, the first day of the three-day music festival in Montebello, Que.

"It's a million little things," Martel says of his to-do list.

Once a year, 200,000 music fans flood the tiny 900-person mostly rural town of Montebello, in Quebec's Outaouais region.

This year's lineup features a cornucopia of 1990s and early 2000s nostalgia, with headliners such as the Offspring, Linkin Park, System Of a Down, Sublime (with Rome), Snoop Dogg and Rob Zombie.

Nearly 100 other bands are also expected to take at least one of the stages during the festival, which runs from June 18–20.

Big names have graced previous editions as well, including last year's headliners Motley Crüe, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, Weezer, Blink-182 and Cypress Hill.

Punk rock mecca

During Rockfest weekend, you can't throw a rock without hitting someone covered in tattoos and wearing a black band T-shirt.

The festival-goers are literally in every single space the small town can offer. They're on the sidewalks and in the street, in dépanneurs and grocery stores, lying down under trees, sitting on the church steps, drinking in the schoolyard, parking in empty fields and setting up tents in people's yards.

The car lineup to get into town, settle into a parking spot and then walk to the festival site often takes longer than the amount of time it takes to drive from Montreal to Montebello. 

When a then-teenage Martel started Amnesia Rockfest 10 years ago, he never thought it would turn into this. 

The first edition featured three bands, including Martel's own band, and was attended by 500 people. By the eighth edition, Martel says the festival was generating $10 million in economic spinoffs for the region.

"I started everything from scratch when I was 17 — I just went for it. I was just a music fan with no experience in festivals, no knowledge of how the industry works, no contacts, no money," Martel says. "It's been a pretty crazy journey."

Not without its problems

That journey hasn't been without its share of missteps. Martel and Amnesia Rockfest were heavily criticized for the lack of toilets and poor site planning of the 2013 edition.

That year, tickets were not mailed out ahead of time; instead, everyone who bought tickets online had to wait for hours at the box office — staffed by a half-dozen people — to pick up their weekend passes. 

People often waited up to an hour to use the portable toilets, which ran out of toilet paper and began overflowing on the first day.

The wait in lineups for toilets and concession stands seemed eternal, and the situation wasn't much better in any of the restaurants or stores in town. Even leaving the site was difficult, as there was only one exit.

Although it was clear Martel had not adequately planned for the number of tickets sold at the 2013 festival, he at first shrugged off the complaints. However, he later hired a new logistical team, and a number of improvements were made the following year. 

Martel says the festival site this year will largely resemble last year's setup.

A decade of highs

Martel can't say exactly when Amnesia Rockfest — named for main sponsor, Quebec clothing and skateboard company Amnesia — transformed from its first incarnation as a small, local music festival to becoming the biggest festival in Canada.

"It was very natural," Martel says. The evolution has resulted in some fond memories for the festival founder.

"I remember a few that really had an impact on me. I guess the first one was at Rockfest 2008 — that was the first year that we really saw people from outside of the area here coming to the festival," he says. "Just walking down the entrance, we were just so excited — 'Holy s--t! Those people came from Montreal!' It was really the first year that we were able to get people from other areas."

And in 2011, the festival nabbed its first major headliners, bringing with them a sea of people not yet seen.

"NOFX, Lamb of God, Descendents, Pennywise. I remember just before we opened the doors, I was wondering, 'Oh, is there a big line? Are there a lot of people already here?' he says.

"I wasn't expecting anything and I just went on the stage to see above the fences… the whole street was totally packed. At that moment, I had never seen so many people in my life in Montebello all at once. It really hit me — it was really special."

Stalled funding

Martel, who still lives in his hometown, says that provincial funding for the festival has not grown commensurately with the economic spinoffs Rockfest brings to the region.

Currently, the festival gets $65,000 a year from Tourism Quebec despite what Martel says were promises that nearly 10 times that sum was on the way.

"The way that [the government] works is that all the festivals have to do a study of the number of tourists and the economic spinoffs and all that stuff, and we did one in 2013 and the people there were like, 'Now you're definitely going to get a real grant,'" Martel says.

But when the Liberal government came into power, Martel says the amount of funding festivals get was frozen at the rate in effect at the time. "So they basically just ignored the study that we did and we've been trying to fix that since last year and it's still not fixed, so it's still something we're working on," Martel says.

He says he plans to keep the festival in Montebello despite the strain an event of that magnitude puts on the town and its people each year. As a way to cope with the mess left in the wake of Rockfest, the city recently passed new permit rules for people looking to rent out their land as campgrounds or parking lots.

For example, the operators of a campground accommodating 500 people or more have to pay $7,150 for a permit to do so, or face $9,900 in fines. New permit rules were also passed for concession stands and food trucks 

Martel says he's fine with the city's new permit rules, although some residents have complained about having to pay for the permits on land Rockfest rents directly from them.

"The city wanted to find ways to be able to accommodate all the festival goers better and welcome them and offer them more toilets, and more of everything, basically, to make the experience better," Martel says, adding that the landowners make way more than the cost of the permits during Rockfest weekend.

"The city of Montebello doesn't have a lot of money because it's such a small town, so I think everyone wins in the end."

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