Exploring M For Montreal

Pollstar corners Sébastien Nasra and Mikey Bernard for the inside skinny on M For Montreal, the autumn event dedicated to exposing Canada’s finest acts to a music-hungry world.

Taking place Nov. 18-21, M For Montreal features not only music acts spread out over several of the city’s venues, but also brings industry professionals together for panel discussions, workshops and other events aimed at helping aspiring artists take that next step in their careers. 

Celebrating its 10th year, M For Montreal has grown from a one-day event featuring seven bands at two venues to a multi-day celebration of music discovery. Along with a lineup that includes The Franklin Electric, Ria Mae, Dilly Dally, We Are Wolves, Hey Rosetta!, Harrison, Wake Island, Protest The Hero and others, Nasra and his comrades will feature one of its alumni – Grimes – in a sold-out Nov. 21 performance at Metropolis.

And you can bet M For Montreal / Avalanche Productions co-founder Nasra had a lot to say.  As did booker extraordinaire Mikey Bernard.

Photo: Photo by Bruno Destombes

You refer to M For Montreal as a “festival” but the event seems to be much more than a multi-day music event.

Nasra: It’s a coat we’re wearing, but under the coat – the body, heart and soul – I would call it an export platform, a career development tool. This organization would not exist if it wasn’t for its core mission, what we like to call the “M for Mission.”  It’s to open doors internationally to acts that have grown in the local markets, in this case being Quebec and all of Canada, primarily.  We’re going into our 10th edition.  We are in a strategic place now – geographically  – [with] the credibility of the event, and the quality of the people that attend on the industry side.  There’s this industry meeting of high-level [music] professionals, tastemakers and people from 15-20 countries every year, on average, that gather here to exchange ideas and discoveries  … [and] shop for new talent.

There’s a public component.  Year after year it grew and became, locally, a celebrated festival but in the format of a showcase.  Some of the acts that are featured also played the market at other times of the year.  They are based here or live here.  It’s not 100 percent of the programming but it’s the core, or the heart, of the programming.  51 percent … are local acts that have done their work, grown in the market and created a situation where they are ready to try a shot at … other markets, reaching out nationally and internationally.  That’s sort of the niche which the organization’s mission is based.

Everything around it is to make it more fun, sexy and attractive. Also to engage local audiences.  There’s nothing more boring than a showcase event with only industry professionals in the back of the room.  We are trying to make this fun and involve the audience.  Also, what better way to showcase an act than [giving] them the opportunity to play [with] good production in front of their local audience that supports and cheers for them?  It helps and makes for a better performance.

How do you find the acts for the lineup?

Nasra: We have a not-so-secret weapon.  His name is Mikey Bernard.  He is our programming director, my friend and stakeholder since 2007.  He came onboard the second year that I produced this.  He’s a special case … a rare species.  He’s half Californian, half Québécois.  He lived most of his teenage and early adult life in California and then moved to Montreal for a three-week internship and never left.  He became a big part of this equation because he is an amazing talent scout.  He’s a big, big part of the success of our programming. 

Bands come to us via managers, labels and different partnerships, even now from international marketplaces.  Some other organizations, or agents and managers from the rest of the world, see [Bernard] as a possible gateway into North America. … We get 300-400 [acts] a year that apply, but it all comes down through filtering through one pair of ears that are absolutely incredible.  Frankly, his reputation goes beyond North America.  What’s also interesting is Mikey is very, very involved in the local scene. He hangs out with bands, he’s the guy who’s always the last to close the tab at the bar and starts again in the morning. He’s a special character. In the City of Montreal he’s always in the yearly reviews, ends up in the top ten personalities … there’s even rumors that there are three or four Mikeys because he’s at every gig, every night.  People are like, “I was at that bar and saw Mikey.”  “No, I was at that other bar and saw Mikey.”  He was at both at the same time and nobody knows how he does it.  He’s a great guy and is absolutely a key part of our success.

We went from 2006 when we had seven bands in one night at two venues and this year we have 120 bands, 15 venues over four days.  But it’s still fairly small when you look at other showcasing events.  One thing that has been there from the beginning, what we call the “official selections,” every year, 25-30 acts get the full attention of all the buyers, the public, everybody.  There’s only one show at a time in one dedicated venue for three nights – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.  Then on the weekend we go into what we internally call “M Fest” where we’re spreading across the city, maybe in a dozen venues, from the 100-capacity club to the 2,000-capacity venue. … The jewel of the whole thing is to be one of those 30 official selections to be able to get everybody’s attention for 25 minutes and showcase to the world from your home base.

Hold on. [Mikey Bernard] just entered my office. 

Photo: Photo courtesy of M For Montreal
“There’s even rumors that there are three or four Mikeys because he’s at every gig, every night.” 

What makes for a great M For Montreal act?

Bernard: Montreal is very futuristic.  It’s always ahead of its time, always evolving.  And the city is so open to so many different venues.  There’s so many after parties … that there’s always something happening.  There’s so many different genres.  I try to sneak into every party, every show I can so I can catch the next thing.  Everything starts in a dark warehouse and moves up to a venue then moves up to record sales.  I try to explore the city, the dark side and the bright side.  There’s many different sides of Montreal.  It goes on to 6 a.m. here on most weekends.  I need a lot of energy to … catch all this magic that’s out there.

That’s how I discovered Grimes. She’s on Roc Nation now, Jay Z’s label. She’s from here.  She was a student here who dropped out of school because she got together with this party crowd. … They got her to record and the next thing you know she’s on top of her game.  So you never know what’s out there.  I always look for the ones who are one step ahead. What’s been done has been done. Who cares about repetitive things?  What are the sounds of tomorrow? 

Who are some of the other acts that have used M For Montreal as a springboard to bigger things?

Bernard: The most recent acts [include] Mac DeMarco, who is causing a lot of noise all over the world.  I just saw him in Germany and I’ve seen him play in Iceland. We him off here putting him in front of a bunch of buyers and media. The kid was nobody. … Like Grimes [who is] the poster girl of modern, electronic experimental, Mac is the poster boy of all this indie stuff right now.  Grimes, we helped her [play] SXSW in the beginning [and] get her first shows in the U.S.  That’s where she landed her agent.

And Mac was one of our little baby boys as well.  He played two consecutive years at M For Montreal. We were the only festival booking him for those first two consecutive years.

Nasra: As I was saying, we really act as career development.  The core mission of the organization was not so much to put together a festival.  The festival is just a means to a goal – that goal being career opportunities, export opportunities.

Bernard: We act as matchmakers. We like to put these artists through the right people who come here from all over the world. We’re here to make some love happen.

Aside from Mac DeMarco, our other big one is Glassnote Records artist Half Moon Run.  That’s an interesting situation. Those guys had just recorded a couple of songs and were in the studio recording their next album.  They weren’t even sure if they were going to keep going or not.  But I decided to book them on one of our festival showcase spots in front of all these buyers.  They went from a band that no one even knew in town to everyone the next day sending in their offers.  I’m talking every festival, every label, every agent.  They had so many offers piling that they had to take a break and look at everything. … Now, basically, they haven’t had a day off ever since they played M.  Mac DeMarco and Half Moon Run … in their own words they call [M For Montreal] their first big break.

Photo: Photo by Bruno Destombes
“There’s many different sides of Montreal.  It goes on to 6 a.m. here on most weekends.”

Nasra: Then we have the occasional accidental success story that comes through us at a very early stage … [such as] Of Monsters And Men. We presented them exactly 12 months before they exploded.  That was through a partnership and friendship we have with a really cool festival/conference event in Iceland called “Iceland Airwaves.”  We’ve been developing a lot of collaborations with them for the last five to six years.  Of Monsters And Men came and played a showcase in front of 75 people in this little club in Montreal.

Bernard: It was one of their first shows in North America.  They played Toronto and Montreal.  We put them into a little club in front of 100 people.  Then the next day we put them in front of 100 delegates.  Once again, they kind of never had a day off afterwards.  An agent from the U.S. flew in just to watch them play here and signed them the next day. … So it’s all about timing, working with the right partners and working with the right bands.  The ones that have that sound of the future.

Nasra: We’re not going to claim the whole fame [for] Of Monsters And Men but we wanted to illustrate the way we operate and why this event and organization is reaching its goals.  It’s … the right act at the right time in front of the right people. For us and the bands it’s totally win/win.

Another thing I wanted to mention, without mentioning names … sometimes some U.S. agents look at our programming during the early stages, or some go as far as calling Mikey before we publish and say “Who are you programming this year?”  And some agents write me, saying, “I can’t make it this year. What’s on the menu? What should I be looking at?”

Bernard: I get that a lot. I get a lot of European buyers telling me, “I just keep up with what you’re doing every year. That helps feed my programming and my ideas for the future. I can’t always go and I know you always book some stuff that I need to be aware of.”

Nasra: Which is an additional … benefit of being booked at M.  Not only are you playing for these people who are here and have come from 15-20 countries. But … we have followers all over the world, important people who can make a difference, that can make offers, be the gateways to certain markets by offering an anchor date or taking on a territory for representation. That’s very key to what we do.

Now, going into 10 years, it’s awesome to see that it has naturally grown into this influential platform.  A little bit undercover but the perfect level.

Bernard: No names again, but I just had a guy in the U.K. thank me.  I said, “Thank me for what”? And he said, “I kind of helped a deal happen at your festival for Half Moon Run and I got some points off of it.  I just wanted to say ‘thanks.’”

He was able to bring this to somebody outside of his company who ended up working with Half Moon Run but they gave him points because he discovered them here at M For Montreal.

Other than checking out the talent, what else do the delegates bring to the table?

Nasra: We have a small, but high-profile list of panels and workshops. We also have … the music supervisor roundtables.  It’s not a vacation for them when they’re here, but they love it.  It’s like going to summer camp for adults, I guess.  There’s always something going on.  They’re engaged in networking events, panels and workshops. … We pride ourselves on being a boutique event. We feel that in the last two to three years, the level that we’ve reached, there’s certainly more demand.  Our gold badges always sell out. I think there’s 12 available a month before the event and we know they’re all gonna go. It’s fun like that.  We’re in it for results, for participants, delegates, bands, for whomever decides to engage, take their time and come to M For Montreal for four days and do this right. … In two weeks is our press launch event and we’ll reveal 100 percent of the program – bands, conferences, networking activities – all that kind of stuff.

Photo: Photo by Bruno Destombes
“There’s nothing more boring than a showcase event with only industry professionals in the back of the room.”

Why do you hold M For Montreal in the fall?

Nasra: I also want to credit my dear friend and close ally, Mr. Martin Elbourne [who has been] the booker for the main stage at Glastonbury for the last 15 years or something.

Bernard: He was the first guy to book Oasis and The Smiths. 

Nasra: He’s a close friend of Peter Gabriel.  They worked together in creating the first WOMAD Festival in Reading. He’s the creator of the Great Escape Festival in Brighton.

Bernard: He likes starting festivals in places that deserve them for certain reasons.  He really had this thing for Montreal. He really liked coming to CMJ.

Nasra: The first two years, the idea was “to become sort of a pre-CMJ event, thinking that Europeans that were flying to New York could stop over for a night or two in Montreal, which was the first and second edition. So 2006, 2007, we were always waiting for CMJ to publish their dates. Every year they seemed to change one week or the other.  It was always around mid-October.

So the reason we moved it to this time of year was that after the second year being sort of a pre-CMJ event, first of all we were stuck doing our event on a Sunday and a Monday, which, locally not the sexiest nights.  And second, we realized we were having an interesting contingent of Europeans but we were having a hard time bringing up Americans because a lot of them were preparing for CMJ or were going to New York and didn’t want to go to Montreal and then go back to New York.  It was focused on CMJ. … We love our friends at CMJ … especially Matt McDonald, the showcase director who has been at M for many times.

So we needed to find a date that was at a good time of the year for the big summer festival programmers to have enough time to see new talent, be interested in it and make an offer so that they can have some of these acts showcasing at M For Montreal in November as part of their spring-summer festival programming.

Photo: Photo by Vivien Gaumand
“The festival is just a means to a goal – that goal being career opportunities, export opportunities.”

The second idea was to find a date that was convenient for Americans to come up.  That’s hard because there are [other conferences].  Then there’s U.S. Thanksgiving.  We almost made the mistake of booking our third year that weekend.  But we decided the weekend before U.S. Thanksgiving would probably be a good time.  We tried that in 2008 and it was amazing.  We went from five or six U.S. delegates to 20.  Now, I think the biggest contingent nation we have as part of the festival delegation comes from the U.S.  That’s great because it allows us to position ourselves as Europe-Meets-America for professionals.  November isn’t the sexiest month to visit Montreal. I’ll give you that.  But, it’s not bad, either. It’s not the dead of winter, minus 300 degrees.

Bernard: There are too many festivals in the summertime to stand out.  We’re, like, the last festival of the year. … It’s a good way for buyers to end the year.  They can plan the next year ahead.  I think it’s a good time for us to stake out in their minds.

Nasra: Montreal is a city of festivals.  It’s getting harder and harder to find a spot. We’re glad that we put our foot on that weekend in 2008.  The culture here is very diverse.  The two main strings are Francophone and Anglophone.  Just in the Francophone world there are so many festivals, whether it’s music, arts, cinema.  [Those] are solely in French or around Francophone culture.  Then you have all of it on the Anglophone side as well, almost doubling what there is to offer.  You have “Just For Laughs” festival of comedy in the summer, which has its counterpart that’s even bigger called “Juste Pour Rire,” and it’s two completely full programming of comedians, one in English, the other in French.

You also have to think that Montreal is a 3-million [plus] market but it’s not, by far, the biggest city in North America.

Bernard: We produce a lot of content here to make everyone happy.

Now that you’re entering your 10th year, are you seeing people using M For Montreal as a model for similar events in other countries?

Bernard: We’ve been discussing with a few people throughout the years … of using the “M For” model.  Obviously, there has been a proliferation of what I’d call regional conferences. … I wouldn’t claim the model except for the play on words, with the letter and all that, that’s our branding.  We’re definitely a part of a short list of events that talks with these types of professionals. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen more pressure on these people. They’re getting invited to a lot more different little regional events.  Sometimes it causes challenges. … We’re on a lot of people’s radars, in terms of buyers, media tastemakers and these types of delegates that you need at an event like this. 

I guess the answer is yes but I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re copying our model.  We like to focus on quality vs quantity and I think more and more festivals are starting to realize that the problem with other festivals is that they’re too big, there are too many things happening. We like to keep it small and reasonable for everyone to get a chance to be seen and for everyone to meet each other.  That’s when you truly get something out of a festival.  When you go to bigger festivals, like SXSW or CMJ, you get lost in there, it’s a jungle. At M it’s a completely different story.  We accommodate everyone individually, make sure everyone leaves feeling really good.  There’s something very intimate about it.

Is this the greatest job anyone could ever have?

Bernard: I have to kick myself in the ass every once in a while to realize how lucky I am.  Working as a kid in California in the music world, so much has changed out there. … Everything is changing and evolving so fast.  I look back on that now and truly feel [I have] the best job in the world.  It’s awesome. It’s fun.

Nasra: For me, it’s the opportunity to be my own boss, do something I like that I’m passionate about.  There’s no price on that.  Some days it’s really frickin’ hard because the small-is-beautiful model that we’ve adopted is a very, very challenging model when it comes to talking to corporate sponsors … but, again, like Mikey said, quality over quantity … is a recipe for a long-standing life. Ultimately, people will always come back to quality.  We feel really good about this 10th year and going into our second decade. It’s very exciting.

Photo: Photo by Susan Moss
“We went from 2006 when we had seven bands in one night at two venues and this year we have 120 bands, 15 venues over four days.”

For more information about M For Montreal, please visit the event’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Vimeo home and YouTube channel.