Unless you’ve attended the Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ), a Canadian music festival with an all-but-unpronounceable name located in the fairytale-like town of Québec City, you may not know how spectacular it is or even know of the fest. Two senior music agents, who this year for the first time attended FEQ, independently co-signed this.
“It was one of the most impressive festivals I’ve been to in North America,” says Josh Kurfirst, partner, agent and Global Head of Festivals at WME, who on July 8 had Foo Fighters playing the massive Bell Canada main stage. “I put it up there with Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands – it’s in the conversation as a top five festival in North America, for sure.”
“I loved everything about it,” says Jenna Adler, Co-Head of CAA’s Global Hip-Hop/R&B Touring Group, who was there with Green Day who played FEQ’s Bell Stage on July 16. “It’s on par with every big festival I’ve ever been to. I’ve been hearing about it every year for so long. I was so very pleasantly surprised at how well run and how artist friendly they were from top to bottom. I came back completely converted.”
While both agents mention how well artists are treated and the incredible production, FEQ also compares in other significant ways to Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Bonnaroo, most notably its massive lineup. This year, in addition to the Foos and Green Day, other headlining artists during the July 4-14 event included Lana Del Rey, Imagine Dragons, Zach Bryan, Weezer, Pitbull, Illenium, Tenille Townes, NERVO, GloRilla, The War on Drugs, Bad Religion and Starcrawler.
The underbills on two nearby smaller stages were also top-flight and spanned the globe. The Hydro-Québec Stage (8K cap, but can expand to 15K), across from the stunning 19th century Québec Parliament Building, had some of the fest’s best shows, including the great Ukraine band DakhaBrakha, Congo’s awesome Jupiter and Okwess and Brooklyn’s disco-fabulous Say She She. The stage also hosted Sudan Archives and Allison Russell. Two alternating and side-by-side stages, the SiriusXM Stage and Loto-Québec Stage (12K cap + 7K outside), had shows by Feist, Lamb of God, The Smile and Jessie Reyes as well as a slew of francophone or Québécois acts, including Coeur de pirate, Milk & Bones and Les Louanges.
FEQ is also markedly different from any other North American mega-fest. For one, it’s been around 55 years and grown and developed organically. Though the fest began bringing international acts in 2006 with ZZ Top, it hit another gear with the arrival in 2011 of Louis Bellavance, FEQ’s current VP of Content and Artistic Director. Since he took over programming, the festival’s expanded its bookings with major acts performing daily. This has included megastars like the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi among others.
FEQ, unlike other mega-fests, is a non-profit with a board that is supported in part by municipal, provincial and national governmental bodies, which through grants makes up 12% of the fest’s budget. Any profits FEQ make are invested back into the festival – which means it’s not trying to maximize profits, yet it is still able to put out competitive offers to top tier artists.
This helps explain FEQ’s wildly reasonable ticket price, $120 a pop for eleven days pencils out to nearly $11 a day. 125,000 festival passes selling out in a record-setting two hours yields roughly $15 million in ticket revenue. Another 15,000 premium tickets, which range from $500 to $2,500, brings total ticket revenue to around $24 million. When you add in F&B, which the fest runs, and sponsorships, FEQ will meet and possibly surpass this year’s $42.5 million budget.
Also never before seen at a mega-fest, FEQ actively encourages wristband sharing. That means that for 125,000 sold-out passes, tens of thousands more attend gratis and the festival is more than fine with that.
“We don’t just allow people to share wristbands,” Bellavance says, “we ask them to, so we have big crowds. This is what we’re selling to the artists. You’ll play in front of more people and people who are into it. We need the crowd to buy the tickets, then we need them to share the tickets and show up every night. We had amazing audiences this year. It was the strongest year with so many massive nights.”
It’s a brilliant policy because it means F&B sales, merch and sponsorship activations reach a sustained maximum capacity throughout the 11 days.
“Attendance this year just for the main venue was 745,000 people,” says Samantha McKinley, the festival’s VP of Communications, Marketing and Public Affairs. “The amount of nights we had over 50,000 people was a record and for the first time we had to close off the site, twice.”
Not since the Rolling Stones played in 2015 has FEQ had to close the main stage. This year both Pitbull and Imagine Dragons hit capacity at the massive 90K+ Bell Stage and Green Day and Foo Fighters were close.
Ultimately, the festival’s biggest headliner is Québec City, easily one of the most charming North American cities and seamlessly integrated into the fest. It’s small, with a population of 550K and has a rich colonial history dating back to French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s foundation in 1608. With its dramatic cliff-top location overlooking the winding St. Lawrence River with fortified walls, narrow winding streets, battlefield sites and a wealth of historic buildings, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a small European hamlet, though you’re less than a two-hour flight from NYC.
With the fest not starting until 6 p.m., days and late nights the city takes center stage with outdoor cafes, clubs, museums and quality restaurants (poutiné and everything else at La Bouché is insanely delectable). Instead of baking in a massive dusty field or sloshing through mud or waiting hours to get out of parking, at FEQ you can walk to your hotel, swim in the St. Lawrence River or throw back a bière at a bôite.
“There’s no FEQ outside of this city,” says Bellavance, who formerly worked for Montreal Jazz Festival, Osheaga and the Rimouski Jazz Fest. “It’s not just the parks we’re using, the old town is fully integrated into FEQ and this is what we’re selling. We’re selling the whole package. We take care of the evenings, the city takes care of everything else.”
Total attendance for FEQ this year will be close to 1.4 million, McKinley estimates. According to a 2017 study, the nonprofit festival generated some $24.4 million in tourist spending for Québec City, a figure which is estimated to have risen to more than $30M.
The festival’s three primary stage areas are within blocks of each other and showcase the city’s rich history. The massive Bell Stage sits on The Plains of Abraham, an historic battlefield where in 1759 the French battled the British (don’t ask Québéçoise who won). The Parliament Building by the Hydro Stage dates to 1877. And the Francophone stages sits upon a municipal park in the shadows of the gorgeous Québec City Armoury, an historic site constructed between 1885 and 1888.
All of this means FEQ must work with at least three different governmental bodies because the stages, though only a block or two apart, are overseen by different governmental entities.
“The Plains of Abraham is federal government. The park right in front of us is military, because we work out of the Armoury and they own the park,” Bellavance says. “The other park belongs to the parliament, so we work with the government of Québec.”
FEQ this year hit a high-water mark. “It was obviously a great year, arguably the best we’ve had in 55 years,” Bellavance says. “Lots of challenges, bumps in the road, but we were able to find ways to make it work.”
Weather, this summer especially, was a constant threat for all and anything outdoors or involving travel. Massive Canadian wildfires fires initially were a concern, but didn’t impact the fest. Severe weather did, however, marring flights and the festival itself, especially an important show by Les Cowboys Fringants, a beloved Québec act whose cancellation on the last day for many was devastating. And FEQ, unlike any festival, did something extraordinary.
“Les Cowboys Fringants are massive, arguably the largest francophone band from Québec, they’re big in Europe, Belgium, France for 20 something years,” Bellavance says. “The lead singer has cancer, so the show was important. They were teamed up with Robert Charlebois, a legendary 82-year-old artist. He’s like the Bob Dylan of Québec.”
McKinley added, “The way things ended wasn’t unacceptable. It would not be the end of the story, it just didn’t sit right with us. It was not an option. So everybody sprung into action and looked into the possibility of adding another day that Monday.
“There were challenges galore. But everybody loved the idea and was on board. Availability was a major issue and money, but we had already decided we would foot the bill. … On that night, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. 90,000+ and you could hear a fly go through the field. It was like time stopped.
“They were listening to the band very respectfully, I’ve never seen that with people crying the whole night. It was very emotional.
“It was a collective victory because everybody stepped up to the plate. Everybody, I mean they answered phone calls at very uncomfortable hours. But they were there. They were all available. Everybody listened. And that’s where you get the sense of belonging that everybody has towards this larger-than-life festival.”