The long road back to Osheaga: ‘Let’s just say we’re very excited’

Founder Nick Farkas and his team had to scrap two editions, and the curveballs kept coming. Now the Montreal music festival’s 15th edition is finally around the corner.

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How happy is Nick Farkas to finally be able to throw the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival’s 15thanniversary bash?

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“Oh my God, you have no idea,” said Farkas, senior vice-president of booking, concerts and events for promoter Evenko, which puts on the festival. Farkas is also Osheaga’s director and founder. It was his idea to begin with.

Any way you look at it, this year’s festival was a long time coming. Especially if you consider the time between Osheaga’s 14th edition and the 15th, which will be held from July 29 to 31 — not one but three years, for the reasons we all know. (A pared-down event, dubbed Osheaga Get Together and featuring an all-Canadian lineup, was held last fall.)

Three years is a fair bit of time to wait for your next birthday, and for Farkas and his team it was an emotional roller-coaster as they went and planned three whole festivals, selected and booked 100-some bands each time, figured out how everything was going to fit together, and then ultimately had to call the whole thing off twice before finally getting the green light.

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“So far in my career, nothing has been as demoralizing as booking a festival lineup and never getting to see it happen,” Farkas said. “It’s so, so, so hard and time-consuming, but we’re in a ‘show must go on’ business. That’s what show business is — it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Still, when (the show) doesn’t go on, it’s disappointing.

“The culmination of three years of putting festivals together, and having curveballs thrown at us each time — let’s just say we’re very excited (for this year’s edition). The team has been working incredibly hard on this. The fan experience is always a huge priority for us. I’m excited to see the first people run through the gates with huge smiles on their faces. That will make everything worth it.”

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Osheaga, the early years: The Smashing Pumpkins headline in 2007.
Osheaga, the early years: The Smashing Pumpkins headline in 2007. Photo by Tim Snow /Montreal Gazette files

Osheaga has come a long way. The festival started out as a modest gathering of 25,000 music fans over two days. Picture it — or recall it if you were there, which this reporter was, so let me tell you: Just over 10,000 people per day came out to see headliners Sonic Youth and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, with afternoon attendance topping out at about half that amount.

It was cute, but more like a family gathering than the behemoth that was drawing 45,000 people per day pre-pandemic. Getting through those first few editions required a whole lot of faith that if you build it, they will come. For Farkas, it also involved hoping his higher-ups wouldn’t pull the plug on the whole thing.

“Early on, it really felt like every year was our last year,” he said. “When we started, if you had said we’d be doing this 15 years later, I would have said, ‘There’s no chance.’ It’s kind of a surreal feeling. The festival has become such a staple for the Canadian music landscape.

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“It’s been an amazing journey. I love doing it. I love the team that puts it together. I don’t think there’s another city where this would have worked the way it does. It feels amazing to have people support it the way they do.”

”Early on, it really felt like every year was our last year,” Osheaga director Nick Farkas recalls of the days before the festival became a Canadian institution.
”Early on, it really felt like every year was our last year,” Osheaga director Nick Farkas recalls of the days before the festival became a Canadian institution. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

Ticket sales are already outpacing 2019 numbers, meaning the festival will be back in full swing. But knowing the show will in fact go on this year has not been enough to permit Farkas and his crew to sit back and relax. In recent months, Osheaga has had to replace not one but two headliners, and ride out a scheduling shakeup with a third.

Original Friday night headliners Foo Fighters cancelled their entire tour in March, following the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins. A few weeks later, Montreal icons Arcade Fire swooped in to fill the hole.

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Dua Lipa, seen at Osheaga in 2018, will headline the Bell Centre just six days before she closes the festival’s 15th edition.
Dua Lipa, seen at Osheaga in 2018, will headline the Bell Centre just six days before she closes the festival’s 15th edition. Photo by Vincenzo D’Alto /Montreal Gazette

Then in late June, Osheaga announced Saturday headliner A$AP Rocky would not make it, but Atlanta rapper Future would be taking his place. Sunday bill-topper Dua Lipa’s appearance is mitigated by the fact that she also plays the Bell Centre on Monday, six days before she steps on stage at Osheaga, to make up for her postponed Feb. 22 date at the arena.

“We’re just rolling with it,” Farkas said of all the unexpected changes. Hawkins’s death “is such a horrible situation to be in for the band. You never want that to happen. We’ve been trying to get Foo Fighters for 15 years. We all felt terrible for the band and his family, but at that point it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s such awful news, but we gotta move on.’

“Arcade Fire stepped up; they contacted us and said, ‘We’re available and we’d like to play’ — hometown heroes stepping in to save the day. It’s a great thing.”

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Arcade Fire performs during Osheaga’s 2010 edition. The hometown heroes stepped in this year after Foo Fighters had to cancel.
Arcade Fire performs during Osheaga’s 2010 edition. The hometown heroes stepped in this year after Foo Fighters had to cancel. Photo by Dario Ayala /Montreal Gazette files

When it came to the A$AP Rocky and Future switch, Farkas and his team were in familiar territory.

“We were like, ‘OK, we’ve already done this.’ It’s always difficult to find headliners, but when you have to embark on the challenge a month before the festival, it’s a daunting task. We went through a quick list of our top 10, and then looked at who was available. Future was at the top of our list of artists touring, with new music out. It just worked out really quickly. No one wants to change an artist a month out from the festival, but if you can find a good replacement it makes it easier.”

After two cancelled editions due to COVID-19, replacing a couple of headliners feels like a small price to pay to have Montreal’s biggest popular music festival back in full force.

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Atlanta rapper Future has replaced A$AP Rocky at the top of Saturday’s Osheaga bill.
Atlanta rapper Future has replaced A$AP Rocky at the top of Saturday’s Osheaga bill. Photo by Evenko

Osheaga may be almost unrecognizable from its early incarnations, but Farkas says that despite the festival’s growing success, it has always retained a clear identity.

“I think it stayed true to itself,” he said. “The first time we talked, 15 years ago, I was attempting to put as many amazing artists on as many stages as possible. It was all over the map. I didn’t ever want us to get pigeonholed. I wanted a broad canvas to work with.”

That said, the musical landscape has changed considerably since Osheaga’s first few years, when the festival felt like a who’s who of indie music. The 2007 headliners were the Smashing Pumpkins and Bloc Party, followed by the Killers and Jack Johnson in 2008. Coldplay got on board in 2009, followed by Eminem in 2011, proving that this little festival suddenly had pull.

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While Osheaga has kept its indie spirit, it’s now able to attract the top acts across a multitude of genres. Memorable headliners of the past decade include everyone from Snoop Dogg to Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine, Jack White, Lana Del Rey, Radiohead, Lorde, the Weeknd and the Chemical Brothers.

Memorable Osheaga headliners of the past decade include Florence and the Machine, who topped the bill in 2015 and 2018.
Memorable Osheaga headliners of the past decade include Florence and the Machine, who topped the bill in 2015 and 2018. Photo by Vincenzo D’Alto /Montreal Gazette

“We’re obviously a bit more conscious of what’s popular than we would have been (at the beginning),” Farkas said. “With the advent of streaming, the way people consume music has changed. But the heart and soul of the festival is great artists performing live, and an opportunity for young, local, up-and-coming acts to play with some of the biggest artists in the world. I loved that from the beginning, and it’s still a huge part of the festival.”

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Memorable Osheaga headliners of the past decade include Lana Del Rey, who performed in 2016.
Memorable Osheaga headliners of the past decade include Lana Del Rey, who performed in 2016. Photo by Dario Ayala /Montreal Gazette

A perusal of this year’s lineup reveals everyone from New York rockers and Osheaga regulars Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Norwegian dance DJ-producer Kygo, rising Nigerian singer-rapper Burna Boy, French rap duo Polo et Pan, Zambian-Australian rapper Sampa the Great, American producer to the stars Jack Antonoff’s indie-rock act Bleachers, Congolese Quebecer Pierre Kwenders, American rapper Machine Gun Kelly, British alt-rock act Glass Animals, Norwegian singer-songwriter Girl in Red, Quebec folk chanteuse Safia Nolin, Italian female DJ duo Giolì & Assia, and Indigenous electro-hip-hop crew the Halluci Nation.

Safia Nolin is among the locals in Osheaga’s 2022 lineup.
Safia Nolin is among the locals in Osheaga’s 2022 lineup. Photo by Hamza Abouelouafaa /Bonsound

“I hope people are as open musically as we are,” Farkas said. “We try to make sure there’s something for everyone, every day. Osheaga’s intent is always to be a festival for music fans who have a broad reach, love different styles and want to discover new things. From Day 1, it’s always been about quality.

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“We want great bands that can play great live. So the focus is on picking artists who put on a great show … who are going to make people go, ‘Holy s—!’ ”

Among the former punk show promoter’s personal picks are British punk act Idles, female post-punk duo Wet Leg and Irish rockers Inhaler. He also name-checks Arcade Fire and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Australian electro-pop act Parcels, American surf-dub trio Khruangbin and Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski (of whom his 15-year-old daughter is a major fan).

Khruangbin is one of Osheaga founder Nick Farkas’s personal highlights in the 2022 lineup.
Khruangbin is one of Osheaga founder Nick Farkas’s personal highlights in the 2022 lineup. Photo by Pitch Perfect PR

So yeah, Osheaga is back, baby. Pandemic be damned.

“People are back, and they have moved on and accepted the fact that this is something we have to live with,” said Farkas, who was recovering from COVID-19 when we spoke. “Fortunately, science has done a good job of protecting us with the vaccines. This summer, so far, is proving to be a return to what (life was like) in 2019. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s ‘be ready for whatever.’ ”

AT A GLANCE

The Osheaga Music and Arts Festival takes place July 29 to 31 at Parc Jean-Drapeau. Tickets start at $145 per day or $375 for all three days. For more information, visit osheaga.com.

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