Quebec alt music scene barometer les Francouvertes turns 25

Quebec alt music scene barometer les Francouvertes turns 25
Could you imagine Led Zep, the Police, the Clash and Joy Division being revealed to the public within the same contest, possibly within a single edition of that contest? It sounds surreal, but in Quebec, it’s hard to find an important francophone band in the last quarter of a century that hasn’t made its debut in les Francouvertes.

Damien Robitaille, Sarahmée, Tire le coyote, Alex Burger, les Cowboys fringants, Karim Ouellet, les Soeurs Boulay, Philippe Brach, Lydia Képinski, P’tit Belliveau, les Louanges, les Hay Babies… I could go on for a long time (but since some of their star contestants have been carried away by the #MeToo wave, I won’t). Each and every one of these acts has stepped through the hallowed doors of the contest, which takes place at the charming Art Deco theatre Cabaret du Lion d’Or.

Fun trivia fact: some participants who are now beloved and successful artists never even made it to the finals. Kaïn, one of the most popular artists on Quebec commercial radio, is amongst those ranks, as is the pop duo Alfa Rococo. 

In 2002, Karkwa, a mythical outfit whose cult reputation is practically on par with Harmonium in their glory days, finished third — behind two groups whose names also began with the letter K: Kulcha Connection, a short-lived hip hop outfit whose members remain famous to their family and friends, and Karlof Orchestra, a self-proclaimed “psychedelic chanson” outfit whose claim to fame in the 2000s was opening for Stephen Faulkner, Daniel Boucher or Mononc’ Serge. Who was it that said the last shall be the first?

But enough with the fun facts. To put it simply, les Francouvertes is the barometer of the Québécois alternative scene, as my colleague Philippe Papineau wrote in an article covering the contest’s 20th anniversary in Le Devoir in 2015. The concept is simple: every Monday night from mid-February to the end of March, three up-and-coming artists — they cannot qualify if they have a contract with a record label — try and make their way to the top of the ranking. 

There’s a jury, of course, composed of journalists, researchers, programmers and so on, but the people in the audience also vote. Even better, they’re not just grading the performance — they’re required to write at least one paragraph of commentary on each artist in order for their vote to be counted.

These comments are then given to the participating bands, which can lead to emotionally difficult situations for the budding stars. What’s hard on the ego is good for the artist, as they say! In fact, I’m pretty sure I just made that one up. You can have it, I’m feeling generous.

A “giant family”

Les Louanges

For Estelle Grignon, local music journalist, trans musician, feminist activist and member of the 2021 Francouvertes jury, les Francouvertes feels like a “giant family.” 

“Every night and through the years, you end up seeing the same faces,” she says. “You’ll find that artists from the current edition stick around to cheer for their colleagues, artists from past editions, journalists, labels, festival staff and music lovers. Yes, there is a grand prize and an official ‘winner.’ But it never feels like much of a competition — no one really loses at the event. People are here to feel the pulse of the upcoming francophone scene, to discover new faces and to have a damn great time.”

Could we call it a non-competitive contest, then? “To be honest, it’s always exciting to follow the trajectory of these artists after they graduate from les Francouvertes,” she explains. “To see them land on the front page of a magazine, to spot their name on a festival poster, to find them at your local record store. It might just be me, but I feel like I’m adopting every new artist to come out of “les Francous,” as the event is known to regulars. Like a mom standing in the front row with her camcorder when her daughter takes the stage at a school show, though in this case, the daughter is a fully grown adult with actual talent!”

An influence throughout Canada

Karim Ouellet

An Acadian musician from Nova Scotia and the finalist of the 2019 edition of the Francouvertes, P’tit Bélliveau, never thought he’d be able to break into Quebec’s alternative scene.

And yet, since his participation, prizes have been lining up: his album Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 won best record production of the year at the most recent ADISQ gala, where he was also nominated for Best Alternative Album and Best New Artist. He also won the best album from outside of Quebec prize and the best new artist prize at the Gala alternatif de la musique indépendante du Québec (GAMIQ) last year.

Would this otherwise unknown artist have benefitted from such visibility without the Francouvertes? Doubtful.

Last March, Bélliveau told the 24H Montréal newspaper that he hadn’t quite anticipated the potential impact of the contest when he signed up. “Les Francouvertes is a great example of something I’d never heard of. My friends were like, ‘You should sign up, it’s worth it!’ (…) We ended up in the finals, and through all that, we got exposure. We got tons of opportunities out of it. That’s around the time we started talking to Bonsound as well. Now, we have a whole team in Montreal.”

P’tit Bélliveau isn’t the only Acadian artist to have made his mark on the Francous. The psychedelic rock group les Hôtesses d’Hilaire as well as the Hay Babies have also darkened the Francous’ door. The latter group even won the contest in 2013.

That damned virus!

Sarahmée

The event’s 25th anniversary won’t be happening exactly according to tradition due to COVID-19. Instead of taking place every Monday night from mid-February to the end of March as is usually the case, the Francous’ preliminary round has been compressed. It will happen twice a week, from mid-March to the beginning of April. Will there be an audience, or will the whole thing happen online? That’s the question.

Last year, half of the preliminary round, the semi-finals and the big finale were pushed to the fall. Then, to everyone’s regret, the semi-finals and big finale were held virtually, in October and November. Fans were then able to watch online as artists went forth with feats of musical prowess in front of a completely empty Lion d’or. 

The only thing that’s set in stone at this stage: all 21 participants will be announced on March 8 during a virtual launch event.

“For the moment, it’s looking like it’ll be without an audience,” says Clémence Giroux-Tremblay, communications manager for the contest, when asked about the preliminary rounds. “With a concern for fairness towards all artists, if, on the date of the first preliminary evening, an audience is still not allowed, there will be no audience for all seven of the evenings, even if sanitary measures are modified in between those dates.”

Navigating by sight

Les Hay Babies

After that, the organization hopes to be able to offer a hybrid formula for the semi-finals, with both an audience on-location and an online streaming presentation. Above all, however, they hope that the contest’s finale on May 17 will happen in front of a live audience. 

“Club Soda is reserved,” assures Clémence Giroux-Tremblay. “If it isn’t possible to have a live audience, then we’ll have an equally sumptuous virtual finale, with a performance to highlight the Francouvertes’s 25th anniversary.”

One thing is certain: seven judges will be in the room at every step of the contest, becoming the contestant’s live audience every week. A reduced live audience, it must be said — the Lion d’Or, in its cabaret format, can host up to 250 people under normal circumstances. 

The jury will notably be integrated to shoots for the livestream. In fact, the online broadcast is here to stay, confirms the communications manager, as the formula allows the organization to “increase the experience for an audience outside of Montreal,” which goes to show that there’s a bit of good in every bad thing after all.

Translation by Alex Rose

This feature originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Cult MTL. The Francouvertes run from March 15 to May 17. The announcement of the list of the 25 artists participating this year will be announced via Facebook Monday, March 18, 6 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit their website.

For more music coverage, please visit the Music section.
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