Culture vultures

POP Montreal’s 2019 edition ran from 25-29 September. Jozef Spiteri, director of brand partnerships, discusses leveraging the festival’s influences with youth-orientated businesses – including a legal cannabis brand. Maria Roberts reports. 

A not-for-profit entity, POP Montreal’s latest edition saw icons like Laurie Anderson performing alongside newly-discovered talent like Yung Baby Tate, Safia Nolin and Anemone. The multidisciplinary festival was started in 2001 by co-founders Daniel Seligman, Noelle Sorbara and Peter Rowan, who were geared up by their love of independent music and attraction to the uniqueness of working with new artists.

In its early days POP Montreal promoted the career of small band-turned global hit Arcade Fire, and from that point on really started to tap into the talent that was packed into Montréal. Other notable success stories are The Dears, Weyes Blood, and The Barr Brothers.

As a non-venue specific festival, events take place in 50 or so places around the city. And the festival’s cool and dynamic edge leads to plenty of opportunities to link with companies that you might not necessarily find associated with an arts organisation. As director of brand partnerships for POP Montreal, Jozef Spiteri ensures the festival is a “trampoline” for both new artists and new businesses, giving them the bounce to reach a culture-hungry audience.

“Being a not-for-profit is the vision of our founders,” he tells me over the phone from Québec. Unlike a for-profit we have the capacity to take risks, so we can listen to what our audience want and take chances on new talent. We’re also able to easily programme with gender parity, for this edition we came out 40/40 male and female and 20% mixed headliners.”

Much of the programme at POP Montreal is built from an open submission process: out of 1,500 submissions they present some 200-300 acts at each edition. This means that if you are doing something interesting, there is a likelihood you can get a spot on the programme (while appearances are paid, POP offers support for public funding and sponsorship and provides foresight to artists in view of what they may need).

Says Spiteri: “We are famed for putting these big names in little venues and booking these little names on the schedule just in time for them to blow up – and then really giving them creative support to succeed.

“Of these new names to make it onto the programme, three to five from the submission pool will be asked to join the newly-formed POP Export programme, they will be taken to South by Southwest (SXSW, Texas) and to showcases in Europe and South America. [The names will be announced after the festival.] This is a way to propel bands and their work internationally. Likewise, the professional delegate programme at POP Montreal brings in buyers and record labels to mingle and develop links with the Montréal community and visiting artists.”

One of the advantages of being a festival dedicated to new talent is that it allows for Spiteri to build some very unique brand partnerships that connect with a youthful demographic.

“That means that we have discussions around what their goals are how we can work with them to achieve those goals – how do we make both brands live together according to the POP Montreal voice and theirs? I’m always towing the line between the weird Montréal AI community and the weird LA music start-up community. And at the same time, we have trendsetters and fashion people who are a very in-the-know audience and lifestyle plaudits.

Leif Vollebekk performs at POP Montreal © Jean Philippe Sansfaçon
Leif Vollebekk performs at POP Montreal © Jean Philippe Sansfaçon

“The whole alcohol industry is very interesting for a festival like ours,” he adds. “We have partnerships that have been with us from our first edition, St-Ambroise Beers has been a partner for the past 18 years. We also welcome partners who are looking to amplify their brands for the duration of the festival.”

In Canada and Québec cannabis is legalised, which has made for some very interesting challenges from a business and legal perspective.

“I have to be aware of multiple industries and how they impact our culture and understand the positioning and what is the best for them and for us at the same time. Cannabis has been a really interesting example, how do you communicate a product when you don’t know if the person consumes it?

“Ahead of legalisation, one of the leading cannabis brands came to POP Montreal to establish themselves as a hub of culture at the forefront of their industry. The goal was to connect with the festival audience by designing immersive experiences in the festival hub that attracted not only the festival-goers but allowed for discussion around professional development within POP Montréal’s Symposium.”

POP Montreal has also developed a partnership with hip footwear brand Little Burgundy.

“They wanted to push their mission of supporting arts and culture to a new generation of culture-curious Canadians. POP Montreal flexed its network to pull together a diverse set of influential talents, collaborating on a next-level experience that combined music, immersive art and photo-optimised event moments.”

From a branding perspective, what sums up their ethos at POP Montreal? “These collaborations continue to create meaningful experiences for the festival’s attendees with a lasting impression and a measurable ROI,” says Spiteri. “We believe in collaborating with inspiring businesses, who are driven by community, curiosity and discovery.”