The executive director of the Francouvertes is restless, as the preliminary stages of the 24th edition are about to resume. She’s the very picture of a determined woman.

In 2005, Sylvie Courtemanche took a risk when she decided to revive, on her own, the competition for young musicians that was launched in 1995 by Faites de la musique and took place at Zest, in Montréal’s east end, before throwing in the towel after its eighth edition in 2003.

“Before that, I used to work with people like Steve Faulkner, the old guard; I wasn’t at all involved with emerging talent. Yet, I financed the first edition with my wages as a publicist,” she says.

Les Francouvertes receives between 150 and 250 applications, and a thorough selection process determines the 21 finalists. The recent abundance of talent gives the impression that Francouvertes might be living through a golden age. “There were just as many applicants 20 years ago, but we didn’t hear about them as much because the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is today,” says Courtemanche.

The competition takes place over 11 nights, where each act has 30 minutes to play their material and impress a jury of seven industry members, and the audience as well. Of course, COVID-19 threw a major monkey wrench into this year’s preliminary rounds. Already, 12 contestants have appeared, and things will resume between Sept. 28 and 30. Right after the Francos and Pop Montréal. It’s now that kind of year.

“When this crisis began, I wore my rose-coloured glasses and I was very optimistic,” says Courtemanche. “We’d come up with about 70 different scenarios of how things would resume. We ended up writing to the artists very quickly because we didn’t want to cancel. We were looking for solutions.”

With those makeshift dates, things are overlapping. “What we’re doing is epic,” says Courtemanche. “It’s going to be quite a feat if we come out of next year’s 25th edition alive. Normally, this time of year is when we’re recruiting for next year’s edition, planning in general, and renewing our sponsorships. We have a lot of small sponsors who give us a small grant here and there, but our main sponsor, the presenting partner, is Sirius XM. If they pull out, we die.”

Sylvie CourtemancheBut Francouvertes has many more partners, including SOCAN, who present the Paroles & Musique Award, as well as the “J’aime mes ex” series, which features past contestants as the evenings’ opening acts. This year, we decided to pre-tape them to limit the number of scene changes. People will also be able to see the preliminary rounds, thanks to pay streaming (which still loses money, according to Courtemanche). The first 160 people to pay $10 will be allowed to join in with the 80 people admitted to Lion d’Or, and vote.

The music ecosystem has changed in 20 years. “More labels come to our shows,” says Courtemanche. “We used to see them only at the semi-finals, but now they come right from the start of the preliminaries.” And there’s greater visibility. “It’s rare that artists who apply to Francouvertes are not already somewhat on the circuit and have some stage experience, generally by playing venues such as L’Escogriffe in Montréal and Pantoum in Québec City,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a crapshoot. We don’t do auditions. They come to us, but there are lots of other contests; Granby, Ma première Place des Arts… And then there’s that rare bird who comes out of nowhere; Damien Robitaille, who won the 2005 edition, is a great example. We raid other festivals to find out which artists aren’t signed yet, and we invited them to apply to ours.”

A few words on illustrious participants?

Loco Locass (2000): “Everyone thought Les Cowboys fringants would win that year, but those [Loco Locass] guys blew us away, notably by adding Charles Imbault on trumpet. Their dynamics, and the surprises they had for us onstage, put them a notch above the Cowboys, in my opinion. And let’s not forget, rap wasn’t as prevalent, back then, which made them stand out even more. That final night was crazy.”

Les sœurs Boulay (2012): “You could hear a pin drop at Lion d’Or, and at Club Soda in the final, too. Even the industry types in the back of the room were all ears. Their project of working together was born during Francouvertes. It was a bit of a pickle, because Mélanie Boulay had also applied as a solo act.”

Les Hay Babies (2013): “They got to the preliminary stage and didn’t even know they were part of a contest. They had never heard of Francouvertes. Their manager had applied on their behalf without telling them!”

“I’m a bit of a mom,” says Courtemanche. “Calm? Me? I’m the opposite! But I’ve calmed down over the years. I’m always a little nervous at the beginning of each night. I still love what I do, even though every year I ask myself if it’s my last year. But there’s always something that hooks me back in: new ideas for social media, a new rule; that’s where I feel I’m best at what I do. Then, it’s all about surrounding myself with younger collaborators who see more shows than me,” says the happy fifty-something.

Any guess as to who will succeed Original Gros Bonnet, last year’s winners? “The nicest thing contestants can tell me is that they don’t care about not winning, because they’ve met people and made contacts and happy with their experience,” says Courtemanche. “It goes beyond the contest aspect of it all. Tons of bands have become friends just from sharing a stage at Francouvertes.”