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.”

With a personal catalogue of more than 1,500 songs, working with he likes of John Legend and Mariah Carey, and success placing songs in films (The Lego Ninjago Movie, Oz The Great and Powerful) and TV programs (including Hawaii Five-O and Hannah Montana), veteran songwriter Justin Gray recognized the need for a safer, more accessible and efficient way to organize the data for each song. Three years ago, Words + Music interviewed Gray about the launch of MDIIO (rhymes with video), as “an easier way for our songwriter community to collaborate, network, pitch and monetize music.”

Lockdown Heating Up
“What I’ve noticed [during the lockdown] is that disciplined songwriters are very active, and we want to give them the opportunities to place that music. Television production has started up again. We’re going to see a massive resurgence in licensing coming up, probably by the fourth quarter of 2020, and for sure in 2021. Now is the time when you want to get your music into the path of opportunity.”

The service was a pragmatic response to a problem that Gray recognized wasn’t his alone. One day it occurred to him that a song he’d worked on, an international hit, “should be paying by now.” After checking in with SOCAN he discovered that, “a former manager of mine inadvertently applied the wrong songs to the wrong Justin Gray,” he says. “We discovered that 70 songs, during the tenure with this manager, had been misappropriated to the wrong Justin Gray. If someone spells Gray ‘G. R. E. Y.,’ If someone pitches the wrong IPI number [an international identification number assigned to songwriters and publishers to uniquely identify them as rights holders], or if you called a song ‘Happy Days,’ but  spelled it ‘Happy Daze,’ with a ‘Z’… There are so many different variables that can cause a songwriter not to be paid.”

Since its launch, Gray says the evolution of MDIIO has been “significant.” He explains that MDIIO was “initially intended to be a centralized repository where songwriters can store their music, they can share their music, they can pitch their songs and they can track all of that activity, allowing users to add their own metadata to their music. We’ve taken that and we’ve expanded it. We’re now in the process of releasing, hopefully later this year, something called MDIIO+.

“The idea is, so many emerging songwriters want to get into film and TV music placement. They want to try and generate revenue from their passion. We know that [a major] barrier to entry for a lot of emerging songwriters is relationships. They don’t know who to speak to. They don’t have access to opportunities. They don’t have somebody who can create and generate revenue for them. So, we’re creating this portal that allows anyone to upload their song and allow them to get that music licensed. That goes for publishers, too.” Gray points out that only four to six percent of most publishers’ catalogues get licensed. The new service will give the other 95 percent a fighting chance. MDIIO+ will be an AI-driven music search portal that allows for licensing, where anyone can participate.

MDIIO is already engaged with 1,500 music supervisors, and more than 10 major film production and TV studios, as regular users of the service. For MDIIO+, Gray says he’s currently “in the middle of negotiating six different blanket licensing deals with six major television producers and networks. Each one of those has their own unique set of song requirements. Just watch, literally, any show on television and listen to how much music is there. Every single one of those needs to be licensed.

MDIIO and SOCAN have joined forces by integrating a Works Registration API (application programming interface) into the system. “We know that one of SOCAN’s biggest problems is ‘dirty’ metadata, the inaccurate registration of song, the wrong percentages of song,” says Gray. “We’re endeavouring to clean that data up before it hits SOCAN. If you’re registering your music to SOCAN through MDIIO using the works registration API, we know that that information is going to be locked in correctly and accurately. It means you’re going to get paid faster, you’re going to get paid more accurately, and there’s going to be less copyright dispute.”

“We represent the writers for licensing, we don’t publish them, they can have publishers,” says Gray. “We don’t claim ownership at all over any of their music. We own nothing. We are literally just connecting dots through our portal, but in order to do that we have to be able to approve licensing. When a member puts their music up onto MDIIO+, they’re authorizing us to facilitate licenses. The licenses that we’re going to do primarily are blanket licenses. What that means is, there’s really no negotiation.”

With over 90 points of metadata available for registering, MDIIO and MDIIO+ “want to consolidate as much information as possible associated to every song,” says Gray. “When that song gets shared or downloaded or pitched, all that metadata comes down with it. Contact information, lyrics [if you choose], all the search metadata tags, the beats-per-minute, sounds like ‘Gimme Shelter’ – whatever. It’s a tremendous tool.”

We attended the Plage Musicale event on Sept. 16, 2020, which is a series of concerts organized by the record label Audiogram at the Village au Pied-du-courant, in Montréal.

Two finalists in the 2020 Francophone component of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize were onstage – Laurence-Anne and Bon Enfant – as well as Valence, who won the theme song of Francouvertes 2021.

For a schedule of upcoming Plage Musicale events, click here.