Twenty years after its modest beginnings at Zest, on Bennett St. in Montréal’s infamous HoMa district, the showcase/contest Les Francouvertes has become a must-see event. And even though the list of past winners is impressive in and of itself, what has truly established the event’s reputation is its impact on Québec’s music scene for the past two decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 11 p.m. Montréal’s Lion d’Or is bustling with excitement as Sylvie Courtemanche, the Director of Francouvertes, is about to announce the three artists who will duke it out at Club Soda during the finals of the 20th Anniversary edition.

Tonight is the third and last semi-final, and provides the occasion to award many generous prizes amongst the 21 contestants. In the end, Mon Doux Saigneur, Caltâr-Bateau and La Famille Ouellette are chosen as the three finalists. The ultimate winner will also grab a $10,000 cash prize.

That night, some faces are clearly disappointed, but others are downright euphoric. “We’ve unsuccessfully registered to participate for four years and now we’re headed for the finals… You bet I’m effing flabbergasted!” says Caltâr-Bateau’s bass player, Étienne Dupré. “Funny thing is, I also drum in Mon Doux Saigneur… It’s going to be a big night for me!”

“It’s fun to see that the feedback is so good,” says Mon Doux Saigneur’s frontman, Émerik St-Cyr, in a much calmer tone. “At the very least, it gives me hope that I’m not crazy, and that following one’s passion might be a decent way to earn a living.’

David Bujold’s band, Fudge, barely missed making it to the finals, and he’s a bit disappointed. “I find it hard to finish fourth,” he confides. “We came so close…”

The guitarist and songwriter is far from a loser, though, and he leaves the contest with a few prizes, including a $1,000 cash prize awarded by SOCAN for his song “Ju.” “I’ve participated in a certain number of contests so far, and the best song prize always seemed out of my league, so despite not making it to the finals, this is a great night.”

Mere inches away, members of La Famille Ouellette can barely contain themselves. “We REALLY didn’t expect this,” admits J-S Houle, the band’s keyboard player and singer. “Our first show as a band was in the preliminary rounds. The Francouvertes became our excuse to crawl out from the shadows and launch our own project, as a bunch of friends.”

Love at First Sight

Eight years ago, electro-pop trio La Patère Rose also played its very first show during Francouvertes” preliminary round. A few weeks later, they won the contest’s 12th finals.

Éli Bissonnette, the founder and head honcho of record label Grosse Boîte, was a member of the jury that night. “It was the first time I saw them on stage and they totally blew my mind. I wrote to them the next day, and shortly thereafter, we had signed them,” he remembers. “We don’t necessarily come to Francouvertes scouting for a new artist to sign, but we’re never immune to love at first sight. The same thing happened last year with Émile Bilodeau.”

Francouvertes Loco LocassSomething similar also happened on Feb. 7, 2000. That’s the night rap trio Loco Locass won the now-legendary final round where they beat, among others, Les Cowboys Fringants. “We hadn’t even played 10 shows when we won that contest. That’s where we learned how to really work a crowd,” reminisces Chafiik. “We knew the Cowboys were electrifying onstage, so we gave everything we had during the finals.”

Among the jury members was Patrice Duchesne, who at the time was artistic director at the Audiogram label. “For a band like us with basically no stage experience, Les Francouvertes was quite a fast track,” says Batlam. “It was the launching pad for our album and, ultimately, for our band – because Audiogram re-released our album a few months later.”

More recently, François Bissoondoyal of Spectra Musique also made a pleasant discovery. “Francouvertes was instrumental in us signing Philippe Brach,” admits the label’s director. “We’d had an eye on him for a while, but seeing him in a spacious venue with a good P.A. and a captivated audience was very helpful.”

Obviously, Francouvertes is not just about the winners. Last year, Eric Harvey, a talent manager for Ambiances Ambiguës and founder of the Duprince imprint, spotted singer Rosie Valland, who didn’t make it to the finals. “I’d heard her first EP, but it’s when I witnessed her stage presence during the semi-finals that I decided to approach,” he recounts. “The Duprince label was officially launched in September 2015 with the release of her album.”

Beyond the Label

Karkwa finished second in 2002, and their “defeat” was far from being just that. That year, remembers Sylvie Courtemanche – the director of Francouvertes, who’s been involved in the event from the start in 1996 – the winners were the now defunct reggae band Kulcha Connection. “Later, Louis-Jean Cormier admitted to me that finishing second was the best thing that ever happened to Karkwa. It was like the kick in the ass they needed to up their game,” says the woman who became the  Francouvertes  director in 2005, when it moved from Zest to Lion d’Or. “Winning the Francouvertes when the time isn’t right can be harmful.”

Karim Ouellet

Karim Ouellet also finished second in the contest. Already signed to a label when he participated in 2011 – something that’s no longer possible under the contest’s new rules – the singer had no specific goals.

“It was my manager who told me about Francouvertes for the first time. I’d just released an album and we were looking for ways to promote it,” says the Coyote Records artist. “The thing was, I’d already done [the Festival International de la Chanson de] Granby and I didn’t really feel like doing another contest… But it wasn’t long before I figured out that Francouvertes was more interesting, particularly because it’s a contest that is attuned to the local scene.”

A year before, Bernard Adamus, who was part of the Grosse Boîte roster, was in the same situation. With his Brun album already out, the singer-songwriter decided to use the contest as a way to gain stage experience. “All I was looking for was assurance and credibility. I’d get a big adrenaline rush every time I’d get onstage,” recounts the artist. “I remember it was a special feeling, because I knew half of the bands I was playing with. I’d run across them at some point or another, at Quai des Brumes or Inspecteur Épingle.”

Although it’s true that the local folk microcosm has always been an important hotbed of talent for the contest, things are slowly changing.

Bernard AdamusThis year, for example, several finalists – notably Ponteix, Cy, Simon Daniel and McLean – were from outside of Québec. “Maybe it’s the HayBabies effect,” says Courtemanche, referring to the Acadian band who won the contest in 2013. “It’s quite frequent that a band influences the cohorts that follow. For many years, we got a lot of demos that were clearly influenced by Karkwa or Les sœurs Boulay.”

Miles away from the sound of those artists, the current trio of finalists – all of them from Montréal – bring a breath of fresh air to the contest, if only by their imposing orchestration and their bold musical hybridization.

“This year is really special, says Courtemanche. “We’re dealing with large bands with arrangements that are a lot less sparse than last year… Let’s just say it’s a lot more expensive in beer vouchers!”

The Francouvertes Finals
Club Soda, May 9th