Over a period of ten years, the M for Montréal festival has become a must-participate showcase for Montréal artists wanting to make it internationally. But beyond those four days in November, how do we export local music year-round? Where will the next Arcade Fire, Grimes, Coeur de Pirate or Half Moon Run come from? 

Sebastien Nasra

Sébastien Nasra, founder of M for Montreal. (Photo: Susan Moss)

In a recent edition of the British weekly New Musical Express, Luke Morgan Britton proposed a list of “Five Acts Spearheading the Canadian Music Scene Right Now”.  It comes as no surprise that his Top Five – which included Nicole Dollanganger, Charlotte Cardin, She Devils, Jazz Cartier and Dilly Dally – was exclusively made up of artists he’d just seen at the tenth edition of M for Montréal. Founded by Avalanche Productions’ Sébastien Nasra in collaboration with Martin Elbourne (of Glastonbury and Great Escape fame), M is a showcase for artists based in Montréal (and elsewhere in Canada), which invites journalists, concert promoters, festival bookers and record label representatives from around the world to spend a few days in what is arguably North America’s coolest city.

The number of contacts established between local artists and the rest of the world during those four days is incalculable. Besides the obvious success of acts like Grimes, Mac de Marco or Half Moon Run, who have all swooned delegates in the past decade, dozens of bands have signed official agreements, or simply built a solid Rolodex for the years to come. So much so that nowadays, M is an obligatory part of any local band’s strategy to conquer the world.

“I think that any artist who wants to make it internationally has to participate in a few key events,” says Sébastien Nasra. “Great Escape is one of those, and, of course, South by Southwest, and, humbly, I think M is now one of those.”

“Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event”­ – Sandy Boutin

Kyria Kilakos

Kyria Kilakos, Indica

Kyria Kilakos, the general manager and artistic director of the Indica imprint (Half Moon Run, The Franklin Electric, Caracol), agrees, and also adds Canadian Music Week and Iceland Airwaves to her list of crucial events. “What Sébastien has been doing with M for 10 years now is amazing, but the fact of the matter is, you just can’t invite the whole world’s music industry to Montréal at once. It’s important to take the first steps and not expect a world tour to be handed to you on a silver platter.”

Regardless, Montréal’s location, which, according to the cliché, is halfway between Paris and New York, is a major advantage. Geography, however, can’t explain it all: it’s possible to be far from major centres and still be the centre of the music universe. To wit: the incredible success of the Festival de Musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue I rural Québec, an event that hosts a sizeable international delegation year after year.

Sandy Boutin, cofounder of the Festival de Musique émergente (FME) and head honcho of Simone Records, believes that the intimate aspect of his event allows artists to establish or reinforce their international contacts, but that trips abroad should not be neglected. “There are major events that will immediately give you a boost. The very fact of being selected for a major event such as the TransMusicales de Rennes or the Printemps de Bourges places you in a new category. But, honestly, if I had to choose between spending my money on exploring other territories of hosting people at the FME or M for Montreal, I would pick the second option. Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house, than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event.”

Sandy Boutin

Sandy Boutin, FME and Simone Records (Photo: Maryse Boyce)

But despite the increasing importance of that type of showcase event, you need more than a few showcases to launch your international career. Government subsidies for development and exportation are also an essential part of the process. This is what prompted Sébastien Nasra to organize a small think tank entitled “Francos à bord” (Francos on Board) during the last edition of his event. This committee was composed of delegates from all over the Francophonie and representatives from the various funding agencies.

Their conclusion? Without going as far as creating a Canadian or Québec musical export bureau – as is the case pretty much everywhere else in the world – the attendees agreed unanimously that an improved pooling of resources would benefit everyone. There was also talk of an improved reciprocity within the realm of the Francophonie and everyone agreed that actions should be better focused in order to avoid sending an artist out there alone to do one concert with no follow-up tour.

Kilakos and Boutin both admit that the existing programs, whether they are SODEC or Musicaction subsidies, are good at what they do. “The existing programs are sufficient,” says Kyria, “and I even think we’re lucky compared to other countries. But if I had only one suggestion for those agencies, it would be to invest in promotion as well. Sending artists abroad is nice and fine, but once they make it there, you need to make sure they’ll be seen!”

SOCAN Dinner

SOCAN-sponsored delegates’ dinner at M pour Montréal, on Nov. 18, 2015.

And no matter where you’re from, it’s never easy to break a new market. “Take Louis-Jean Cormier: we’re launching his second album in France in the spring,” says Boutin. “Yet, it’s not because he’s currently one of the most popular artists in Québec and that he garnered an immense critical acclaim with his band Karkwa that he’s automatically going to make it over there. You have to start from scratch every time, modestly and diligently, and, above all, you need to know the subtleties of the market you’re trying to break into, which requires having a solid network of contacts.”

The song remains the same at Indica where, despite having become experts in subsidy applications, they aren’t exactly the type to depend only on the government. True to its DIY punk roots, the label has always relied on live performances. “When we sign a band, we let them know right from that start that signing with us means touring a lot,” says Kilakos. “They must be willing to go out and win fans one by one, and that means a lot of time away from home.”

One way or another, to do this, the main resource is a solid network of partners. Whether you meet them at the FME, M for Montreal, or South by Southwest, local agents are the linchpin of ay international success. “Each market has its own challenges,” says Kilakos, who recently opened an Indica office in Australia. “Some genres are more successful in certain territories, and the locals know much better than you do when that’s the case!”

Which brings us back to the importance of showcases and festivals. Say what you want, even in our hyper-connected era, nothing beats meeting face to face. “Despite what some might think, the music industry is still a ‘people business’”, explains Kilakos. “We build business relationships over years and years, and people who started out as allies become friends. That’s how you open doors: with great tunes and great contacts.”