Often compared to Woodstock, Montebello’s Amnesia Rockfest experience is a drug that is all too easy to get addicted to. Once a year, the sleepy Quebecois town is infiltrated with the gnarliest group of freaks, and the result is pure bohemian euphoria. Yet, the festival is just as much for the town and the small businesses that make their entire year’s profit in one weekend as it is for the music fanatics who anxiously count down for the summer campout with their friends.
With a lineup that includes everything from the biggest names to the most underrated in all subsets of rock, Rockfest’s creator Alex Martel has provided the people with what they want to hear. We caught up with Martel who started what is now the largest rock fest in Canada when he was just 17.
Since starting Amnesia Rockfest when you were 17 years old, you’ve now made it to the 11th edition, and the festival continues to grow and break ticket sales records. Rockfest has a lot of dedicated fans, so how do you keep the same people coming back year after year?
It’s such a unique experience that once you come, you gotta come back the following year and live that experience again. That’s the main reason people keep coming back—and also the lineup, of course.
What was the initial spark? What made you start the music festival?
I’ve lived in Montebello my whole life, which is in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t much to do here—I always had to go to bigger cities like Montreal or Toronto to see concerts, and I just figured it would be awesome to have something in my hometown. Also, I was in a band and we sucked so no one wanted to book us, so I wanted to create my own opportunity to be able to play at a festival. It was tiny the first year, only three bands [and] 500 people—now it’s obviously huge and it’s way above my wildest dreams.
What makes the small, secluded town of Montebello a fitting host for one of North America’s largest music festivals?
Well, it’s weird because sometimes people that don’t know I’m from here ask why I picked Montebello or if there was like a big business study ahead of time to determine the best place. But really, it’s just that I’m from here and I wanted to do something in my hometown. Thankfully, it fell in the right place. We’re not that far from Ottawa or Montreal, and I think people just love to do a small road trip and hang out in the town, camp here, all the locals are super cool. There’s just this vibe that happens when you’re at Rockfest, and I think the fact that it’s in a small town like Montebello is really what makes it unique.
What’s the camping experience like at Rockfest?
We have our main campground and we also have our VIP campground, which we’re actually changing quite a bit this year with lots of cool new stuff. There’s going to be some secret acoustic sets in the VIP campground, we’re also going to be screening some movies like Wayne’s World and premiering some documentaries, which we’ll announce soon.
Clearly the city is very supportive of the festival. Can you tell me a bit about how the city gets involved and how you give back to them?
They get involved in different ways, and we try to help in different ways as well. Just an example: The Leisure Committee did a fundraiser during Rockfest to get some money to build a new skating rink, and because of Rockfest they were able to get over $40,000.
So it must be a fan’s dream getting to meet and work with all these huge bands and artists. How do you decide whom you want to play next year? Is it your own wish list?
I try to involve the festivalgoers as much as possible. We interact with them a lot on social media, and we ask them every year what metal bands they want to see, what punk bands, etc. Plus I always try to come up with some cool ideas that no other promoters will come up with, so I guess it’s a mix of all these things, but really it comes down to what the festivalgoers ask me, and I do my best to go and get those bands.
What goes into compiling the daily schedule with 100-plus bands to think about?
I’m actually doing that right now. It’s really a huge puzzle because you have to make sure that there are never two similar bands playing at the same time. You have to deal with the schedules of all the bands and also with the egos of all the bands, so it’s really a huge puzzle. But every year we find a way to make it work, so hopefully I’ll be able to finalize that soon.
What sort of advice would you give to anybody who’s looking to get into promoting shows or bands or wants to work in the industry?
I’d say don’t do it. [Laughs.] Because it’s such a hard industry. You really need to have a special kind of personality to go through all of that. And also there’s an element of luck as well. I know I’ve been lucky, so I think the planets really need to align. For every success story there’s probably hundreds of failures, so I’m one of the lucky few that made it, but I would definitely not recommend it for anyone.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
For all the Americans reading this, now is the best time to come to Rockfest because the Canadian dollar is so bad that it’s really cheap for Americans to make a road trip here or to fly here. So I hope to see a lot more American friends this year. alt