Interview with founder Alex Martel
By Maria Correonero
At just 25 years old, Alex Martel has single handedly built one of the largest festivals in North America from the ground; with headlining acts like Alice Cooper, Deftones and Rancid, Amnesia Rockfest prepares for its largest edition to date. Alex chats with New Noise about the festival’s evolution and his hopes for its future.
When you started Rockfest eight years ago, did you ever think that it would turn into one of America’s biggest festivals?
Not at all. I was 18 when I started the festival, and I was a big music fan but all I had done was put on some small shows in college to raise funds for the college radio. I just wanted to do something really big in my hometown, but I started small back then. We had three bands the first year and five hundred people showed up, and grew progressively. It was huge for us considering how tiny Montebello is, so I stuck with my ambition.
I read somewhere that Montebello has a population of around 900, right?
Yeah, there’s actually more cows than people here.
[laughs] What’s the expected turnout for this year?
A big one, that’s all I can say. We have hit record presales this year, the budget is huge and the fans seem to be really happy. We almost doubled our Facebook likes when we announced the lineup, and we’re getting critical acclaim worldwide. We’re super stoked, it’s going to be a good year.
During Rockfest, the population of Montebello multiplies, literally, by over 100 times. How do the locals react to this?
Most people are actually super cool. The people of Montebello are very welcoming and easy going; they make lots of money during the festival so they’re super nice to festival goers. Some rent space on their lawns for camping and parking. Basically, the entire village is kind of transformed during that weekend. There are tents and people everywhere and the city is basically overrun by festival goers. It’s really cool and obviously the local businesses make tons of money, so they’re happy to host Rockfest!
With its camping, several stages and carnival ambience, Rockfest reminds me of European festivals; are you trying to import that outdoor festival style and culture into North America?
That wasn’t my intention when I started, it just kind of happened naturally. I’m from Montebello and I’ve lived here my whole life; I just wanted to do something here, it wasn’t about making business decisions. The festival evolved naturally into what it is, and after doing it for a while we realized that it had basically turned into a European style festival. When I was a kid my parents were super cool and used to drive me around to a bunch of shows and festivals in Canada and the US, so that’s what influenced me, in a way.
Your parents must be stoked that you ended up doing this!
They are! It’s funny because I never really set out to be a promoter or to do this exclusively for a living. It just kind of happened, which is super cool. I get to book some of my favorite bands to play five minutes away from my house, it’s just a trip to see some of the bands I grew up listening to walking around in my tiny village.
You have also organized evening indoor shows for a few days before the big outdoor event, so what are some cool things to do when not seeing shows?
The festival takes place in a very historic area, so there are plenty of places to visit. An interesting thing to do is go to Parc Omega, where you can drive around and the animals come to your car. Chateau Montebello is also worth a visit, it’s an old Fairmont hotel known worldwide. They had a summit there a couple of years ago with the President of the US, the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of Mexico, and there was a huge demonstration. I’m pretty happy because everyone was predicting that hundreds of thousands of people would flock here to protest, but Rockfest was able to draw more people than Bush!
So Rockfest was founded on DIY ethics, and still eight years later and with headliners of great stature, $80 is quite an affordable ticket; how do you continue to pull this off?
It works the same way, I guess. I just book the bands and make sure that everything is ok on a production level. It’s always been very important to me to keep ticket prices very low; the first year, tickets were ten bucks, but obviously, we don’t have a choice but to raise the prices at this point since we’re getting bigger bands. It’s especially hard to keep ticket prices low here in the province of Québec, because the big mainstream family fairs get all the grants from the government. For instance, Festival d’Été in Québec City charges $60 and you have two weeks worth of shows; you see Bon Jovi, Black Eyed Peas and all these huge mainstream acts. People are used to paying really cheap festival tickets in the province, so it makes all the other festivals struggle because we obviously don’t have grants as big as theirs. It’s a mix of the reality here in the province and people being used to cheap ticket prices, more so than elsewhere from what I gather. In any case, it was always important for me to keep prices low from the start. It shows the festival goers that we’re not multinational money hungry suits that don’t know anything about this music, we’re just fans.
Besides having some really popular headliners, Rockfest is also hosting a series of scene favorites such as Bad Brains, Screeching Weaseland Black Flag, and exclusive reunions, like Men ‘O Steel. Which of these was the most challenging for you to book?
Actually, the most challenging band to book was Rancid.
Yeah! [laughs] They don’t play that many festivals and I’ve been wanting to book them forever. I flew to Salt Lake City just to meet their agent and then to California to the Hootenanny last year, where they were playing, to meet the band. It was just hard because they weren’t sure of their schedule with their album release. Somehow, after a couple of months, everything just kind of fell into place.
And then you also got the Transplants!
Yes! At first, Rancid wasn’t supposed to work out, so I sent out an offer for Transplants. After a while I got a call asking me if I wanted to book both Rancid and Transplants, because they wanted to do a tour together, so I guess I got lucky that their album was getting released around Rockfest. It worked out great. Rancid is the band I’m definitely the happiest to have booked, because it was so difficult to finally get them on board.
Are they also the band you’re most excited to see?
I’m really stoked to see the Offspring, just because they were the very first band that I ever got into when I was really young. They introduced me to this music, so to have them playing here in my hometown is full-circle, in some sense. I was also a huge Marilyn Manson fan in high school, so it’s going to be awesome having him here. Also, Deftones are my favorite band… I could go on forever.
I have never been to a festival with a karaoke, let alone a punk rock karaoke; where did you get the inspiration for this?
There’s actually a band called “Punk Rock Karaoke” with Eric Melvin (of NOFX) and Greg Hetson (of Bad Religion). They’re a supergroup and I wanted to book them, but they couldn’t play Rockfest because NOFX is touring Europe the same weekend. I thought the idea was kind of cool anyway, so I just asked some friends of mine in a punk rock band if they wanted to do a punk rock karaoke at the end of the night. We actually have a really late curfew, we’re allowed to go on until 2 or 3 AM.
Are you going to sing? Can we sing “Lori Meyers” together?
I don’t think so, I probably won’t have a voice by the end of the night… [laughs] I’m sure it’s going to be tons of fun at 2AM when everyone’s messed up.
Considering how young you were when you started the festival, your accomplishments are truly admirable. If you could give some brief advice to young entrepreneurs, not just in the music business but in general, what would it be?
It’s important to understand that there’s some things you can control and some that you can’t. I would say that, at least, you need to have a very strong work ethic; if you don’t have that, you won’t get very far. You need to be very serious and devote yourself seven days a week to get what you want.
Finally, where do you see the festival in another 5 years?
Hopefully even bigger! I just want to keep doing this forever and I hope it keeps growing. It would be cool, at least within this genre, to become known as the festival you have to go to every year, regardless of where you’re coming from.