FME Festival carves out a community in rural Québec

The Festival de musique émergente is unlike anything else.

August 29, 2017

At a first glance at its website, it’s evident that Festival De Musique Émergente (colloquially known as FME) is not like other festivals. Held in the former mining town of Rouyn-Noranda in rural Quebec, FME boasts a robust set of goals such as “maintaining a rich and healthy social scene,” and has also given itself the heady task of becoming more ecologically sustainable with each passing year. For example, attendees are encouraged to opt for washable dishes rather than disposable ones, and to use both sides of any paper used. According to the organizers, if you have any old CDs, bring em’ to the fest and turn them into art.

But perhaps FME’s boldest statement comes from its straightforward approach to producing an experience rather than an event; for the last 15 years, the festival’s ethics, atmosphere, and eclectic lineup of artists have done most of the heavylifting in terms of selling FME as a wholly unique arts festival.

“You can feel the festival all over the city” explains co-founder and programming organizer Jenny Thibault. “The whole city is decorated. You have art installations, you have secret shows happening in the streets. It’s what we were aiming for right at the beginning: to create a good souvenir.”

You can feel the festival all over the city…It’s what we were aiming for right at the beginning: to create a good souvenir.”

During the festival, Thibault estimates that about 40% of the attendees come from out of town, making FME not only a cultural generator but also an economic one. For the city of of Rouyn-Noranda, FME marks the top of a social calendar where the community of 40,000 people briefly expands to include an international audience. By partnering with local promoters in a variety of different local scenes, FME’s end goal is aimed squarely at diversity:  “Our idea was to have a large spectrum. The metal scene is really huge as well as the rap scene. We wanted to do a picture of the best of the music scene in Québec, with a few guests.”

The product is a transient but tight-knit community where artists and musicians blend into the audience after their set. It’s a phenomenon that Thibault believes is exclusive to small cities. “It is impossible to recreate [the festival] in Montreal or in a huge city. People are stuck together,” she says. “They can’t go somewhere else for dinner or return home after the show because we are really far away. Because it’s in an isolated place and the shows are happening so close together, it’s possible for the people to discover something completely new.

”We did a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show in a church with only 400 people,” Thibault remembers, “but the goal was that they remembered it.” “You might see a punk show happening at 1AM on the street, so you need to be open and curious.”

However, 2017 marks a new addition to FME’s already impressive programming. After two years of mutual planning and dialogue with the city’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue community, this year the festival kicks off with Makwa. As part of an international project with Pow-Wow de Pikoga, Makwa a multi-sensory show that invites the public to be “carried away with the music and richness of Anicinabe culture” and promises a deeply immersive experience that is equally “visual, musical and sonorous.”

“We don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet and exchange with First Nations groups, so I think that art is a good way to get to know each other” says Thibault. “With a special project it’s a good opportunity to discover each others’ cultures.”

In a year that seemed fraught with examples of exactly what not to do when planning a major festival (yes, we are talking about Fyre Festival), the sustained success of firmly established festivals like FME are a crucial reminder of an alternative: better does not always mean bigger. Sometimes knowing (and owning) your scale can produce not only a better organized festival but one that fulfills its social mission.

You can check our the official FME playlist here.

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