Music fest blows away midwinter blahs


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January used to be a dead zone for live music in Winnipeg. Only the bravest of bands would hit the Trans-Canada and only the most dedicated fans would show up to see them. The urge to hibernate is strong.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/01/2015 (2984 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

January used to be a dead zone for live music in Winnipeg. Only the bravest of bands would hit the Trans-Canada and only the most dedicated fans would show up to see them. The urge to hibernate is strong.

But that didn’t stop a crew of enterprising young Winnipeg music lovers from organizing a music festival during the worst month of the year.

Now heading into its fourth year, Big Fun — which is named after the fake band in 1988’s cult-classic film Heathers — was inspired by successful urban music festivals such as Calgary’s Sled Island and Pop Montreal.

Stefan Braun, who is one of Big Fun’s founding artistic directors, along with David Schellenberg, Lauren Swan and Aaron Johnston, volunteered at Pop Montreal for a couple years and thought a similar model could work in Winnipeg.

And it has. Paid attendance in 2014 was 1,800 — a figure that may skew low as it doesn’t include attendance at the festival’s free shows or media, sponsors or artists attending as guests. Schellenberg anecdotally noticed a small dip in attendance last year, owing to 2014’s winter from hell. “Some shows we thought would be huge weren’t as big as we thought they’d be,” Schellenberg says, citing gig by Toronto’s Metz as an example. “But any time people show up to our events, we’re still wide-eyed.” (The team behind the festival has expanded a little as well; Ken Prue is now among Big Fun’s organizational ranks, as Johnston had to step back a bit.)

Forty-four bands are performing at various venues throughout the heart of the city from Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, making this year’s Big Fun the biggest yet. That’s roughly double 2012’s inaugural lineup. “It’s just natural growth,” Schellenberg says. “More bands are interested in playing.”

Winnipeg noise rock trio KEN mode, Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf and Operators, the new analogue electropop project from Wolf Parade/ Divine Fits/Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner, are among the festival’s headlining acts. The rest of the lineup is filled in some of the most buzzed-about fresh faces from the local music scene, such as neo-shoegaze duo Basic Nature and ambient electro act Baba Yaga. This year’s Big Fun is also shining a spotlight on the city’s burgeoning noise rock scene, with acts such as Conduct, the Party Dress, Lukewarm and Tunic all taking the stage at various points during the weekend.

Although headliners are curated in advance, Big Fun is mostly submission-based. Schellenberg estimates the festival received 200 applications this year. “And we listen to every single band,” he says. (Spirited debates and discussions are not uncommon among the organizers.)

There is some repetition to be found within the lineups from year to year, despite the organizers’ best efforts to avoid it. Headliners are allowed to handpick their own opening acts, which can lead to overlap; Tunic, for example, is playing again this year at KEN mode’s behest, while this will be the third Big Fun for Winnipeg indie folk outfit Yes We Mystic, which is playing the Manitoba Music showcase on Jan. 31 at the Good Will alongside loop-pedal experimentalist Rayannah and Slow Leaves, the recording project of singer-songwriter Grant Davison.

“I hate repeating acts, but sometimes a certain band is the best option,” Schellenberg says.

Still, the submission-based model is useful. Acts don’t fall off the organizers’ radar just because they don’t make it into the lineup. “They might be a good fit for programming we do during the year,” says Schellenberg, who also books talent for the Good Will and is a co-artistic director for the Harvest Moon Festival.

And although the submission process is labour-intensive, it’s fun. “It’s that sense of discovery,” Schellenberg says. “You think you have a handle on the scene, but there’s always new bands.”

— — —

Running alongside the Big Fun Festival is Manitoba Music’s January Music Meeting, a three-day conference that includes panels, workshops, discussion groups and one-on-one meetings with professionals from label, agency, management, festival, publishing, and publicity sides of the music industry.

Invited panellists include Burnt Tree Entertainment’s Jason Burns (Hey Rosetta!, Rich Aucoin); Bumstead Productions’ Tim Des Islets (the Trews, Poor Young Things); Vapor Music’s Heather Gardner; the Agency Group’s Darcy Gregoire (Bobby Bazini, Current Swell); Core Music Agency’s Matt Safran (Ben Mink, Jesse Zubot); RGK Entertainment Group/Road Angel Entertainment’s Jill Snell (Corb Lund, Paul Brandt); BreakOut West’s Robyn Stewart; Paquin Entertainment Group’s Michelle Szeto (Del Barber, Buffy Sainte-Marie); and MROC’s Julia Train.

Space is limited and those interested are encouraged to register at or 204-942-8650.

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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