Can Toronto support an outdoor winter music festival?
The Brrrrr! Festival existed in Toronto for a short span from 2013-2014, taking place at Echo Beach over first two days in its first year, then just one night in its second year. The event was inspired fairly directly by Montreal's Igloofest - scouts spent long nights at in Montreal learning on the (frozen) field how Piknic Electronik make it work in sub zero temperatures.
Quebec's Igloofest is actually a series, running over several weekends each winter (first Thursday-Satuday each week, now Friday-Sunday) run by the much lauded founders of summer dance series Piknic Electronik, who invited me out on a junket for a frigid weekend at the 2015 festival. This year saw a total of twelve nights of dancers donning full winter gear at Montreal's Old Port.
The event has become one of Montreal's hottest winter tourism draws, and on site it's easy to see why. The place becomes a microcosm of Canadian traditions: igloos made from real ice, sumo hockey, red cheeked partiers drinking beer and roasting weenies by roaring fires, and enormous parkas and plaid winter wear harkening back to a time when lumbersexual was not a choice.
It's also a unique experience for the DJs. Montreal techno DJ/producer and Igloofest veteran Paskal Daze is eager to heap praise on the concept.
"There's an amazing energy from the people," he says moments after his January 30th DJ set. He's always stunned by the visual experience from the (heated) outdoor DJ booth. "There's ten thousand people. Winter is special: tourists come here just for Igloofest."
"They built a monster here" he tells me, "I've never heard someone say a negative thing about Igloofest. You have to live the experience."
Outside of the VIP trailers, the crowd's energy and enthusiasm echoes Paskal's. Montreal has created a tiny, ultra-Canadian version of Burning Man's surreal and carnivalesque nightlife experience, and of the thousands who attend each night, about 15% are tourists from Canada, the US, and further abroad.
While attendance to Brrrrr!'s first years in Toronto was, in the opinion of Igloofest, as strong as a the concept could expect and in line with Igloofest's early numbers, Live Nation dropped the festival for 2015.
Project Manager Mark Russell told me of Brrrrr!'s untimely demise: "at this time we have decided to go in a new direction with our programming, which does not include plans for Brrrrr! We will continue exploring ideas for new concepts as we strive to create new immersive musical experiences for our fans."
In Montreal, opinions are varied on whether Brrrrr! could have sustained itself long term, and if Toronto itself can support a future event similar to Igloofest.
Toronto's dance community is huge, as evidenced by everything from the club scene to Foundry and Cherry Beach to the resounding success of mega summer festivals VELD and Digital Dreams. There's no denying that niche techno and big ticket EDM events sell tickets and move bodies.
While Igloofest stress that their careful lineup curation is extremely important, surveys of the crowd have shown that each night many attendees don't have a clue about who's playing - though these dancers' musically minded friends naming it a place to be likely doesn't hurt attendance.
Considering Toronto's diverse dance communities, it doesn't seem like Brrrrr! fumbled its lineups - or that they even could have with the power of Live Nation's booking prowess behind them.
Food & Drink
Brrrrr! had food trucks (of course - it's Toronto) offering more selection than Igloofest grubwise, and the bars were serving up both alcoholic and non alcoholic hot drinks at both. But while gourmet food trucks can add to a summer festival experience, when it's -20C maybe all a dancer wants to do is scarf down a hot dog or take a shot and put their gloves back on.
Brrrrr! and Igloofest provided warming stations for all general admission partiers, plus heated VIP areas for those willing to spend a bundle - again, it's clear that Brrrrr! didn't go ahead in Toronto without checking in at Igloofest. Even a five minute respite from the frigid air outside is rejuvenating, especially if you need to send texts and locate friends.
Toronto's warmer than Montreal, so a winter dance festival should be preferable here - less layering and less risk of hypothermia, right? In Montreal, this sentiment rings untrue both to Igloofest organizers and the festival's fans.
Igloofest's Franรงois Fournier explains that historically some of Igloofest's best attended nights have been during spouts of -30C weather. "Cold nights make it a challenge," he says. Montreal's harsh winters mean that partiers develop a built in resilience to the cold, while in Toronto a wind-chill terror period like we're currently experiencing will only last a week or two.
Is Montreal right? Is Toronto too soft to support a hearty outdoor dance fest? It may not even matter - our climate itself may be too soft. Piknic have developed special shields for audio, video, and lighting equipment to protect gear from ice and snow, but in Toronto there will always be a risk of rain.
"The site will look disgusting" Igloofest explain of a 0 Celsius, rain-struck winter event - which indeed is described in this beyondthedrop.com review of Brrrrr!: puddles troubled dancers in at least one dome during 2014.
Surprise: Igloofest is more affordable than Brrrrr! was. While for both festivals VIP access was in the $75 range, general admission for Brrrrr!'s one-night-only 2014 event was $37.50-$47.50: doubling Igloofest's $20-$25 nightly price tag. Particularly for a new event, the idea of spending $40 to spend hours outdoors might have turned away many curious dancers.
Both festivals had a less-than-ideal location on the water, a.k.a. the coldest places in their respective cities. But while Toronto's Echo Beach is picturesque in its own way, it doesn't rival the Old Port's views of Old Montreal lit up at night.
There's also the matter of access - Igloofest is easily accessed, with the Champs-de-Mars or Place-d'Armes metro stations both within five minutes of chilly walking time.
Between Ontario Place's exorbitant parking prices and tricky TTC access to Echo Beach, as far as Brrrrr! was concerned, beforelastcall.ca basically advised cabbing it, meaning no matter how many friends you arrive and leave with, the fest's pricetag just climbed again.
The Winter Carnival
Warming stations aside, Igloofest takes on winter as a thematic contest and runs with it. Dancers can suit up for rounds of sumo hockey, play drumming games, roast marshmallows, play outdoor air hockey, and wander ice sculptures (and slide on an ice slide).
Each weekend promotes a free-to-enter snowsuit photo competition held in one of the warming domes. Attendees dressed as animals or in neon one-pieces pose ridiculously with snowshoes and other props to win prizes like vacations for two, headphones, winter gear, and Piknic Electronik passes.
The attention to detail wins the festival a lot of loyalty. Igloofest branded merch doesn't bother with t-shirt territory - it's freezing after all. Vibrant branded toques, socks, and gloves have likely saved the digits of many a dancer.
While Toronto's rep may be that we're too image conscious to participate in this kind of fun, EDM weekends, Field Trip's bouncy castles, and even Ke$ha-love suggest we're more into embracing silliness than we're given credit for. Would the condo crowd embrace snowsuit competitions? It seems like we weren't given time to find out.
Word of Mouth
Igloofest has had almost a decade to build its reputation in Montreal. Piknic Electronik has been throwing some of Montreal's best events since 2003 and is now branching out as a worldwide event - but both their summer and winter events started small.
Now, nearly everyone I meet in the city has been to Igloofest, usually multiple times, and I'm not talking about traditional techno fans. "Say hi to Everyone I Know in Montreal" one friend messages me when I leave for the site. I can't remember ever having a conversation with him about music.
I see friends running into friends constantly: for a few days a week, the Old Port becomes one of Montreal's favoured hangout spots as well as one of its most exciting nightclubs. People are here for the vibe as much as the music, and that takes time to establish.
Brrrrr! had Live Nation's financial backing behind it, but an event this kitschy, weird, and potentially unpleasant can't climb to success in a year or two.
So don't give up hope. As Toronto edges closer to having a summer event on the scale of Piknic or MUTEK, this winter's festivals will keep us huddled indoors, but I doubt the city's talented music promoters will let a little rain allow Montreal to hold its grip on the neon snowsuit contest fun forever. May partiers have a chance to raise their mittens and wave their self sticks in the face of winter in Toronto soon.
Photos via Igloofest
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