From the Guess Who, to Neil Young, to the Weakerthans, Winnipeg is a city known for cold winters and hot music. But when it comes to electronic music, Winnipeg isn't necessarily the first Canadian city that comes to mind.
MEME (Manitoba Electronic Music Exhibition) is working to change that with an annual four-day festival now entering its third year. CBC Music spoke with Nathan Zahn, a 15-year veteran of Winnipeg's electronic scene, and festival director of MEME.
Q: What prompted you to start a multi-day festival like MEME. Wouldn't it be easier just to throw a few one-night parties?
A: MEME came about for two main reasons. The idea of throwing a free outdoor party in downtown Winnipeg was something that we had thought of for several years in Winnipeg. We were always of the mind that we could build a larger audience for our scene if we could showcase it in a high-profile, free public venue.
Fortunately, the first year we decided to throw MEME was the same year that the city built the new futuristic “Cube” stage in a park in the historic Exchange District in downtown Winnipeg. We were actually the first event ever held at The Cube, and some people even asked if the city had spent millions of dollars for this new Cube to host MEME because it is such an appropriate venue for techno. We love the juxtaposition between the century-old, Chicago-style warehouses and the techno Cube, it was a great coincidence for us that this stage presented itself when it did.
The second thing that inspired us to start a multi-day festival was a trip to Mutek’s 10-year anniversary in 2009. Mutek really reinforced for me how strong the electronic music scene is internationally, and I realized that we could take our cue from Mutek and build our own version of a similar yet unique festival on the Prairies. Combining the free outdoor concerts with late-night afterparties made sense, since we already had a captive audience at our Cube stage that would be looking for somewhere to go when the free stage was over at midnight.
Q: Can you give us a bird's-eye view of electronic culture in Winnipeg? What's going on in the city? What are the challenges?
A: We have followed many of the same trends as other cities on North America with the progression from underground raves into club culture, and more recently the rise of full-blown mainstream dubstep overkill. That being said, my experience has been that Winnipeg was always a little different than almost every other city in Canada due to our extreme isolation. We are very far from our major Canadian neighbours such as Calgary and Edmonton, and the closest American city is Minneapolis, which is an eight-hour drive away.
This geographical isolation may have meant that sometimes we were behind the trends musically with whatever was happening, but it also meant that we maintained a surprisingly eclectic and diverse underground music scene that until very recently has flown under the radar of the rest of Canada. As a longtime promoter I can say that Winnipeg in particular managed to always maintain and grow a solid techno scene in all of its various iterations. Trance, electro and dubstep have always been popular in the clubs like anywhere in the world, but parallel to that we have a long tradition of promoting proper tech-house and deeper more sophisticated styles of dance music that stays clear of top 40 dance music.
I think it is fair to say MEME is the result of a group of people coming together who have consistently pushed for a quality and cutting edge sound that has allowed us to kind of come out of nowhere with a very robust international lineup of music that may surprise people from larger urban centres. Most recently, longtime DJs and producers Ali Khan and Joe Silva were booked to play at Mutek in 2012 under their Tonepushers live act. Nice to see original techno from Winnipeg making its way to Montreal!
Q: 2010 was MEME's first year. What did you learn? What worked, and what, if anything, didn't?
A: Our first year was a success at the free Cube stage, but we were over ambitious with our bookings at our afterparties and didn’t manage to get enough people to the paid gigs to cover the costs of our well stacked international headliners. We got caught up in wanting to book all these great acts but failed to realize that many people in Winnipeg would not be familiar with the likes of who we brought in, and were not sold on moving from the free party to $30 club nights. We would have been more successful the first year simply doing cheap $5 afterparties with all local lineups.
Q: Working with limited resources is always one of the biggest challenges for a festival starting out. If you could double or even triple your resources, what would you do differently?
A: 2012 is just our 3rd year, but our budget is now double what it was the first year, the main increase has come from our very successful sponsorships and advertising partners. Because we have such a fantastic free stage in an outdoor setting at a public venue, it has quickly become an appealing place for businesses to sponsor us. This year we have half of our festival budget covered by sponsors including the Red Bull Music Academy, who many reading this should be familiar with. RBMA’s sponsorship allowed us to pick four major acts to play on our stage with no strings attached other than Red Bull wanting to brand the stage. A win-win as far as we are concerned. RBMA’s acts this year include James Teej, Anenon, Ghosts on Tape and Pearson Sound.
If we could increase our resources even further, we would put funding towards an expanded visual program, as doing large-scale multi-media exhibits can be quite costly. While our first priority is focused on the music/audio end, as we grow we would like to push the boundaries of the full sensory experience including more cutting edge visual performances. Finally, as we grow and hopefully see our budgets rise, we would like to continue to bring additional international guests to perform at MEME as it allows us to introduce our local scene to other sounds, and it also helps foster networks that promote our local artists to the world.
Q: What, or who, are you most excited about for this year's MEME?
A: This year I am really excited about our afterparty venues. We are throwing one in the Winnipeg Art Gallery, it is a very classy, four-room venue including a rooftop patio. The lineup is crazy, including John Tejada, Deadbeat and Adham Shaikh, to name just a few. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has never held a show like this before, so we are breaking new ground and finding a much wider audience just by being in this venue. Actually, CBC Manitoba is presenting this particular show! Our second major venue is The Manitoba Museum, another fantastic venue that has never held an electronic music event in it before. The Museum is also located steps away from our free concerts at The Cube, so it will be a very easy move from the outdoor shows to the afterparty at The Museum. My Favorite Robot and Billy Dalessandro will be rocking The Museum until 4 a.m.!
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on Jun 21, 2012