Sarah Shoucri spent the first 27 years of her life seeking out jobs that allowed her to listen to music all day long – little did the former fashion designer know she’d wind up playing an integral role in promoting POP Montreal, one of our city’s most consistently current music festivals. We talked to the Communications and Internal Relations Director about music memories, the secrets to festival success and nerding out over this year’s amazing acts.
What was your relationship with music like before you embarked on a career in the industry?
Growing up, music was my everything. I grew up in the 90s, the pre-Napster era, so I remember those first moments of having the Internet at home and embarking on these forums. I’d be talking to people from around the world, finding out what kind of music they were listening to, then researching the bands and finding their CDs… it was always something that brought a lot of excitement to my life.
How did you end up working in festivals?
When I finished fashion school, the first job I got was at this store, working as a project coordinator. I suggested hosting weekly jam sessions and bringing in DJs to help draw people into the place, which was very exciting and not something retail spaces did at the time. This was around 2004 when everything was just starting to bubble here in Montreal.
After that, I started organizing shows in other cafes and bars while I was working as a fashion designer by day. After three or four years of that, I started taking night classes in PR. When I was 27, I got laid off from my job, and I knew right away that it was a blessing. I was making a good salary, so I would be getting EI and have the opportunity not to work for a stretch and figure things out. When you’re that age, you kind of feel like it’s too late to reorient yourself and drop everything you’ve been working on for the last number of years. I thought I’d use the time to do exactly what I wanted. So, I called the publicist for POP Montreal at the time and asked if I could help her out in any way, shape or form without pay. She gladly accepted the help and I wound up getting hired a few months later.
It takes a ton of work and countless hours to make any festival a success. How do you cope with such a grueling schedule? In your opinion, what part of festival organization makes it all worthwhile?
POP is a festival that people are very attached to. When you get into POP on the very first day, you arrive at the headquarters, the doors open and you feel all this excitement that isn’t coming from you, because you’re just so tired. But you feel all this excitement from all these other people. It’s such good vibes. It’s almost surreal; you don’t even realize you had a part in organizing all of it. Also, after working in the music industry for a very long time, you end up meeting people from all over the world who end up coming to the festival to cover it or to play, and it’s exciting to get to see those old friends again. At the end of the day, it’s about trying to enjoy ourselves and not take things too seriously. Because the things that need to be done are endless, especially when you work in communications. So focus on the things you have done, instead of all the things you could have done, because that kind of mindset will drive you insane.
Favourite memory at a festival other than POP Montreal?
One that comes to mind is Hot Chip playing at la scène Verte at Osheaga in 2013. It was just one of those live music moments that lifts you to this other plane. When the show ended, I just turned around to my group of friends and we all hugged each other, like “Let’s live forever! Let’s stay up all night!” It was very uplifting and insanely fun. Glow sticks were being thrown around the whole time. It was a fantastic night – people you love, music you like, great weather and everyone dancing.
What are the most important things to take into consideration when organizing a festival?
I do feel that what makes POP so interesting is that it’s really about music legends. It's never boring because you’re always learning something. I’ve learned so much about music and music history working at the festival. Every year when we announce our first headliners, I usually have no idea who they are, but then I do a little research and discover they have incredible legacies. It’s insane. It’s funny, because people are always talking about the festival market being completely oversaturated and all headliners looking the same. That’s definitely not the case with POP – if anything, our problem is the opposite. So I find that in terms of curation, POP does a great job at staying exciting and relevant every year.
What steps do you take to bring something new or innovative to the table with every new edition?
We’re definitely in touch with the community. The issues that are important to them are important to us as well, because we’re all members of different artistic communities. For example, when trans issues started becoming more and more discussed two or three years ago, we decided that there would be gender neutral bathrooms in every venue we ran. Around that time, we also started working with an organization to ensure that all the venues that we run are wheelchair accessible. That’s just on a social level. We try to see what’s important to us, what’s important to the people who are attending the festival and try to apply as much of that as possible.
What do you think about Montreal’s current musical climate outside of the festival season? What should festivals be doing to help support local talent?
I think that there is definitely a true will in Montreal to go out and have a good time, all the time, outside of the festival season. I do find festival season to be, at times, a little exhausting and not necessarily beneficial to the music scene; the off season is often better for up-and-coming musicians, because they don’t have to compete against events that have things like advertising power, when they likely don’t. In terms of what festivals should be doing, I think that there has to be a certain percentage of programming that’s dedicated to up-and-coming musicians. One thing that’s worked really well with POP is pairing up-and-coming musicians with our headliners, which not only allows those musicians to play for a bigger audience and expand their fan base, but also gives them an opportunity to potentially create a link with that headliner. If the show is curated properly, anything can happen.
Who are your must-sees for this year’s edition of POP Montreal? What should festivalgoers make sure they don’t miss out on?
One band I’m super excited about is Public Service Broadcasting. They take samples from sound clips that are public domain and use them to make nerdy electronic music. I’m also excited about the panels that we’re putting on. Lunice is going to be doing a cooking beats workshop, which is gonna be really cool. We have a panel featuring a bunch of promoters and festival runners from various parts of the world who are making shit happen while dealing with lack of funding and difficult political situations, so I think that’ll be a super interesting thing to check out. Then we have another panel about accountability in the music industry. In terms of the film stuff, we have the world premiere of a film called A which features a bunch of amazing local musicians, like Bernardino Femminielli, Petra Glynt and Alex Zhang Hungtai. After the premiere, they’re all gonna be playing at our late night space for an after party. We’ve got a lot of cool things this year, but those are some of the highlights!
By Kelly Hurcomb
Photo credit: Ashutosh Gupta
The 2017 edition of POP Montreal takes place from September 13 to 17.