Arts Curation: Championing Independent Music for Over 2 Decades
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Daniel Seligman took place on Tuesday, July 25th, 2023, live from Montreal, Canada.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Part I of II
In part one, Daniel talks about how he made his way into the music business with no strategy and how Pop Montreal grew out of a very fertile music scene at the beginning of the 2000s, just as the internet was becoming a thing.
Marc Brown: Hi Daniel, welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation! How are you?
Daniel Seligman: I’m great, good to be here.
Marc: So, where are you Zooming in from?
Daniel: I live in Montreal.
Marc: And where do you work?
Daniel: POP Montreal which is the music festival that I co-founded and am the creative director for. It takes place in September in Montreal and this year it’s happening from September 27 – October 1. It’s crunch time right now so we’re ramping up and getting prepared. It’s a multi-venue, multi-genre festival, similar to a South by Southwest in Austin or CMW in Toronto. We also have art and film segments and things for kids. This September will be our 22nd edition.
Marc: Plus you also do artist management, is that right?
Daniel: Yeah, so I began my career in the musical world as a manager, helping out my brother’s band. I grew up in Toronto and moved to Montreal for university, religious studies. Around that same time, my older brother was starting a band called Stars. I decided to take a year off and volunteered to help them release their album. I ended up going on the road with them and also became their de-facto manager.
Marc: Did you know anything about the music business at the time?
Daniel: Not really. I volunteered at McGill Univerity’s CKUT which is one of the local college radio stations in Montreal. That got me a bit familiar with the music community aspect but that was it. I mostly got my start as a fan.
Marc: What did you learn early on?
Daniel: There was an aspect of naivety, but it’s not rocket science. A lot of it is about people skills, communication, organization, passion and drive. There are so many facets of the music industry so I ended up learning how to put on many hats like selling merch, advancing shows and things like that. I also met a lot of people along the way. I met the co-founder of Pop Montreal randomly when I was on a train. I think he saw some guy with a lot of vinyl records and we just started talking and we decided to start the festival together. He was Peter Rowan and he had started a festival in Halifax, the Halifax Pop Explosion, and had just moved to Montreal. I was 25 at the time, and we connected with as many people as we could at the time and told them about our idea. The first festival was put on with about 6 months notice and that’s how it all began.
Marc: So this was in the early 2000s, right? The Internet was important at that time but people were also still buying CDs. How did festivals fit into all of that?
Daniel: Yea, I think it was sort of the beginning of the end of CDs around then. One of the first things we did as Pop Montreal was get a website, so the internet was definitely becoming important. MySpace and Pitchfork were up and running so we needed to have a presence online. But at that time it was the indie weekly newspapers that were much more important. There were 4 in Montreal at the time – 2 French and 2 English. Print still had all the power.
Marc: I feel like right around then was the first time that a lot of Canadian indie-rock bands were getting attention outside of Canada, is that right?
Daniel: Yeah, I would say The Dears were at the forefront of that. Another band I started working with after Stars was The Unicorns, and they were kind of the predecessor of Arcade Fire. Out of Toronto, Broken Social Scene got an amazing review in Pitchfork around then, and it exploded from there. All of those bands were sort of interconnected too.
Marc: What do you think changed in that era?
Daniel: The music was honestly just really great. If you go and listen to all of those bands’ early stuff, no one was doing the same thing – everyone had their own sound. Also, that was when recording was becoming easier, getting music out there was easier, and there were more blogs – all of that was coming together. The international world was also opening up through a lot of community building because of the internet. The market wasn’t oversaturated like it is now.
Marc: In the festival world, South by Southwest was around and there was also lots of stuff in Toronto. Why was it that you decided a festival was a good idea? Did you want to bring more people to Montreal or was it mostly about having fun?
Daniel: There wasn’t a grand 5-year plan when we decided to do it. We thought it would be cool and timing ended up being crucial. When we started, there weren’t that many festivals in Montreal but there was a bubbling underground scene. There was so much cool indie culture in the city that was beginning to pick up. It felt like the right time for it. From my perspective, I had been to a few festivals before and I was coming at it from the artist’s perspective. Artists and industry seemed separate back then(are they still?), so I wanted to do something that was focused on the artist experience. Montreal was all about this underground scene that wasn’t really music industry-oriented but just about cool vibes and the art itself. We thought that if we did something artist-focused then the industry would show up. There were such great bands here. We used to rent out lofts and throw parties that started at midnight and ran until 4 am. That’s kind of what Pop was known for in the beginning – finding cool places and making it about the artist’s experience. As it was happening, I looked around and realized that we were doing something unique and different and that is how Pop became a bit of a mold for other events like that.
Marc: During this time, were you also thinking about taking your bands down to other festivals, or South by Southwest for example, and getting them signed? Was the mentality that festival showcases were the only way to get noticed?
Daniel: I didn’t stop going to CMW in Toronto or South by Southwest, but after a few years you kind of realize that it’s all a part of one giant similar ecosystem. From the inside, there were all kinds of politics if you were in the Montreal scene and everyone thought they were super unique. From an outsider’s perspective, 99% of the world knows that it’s the same everywhere when you think about indie-rock bands, managers, and “the scene” in the same area. The Narcissism of small differences (the idea that the more a relationship or community shares commonalities, the more likely the people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to minor differences perceived in each other). As you evolve you realize that there’s no point in getting into fights with everyone and that you need to work together and create commonalities and common opportunities. As a festival itself, you do need to build something that you believe in and that provides opportunities. So yea, we do invite the industry to come here and discover bands because, at the end of the day, artists want to make a living from their music. We needed to figure out a way to support these artists and showcase their talents. But to be fair, I wouldn’t say that’s the #1 goal of the festival.