THEN-EMERGENT TALENT: Montreal-based musician Patrick Watson performs next to the railway track at a previous FME. (Cyclopes) 


For the past 21 years, the Canadian city of Rouyn-Noranda on Osisko Lake in Quebec, a seven-hour drive north of Montreal, is transformed into a bustling music environment.

FME — Festival De Musique Émergente, or “festival of emerging music” — showcases rising talent in 16 venues and a bunch of makeshift ones from a poutine shop to gas station forecourt and roof of a tanning salon. Where these secret shows will be for this weekend’s fest (Aug. 31-Sept. 3) is anyone’s guess.

The festival, founded by francophones Karine Berthiaum, Jenny Thibault and Sandy Boutin, draws 30,000-35,000 people over the four days, according to figures provided by Boutin.

This year features about 80 artists, including Polaris Music Prize-winning francophone rock band Karkwa; Montreal rock trio Population II and art punk supergroup La Sécurtite; Mint Records acts Heaven For Real and Nora Kelly Band; Toronto rapper Myst Milano; and Brussels art punks Milk TV.

Rouyn-Noranda was created out of municipalities Rouyn and Noranda (named after the mining firm). Rouyn is now largely known for smelting but the surrounding area still has working mines. 

Marilyne Lacombe, director of programming since 2020, spoke to VenuesNow about this unique festival, which takes place this weekend, Aug. 31- Sept. 3. 

VenuesNow: What’s the status of the wildfires now?

Marilyne Lacombe: Back in July, there was a lot, but most of that has been resolved.  There’s still fires in the country for sure, but near the festival, it’s not something that we are currently worried about. (They were) three or four hours up north. It’s not something close enough that we were worried about canceling the festival.

FME has been going for over 20 years. Why is this town the ideal spot for this festival?

What’s really fun about the fact that it’s remote — about an eight-hour drive from Montreal — is that you really immerse yourself in the festival. For me, it’s my yearly pilgrimage. I go through the natural reservation where there’s no WiFi, it’s just pine trees. There’s something very magical about it. There’s people from all around the world. We have people coming from Mexico, France, Belgium, Denmark, all the way to New Zealand. 

A few people can camp around some of the lake but most people stay in the hotels in town.

What is the feedback from the people that live there? 

It’s a human-scale festival. It’s not 100,000 people coming in town and ruining the vibe of the town. It’s really integrated. The scale of the festival makes it that way and, obviously, it’s been going on for over 20 years; I would say the whole community is definitely behind the festival. Everybody pitches in. You see a lot of people volunteering, business helping in any way that they can, opening their doors to shows and secret shows and to the people coming out. It’s definitely something that’s done with the community.

What percentage of the acts are francophone?

I’s about 55% Franco, 45% Anglo. It’s something that we are really mindful about. A lot of festivals in Quebec are either just Franco or just Anglo. We try to mix up two scenes and cross the bridges between both. I would say it’s around 80% Quebec, 20% out of Quebec. 

How many are coming from outside Canada?

We have about 10. It’s absolutely eclectic. The main goal is to go as wide as we can. You’ll find folk, country, pop, rock, electro, punk, post punk, you name it. There is something for everyone.

What are venues like?

Forget about everything you think about when you think about summer festivals because that’s not what FME is about. It’s a bunch of smaller venues ranging from 100 capacity to 400-plus and a main site outdoor that’s maybe 5,000 capacity, max. So that’s what I’m saying, when it’s more like a human scale festival, not overwhelming with hundreds of thousands of people.  The main goal of all of these people is to discover new music. The festival stands for Emerging Music Festival. So my goal is to bring bands that nobody’s seen ever, or that’s playing one of their first shows or they’re bringing their new shows for the first time. That’s what the whole experience is about.

Which special venues or environments are in place?

It changes every year. Last year, we had a show by one of the lakes. There was Kiwanis, and then the year before it was Lac Cisco. So the whole installation moves around. There’s the main site, which is a bit more downtown as a festival and then all over town we have popup shows. Yu might just be walking and then you’ll just walk through a show.

As fun as a poutine place, a gas station, and maybe, I’m told, even a mine?

It’s not inside the mine. Probably that’s the Patrick Watson show that happened [in 2011] at the Foundry. It’s surrounded by this industrial setting. That was really something.

I guess you can’t reveal where the secret shows are this year.

[Laughs]. We try to make the town ours by sticking to those places that we feel have a little something. Sometimes they’ll play in a more natural setting, a bit more remotely out of town. We’d really try to change the mood and make them fit with the bands that we have there.

Do you visit in advance, a restaurant or a hair salon, and ask the owner or management if you can put a band in there?

I’m based in Montreal, so I don’t necessarily do that part, but we go every year. And then with the permanency, we talk about it. Then there are more people that will go. They live there so they will go in and talk to the people. The festival has been there for so long, obviously people know about it and they are usually pretty excited to host one of these secret shows.

Quebec is very supportive of the arts. Do you get government funding? 

Yeah, like any festival in Quebec, we receive public funding. That being said, the cost of getting bands there, which is this remote, has been rising in the past two, three years. So I would say we need more funding.