STEP RIGHT UP: Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan started in the club business as a fan of the blues. (Greg Kolz)

Celebrating 30 years, Ottawa Bluesfest in the Canadian capital has been a multi-genre music festival for longer than it was blues-centric, featuring performers from Lady Gaga to Rage Against The Machine and Skrillex.

This year, July 4-14, the non-profit that draws 300,000 people to LeBreton Flats has about 150 acts, including Mötley Crue, Jelly Roll, Tyler Childers, 50 Cent, Maroon 5, and Mother Mother. Daily capacity is 40,000. 

Founder and executive director Mark Monahan — who won this year’s Industry Impact Award at the Canadian Live Music Industry Awards — tells VenuesNow that the festival brings in about $37 million worth of tourism dollars over the 10 days.

VenuesNow: How’s it going now that you’re in the throes of your 30th?

Mark Monahan: When you put on an event like this, you get wrapped up in the moment. So, although you have time to reflect on the 30th, for the most part you’re dealing with what’s in front of you, whether operational issues and rescheduling. It’s been a great year so far, but with a 10-day event, you can’t really breathe easy until the end.

You started 30 years ago at Major’s Hill Park, then Confederation Park, the Flats, Festival Plaza, then back to the Flats. Why is the Flats most ideal?

Well, we evolved as spaces evolved in Ottawa. Where we are right now was actually built and completed in 2007. It was a large area in downtown Ottawa that was undeveloped.

They built it as a site for large events like ours. The reason why it works is, first of all, they asked when they were building it what would be the key elements? There’s one key element: build us a large, wide-open space with no trees (laughs). Because people tend to try to beautify these parks. If you look at Zilker Park in Austin (home to Austin City Limits Music Festival In Texas), it was a park. So, you adapted the festival to meet what was there. In our case, we had the luxury of saying we’re going to build something from scratch. We just had a conversation about the canopy of the trees because they built this park, but they put trees around the edges. 

You actually had nature interfere one year when an endangered bird species affected the stage build.

Yes, the park we’re on is owned by the National Capital Commission, which is a keeper of public lands in Canada, and they have a lot of rules around what you can and can’t do. One is around nature. One year, as we were getting set up, we realized that there is a killdeer, which is a bird up here, which nests on the ground. The killdeer had built a nest almost exactly where the center of our main stage goes. It was discovered by one of the NCC folks who said, “We can’t build a stage there because this bird is nesting and we can’t disturb the nest.” There were eggs in the nest. We moved the nest and bring a bird expert that we found five hours away from the park (laughs). We brought them in overnight and they moved the nest over a 24-hour period.

JELLY TIME: Jelly Roll shown during his July 9 headlining set at Ottawa Bluesfest, the country star’s first Canadian gig. (Courtesy venue)

You started as a blues festival but it evolved into multi-genres from rock to hip-hop and EDM.  Why did that happen?

My inspiration for this festival was framed when I visited New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the mid-’90s. At that time, there was no Bonnaroo, no Coachella. The advent of a multi-genre big music festival had its roots in New Orleans. That was the biggest festival in the world. 

We started out as a three-day event, which focused on blues and R&B, because I was in the nightclub business and that was my original love of the music. As we got bigger, we had to bring in a different audience. At that time in the mid-2000s, all of the Canadian jazz festivals were struggling with an aging audience and I thought, “We’ve got to get a younger crowd coming here.” We started introducing acts that were younger. We started doing EDM music. Skrillex appeared here three times over the course of five years. As a programmer, you’re constantly trying to figure out what’s relevant to people that come to your event, and also to maybe people that don’t come. So, how do you attract multi-generations of people? I’ve always felt you have to try to program music that’s relevant to the most influential time in people’s lives, which tends to be teenage and college years. 

In terms of stage, backstage and logistics, what have you changed over the decades based on artists’ needs and in response to what other festivals have?

We realized when we started to do big international acts like Lady Gaga or Foo Fighters that we needed to up our game in technical production. You need to build proper loading docks. You’re working with a field, so you have to build things that people expect when they go to an arena. That’s the biggest challenge. You have to be able to unload six or eight trucks at a time. You have to have proper personnel that are there and show up. They’re not just volunteers, which is where we started, so that evolved.  Not that we do anything extravagant, but we just provide good quality technical production that has served us well. Artists, although you might get them once, unless they walk away knowing that you’re going to take care of them, they’re likely not coming back.

Going to a festival like Coachella with their VIP experiences with an elevated food court and fancy washrooms. Did expectations change for fans over 30 years? How did you evolve in terms of fan experience, activations, WiFi, better food, all that type of stuff? 

We realized that people wanted different amenities and some of your audience was willing to pay for it. Most ideas that we see everywhere else are not new ideas. They’re old ideas that are just trying to be done better. That’s what we try to do. You go and find things, whether that’s upgraded food stands, better washrooms, One of the things that people are doing now is devoting swaths of real estate to VIP and VIP Plus. Our attitude is, well, let’s just give everybody a better experience and charge a little bit more instead of a lot. 

Bluesfest has gone through two naming rights: Cisco for 11 years and RBC for about as long.
RBC was our title sponsor for 10 years; they’re not our title sponsor as of this year. They’re titled to the main stage.  But as a comment around sponsorship, sponsorship has evolved dramatically over the years with our festival and has become a big component of how you fund these things. We’ve had to evolve to offer what sponsors want, which often is visibility, activations and corporate hospitality. Everything has become a big business, and this is something that you’ve got to either get good at or get left behind. 

Do you have a personal stand-out from 30 years?

One of the moments that’s struck me the last few years was when we had Rage Against the Machine, which was planned originally before COVID for the COVID year, and we eventually were able to do in 2022. That moment of realizing what had happened over two years, the total disruption, and then being able to listen to that Rage show and see the fan reaction was one of the strongest moments I’ve ever had at the festival.