Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest has been ranked by Billboard Magazine as one of the top-10 most successful music festivals in North America. In recent years, the event has been referred to as the Canadian version of Bonnaroo, Coachella, or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; all highly regarded tourist attractions. Some of the past headliners include: Tom Petty. P!NK, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, James Brown, Kanye West, Drake, KISS, Ray Charles, Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, and The Tragically Hip, among many others.
The Ottawa Bluesfest was launched in 1994 and has grown from a one-stage, three-day event with a $100,000 budget to a multi-staged, two-week music extravaganza with a budget of approximately $30 million. The organization has grown from one director and one volunteer to 16 full-time professionals complimented by 20 part-time, seasonal staff and more than 4,000 community volunteers. The festival has set the national standard for relevance in the live music industry through innovation and diversity. And, when it comes to artistic programming, it has established a track record that is second-to-none.
The 2019 edition of Bluesfest offers a wide variety of genres and a slew of amazing artists, such as Eric Church, Kane Brown, The Killers, Backstreet Boys, Alexisonfire, The Glorious Sons, Wu-Tang Clan, Elle King, Snoop Dogg, and more, performing on five stages. Festival goers will be treated to everything from iconic classic-rock favourites to today’s top trending acts, along with a wealth of world-class talent for what has become an Ottawa ‘institution.’
Since the beginning, staying relevant has been the secret to success for the festival. Consider the moniker—Bluesfest—a name, not a dictum. Indeed, blues music would figure prominently from the start and still does today. But, although a healthy number of blues fans could be counted on to attend, in order to sustain the event a broader appeal would be required. The initial idea was to cast a wide net, and that has been the template to this day, leading Bluesfest to become an internationally recognized music festival—a multi-genre outdoor celebration that welcomes music fans of all stripes.
This approach was evident in 1998 when organizers took what was then a considerable gamble, booking Ray Charles. It was an unequivocal success. Pushing the boundaries in 2000, the festival brought in Sting for a memorable performance that packed the park.
“What we’re most proud of is the fact that we’ve become a home-grown success,” says Mark Monahan, the festival’s executive and artistic director. Much of that success is based on community involvement, including Ottawa music fans, countless volunteers, local musicians, long-standing staff, contractors, suppliers and sponsors, who all come together year after year to stage this massive event.
“Clearly the music is front and centre,” adds Monahan, “but the festival’s popularity has a lot to do with bringing the community together for shared experiences, especially during our 25th anniversary celebration.”
With a view to constantly improve fan experience, the festival relocated several times before finding the ideal home at LeBreton Flats Park, in 2007. The opening act that year was Van Morrison, followed the next evening by Bob Dylan—and the programming has continued to feature some of the most relevant acts on the planet, ever since. But the innovative approach didn’t stop at programming and re-location. “We were building a loyal following and we were starting to feel a ‘buy in’ from the community and beyond; fans had a sense of pride in what we were doing, and this led to a lot of feedback as to how we could add to the experience,” says the festival’s executive director, Mark Monahan. “The new site and diverse programming were well-received, but we knew we could do more.”
So RBC Bluesfest created an ongoing nation-wide talent search for emerging female artists, called ‘SHE’S THE ONE’, which zeroes in on the best young (13-21 years of age), emerging female singers in Canada, seeking that ‘one special artist’ with an incredible voice backed up by a moving live performance.
Prior to ‘SHE’S THE ONE’, RBC Bluesfest launched the ‘Be in the Band’ initiative in January of 2009—an extension of their award-winning Blues in the Schools program, which began in 1999. ‘Be in the Band’ puts young musicians (ages 11 to 17) who want to be in a band together with other potential bandmates. The organization recruits a number of professional local musicians for mentoring the aspiring future stars and provides all the necessary tech support and equipment for the kids to truly enjoy a high-quality ensemble experience.
Bluesfest is a non-profit, charitable organization that is committed to significantly reducing the source of all on-site waste products and monitoring and improving the collection and management of these products. RBC Bluesfest organizers strongly encourage all suppliers, partners, and fans of the festival to follow their lead in this endeavour.
The RBC Bluesfest runs from July 4 to 14 at the LeBreton Flats Park in Ottawa, Ontario. If you haven’t already acquired your tickets for the RBC Ottawa Bluesfest—which has been selected by Spotlight on Business Magazine as the top music festival in Canada for two consecutive years—you can do so by visiting their website: www.ottawabluesfest.ca
by AJ Sauve