Break North Festival 2012 – Opening Night Experience

Break North Festival Ottawa Elmdale Tavern
Independent music is something that is not easily grasped by the masses. I don’t mean to imply that there is anything categorically abstract about it that makes it less accessible to the general public. And I certainly wouldn’t group all indie music together into a genre per se (that is a huge pet peeve of mine), but I’ve always been intrigued by the way in which these bands approach the songwriting process and expose their work to the public. In many ways, there is a double-edged sword to becoming an indie artist. 
On the one hand, there is total artistic freedom with respect to style and composition. Artists have the ability to produce incredible music from their bedrooms, and build hype through music blogs or streaming sites without necessarily spending a dime on physical albums. Many bands create their own mega-specific genre of a sub-genre of a sub-sub genre…, which demonstrates creativity and musicianship in a way that is almost unheard of in the Top 40 world. This creates (in some, not all cases) niche audiences and devout fan bases that are sparse but committed. On the other hand, it is a barren desert of obscurity for most independent artists out there. Just because there is true passion and inspiration in music does not necessarily pave the way for success – it is a difficult process developing a fan base from an already miniscule percentage of the music-listening population. Most offer up their work free to stream and download on sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud, and allowing the listener to pay whatever price they are willing to fork out for the music. Plus, most venues for music exposure (such as festivals or radio stations where bands can market their sound) have an interest in showcasing artists who are already established. Getting gigs isn’t always easy for the lesser-known ones, and attracting new faces is even more challenging. For me, anyway, this is a big problem.
Enter the Break North Festival. It’s mission is to “showcase independent and emerging Canadian musicians over a four day run of concerts in the National Capital”. It’s purpose is simple – bringing local independent artists into an intimate setting in order to give them exposure as well as provide fans with an opportunity to experience new music in a way that won’t destroy your last paycheque. I spoke with organizer Mark Isbrandt about the purpose and motivation behind the four-day festival. He emphasized the point that there are not many ways for local, independent bands to show off their material to new audiences – a series of shows that bring people to experience new and different music can provide a way for artists to promote themselves and garner some more support.
There are many music festivals in Ottawa, and Mark didn’t shy away from acknowledging the fact that competition is stiff – especially in the summer. He pointed out that there is a lot of diversity in the music scene in the nation’s capital, and that having a variety of bands gives the festival an edge over some others. Hosting shows that aren’t genre-specific give the audience a chance to expand their horizons and get a good idea of what kind of local music is out there. With so many larger festivals such as Bluesfest and Folkfest, the intimate atmosphere at Elmdale Tavern and Rainbow Bistro is a refreshing change where musicians and fans can interact more easily.
Break North Festival Little Stella Ottawa Elmdale Tavern
Little Stella @ Break North Festival
I was able to make it out to the opening night of Break North at Elmdale Tavern on June 14th, and got to see things kick off first hand. Little Stella was the first band to play and their set was a strong start to the festival. Their Canadian folk/rock sound also earned them a spot at the Live 88.5 Big Money Shot competition this year, one they hope to advance through to the later rounds in the coming months. The band was happy to be playing the festival and seemed very comfortable on stage, with all members contributing to a great sounding set. It was nice to meet the guys and hear how excited they are to be playing in front of new people, as they were genuinely stoked to share some of their experiences as a young band and some of their future plans. Hear their EP Songs For Spain and catch them live at Feverfest next Saturday at the Clocktower Pub (Glebe) 9:30 PM.
The night continued with After Funk playing next, a group of young talented guys who made the long trip up from my hometown of London, Ontario. Lead singer Yanick Allwood wasted no time getting the crowd involved, and playing funk/soul music that even got the older bartender lady out dancing. Like me, I heard many people in the audience say how impressed they were with the set, which included a mix of originals and covers of Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson, amongst others.
Break North Festival The Ticket Ottawa Elmdale Tavern
The Ticket @ Break North Festival
Arms of the Girl played next and performed some of their folk-rock songs off their album Versions of Happiness. They didn’t hold back, as lead singer Carolyn Côté kept the energy going with good stage presence and strong vocals. I met them after the show and they were very down to earth, even nice enough to give me a sample of their music. Check them out June 28th at Zaphod’s with Bleeker Ridge. The Ticket closed things out with their original sound and style. Lead singer and guitarist Adam broke a couple strings on the first song, but avoided that brutally awkward pause while waiting for the other guitar by providing some impromptu banter. Throughout the rest of their set, Adam let the guitar do the talking and blew away the audience as both he and Jack (on drums) poured every inch of their soul into the set. I was also totally impressed with the sound at Elmdale too, getting it right in smaller venues is not a common occurrence. Props to sound guys, who don’t get enough credit.
Overall, the night proved to be a reminder of how important these lower-key festivals are for local independent artists. Having the opportunity to meet some of the artists and organizers involved reminded me that so much passion for music as an art form exists at the grassroots level, and that true music lovers have something to gain from being part of an intimate, small-venue festival such as Break North. Not only is it a great way to meet those involved, but fans also become part of the experience in a way that isn’t quite the same at larger shows. For me, the absence of anonymity was a very positive thing – it was as if you could feel everyone listening and have the bands feed off that connection. I hope Break North becomes a regular fixture amongst Ottawa’s festivals, because I think it is necessary to balance the emphasis of larger events with ones that are solely focused on the local. Supporting our independent artists is the only way to ensure Ottawa remains an artistic centre and an ever-growing source of new musical talent in Canada.