By name alone, Igloofest seems like a bad idea. A music festival in the freezing cold? No thanks, we already live in Boston. But peek inside its icy walls and you realize not only is it worth the trip, but it’s the best outdoor festival you’ll go to all winter.
The appeal of 12 of the coldest nights in Canada’s winter is the atmosphere, a festival that prioritizes music as an experience, not music as a sound. It’s a festival where 70,000 people head to a pier in the old port of Montreal to dance to the tune of the world’s best DJs without some creep in the club groping them. The festival pairs local rappers like Da-P and Planet Giza alongside electronic giants like Laurent Garnier and Claptone. And that’s just one weekend. The four-weekend, outdoor, electronic music festival uses the month of January to give locals and travelers a chance to fall in love with the city. Because it’s three or so acts a night, there’s no time for tiredness or sore feet. Just the feeling of freedom-at-a-festival that many people believe festivals are beginning to lose in today’s oversaturated festival climate.
The music is a visual experience, but the festival grounds are an experience that can’t be visualized. Igloos line the entrance, each with a creative experience inside of them. Voguing penguins perch on a three-story sign built out of inflatable ice cubes. People line up to play a videogame where they throw snowballs at the screen to knock digital cans down. A man with a GoPro strapped to his snowboarding helmet buys shots of Jagermeister for an older couple, neither of whom peel their ’80s winter gloves off to toss back the alcohol. Two yetis in ski goggles run around the festival grounds, posing with festivalgoers and dancing spontaneously, somehow less ridiculous looking than those who came dressed as space aliens because, each weekend, the festival picks a theme for their highly anticipated costume contest. It’s a carnival set in winter, and not a single person is without a smile—and yet, unlike most electronic festivals, no one is absurdly drunk either.
Every aspect of Igloofest seems too good to be true. No doubt the best part of that, however, is the actual lineup. It’s no secret that music festivals struggle to accurately represent diversity within the industry. Electronic music in particular fails to highlight people of color or women. Marie-Laure Saidani, the festival’s programmer, tries to change that pattern.
“The most important thing for me, especially the last four or five years, is to have the most female DJs as possible. There’s a serious problem in the scene. For the last three years, we’ve had 35 percent female DJs, but I want to do the flip. I really want to,” she says. “I need to separate styles, too. UK house today. Dubstep, house techno, or trip-hop tomorrow. Igloofest is a winter festival, after all, so it’s dance or die. Like every electronic festival has the same lineup, but the thing here is that it’s an event—it’s sometimes the same lineup but not the same experience. There aren’t five stages for 10 hours. It’s handpicked artists for a few hours each night for several weekends. That gives these people a bigger spotlight, including these women.”
One of this year’s new faces is Los Angeles house artist Lauren Lane. After her set, she sat down backstage and immediately a grin spread across her face. “I expected it to be more rural, like I’d be in an actual igloo and it’s dripping, but it was an amazing experience,” she says, unzipping a poofy orange coat. “Because it’s over four weeks and they showcase different artists each week, it’s not a massive fest where you have to get all your music in. It’s focused, so the people who are here want to hear me. It’s an audience of fans. It’s rare for electronic artists to come to a place like Montreal for the first time and so many people show up—like, in sub-zero temperature!—to see me play.”
All of this is at nighttime. During the day, the city of Montreal is your playground, and there are too many toys to know where to stop. Visit Le Plateau-Mont-Royal for comic book-filled bookstores, the best bagel in town, and a handful of record stores that lure you in with stacks of rare gems. Visit the Italian district for Marché Jean-Talon, the largest farmer’s market you’ve ever seen, and the drool-worthy cheese shop next door, La Fromagerie Hamel, which hands out samples like pennies.
By the time you return to the festival grounds, you’re revitalized and ready to dance beneath the stars while snow falls gently around you, a cup of mulled wine in hand. “You’re in the fucking heart of Montreal, and it’s freezing, and it’s snowing, and everyone is going crazy. This atmosphere, it’s not comparable,” says Bristol beat-maker Eats Everything. “Truncate told me how wicked it was that he had to keep his beer in the fridge to keep it from freezing. J.Phlip told me the same thing. Every DJ says it’s amazing, but they all play a different genre. If that many DJs with different styles have fun, then you know it’s real.”
Next winter, reconsider your weekend getaway trip. You could stay in a cabin under a blanket the way you would at home, or you could take a short drive (or flight!) to Montreal, eat waffles and poutine, and dance with a bunch of snowsuit-wearing locals while DJs sample everything from Depeche Mode to Ciara mid-house beat. See? You made your decision before we even finished the sentence.
Oh, and don’t worry about bringing a hat. You’ll want one of the tacky yet charming Igloofest hats that people wear like badges of honor, locally knit pom-pom and all.
Igloofest occurs every January in Montreal, Quebec. Tickets go on sale around Thanksgiving time. More info at igloofest.ca.