January is the longest, darkest, coldest month and a notoriously blue time – especially for the music industry.
Summer is packed with festivals, fall and spring are for touring, but winter has traditionally been a dry spell for artists and venues alike. While larger centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal can still draw big touring acts, it’s tough for cities like Saskatoon to compete.
It was there, in the Paris of the Prairies, that Winterruption began in 2016 as a response to those challenges. Since then, the arts festival has evolved into a cross-prairie collaboration. And, after several years of pandemic-related problems, the 2023 festival is slated to be the biggest one yet.
Organizers in eight cities including Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg, have teamed up to give prairie-dwellers a reason to leave their homes in the dog days of winter. Some of them have never met in person, but they call themselves the Winterruption Prairie Network.
Winterruption founder Kirby Wirchenko borrowed the name from an event he saw advertised during a 2013 visit to Vancouver. He loved the concept, but felt it was wasted on the West Coast’s relatively mild winters. “I thought, ‘what a great name,’ it just needed to be in the right spot,” he says.
Three years later, that spot would initially be Saskatoon’s Broadway Theatre, a non-profit 430-seat venue in an old art-deco building where Wirchenko worked as executive and artistic director at the time. After years of discussions, he convinced the Regina Folk Festival to partner with him, and with seven shows in three venues, the first prairie Winterruption was on.
The festival grew over the years, and as a self-described “communist by nature,” Wirchenko began reaching out to his contacts in other cities with the offer to work together. Edmonton and Winnipeg held their first Winterruption festivals in 2020, not even two months before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the music industry to a standstill.
The benefits of collaborating are multifold. Prairie cities are farther apart than more population dense centres, and riskier for artists to tour. Winterruption helps temper that risk by guaranteeing performers a string of dates and arranging travel between stops, making prairie stops more appealing in the dead of winter.
“It’s just a lot easier when there’s more people at the table to be able to put in offers on artists and get them to come up to the frozen tundra for two or three days,” says Aryn Otterbein, who took the reins from Wirchenko as interim executive director of the Broadway Theatre.
Most of the co-ordinating is done on chat app Slack, where organizers weigh in on which acts make the most sense for their markets. Each region’s needs are different and the lineup reflects that, changing from city to city. Although music comprises most of the bill, there’s something for everyone, including drag, comedy and outdoor events.
Rock trio Motherhood will play shows in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton for the winter festival. Based in Fredericton, band member Penny Stevens says cross-Canada tours are no small undertaking, but the Winterruption model makes things more financially feasible. “It’s a really nice concept to see cities that aren’t even in the same province but just working together,” she says. “It makes so much sense.”
Local acts within each Winterruption city also benefit. This year, for the first time, the collective centralized their call for artists through one application portal. More than 600 acts applied. Organizers pitched their favourite local up-and-comers for consideration in other provinces, and paired them up with larger acts to fill out bills.
The pandemic’s impacts are still fresh for venues, and even more so for small independent ones. Winterruption Edmonton producer Brent Oliver says tickets aren’t selling as quickly as they did in the past. So, the festival is also a business support in a typically quiet month. “Everybody’s kind of biting their fingernails all the way down to the bone until mid-February when things pick up again,” he says. “This is a nice little anchor.”
The story is similar in Saskatoon where Otterbein says the Broadway Theatre is in “a rebuilding year.” Because of that, they’ve had to make some tough choices with programming. “We had to make a lot more conservative decisions,” she says. “We couldn’t take the same risks that we normally would.” But co-operative programming with her counterparts across the Prairies has given her more freedom in booking the talent she wants her community to experience.
For example, Congolese-Canadian musician Pierre Kwenders will kick off his 19-show U.S. and Canada tour with performances at Winterruptions in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina. It will be the Montrealer’s first time touring the Prairies, and first tour supporting his 2022 Polaris-prize winning album, José Louis and the Paradox Of Love. After years of pandemic uncertainty, it’s not an opportunity he takes for granted. “I’ve toured Quebec a lot, but … I feel like this is the moment for me to discover Canada even more,” he says.
As for the below-zero temperatures, Kwenders isn’t worried. “My music is very joyful – it will definitely bring the heat.”