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Top stars, low cost - Quebec celebrates a festival model

© AFP / by Shaun TANDON | The crowd for Metallica's concert listen during the Quebec City Summer Festival, an 11-day event that this year celebrates its 50th anniversary

QUEBEC CITY (AFP) - 

The top names in music playing some of their careers' largest shows, with tickets selling for a sliver of the price they usually command...

Such is the unique model of Quebec City's summer festival, which turned 50 this year with a lineup teeming with A-list acts including metal greats Metallica, rock pioneers The Who, and Kendrick Lamar, one of the most acclaimed artists in hip-hop.

The golden anniversary comes as the live music industry sweeps the Western world, with millennial-generation fans flocking to festivals that keep growing in size and number -- despite some high-profile flops along the way.

Quebec City's festival owes its character to the special culture of the city, the cradle of French-speaking Canada where public funding contributes around 13 percent of the event's budget.

Tickets for the full 11-day event -- known in French as the Festival d'ete de Quebec -- start at $95 (US$75), less than some headliners charge for their own shows and far below entrance to major global festivals such as Coachella in California, where three-day tickets next year start at US$429.

The Quebec festival's advantage lies in size. Around 90,000 people can pack in before the main stage -- said to be North America's largest -- on the Plains of Abraham where British troops decisively defeated France in a 1759 battle.

Unlike most festivals, which rigorously check that fans keep on wristbands to prove they paid, the Quebec festival encourages buyers to share tickets. It sold out all 135,000 for the 50th anniversary edition.

"Even if we gave out all of the tickets for free, Quebec City is a market of 750,000 people so you need to find 100,000 people who want to see an artist," said Louis Bellavance, the festival's programming director.

"So we don't exactly have a risk of a riot," he said.

"It's pretty unique. This would be impossible in a market like Montreal, Paris, New York or L.A., where so much is going on at once."

- Biggest show for artists -

The gargantuan stage is a selling point for artists. Pop singer P!nk declared during her set that it was her career's largest crowd, a feat the festival believes is true for many acts.

Metallica seized on the open field for intense effects, with light-beams replicating helicopter air-strikes for the anti-war song "One" and red lasers soaring into the sky.

Metallica -- on a global tour for "Hardwired... to Self-Destruct," the group's first album in nearly a decade -- enjoys a fervent fan base in metal-loving Quebec, with perhaps a fifth of the audience sporting the band's T-shirts.

But when asking why some audience members had not yet seen the group, frontman James Hetfield nonetheless quipped: "Maybe you were just bored. We're kind of old now."

Even if the band members are in their 50s, they played for two and a half hours and closed with a thank-you video of fresh footage from the concert -- including a fan waving Quebec's flag with the Metallica album title "Kill 'Em All" scrawled on it.

- 'Backstreet Boys aren't going to play Coachella' -

With major promoters such as Live Nation and AEG fast expanding, the number of independent festivals is dwindling. Quebec remains one of the few non-profit festivals in North America, along with Summerfest in Milwaukee and the smaller Maha Music Festival in Omaha.

The Quebec festival estimates that slightly more than half of the audience comes from out of town, providing a significant economic boost.

But knowing that locals have few big concerts the rest of the year, the festival aims to run the gamut of tastes.

This year's attractions included the Backstreet Boys, the now grown-up teenybopper sensations of the 1990s, country chart-toppers Lady Antebellum and major French Canadian artists including Isabelle Boulay.

"The Backstreet Boys aren't going to play Coachella. But they'll play here and that's great," Bellavance said.

"We're not a niche festival with a very narrow audience. It's not hipsters, it's not millennials; it's everything."

by Shaun TANDON

© 2017 AFP