Haben Tekie

Behind the pandemic : Navigating a new way of experiencing music

POP Montreal’s Haben Tekie on mounting the festival this fall, just before the red-zone clampdown.

When COVID-19 started becoming an issue, Haben Tekie was in the midst of hosting the Listening Sessions for the 2020 edition of POP Montreal. When confinement started, the weekly sessions had already stopped for a week and she and her team weren’t concerned about the festival.

“When we did the switch online, we didn’t think it would impact us until September, but then it did!”

It was quite the journey for Tekie, who works as the artist relations and ticketing director at POP Montreal, and her teammates. As the music industry started to crumble and major festivals cancelled their 2020 editions, the uncertainty creeped up to the local music scene. Nonetheless, the 19th edition of the established festival still happened — barely.

“That was a Saved by the Bell moment right there. But this whole edition (from Sept. 23 to 27) came through with a lot of love, a lot of purpose and a lot of hard work.”

Distancing at POP Montreal 2020. Photo by Cindy Lopez

A week later after the festival, the government decided to close down venues again, making this whole edition of POP Montreal nothing short of a miracle. Montrealers were lucky enough to be able to attend live shows this year in an intimate setting, all because of Tekie and her team’s continuous work. She recalls there was never a moment when they doubted it would happen.

“Obviously we didn’t know what was going to happen. That’s why we kind of had a hybrid edition, and a Plan B if we couldn’t have in-person gatherings. There was never a moment that was just like, ‘That’s not happening.’ It was just, ‘How is it going to happen?’ The creative director and the production team were just going from one backyard to the next, just walking around, thinking of finding some private venues where we could have intimate shows. To see how the team rallied together and went like ‘the show must go on…safely!’ — it was amazing.”

This year, POP Montreal went the intimate route. The COVID-19 regulations made it harder for Tekie to book artists from across the continent, or even from across the country. As the months passed by, the prospect of having a normal edition seemed less and less possible, and so, she and her team turned to local artists in Montreal. Most of the in-person shows were from artists based in the city, except for Lido Pimienta, who lives in Toronto. Even if the edition wasn’t as grand as usual, the response from the community was still positive and, more importantly, supportive.

POP Montreal 2020
Beaver Sheppard plays the Rialto rooftop at POP Montreal 2020. Photo by Cindy Lopez

“That was one of the most heartwarming things. The support was just outpouring from the community — from artists to fans and supporters. It was kind of a shining light in what seemed uncertain and a little dark. The response was amazing. It was honestly quite touching,” she says, her eyes watering

Even if the response for POP Montreal’s 2020 festival was heartwarming, there is still a lot of unpredictability in the air. With a loss of revenue of at least 50% across the industry and the halt of all live shows, POP Montreal has turned to virtual shows and other initiatives to keep their community engaged like many of their counterparts. Tekie notes that this option is, as expected, not as popular as live shows, but she still expects it to stay for a while.

“I think virtual shows are here to stay but I don’t think that will be the strategy in the long-term. But we are going to have to get creative somehow, in some way. I think (virtual shows) were a good band-aid fix, but we’re definitely going to have to grow outside of that and tap into our creativity.”

POP Montreal 2020
La Fièvre play POP Montreal 2020. Photo by Cindy Lopez

That is how le Funhouse came into existence. First conceptualized as a live, in-person event, it became a way for the organization to experiment with virtual shows and how to keep the community together during these hard times. Even if the response was again very positive, Haben still expresses some reservations about virtual shows.

“Obviously, the sale from live to virtual is wildly different. It’s not as profitable, but it wasn’t our main concern. We are really doing it for the love of music, the love of the industry, and to keep hope alive. Because we are a not-for-profit, we had a little bit of leeway there to take the slash in ticket sales. We really worked more on purpose rather than focusing on the impact of what it was to lose those sales and not meet targets. Is this sustainable? I don’t know, but at this point, we’re just taking it day-by-day. Right now, what we really want is doing it for the love of music.”

As for artists, Tekie explains that she is noticing the challenge of keeping fans engaged throughout this whole ordeal.

“(The artists) have to find a way to connect with their audience without it being in an intimate setting, in a venue, because that’s normally the best connection that an artist has. When they’re on tour, they’re directly communicating with their fans and sharing the music together — that vibe, the energy in the room. COVID has definitely shifted things. It’s a challenge!”

POP Montreal 2020
The Rialto during POP Montreal 2020. Photo by Cindy Lopez

Tekie successfully managed to create, along with her team, an opportunity for artists to connect with their fans again through POP Montreal’s initiatives during COVID. She humbly minimizes her accomplishments throughout our talk and praises her team. She believes the Montreal music scene is strong and will get through this pandemic, without a doubt.

“There’s just something so genuine about the way Montreal relates to music and to culture. I just don’t believe the pandemic could knock that down. We show our love. We show our love in different ways. Having worked for the festival, I saw people giving us all that love and I felt it. I’m not worried about that at all.” ■

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.