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The man who made summer: Bluesfest's Mark Monahan

Before the famed music festival was launched in 1994, some might say there wasn't much to do in Ottawa, with many people spending time out of town camping at parks and cottages. 

Mark Monahan gave Ottawa a summer of its own when he created Bluesfest. 

Before the famed music festival was launched in 1994, some might say there wasn't much to do in Ottawa, with many people spending time out of town camping at parks and cottages. 

With Bluesfest, Monahan gave people a reason to stay in Ottawa for the summer while also putting the capital on the international rock star map. 

Twenty eight years later, and now in 2022, Monahan is the executive director of Ottawa Bluesfest, CityFolk and the Festival of Small Halls, while overseeing Festival House Hub for Canadian Festivals and the Bluesfest School of Music and Art. 

In 1989, Monahan, a Carleton University graduate and amateur musician was desperate to launch a career in the music business any way he could and started managing the Penguin Blues Club on Elgin Street. 

"I loved music and fancied the idea of working in the working business," Monahan recalled. "Everyone who gets into the restaurant business foolishly believes they'll succeed where everyone else failed. I know I did."

He was inexperienced and ambitious, but Monahan struggled to make the Penguin successful with live blues music. Around the same time, the Ottawa Jazz Festivals was proving to be popular with music lovers in Ottawa. 

"After several years of really struggling, I was fascinated at how the Ottawa Jazz Festival brought in more people over 10 days than we did in a year," he said. "I came up with the idea of partnering with a festival to present a couple of shows, got a taste for the business, and by 1994 with the help Ronnie Knowles who started the Rainow and Barrymores' Gord Rhodes, put together a festival of popular music, beginning with Randy Bachman and Clarence Clemons on Major's Hill Park. 

It was pretty clear that when his firs festival was coming to a close, Monahan was less interested in managing the Penguin. But he couldn't afford to quit until 1999 the year the festival almost went broke after a string of terrible weather and headliner Aretha Franklin's cancellation. 

Monahan renegotiated contracts with artists and suppliers and bought time. He was able to stretch the budget for the next year's festival in 2000 with Sting as the headliner. 

It was a risky move, given the cost of an superstar talent and the blowback from the dedicated Bluesfest subscribers who resented what they perceived as turning the blues festival into more of a generic rock show, selling out to the lowest common denominator. 

He never wanted to alienate his audience, but Monahan followed the money. Sting was the festival's biggest star for years, and a turning point. 

Mixing a variety of musical genres, from blues, soul and top 40 for the widest possible audience, Monahan found the secret formula that would make Bluesfest more popular than ever and gave him the reputation for being a savvy strategist and risk-taking artistic director. 

"It showed me we had the potential to book world-class talent and compete with any festival," he added. "The more money we'd spend on artists, the bigger the audiences, the more beer and merchandise we'd sell/ After Sting, I knew we were out of trouble and on our way to become what we are today."

Monahan remembered attending the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1997 and experienced a strange brew of different musical genres mixed together and how that diversity created the festival experience. 

"It showed me how eclectic a festival could be," said Monahan. "Ray Charles, Dave Matthews, the sky's the limit. It proved to me people's musical taste doesn't stem from one music genre alone. People don't learn from their successes, they learn from their failures. If you haven't failed, you think you're invincible which is dangerous. You take risks you wouldn't normally take, and when they fail, you don't know what to do."

It costs more than $20 million to present a few hundred musicians to play over 10 days. The vibe with music fans at LeBreton Flats, the current home of the festival for the past few years, may be euphoric, but Monahan won't rest east until the festival is said and done. 

"Every artistic director wants to think they know everything," he said. "It's hard to admit you don't. You have a lot of dreams but it's the actual execution and getting things done that's really challenging. There are many variables in this business, the weather, tour schedules, suppliers and facilities for 500,000 fans. Anything can go wrong. My job is to ensure that doesn't happen."





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