When the stage in Old Market Square was torn down and replaced by the Cube in 2010, the structure was met with mixed emotions. Its futuristic design, its odd and confusing functionality, and a remaining nostalgia for the former, more traditional stage seemed to be major concerns in some people’s minds.
Yet as both Nathan Zahn, director of Winnipeg’s MEME festival, and Adam Hannibal, one of three creative directors of the festival tell me, the Cube arrived at the perfect time to serve the perfect purpose: representing an emerging electronic music festival in its inaugural year. Hannibal cites its “striking, futuristic design” as a sort of metaphor for electronica, and that “it feels very Berlin, or London, because it’s so cutting edge.”
“We had no idea the cube was going to be built,” Zahn recounts. “Without exaggerating, I think we helped to justify that cube partly, because here was this group of young entrepreneur-type people coming out of nowhere to do an event that probably suits the cube better than any other festival . . . people came up to us and asked, ‘Did they build this cube just for MEME?’”
Both veterans to the Winnipeg scene, Adam explains that the electronic scene has truly evolved since both him and Zahn first got involved. “In the early to mid 90s, most of the parties were in underground spots like warehouses, and they were only known about through word of mouth and flyers because the Internet was barely around. It was more of a niche subculture – it wasn’t in clubs really. Little bit more risky, in places that didn’t have permits or weren’t necessarily safe but that was kind of part of the edge in that culture at the time. And then towards the late 90s it broke through into the clubs because a lot of warehouses were being shutdown, or fire marshals and inspectors were not letting these parties go on.” As it is now, the scene has “grown from an underground fringe scene into this beacon in the centre of Winnipeg that’s loud and clear and pretty obvious.”
MEME, the Manitoba Electronic Music Exhibition, is now entering its third year, after two greatly successful years that promoted the scene not only in Winnipeg, but also around the world. This year’s MEME festival is expanding, boasting shows at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Museum, select bars and clubs throughout the city, and of course the Cube. As Adam explains, the Museum and the Art Gallery will offer multiple flavours of electronic music with two rooms at the museum, “one focusing on what’s sort of popular right now, the bass music, drum and bass, dubstep style” and the other being more of a house and techno room. The WAG will host four different rooms: two for the house and techno scene, one being ambient and mellow, and the rooftop containing more of a reggae and funk vibe.
Expansion can also be measured in the new partnerships and sponsors who’ll be involved this year. Of their two dozen or so sponsors are some local favorites, such as Parlor Coffee and Half Pints, as well as internationally known brands, such as Absolut Vodka and Sony. “We’re not necessarily looking for sponsors just from the Exchange, but it’s certainly nice to include our neighbors . . . Sony is sponsoring us, which is really great because they make some of the software that people use to produce this music.” But the most exciting new sponsorship for this year is undeniably Red Bull. Working collaboratively with the “MEME team,” Red Bull allowed the organizers to handpick several of their artists to feature on the Sunday of the fest, offering four to five hours of entertainment.
“It’s totally authentic, and they pick great talent. They totally put authenticity and creativity first, and then they slap their name on it,” Zahn comments. One of the artists that the festival is proud to present courtesy of Red Bull is Pearson Sound. Described as straddling two sounds, one part popular dubstep and techno and the other classic house, Pearson is just one of the headliners for this year’s fest.
But more than just music, the festival also works to incorporate technology and innovation as key components of the experience. Multimedia Coordinator and VJ Tyrone Deise says that “the visuals have played a growing role.” Deise has helped to come up with a team of VJs who’ll coordinate live video performances for the Museum shows, as well as interactive installation pieces in the art gallery. Also contributing to this very visual aspect of the festival, this year’s opening night will offer a film screening of “Electronic Awakening” at Cinemateque, which explores physical, communal and even prophetic effects of electronic music.
All things considered, the festival is definitely redefining the major perceptions that most people might have about the genre, given its major commercial representation exemplified best in the aggressive bass-heavy party anthems of artists like Skrillex and Deadmau5.
“The scene is better than ever right now in North America, and on the one hand there’s a lot of commercial stuff . . . I have no problem with that, some of the music is obnoxious and over the top, but it’s fun if you don’t know too much about it,” Zahn justifies. One of last year’s headliners, Thomas Fehlmann, proved quite a surprising success. “I remember watching a lot of these people, who must have been under 25, dancing away to this guy who a lot of them had probably never heard of, and loving it. It was great, because it showed that as much as he is famous he’s not that popular, at least for that younger crowd.”
Even if you’ve never considered electronica as a relevant genre, chances are MEME can make you change your mind. “We’re definitely able to be the tastemakers and trendsetters here, and people are following us. We’ve got a really eclectic, artistic, amazing, sophisticated line-up and again, it’s not the most obvious stuff: it’s not the hits, it’s not the top 40 stuff in the electronic scene. Doesn’t matter, people trust us and they come anyways.”