Words: Justin Schafer / Photos: Janine Kropla

Sitting in a wood-panel attic in the heart of Wolseley, we talked over the crisp crackles of fire burning from a stove.  Four friends: Stefan Braun, David Schellenberg, Lauren Swan, and Aaron Johnston explained to me how they have reclaimed a set of frigid, forgotten winter days and turned them into something to look forward to. This coming Wednesday through Sunday downtown Winnipeg will be warmed by the sultry sounds of the third annual Big Fun Festival.        

For this group of friends Big Fun has been a learning experience that has not only shown what they can accomplish together but has revealed to them the true character of Winnipeg as a community.  The support they have received from Winnipeg businesses, bands, and show goers, has directly impacted the continued success of this budding music festival.  From learning the ropes, to cheeseburger fights, to securing this years performance by Polaris Music Prize shortlister METZ, this is the story of the three years of hard work behind this winters Big Fun Festival.

Muddy Water: Let’s start with introductions; how do you each contribute to making Big Fun?

Stefan: I’m one of the artistic directors.

Lauren: I’m the director of marketing.

David: I’m also the artistic director.

Aaron: I’m the volunteer coordinator and problem solver [laughs].

L: And media guru guy.

S: Internet database.

L: Video god.

D: IT and everything in between.

A: [Laughs] Yes, production manager. Also, we are missing our technical director Matt Mayor. He couldn't be here today. 

MW: The story of Big Fun is similar to most start-ups: there was some food, there was some talking and there was an idea. What was that idea? 

S: I never thought it would be this big, but the idea when it first started was supposed to be getting together a bunch of my friends’ bands over a weekend [at] two or three venues. Then I told it to Lauren and she had just finished school and wanted a project and basically convinced me that we could actually do it.

L: I said, “Let’s give it a shot; what’s the worst that can happen?”

S: And then we kind of assembled this crack team of individuals, and it worked out.

L: Surprisingly [laughs].

A: Yeah, in the start the first kind of discussions we had were: OK, we want to put on a multi-day, multi-genre festival with shows happening at the same time. Those were the three main points.

S: In the winter.

L: And mostly local content.

A: It was basically whatever content we could viably achieve, which was local content - our friends. It was all about asking for favours to make a fun thing to do. And it quickly kind of escalated. Even in its first year it grew larger than we thought it was going to be because people were willing to help us out. It grew because the community of Winnipeg wanted to have this exist.

MW: Can you dive into that a bit more? How did that idea go from a breakfast table conversation in the fall of 2011 to the first annual Big Fun Festival in January 2012?

S: Well, I remember the day we finished breakfast, I rode my bike to where everybody was working and I brought up the idea and they were interested. Then for next couple weeks every show I went to, I’d go up to the band after and say, “Hey, can you play this festival that we’re starting?” and people were like, “Yup, sure - that sounds cool. When you actually have a real idea talk to me later.” And it was very much so everybody was flying by the seat of their pants and everyone I talked to said, “Yeah,” and I said, “OK,” and then we got to this point where we had spoken to all these people but we actually had to make this happen. I think we started planning in the beginning of September.

L: That was the first meeting.

A: A big factor of getting this off the ground was Eryn Maloney, who is not with us anymore. He’s not dead! [Laughs]. He moved to Toronto. He was the volunteer coordinator at the West End Cultural Centre. He gave us a lot of advice from a very business-minded background. From small talks with him he made it apparent that to get funding, we should always be paying our bands. So even from the first festival we made it a priority to pay every band.

D: He taught us professionalism. He gave us a drop-dead date, [which means] this needs to be done by this date, or this will not happen.  

A: Yeah, there were real deadlines. Since it was such a short time from August to January, in that first year there was an element of professionalism that had to be there from the very start. That work ethic is something that has helped us with sponsors. The sponsors see this group of committed individuals who are trying to create a music festival. They see that and take us seriously and are willing to work with us.

L: Yeah, the sponsors have been great and continually supportive of us.

S: Manitoba Music has been great too.  

D: Yeah, we’ve learned a lot through attending their workshops.

A: They’ve been a huge help to us. They’ve set up meetings for us with other festival representative - the Sled Island Music Festival and the Halifax Pop Explosion. In those conversations one common question was, “How big do we want to make it?” or “How big do we want it to be?” 

MW: Do you have an answer for that?

S: As big as it goes.

D: It has exceeded all of our expectations.

S: The way we’ve approached this third year of the festival has a lot to do with meeting with the director of the Halifax Pop Explosion in our first year. She said, “What you guys are doing is great, but what you have can grow. Stay the same and build it again next year, but don’t go too much bigger, but in your third year blow up.”

D: I believe the exact quote was, “Go for broke.” 

S: Yeah, she said, “Go for broke - put all your eggs in one basket.” Now we’re in our third year and that’s what we are trying to do.


MW: Indeed, this year you have brought in more touring acts including Polaris Music Prize nominees METZ and quirky folk veteran B.A. Johnston. Not to mention a rare hometown performance from the revered Venetian Snares. Can you talk about the work it took to compile a roster like this? 

D: Well, to get METZ, it took consistent emailing since June - hundreds of emails. But the work I put in is well worth it. METZ is one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen and I wanted to bring that back to Winnipeg.

A: We are pretty proud to have bands like them on our bill this year. METZ is the kind of band that could be a headliner at any festival in the country.  

S: For the Venetian Snares show we actually teamed up with Pop Nuit to make that one happen. That partnership in itself is another great example of the Winnipeg scene. When Pop Nuit and the New Music Festival started last year we thought, “Oh no - we’ve got a festival to compete with that is around the same time frame and has about the same audience.” They probably could have just blown us out of the water and become the Winnipeg festival in January, but instead Matt Shellenberg asked if we wanted to team up, and we couldn’t be happier with the situation.

MW: How did you choose your smaller, local bands?

S: We received about 300 submissions. David and I listen to each one. We make a shortlist and then decide who will fit best together on a bill.

D: This year I was on tour for a lot of the process, so Stefan would send me a band, I’d listen to it on my phone and call him from some gas station in the States and give him the yes or no.

MW: Besides booking bands and venues, what else has to happen behind the scenes to make Big Fun possible?

A: Well a lot of work goes into the Big Fun videos. We have to organize a video crew and rent equipment, secure a location, et cetera. Then a lot of time goes into editing those videos and posting them to the website.

L: There is also quite a bit of thought put into our marketing strategy - figuring out the right timelines to release promotional material. For example, we started with a soft launch of posters with just our logo and the festival dates in November. Then we did a second run of posters a few weeks later that included bigger individual shows like the Pop Nuit and METZ show, and we’ll have a third wave coming out shortly that includes all the bands.

A: The really hard work is putting the posters up. It’s us out there taping paper to poles in -40 degrees.

MW: Have there been any major challenges you've encountered or has it always been smooth sailing?

L: It has been pretty smooth. When I first starting walking into businesses with proposals for sponsorships in the first year and being like, “Hey, you don’t know me, but this is a music festival that we are putting together, would you be interested in being involved?” I really didn’t expect to hear the word yes. But more often than not, yes was the response I got. The support from Winnipeg as a whole has been overwhelming.

D: We had some minor things in the first year - bands dropping out, venue changes. 

S: Yeah, we actually received a message from the city telling us that a couple of places we had booked to be venues were not up to code for public events and we couldn’t use those locations. That was a couple weeks before the show. Luckily other venues we had secured for other shows let us double up our bookings. 

MW: What are your favourite moments and memories from the past years of Big Fun?

L: We had this after party in first year with Pip Skid and Tim Hoover. The place was sold out - just packed; everyone was dancing, and at one point Tim Hoover was rapping lying on the floor with his pants down. Then, all of a sudden, Tim pulls out this giant bag of cheeseburgers and starts throwing them at people. It was pretty hilarious.

S: My favourite memory was last year on the Saturday night. We had a show on at Gio’s and a show at the Windsor. I left a packed house at the Windsor, and walked over to Gio’s and it was full, too, like another 300 people, and it was just this surreal moment that we did it. We had successfully pulled off a multi-show night. The best part is we had staggered set times so as a band was ending at the Windsor, one was starting at Gio’s and vice versa. As I would be leaving from one venue to the next to see another band I would see people I recognized from either venue doing the same thing, which is exactly what we wanted.  

MW: What does the future hold for Big Fun?

L: We can’t even start to think about that, this festival starts in a couple weeks and I don’t think anyone has thought past that point.  

S: Yeah, it’s hard to say at this point, but we just want the festival to grow and become a great thing for the city. We want to continue to build on the partnerships we have made with our sponsors and other organizations involved. I would love to incorporate art and film. I have this dream of it becoming something like Pop Montreal, where for this one week in January, all of Winnipeg comes together for a celebration of the arts.


Let the Big Fun begin.

Wednesday, Jan. 22 to Sunday, Jan. 26.