The large-scale, big-tent festival is becoming the preferred domain for some sectors of dance music in North America. It’s easy to see the appeal—huge crowds, huger production values and all-ages access that night clubs just can’t offer.
But with a bigger show comes bigger responsibilities. Most promoters know their way around a club inside out. They know what they need, what kind of people will show up, and what to expect. A stadium is a different story. No one knows this better than Blueprint director Alvaro Prol, who’s been throwing parties in Vancouver for over over 15 years, and at arenas for the last four. Now he’s gearing up for the second annual Contact Festival, an unprecedented two-day gathering in Vancouver’s Olympic stadium, BC Place. And, as he’ll tell you, it’s a far more monumental occasion than your average EDM festival—for Blueprint, for Vancouver, and for its rather sizeable audience.
This year, in partnership with Live Nation, Contact expands to two days, with a jam-packed lineup meant to ensnare the dance music dilettantes, mainstream devotees and underground heads alike. With the formidable double header of Skrillex & Kaskade, college-kid favourites like Baauer and RL Grime, and up-and-coming artists such as Cashmere Cat, this year’s edition is a genre-busting affair that belies its obvious mainstream appeal.
Landing a venue like BC Place is the culmination of years of slow-but-steady work. Blueprint first started dabbling in arena-sized events with Deadmau5’s 2009 appearance at UBC’s Thunderbird Arena, which Alvaro is quick to point out was the house megastar’s first-ever solo headlining gig at a stadium. The show began in the early evening and ended before midnight, a deliberate attempt to frame the event like a concert rather than a club night (which has been a key dimension of Blueprint’s successful approach to big-time raves). By the time they had Calvin Harris and Steve Aoki at the PNE Forum the next year, the parties had become all-ages, and they would go on to happen at the Malkin Bowl, Pacific Coliseum, even the Vancouver Convention Centre. But Alvaro wanted to go even bigger.
The idea to take over BC Place was first floated when the Olympics descended on Vancouver in 2010. At the time, the city was frantically building new venues and upgrading existing ones, with the most infamous makeover taking place at the aging stadium. Blueprint’s initial attempt was to bring Skrillex’s Full Flex Express tour there in 2012, and it was all but confirmed—until the proposed date conflicted with the stadium’s soccer schedule. It takes days to cover over the field, and as a venue home to both football and soccer teams, sports are its priority.
Alvaro chose Boxing Day for his next try—it seemed like a time when no one else would plan a major event. It looks like a risky decision at first—throwing a festival when people are on vacation, tired from the rush of the holidays, or just broke. But it made perfect sense to Blueprint. Not only was the day a uniquely Canadian thing in North America (Boxing Day has never been a big deal in the US), but it wasn’t a common time for artists to be touring either. During the usually dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, Vancouver theoretically had the dance music world at its fingertips. “I thought maybe we could make this a night where Vancouver becomes something,” Alvaro tells me.
Bringing Deadmau5 back into the fold—strong relationships with artists is another core tenet of Blueprint’s business philosophy—Contact took BC Place by storm on Boxing Day 2012 with the biggest rave Vancouver, or Western Canada for that matter, had ever seen. It didn’t quite sell out, but there you had it: almost 12,000 people, from kids who were still green around the gills to well-seasoned ravers all experiencing a level of production inside an Olympic Stadium that would wipe the floor with any nightclub. And for Alvaro, ever the ambitious entrepreneur, it was only the beginning.
“I just felt like it had to grow,” he says. “I know we called it a festival on day one because I knew I wanted it to grow beyond one day. It was time for Vancouver to have a real two-day event like this.”
The original plan for the second year was to add a second, underground stage to the show, but logistics got the best of them. The hunger to pack more artists into the show isn’t purely out of name-power, however, but rather a desire to open up the ears of partygoers. “Everybody who works at Blueprint is a music lover,” Alvaro explains, “really, it’s the cornerstone of our company. I want to expose other things that we like to Skrillex fans, or expose a Kaskade fan to a deep house act that we love.” It’s a policy that the company has become more interested in in recent years, throwing smaller-scale events geared more towards adventurous talent than money-making alongside their typical mainstream blowouts.
Hearing Alvaro talk about it, programming lineups seems like a bit of a dark art. It’s a tricky balancing act only exacerbated by the sheer gravitas of a venue like BC Place. “You gotta start from the top,” he says. “You want to tell a story. You gotta have somebody that headlines that wasn’t just here… it has to be unique. The reason why we went with Skrillex this year is that he hasn’t played anywhere. He’s been playing as Dog Blood [with Boys Noize] all year. We attacked him first and sold him on the dream—he knew the venue and loved it. Once we got him to buy in on that, we started looking for things below him, to complement him.”
Booking the festival was a long, drawn-out process of consulting with Skrillex and crew to make sure they were happy with the supporting lineup. And that’s just for day one of two. “The next day, we wanted to give someone a total 180. We knew we were going to book a super housey guy,” Alvaro says of the next night’s headliner, Kaskade. Though it skews towards mass appeal, it’s a remarkably diverse lineup for such a massive undertaking. Alvaro is confident enough in the Blueprint brand’s built-in trust that they can pull it all off.
“Programming the right acts for somewhat the right price, giving people value—these are super important things because you don’t want to price-out people when you’re dealing with a high volume of people.”
All told, the booking process took nine months to firm everything up. “People would not understand how much back and forth there is in these events,” Alvaro says with a hint of incredulity. “It was a hard nine months… but once it’s all over, and you’re there, I’m happy.”
Securing the lineup isn’t the only thing that takes months—throwing a show of this magnitude is a Herculean effort in nearly every aspect. The city’s involved, the police are involved, and everything has to be meticulously planned out, even down to the the way artists and staff are allowed to move in and out of the venue. You’ve got to think about medical staff, a large security contingent, keeping the performers happy and making sure everything is running smooth logistically. “It’s a lot of moving pieces,” Alvaro admits.
Even simple decisions have big repercussions. Holding a 19+ event at a normally all-ages venue requires a formidable amount of coordination and red tape—the time it takes to ID people at a stadium show can suck hours of a night in itself. But for Alvaro, the decision to go with all-ages isn’t only a matter of pragmatism, but idealism: he cherishes the idea that everyone could be welcome to an event like Contact. “A 12 year-old can come with his mom and he loves it,” he says, glowing. “There are a bunch of stories from last year. If kids come with their parents and have a great time, and then the 38 year-old guy is there with his girlfriend in the VIP having a good time. I’m happy.”
The core theme that emerges from talking about Contact is inclusivity—the name purposefully hints at connection and closeness—and Alvaro seems intent on dissolving a longtime divide between dance music and its younger fans, who can’t get into the nightclubs where it otherwise lives and thrives. “I know some people wouldn’t want everything to be this way,” he admits, “but we want to expose people to my artists as much as we possibly can. If you go see Kanye, or Jay-Z, or Celine Dion, you don’t have to be 19. You don’t have to be 19 to like them. So why should dance music be different? Why should we come in on this venue and make it 19-plus, because we have Skrillex and his music is different? We don’t see it that way. It shouldn’t be about age. It should be about fans.”
Contact is well on its way to selling out, already outperforming last year’s event in terms of sheer numbers. The hype around it this time is palpable, and Alvaro is confident they can achieve more of what he calls a “festival vibe” than last year. “Festival means a lot of people can be in the same place but they’re all having different experiences and perspectives and points of view,” he explains. “This year, we’re doing a better job because of the layout. As much as I want it to be about the acts, I also want it to be about the experience itself, about what being in a super high-tech building is like.”
The experience is what’s most important to Alvaro, and he’s engineering and tweaking it down to every last detail. This year, among other improvements, there will be seating—because not everyone wants to stand up for seven hours straight two nights in a row—and a more prominent placement for the stage, which will be built on-site in the centre of the venue, allowing them to allocate funds to even higher production values rather than spend money on moving a giant rig in and out of the venue.
Moving forward, Contact’s continued expansion won’t be about adding more days, Alvaro insists. He’s still gunning for that extra stage, maybe even an outdoor one, but the unique logistics are as much a barrier as they are a boon, one which the crew are still learning their way around. “This year, we’re going to learn a lot and next year we’re going to grow it again,” he says. “When there’s a big touring act, I want them to play Contact because that’s the big property in Vancouver. I want people from other places in the world travel to Contact as the Vancouver festival. People come here, spend a couple days and go skiing and go for dinner and have it as part of their Vancouver experience.”
Alvaro is insistent that Contact is a uniquely Vancouver institution in itself. “I think dance music in Vancouver was always somewhat healthy, it’s grown a lot with the music,” he says. “And I think we were able to grow it and Blueprint was able to be a key part and push the envelope, and people support us because of that. I think Vancouver’s ready for more but we also want to continue to diversify. We don’t want to just be like—and this is a word we never use—EDM. That’s not a word in our vocabulary because it never existed until some corporate guy named it.”
Contact takes a lot of elaborate planning for a company whose primary business takes place in bars and nightclubs, but for Alvaro, these large-scale events are key to Blueprint’s future. “Obviously I love clubs, you know, that’s the majority of our shows. You can only do so many stadium shows in a city like Vancouver. The intimate stuff of a club is amazing, but being in a stadium, with the energy and volume of people and the production and the things we’re able to do in there is just… fun,” he says. “As a promoter and someone who’s been doing events as long as I have, it’s exciting to see a [huge] mass of people while knowing that I started with little warehouse afterparties.”
Has it been easy breaking into that market? “No. Very difficult,” he says with a laugh. “The difficult thing is being an independent promoter when you’re dealing with these venues, obviously, and saying ‘Hey, man, we can do this,’ that we can actually go in a stadium and actually do it. And it’s not easy, and it’s expensive… a lot of meetings and a lot of pushing on our side just to get in there. We proved that we could do it and do it well.”
by Andrew Ryce