Artistic Director Spotlight: Claude Cloutier

The TD Kitchener Blues Festival experienced what Executive Director Rob Deyman called “its most successful year yet” in August of 2013. Presenting top notch emerging and established acts from Canada and the US, it’s no surprise that audiences are coming from far and wide to experience what’s quickly becoming one of Canada’s favourite outdoor music festivals. We caught up with Artistic Director Claude Cloutier to share with us some of his secrets to success.

Congratulations on recording your biggest numbers yet at the 2013 Festival. The Festival has been around for 13 years now, how do you manage to keep the festival fresh and growing year over year? 

This is going into my eighth year with the festival and every year has been a real treat programming wise. I can certainly attribute the success over the years to the dedication of our organizing board and volunteers. Our success would not have been possible as well without the support of our granting groups and sponsors who step up to the plate each year and invest in our festival to keep it a free admission event.

I would be the first one to admit that I have a propensity to not repeat artists year after year. I do bring back some but by and large I like the freshness of the festival year after year. I am not really caught up in the notion that the TD Kitchener Blues Festival remains a pure Blues based festival. In fact, very few “Blues” Festivals throughout the world follow this mandate. I am quite aware that the Waterloo region and beyond is blessed with an incredible amount of talent so it makes it easy for me to showcase these bands on a yearly basis. This will always be a given at the festival. It’s important to have a well balanced mix of [genres] I believe to appeal to the varying demographics. I’m really like a kid in a candy store when programming this festival.

Last year you introduced a number of younger acts meant to attract the 20 something demographic such as Great Lake Swimmers. How did that work out? Did you see any major shift in your audience demographic?

My focus is to keep the festival fresh and interesting to as many people as possible without really going outside of the Blues box too much. But I have been pushing that envelope. I find it rewarding to see such a wide demographic at our festival. I think our audience really does have a broad knowledge of music. We certainly have developed a reputation over the years of presenting a quality artistic program. Even though there are recognizable artists at the festival, it’s also the ones that you don’t know that you should check out as they will be your surprise. Generally speaking, I think that people, young and old love music and I believe that they will continue to come out as long as the quality remains high.

Tell us about your role in the festival and your process for choosing who to present.  Do you make the artist selections yourself or do you work with a committee?  Do you travel to other festivals to see what’s hot?

I do like to take suggestions from other committee members and I also count on people giving me suggestions year round. I ultimately make the decisions myself but I need to be engaged in what is out there. I am very fortunate to be on the nominating panel for Canada’s Blues Awards- The Maple Blue Awards. I dedicate a lot of time listening to the great Canadian talent that we have and also read monthly Blues publications. I do check out other Blues Festivals in an effort to find that one great live performance.  I have such a love of music in general, not just Blues but Roots/R&B/Bluegrass/Country/Punk/Alternative/Soul/Rock/Celtic /Folk. The list goes on and on and I dedicate a lot of time listening to all of it. Perhaps this gives me a unique perspective in programming the Kitchener Blues Festival. I don’t know.

What role do you play in young artist development as the director of Blues Fest?  Have you seen any local acts grow with you? 

Well, I would like to think that I do. Aside from my role as Artistic Director of the TD Kitchener Blues Festival, I am also very proud of my association with The Grand River Blues Society. In my 10 years with this organization, we have hosted youth friendly jams and we also have been running a Youth Blues Camp the week of the KBF. We get 40 plus campers every year learning Blues based music to finally perform on stage at the Kitchener Blues Festival. Many of our campers have gone on to teach this program such as Matt Weidinger and Colin White. The KBF also hosts an annual Youth Legacy Challenge in April for Youth 21 and under. The winner of this challenge gets to open up the Main Stage at The Festival on Saturday. The TD Kitchener Blues Festival also conducts Blues in The Schools programs yearly. I am very proud of the efforts we have put into educating and fostering our young musicians to keep it up and develop their talent.

What impact has the festival had on the local Blues scene?

I think that the festival has had a tremendous impact on the local Blues scene. As I mentioned before, with all of the activities that the festival and the GRBS have done over the years in fostering Blues music with the youth in our community, our musical richness can only improve. It does not matter that you play Blues, as long as you pick up an instrument and play, we can only grow richer culturally in our community.

Toronto’s Scene Magazine ranked the TD Kitchener Blues Festival in the top ten best festivals in Canada with an overall experience rating of 9 last year.  Did you imagine the festival would take off the way it has and extend its reach so far outside Waterloo Region?

We have been programming some great Blues talent over the years and this has paid off as we have many visitors from across Canada and the US visiting our festival yearly.  I think we do well in our programming to appeal to a variety of people and ages.

What’s the mix going to look like for 2014? Can you give us any hints on who to expect or is that all under wraps until the April 4 festival launch party?

The festival offers a different flavour every year and attempts to remain fresh.  We have our announce date on April 4, 2014 so really can’t divulge too much so that we can have a surprise that evening.  I can say that that if you love Blues, Rock, Roots, Cajun, Folk, Soul then you will like the festival in 2014.

What’s the next step for the festival?

Well, it is a monumental task in providing this free admission festival on a yearly basis. Getting to the point of being financially sustainable is our focus right now. We need the support of corporate sponsors and granting organizations to help us keep this event a free admission event. For the last 4 years, we have been hosting a Thursday Night admission show to help us raise money. And last year, we hosted a Sunday night closing show for a fundraiser as well.  The group of people putting this great festival is working really hard all year. They are a dedicated and knowledgeable group and I can assure you that the music will always be top notch. We hope that the community and our corporate sponsors will continue to support us moving forward.