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- Posted on Jun 16th 2010 5:30PM by Jason MacNeil
Now in its 16th year, NXNE 2010 will tower over the festival's inaugural edition in 1995, which attracted 30,000 attendees, compared to last year's 250,000, while the number of bands has nearly tripled, from 250 to 650 (culled from 3,000 submissions).
The big names have also boomed, with this year's fest attracting the legendary likes of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, X, Mudhoney and De La Soul alongside hip indie acts ranging from the Raveonettes and Japandroids to Kid Sister.
The inspiration for NXNE was -- as one might infer -- Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest festival.
NXNE co-founder Michael Hollett, who had been attending SXSW for years, saw an opportunity to replicate its success up north. "I'm good friends with the people who started SXSW because they publish a paper like mine [Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine] called the Austin Chronicle," he tells Spinner. "We brought them up to see the Toronto scene and they agreed with us that the conditions really existed here to have this kind of similar event to South by Southwest.
"I thought it would be a modest little thing, and it's turned into a pretty successful idea that we had."
But going from the initial idea to staging the actual festival was challenging. NXNE's current managing director Andy McLean, who's been with the fest since its infancy, says a major hurdle was ensuring that Toronto venue owners got on board. "I remember basically ringing all of the major club owners up and inviting them to come down to the Ultrasound on Queen Street -- I think it's a hairdresser's shop now. But we got as many of them in the same room as possible and I did a little talk about what North by Northeast was going to be and the bands we were bringing to the clubs. These were guys who never sat down in the same room with each other before, but it was wonderful to see that."
The first festival launched in 1995 with Patti Smith delivering the keynote address while bands like the Pursuit of Happiness and Robert Earl Keen performed. Also performing that year was Nova Scotia band Sandbox, a group featuring Mike Smith, now best known as Bubbles in the cult TV comedy 'Trailer Park Boys.'
McLean says there was clearly a need for emerging artists to get a chance to be heard when they started NXNE, and that need remains today. "The fact we're still doing this and it's still growing, I wish I could put that down to amazing vision -- but I think it was a case of being in the right place at the right time."
For the first few years SXSW organizers flew in from Austin to ensure things ran smoothly at NXNE. There was a huge emphasis on making sure bands played exactly when and where they were supposed to, and for no more than 40 minutes.
"I have had to unplug people, 'You're done! You're done! You have to get off the stage!' There's no bumping further down the line," he says. "It also works for the bands because if you're getting someone from England coming to see you and they show up and the wrong band is playing your whole opportunity is missed. There's a commitment to the musicians, a commitment to the industry and a commitment to the audience."
Over the years, thousands of local, national and international acts have performed, ranging from then-unknowns like Feist, Peaches, Sum-41, Sarah Harmer, K'naan, Billy Talent and Kathleen Edwards to international buzz acts like the Duke Spirit, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sufjan Stevens and the Soundtrack of Our Lives to established Canadian stalwarts like Sloan, who have played the festival numerous times.
Sloan guitarist Jay Ferguson, pictured at right, says he finds NXNE a "neat idea" because it's stretched out over a longer period of time and in an urban setting, not to mention more manageable than "the madness" of SXSW.
"It's not just jammed into one weekend whereas most summer outdoor festivals you go to a huge field and you're sort of stuck there camping for two days or whatever," Ferguson says. "I like the idea of SXSW or NXNE where it's mostly at night. There are still things going on during the day, but at night you can just go from venue to venue to see bands and you're not trapped in one spot."
But while some new bands believe such industry-oriented festivals can be a career launching pad, Ferguson says they should look at it as just another show.
"It can't hurt because you never know who could be there and who might write about it," he says. "But I think people who come to these and play them and expect to get a record deal or a publishing deal, I think that's a little bit pie-in-the-sky. But I think it's a good way for people to see your shows.
"But on the other hand sometimes [festival shows] can help -- look at what happened to Broken Social Scene. They played the early half of last decade at South by Southwest and Pitchfork wrote a great review of the second album, then they got a British record deal and great touring in the States. Those breakout stories can happen, but you can't go in expecting that."
James Sayes of Toronto band Bishop Morocco -- an unsigned band making their NXNE debut this year -- says while nobody has offered them a major record deal, he agrees with Ferguson regarding having young bands having high hopes.
"It's important to not get ahead of yourself with any grandiose expectations of any individual show, but hopefully we have a chance to expose some new listeners to our music who have may have not been exposed otherwise," he says.
Sayes adds that bringing so many industry people to one festival can't be anything but beneficial to new bands as far as networking. "It might help a band get to know a new booking agent or radio person or what have you," he says. "I think it's a lot better for bands that have a certain amount of buzz. If you're a complete unknown and you have a showcase at a small venue that's not at a prime time, there may or may not be a ton of people in the audience to see you."
Still, the notion of giving new or relatively unknown bands an opportunity to showcase is something the Polaris Prize's executive director (and former major label A&R rep) Steve Jordan feels is the reason behind such festivals. "I think it's incredibly important to spend as much time, not just curating and programming music for a large audience, but also promoting smaller, under-the-radar bands as opposed to bands people might know," he says. "It helps everyone, but especially the more unknowns."
The showcases are often a mix of little-known bands billed beside bigger-name artists, giving rookies a chance to shine.
"The challenge is to not overshadow the bands we want to feature," Hollett says. "Somebody is going to come see Mudhoney but they'll end up seeing a smaller band. People have a list of their must-sees and then they walk along Queen Street or go into the [Bovine Sex Club] and see a band they never intended to see."
NXNE has grown to a full seven-day event with free outdoor concerts and just launched a new interactive component. This is already in addition to additional panels, workshops and a film festival. McLean says that with the expansion comes the fear of perhaps spreading the festival too thin, something he's acutely aware of.
"We certainly want more profile, more exposure and a bigger footprint of North by Northeast around the world, but quality control is very important," he says. "Like any business, if you ignore your core audience that you've grown up with the last decade and a half then you do sweat your peril a little. I think we're managing to keep them on board while attracting other people as well and introducing them to great new music."