For 2016, the North by Northeast festival (NXNE) went in a significantly new direction. Formed in 1995 as a Canadian equivalent of SXSW, the fest grew quickly to become a key event on the Canadian scene every June. Estimated figures for 2014 had the number of artists performing at 1,000, with attendance at 350,000.
Both those numbers were down significantly in 2016, a result of major changes in the fest’s approach. The original model featured between 40 and 50 Toronto clubs hosting multi-artist showcases every night, but a new venue in the Port Lands area became the NXNE hub. This hosted two days of music (Friday June 17 and Saturday June 18) that featured impressive lineups of both international and Canadian artists.
In an interview with FYI, Michael Hollett, the President/Managing Director of NXNE, estimated the attendance at the Port Lands shows at “almost 10,000. We were very pleased with the turnout. It's a lot to ask to get people to check out a new venue like the Port Lands and NXNE had a lot of new concepts in general and people were very open to the new.”
That new included NXNE Game Land, an ambitious new festival component that explored the interaction of music and gaming. Hailed as “the biggest e-sports event ever in Canada,” it was held in Yonge-Dundas Square, formerly the site of massive NXNE free shows from the likes of Iggy Pop and Flaming Lips.
Game Land at YDS ”had over 20,000 people over three days,” Hollett informs FYI. “The gaming industry embraced being included in NXNE. It really met a need for them. I've got to work a little harder at engaging the music industry on the gaming side, it really is a part of music's future and I'd love to be help these two worlds better connect. There's money for musicians in gaming -- plus artistic satisfaction and audiences.”
A one-day Future Land conference also focused on gaming, and Hollett singles out the presence of Nolan Bushnell as a highlight. “He’s the guy who invented Atari -- and Chuck. E. Cheese. That was an astounding way to kick off the Future Land conference, as he’s a really inspiring, dynamic guy.”
NXNE did still feature music in the clubs over the week, just not to the extent of earlier years. “Most of our club shows were rammed,” Hollett reports.
He is pleased at the music industry’s response to the changes. “The industry has been very supportive though, understandably, they wanted to see us deliver. I think we did. I experienced a lot of personal support from the music industry which I am deeply grateful for. Change can be challenging but enduring relationships help you get here. Most media has been supportive, just a few of the inevitable grumpy bloggers. If we didn't change we'd get accused of being inert!”
When it is pointed out that some of the regular industry parties at NXNE were absent this year, Hollett states that "I'm so busy during NXNE I don't really end up doing parties so I wouldn't notice. That said, I intend to involve the industry a lot more next year.”
Asked to single out personal highlights, Hollett replied that “I spent a lot of my time at the Port Lands because it's new so many of my highlights were there. I loved and love Daniel Caesar, he is an absolute star in the making and I was very proud to present him. I wish I'd seen Kamasi Washington because by all reports he was amazing. On a personal note, I was pretty pumped when my son Jules Hollett jumped on stage with Ghostface and did an ODB rap with him.”
Hollett was also very pleased at the City of Toronto's co-operation this year. "I can't say enough about the city. Mayor John Tory was personally keeping an eye on things for us, his staff were amazing, everyone at the Port Lands, Toronto Port Lands Commission, found ways to say yes instead of no, Councillor Paula Fletcher and her staff, which is the ward where the Port Lands is located, were amazingly helpful, you probably won't be surprised to hear Mike Tanner at City Hall was a huge help. It feels like we have come so far from when NXNE first started, when all we ran into were municipal road blocks. From top to bottom city staff want Toronto to be a Music City and we at Northby have been very fortunate because of that."
He is optimistic that the new look NXNE will thrive in the future. “People took a leap of faith and followed us into new territory, new lands - NXNE Land. I am very encouraged that we can build on this transition.”