A Conversation With ... NXNE's Michael Hollett
Festival season is just a few weeks away as we begin unpacking portable lawn chairs, that extra pair of comfortable shoes, that one surviving T-shirt with Rush embossed down the middle and a pair of frayed khaki shorts. In the coming weeks, I’m talking across the map of our great nation with the heads, directors and inspirations behind some of our most celebrated summer events, starting right here in Toronto and then beyond.
Here’s a bit of background on NXNE (North by Northeast) – a fan favourite in Toronto.
“NXNE is a raging annual 10-day summer festival and conference, featuring music, gaming, comedy, interactive and more at this packed cultural explosion,” the UK paper The Guardian says. "NXNE has crowned itself Toronto's leading music event."
NXNE celebrates its 23rd year in 2017 and takes over Toronto with showcases, panels, parties, installations, and more. NXNE includes a major three-day music festival that also features comedy, food, art installations and midway rides and games at NXNE's Port Lands festival site.
NXNE Game Land will present Canada's largest-ever, free outdoor e-Sports competition at Yonge-Dundas Square.
NXNE takes over Toronto's best live music clubs to present the Club Land series of emerging music with extended last calls at your favourite sweaty club/bar/pop-up venue.
We are partners with our friends in Austin, Texas at SXSW. NXNE was founded in 1994 and when you get to know us better, you can call us 'Northby.'” — nxne.com
I spoke with festival head and former kingpin behind NOW Magazine, Michael Hollett.
After residing mostly in the shadow of our American friends, Toronto is now a mega sports hub. What can we expect from the free outdoor e-Sports competitions at Dundas Square?
E-Sports is huge all over the world but hasn’t really hit in Canada yet. We’re looking forward to holding the biggest free outdoor E-Sports event in Canada ever. We’ll be bringing in professional gamers and leading E-sports play by play folks to create a high-energy spectacle— and yes, there will be thunder sticks. An online qualifying tournament will hype the event in the weeks leading up and E-sports will become summer tradition kick off to 10 days of NXNE, with the opening weekend June 16 - 18 at Yonge-Dundas Square.
What compelled you to marry music with sports?
Music is a critical part of gaming and song placement, and soundtrack work is putting money in musician’s pockets. We think there’s a huge overlap in audiences. Our partners at SXSW have featured gaming and music for a few years and it makes sense.
NXNE is broad on ambition in year 23. Besides music; there’s gaming, comedy, panels, parties, installations etc. How do you decide what other entertainment can enhance the music experience?
It’s a constantly evolving concept. We’re always looking for new ideas and new ways to connect with our audience as well as grow our audience. There is a world of ideas out there and we’re happy to borrow the best of them, as well as come up with our own fresh, new concepts.
Moving to the Port Lands gives you plenty options. Were you able to visualize the possibilities the first time you took a closer look at the expansive property?
It was love at first sight. I love the size, the awesome post-industrial location with its amazing views. So much room. So many possibilities. I think the future of Toronto is in the east and I love anything that connects us with the lake. We learned a lot from year one and have come up with a tonne of new ideas to really maximize the benefits the amazing site provides.
Being slightly out of the cross-hairs of city inspectors, do you have greater freedom to address your vision?
The city has been great with us. They spend more time trying to say “Yes” than “No”. I think it’s more about their increasing commitment to supporting the whole Music City effort. Going to Austin with Mayor Tory really helped open his eyes to the opportunities a thriving live music scene presents. And the fact that former NXNE key player Mike Tanner now runs the music office doesn’t hurt either. City council, especially our local councillor Paula Fletcher, has also been incredibly supportive. And it doesn’t hurt that nobody lives right next door to complain about the noise. We’ve worked closely with Island residents to make sure things go well from their point of view too, and they’ve been great.
What are the greatest obstacles in mounting NXNE?
We’ve always got to keep things fresh for our audience. There’s no coasting allowed. If we get dull or complacent, our fans move on and that’s fair. We don’t intend to ever let that happen, but it means we always have to be keeping ourselves invigorated and growing.
How do you go about selecting bands?
We have a great team of music lovers on staff at NXNE, and with our colleagues at Fource Entertainment who are helping program the festival. Between my years with NOW and running Northby, I’ve had “staying on top of what’s next musically” in all of my job descriptions. I have young adult kids who are real music fans and they’re also a great source of ideas. We talk about music and share new artists with each other all of the time. Our staff are super-informed on new music.
When you say panels – what kind of panels?
Our Future Lands sessions will be a one-day event at the Great Hall, Wednesday, June 20. There will be compelling music industry panels, as well as a killer keynote and biz to biz speed dating. We’ll be inviting music industry insiders as well as mentoring industry “up and comers” to join the conversation. More details soon.
Do you have a planning committee and meet with frequency?
Life is a planning committee. Our office is a percolator of possibilities and we don’t shut up. I am constantly engaging with my extensive industry contacts for ideas and function as a sounding board as are my NXNE colleagues. And yes, our core group meets regularly to plan and react.
Going in, what is your greatest fear as the date draws near?
Never wanting to disappoint the audience.
Over the past 23 years, what’s has been the biggest setback?
G-20 sucked. Police presence grew throughout our 2014 fest — but we still had over 30,000 people for Iggy and the Stooges at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Summer is crammed with events and at times individual driven events get buried by government prioritized celebrations. Have you felt at times like you are about to drown under the weight of overwhelming competition?
All the events in Toronto build the city as a music destination. We all have a different narrative; each event has its own persona — or they wouldn’t survive. I think NXNE skews younger than some of the other festivals and we’ve gone more urban in our lineups than most.
Have we become music city yet?
We’re on our way. There’s a huge abiding commitment at City Hall but there are still details to be worked out as well as bigger conversations.
Austin, Texas and NXNE have been a brilliant match. How is the relationship today?
Our connection with SXSW has never been stronger or more active. SXSW are the gold standard for music, tech, film events and more in the world. We are very fortunate to have them as friends, colleagues and partners and we aren’t shy about tapping into their advice and connections. We share a desire and explicit commitment to bringing NXNE to a Southby level. That’s aways been our goal. We will have a SXSW panel at Future Land.
Do you travel much these days to other events looking for new ideas?
I'm lucky enough to travel the world attending music events as well as other innovation gatherings and am not shy about stealing the best ideas I encounter. It’s also great to be a spokesperson on the strengths of the Toronto and Canadian music scenes to international colleagues.
Entertainment dollars are a driving force for this economy, yet artists live near poverty. Is there a solution?
There needs to be because there is no art without artists. Cities need to share solutions.
We’ve just had one of the most exciting hockey seasons in memory and you wear the blue and white like the pope wears his magic robe. Have you come down yet?
Leaf fans are eternally optimistic no matter what the evidence, but these young guns seem to promise a great future. I’m smiling, it's fun to watch.
Do you get the same rush you got twenty-three years back when thinking about the next year?
It always feels great turning people on to music and connecting artists with audiences. When I stand side stage or in the crowd at a show and everything is working; nothing beats that feeling and it never gets old. I’m very lucky to get to do this.