Christopher Roberts on Directing 2013's NXNE Fest (Q&A)

Photo by: Jen Arron

The sister festival of Austin, TX's South By Southwest, Toronto, Ontario's North By Northeast (NXNE) blends the concert experience with a hub of connectivity for Canada's music, media, and entertainment professionals.  Entering its 19th year, the city-spanning fest aims to bring countless creative minds together from June 10-16, culminating with a free public performance from the National in the heart of the city. Last year's fest brought in some $50 million to the municipal economy; but with several improvements slated for this year and new leadership in Ottawa-native Christopher Roberts recently named 2013's festival director, this year's confab could be even bigger.

Chatting on the phone from his office in Toronto, Ontario, Roberts says he's gazing at a framed copy of Billboard's May 21, 2011 issue, which bears the words "Vice's Christopher Roberts" beneath the heading, "Boldest A&Rs in the Biz." Prior to joining NXNE, Roberts spent eight years working at Vice where he scouted and helped sign acts like Black Lips and Action Bronson to Vice Records and help stage varios Creators Project installations. With NXNE kikcing off Monday (June 10), Roberts' mid-April start date didn't leave him much time to prepare for such an expansive event, which will host over 1,000 bands, 30 films, an 150 comedians before all is said and done. Roberts took time out from the pressure cooker to share with Billboard his master plan for the fest. Can you describe the role you've had as festival director for North by Northeast?
Christopher Roberts: I moved here April 15 from New York. Before this I was the head of Artist Relations for Vice in Brooklyn. I spent eight years at Vice and moved here in April to be Festival Director, which is prestigious, to say the least. I was honored to be offered the job. It’s a world-class festival in one of the best cities in the world; so it’s huge for me personally. And in that short amount of time there’s not a whole lot you can do to really own your role as director. But I think I was able to at least contribute enough to give it my own personal vibe and feel. The festival director overall, in this position, is building everything. Overseeing it all: from the music portion of the festival to the interactive, comedy, arts. All the big parts of the festival come through my office.

There's definitely a Vice vibe to the lineup this year. Do you think that represents you leaving your mark on the fest?
It’s funny because most of the bands confirmed were booked before my tenure started. So maybe it was the luck of the draw as opposed to having a Vice feel. But this year Vice is going to be involved in an official capacity. They’re doing a stage at the parking lot of their offices in Parkdale, Toronto. I think this is the first time they’ve been officially involved and next year I want them to be bigger and bigger. We’re going to be doing a lot more stuff with a lot of other media brands that I can’t quite mention yet. But it will be exciting.

What's your schedule like on any given day during the week before the festival?
Doing a lot of promotion -- being spokesperson-ing the festival is a big part of it. Making sure people know where to buy wristbands, what to see at this year’s festival, personal highlights, things like that. But also it’s still working with with sponsors and making sure everything is being taken care of as far as deliverables for sponsorship contracts; making sure all of the bands have everything they need to communicate and promote their own performances… going to venues and talking to promoters to make sure everyone is happy and having all the tools they need for a successful North By; and just trying to block out a couple of hours each day to get some e-mailing done. Because when I get back at the end of the day from meetings and I have an inbox of over 500, it can be a little daunting.

And what's your schedule like on a day during the fest?
During the festival I’m going to be at registration at the Hyatt Hotel making sure things run smoothly. If fliers need to be put out I'll do that. Then I have a schedule of bands, artists, and panels that I wanted to check out for about five minutes at a time, because I can’t stay for everything, obviously. I have over 1,000 bands playing; I have 160 panels; I have 132 venues and I have 90 art installations. It’s a lot so I want to try and at least see the highlighted stuff for a few minutes at a time, so I can speak on the experience.

Since it’s my first year, I want to just take a regular admission wristband, and just go around the venues and see what that experience is like. A lot of times festival directors and people in charge walk around with their priority staff pass and walk into everything. But they forget about what the lines are like, and what the actual user experience is like. And that’s something I want to do this year -- just go as a regular festival attendee, and make sure they’re getting the bang for their buck.

How would you describe NXNE's target audience?
It’s sort of all encompassing. When you go to South By there’s Richard Grabel there, who’s a big New York entertainment lawyer. You’re going to see Chris Lombardi; you’re going to see industry label reps and publicists, but you’re also going to get a lot of fans. I think even more so than South By, North By is a little more accessible because it’s a smaller festival and it’s not as expensive to gain entry into official events. So, for 60 bucks you can buy a wristband that’ll get you access to all of the official showcases and events at North By.  It’s a lot of everyone, from the casual music fan to industry heavy-hitters and everything in between. Also, our main stage, our main showcase, is the Yonge-Dundas Square in the middle of Toronto, which is basically the Time Square of Canada. It’s the most trafficked intersection in the country. The National there is totally free, you don’t even need a wristband to attend, you can just show up.

Watch Of Montreal perform at Yonge-Dundas Square during 2012's NXNE Festival:

So it's a spectacle for the entire city.

Yes, and there are big additive values to it, too. Last year, we brought in about $50 million to the municipal economy, which is massive. And this year we’re hoping to grow that by about 20 to 30 percent.

It seems there will always a place for NXNE, being so closely tied to the industry and having other facets outside of music; but there's getting to be so many festivals in North America, do you ever feel the market is becoming saturated?
I don’t think there’s a limit. It’s not like success is a pie and everyone gets a percentage of the pie, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I think success is unlimited to a great product. If you have something exciting, interesting and provocative that pushes boundaries, you’re always going to be okay. Coachella is a great example of an entity that keeps pushing that boundary as far as festivals go.  Years ago we had Lollapalooza touring and that didn’t work. It wasn’t a model that worked so they got rid of that and made it stationary in Chicago every year. It became habitual and something you wanted to go to in that area. I think, the more the merrier, and if we can create a really good coalition of festivals where bands can circuit around, that’s even better.

Vice's influence as a brand grew immensely during your time there. What keys to success did you notice?
When I had first started there, there were about 25 of us, and we had just moved into a new office because our office before that didn’t have any heat or washrooms. And in the eight years I was there I saw them intelligently grow the brand with their own rules. It was really a case of not taking "no" for an answer, an "our way or the highway" type of mentality and business approach. It was an incredible thing to witness and be a part of, and I hope I can say I was a part of that brand growth. Music is the lifeblood of what Vice is, in terms of the cultural identity. So music was always a vein to everything we did, branding-wise. But, it was amazing to see and an honor to be a part of it, to help it to get to where it is now.

What is it about their journalistic style you think most resonates with people?
The great thing about the Vice voice is that it speaks to people in an unpretentious, conversational way. It’s almost like your best friend telling you about this crazy thing that happened in Angola. And the thing that resonates with people is that you’re not being talked down to, but you’re being talked with. I don’t think a lot of other media does that, or does it quite as well.