Michael Hollett, Neill Dixon
Dixon: Getty Images

It is not a death match. It's not even a heated battle. It’s what both sides call healthy competition, but it would be foolish to think there isn't inherent tension between Toronto's Canadian Music Week and North by Northeast, given their history. This year, after 31 years, CMW moved up its conference five weeks closer (May 6 to 10) to the 20-year-old NXNE (June 13 to 22) and hired their former festival booker.

NXNE has implemented a 45-day radius clause for its festival showcase acts, preventing them from playing CMW. In public the two are playing nice, focusing on their own events and even attending each other's.  Who will survive, some might wonder?  Not even a question, say CMW's Neill Dixon and NXNE's Michael Hollett -- both will. 

“The difference is our conference is very heavy industry oriented,” Dixon, president of CMW, tells Billboard.  “It’s mainly about music, whereas North By, they have music; they have interactive [conference], but they don't necessarily have the caliber of people that we're bringing in.

“Our whole thing is about training the industry and bringing up the next generation and networking and international -- we do these international spotlights," he adds. "There's like 50 people in from Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. All that promotes export business for Canadians. That's where we put our focus quite heavily. They're [NXNE] putting their focus more like [Austin’s] SXSW on the interactive and that’s wider; it's not just digital for music.”

Hollett, the president, co-founder/managing director of NXNE and the publisher/editor of Toronto's long-running alternative weekly paper, NOW magazine, tells Billboard that was the case but they've made some adjustments to their Interactive conference for 2014.

“We have figured that out. We went too far away from music. Neill does a good conference, let's be clear, but we do a great festival. His conference is for those within the industry. Ours is broader. Ours is interactive, but obviously these days music is a part of the interactive digital world, but mostly we seek to be inspiring. Our conference is not about how to write code, it's about having something to write code about.”

Without question, CMW is the bigger conference with some of the biggest names in the business. Now in its 32nd year, it has 397 speakers, plus summits, workshops, B2B sessions, a trade show, multiple awards shows, and 850 bands in 50 different venues ranging from small clubs to theatres and even an arena, the Air Canada Centre. According to 2012 figures provided by CMW from Enigma Research (2013 was not available), the total economic impact of the festival locally is $4.8 million. Non-local spectators, bands business delegates and event operations resulted in an additional $6.5 million of spending, for a total of $11.3 million.

NXNE, celebrating its 20th year, has a smaller conference with 75 speakers and just as many live acts (800), but the summer does have significant advantages. While their number of venues is less than CMW -- about 30 from small clubs to theatres -- they also have shows in alternative spaces like public parks and the sizeable Yonge-Dundas Square (YDS). This helps bring their economic impact on Toronto to five times that of CMW, $55 million for 2013, according to stats given to Billboard by NXNE from the Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model provided by Ontario's Ministry of Tourism, Culture, & Sport. YDS alone brings in $22 million (from 150,000 people over four days) because it’s right in the downtown core on store-lined Yonge Street and across from the giant Eaton Centre mall. 

Of note, there are also two 10-day festivals in Toronto -- which has a city population of 2.8 million, according to 2013 Statistics Canada, with six million in the GTA -- around NXNE, the not-so-jazzy TD Toronto Jazz Festival from June 19 to 28 and more arts-based Luminato Festival from June 6 to 15. 

“All summer long there's festival after festival and [sometimes] there's two or three on the same weekend,” says Dixon. “This town can handle a lot of festivals. In Toronto, any night of the year, there's 50 or 60 clubs or venues. So I don't think that's a major issue.”

Hollett agrees. “This is a huge city. A 25-year-old concertgoer is going to a concert every weekend. If it’s good enough, they will come. We live in an age now of rock tourism. People travel to North By, just as they travel to South By and [Montreal's] Osheaga and [Manchester, Tenn.'s] Bonnaroo. There's room for many many many events in this city.”

“I didn't move closer to his event,” he points out, “and my focus is on building one of the greatest events in the world, which we're well on the way to doing. The festival I pay more attention to is South By and they’re my business partners. We're working much more closely than we've ever been.”

When Dixon announced after last year's CMW that he was moving it from March to May, just ahead of NXNE, tongues were wagging. There were defenders on both sides, but most said, "Great, more music. There's room for both, the two are so different." CMW is viewed as an industry conference attended by major players from all over he world and NXNE highly regarded for its festival programming.   

Still, why did Dixon move his to May?

Historically, CMW has been held in March, piggybacking on the Juno Awards, when the industry was already in town. It was founded in the early 80s as The Record Music Industry Conference by David Farrell, publisher of Canada's now-defunct tradepaper The Record, who also started the industry awards. Later, with Dixon as a partner, it evolved into CMW and a music festival was added. When the Junos were held in Vancouver in 1991, they held CMW there, but the industry didn't follow. “Only the senior executives flew out there and our audience is made up of middle management, senior executives, junior, everything,” says Dixon. “It was not a successful endeavor.”

So CMW remained in Toronto in March, even though the freezing temperatures and frequent snowstorms made barhopping and driving miserable and flight delays common. In 1999, Dixon acquired CMW from Farrell and continued to expand it significantly. But even after the Juno Awards started moving around the country to different cities each year, starting in 2002, he kept it at the same time “out of habit,” he says. SXSW, which started in 1987 and also grew to a marquee event around the same time, enabled him to snag some of the same touring acts, but he'd also miss out on some industry delegates because they couldn't be out of the office that many weeks in a row.

“It took all those bad winter storms and people saying, ‘Why don't you move to a nicer time of year?’ and a lot of the executives saying, 'Please move it to a better time of year and try not to complete with other events,’” explains Dixon. “Now that was the hardest thing. There's events all over the world now.

“When we first started, there was only MIDEM [in France]. We were before South By but now there's an event in every country at all times of the year. It was difficult finding a spot to move to and we picked the beginning of May, not necessarily because we totally believed that was the perfect week, but we would be the first festival of spring and summer.  We weren't competing with too much internationally, but even so we were against The Great Escape in England and NARM [now the Music Business Association] in the US. We were also concerned in the summer there’s a lot going on, so we picked the only week we could find that we weren't running head on into multiple events. So that put us out a month from NXNE.”

Some 20 years ago Hollett says he introduced him to the folks behind SXSW and offered to help Dixon improve the festival component of CMW, but Dixon declined. “I don't recall that,” says Dixon. “I remember that we were pretty close with Michael when we first started because there was no NXNE. And we were exclusive with them [NOW magazine] at the beginning and then other publications popped up like [weekly competitor] Eye [now The Grid], and we wanted to spread our advertising as many places as we could reach the consumer. So that didn't appeal to him. We still continued to advertise with Michael but when he had his own event, he obviously had another agenda besides the magazine.”

When Hollett started NXNE as the northern counterpart of SXSW (also started by an alternative newspaper publisher, The Austin Chronicle), he had a checklist. “Twenty years ago, among the list of things to check was great weather. We wanted to be able to be outside. We wanted to replicate a South By experience.  One of the nicest compliments we get is people say, ‘You remind me of South By 10 years ago.’”

One other contentious move last year after the announcement of the winter-to-spring change was that Dixon snapped up former NXNE festival programmer John Kastner (to work alongside festival director Cameron Wright). Hollett's one-time best friend of 25 years and seven-year employee was unceremoniously let go following the success of NXNE 2013 after new festival director Christopher Roberts (eight years with VICE) was hired a few months earlier. Shortly before, NXNE had made another internal change, the quiet removal of festival co-founder/managing director Andy Mclean.

“The fact that we moved closer together, it raised everybody's competitiveness, but it also got us talking,” says Dixon, who sat down at SXSW 2014 in Austin with NXNE's Roberts and music programming director Crispin Giles, and afterwards in Toronto with Hollett. “We talked about the challenges of being close and ways maybe in the future we could work closer together. We also did a deal with NOW, as the exclusive weekly of Canadian Music Week. And you will see most of their senior people at our event this year because we've exchanged passes.”

NXNE’s director of operations Mike Tanner is also on a CMW panel, a first in about 20 years, says Dixon, titled the “Toronto -- Austin Music City Alliance,” the world’s first music city alliance signed back in October. “I'm front and centre involved in the Toronto-Austin initiative and working with the Provincial government for this city, trying to get more support of live music,” says Hollett. “Being involved, I'm going to represent Neill's interests, as much as I'm representing [local music festival] TURF's when I'm in these conversations.”

Both of the CMW and NXNE festivals are the same size, and while both receive thousands of submissions from artists wanting to showcase, their newfound close proximity to each other is presenting a booking issue. Both have always had a radius clause, standard practice, asking artists not to play in the city for a certain period of time around their slot; now NXNE won't allow artists to play both festivals, implicit in their showcase offer: “Please keep in mind there is a 45-day radius clause for playing Toronto prior to the festival,” it states in the email with the subject “[NXNE] Wants YOU! “ -- and CMW is within those 45 days. This was not announced in advance and people must pay to apply to both festivals. 

“We've always had a radius cause; we just never had another festival right beside us,” says Hollett. “We weren't crazy to have bands playing both events when they were months apart.”

“My opinion is that if it's a baby band, and they're showcasing to get attention, then I don't think they should be punished by their playing one or the other,” says Dixon, which is easy to say having first dibs.

Yvonne Matsell, another co-founder of NXNE/director, and a long-time club booker most recently for the famed El Mocambo, emphasizes that they let the acts choose. “They are the ones that make that decision on where they want to play.  Because it really is watering down their crowd or chances of getting seen by the industry, we want them to maximize their draw. We have responsibilities to the club when they're given a programmed night that we're going to give them the best entertainment that will hopefully be the best draw. A lot of industry come in for both festivals, so we want to do something fresh.”

She too says, “There's room for both festivals because there's so much stuff going on all year.”

Kastner, who has now worked with both, also says, “There is room for two, if everybody just realizes what their strengths are. NXNE is a great festival, but the amount of music industry folk that come up for CMW and the amount of support they get from the industry is night and day compared to what North By is. That’s the main difference I see. When I started with North By, it didn't have a lot of cred, and that's what I really spent a lot of time building up, me, and everybody on the team, but especially me, living in America, bringing up Americans. Coming into CMW, that’s been my thing is bring credibility back. We want to please the industry, but also make it fun, diverse and interesting, a bit cooler.”

Dixon is pleased with CMW's lineup. “We hired John because he was available and he did a really good job for North By. Canadian Music Week was always compared to North By. North By was a bit more street and a bit hipper. So he brought that to us this year. We've heard nothing but great things this year on our lineup.”

“But anyway, the bottom line is we are here,” says Dixon. “Toronto and the Province of Ontario are trying to promote music tourism; we're two great examples of music tourism. Sure there's competition but that's natural. So there's enough room to exist side by each, and the more that we cooperate, even on the basis of attracting tourists -- Toronto as a destination -- we're both gonna be winners.”

Hollett feels the same way. “We have the best lineup we've ever had. It's really young; it's really current. Our presale is through the roof. We're an industry leader. I'm not looking back; I'm looking forward.  There's always been competitors, but you don’t focus on the competition, you focus on the future.”

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