NXNE Tweaks Strategy for Its 22nd Year In Bid for Broader Appeal

Phil Brennen
Michael Hollett and Wayne Coyne.

After two decades of taking over Toronto's downtown core, North By Northeast founder Michael Hollett has refocused and restructured the long-running music festival and conference from a one-fee club crawl and conference, to ticketed shows and an integrated gaming component for the 22nd annual NXNE, June 13-19.

"People want a better immersive festival experience, which you don't really get running club to club," Hollett tells Billboard, and of the new gaming-music conference combination says, "the discussions with innovators need to take place and people need to jump out of their zone."

He cites the recent European Lab conference in France, for which he was a speaker, encouraged to see digital, music, gaming, architecture and politics all in one. "They had kids who had done social media for Arab Spring. We were all getting ideas. A music-only conference is good, but we need a diverse gene pool right now, and that's what this conference [NXNE] gives people."

Hollett is the majority owner of NXNE, but remains partners with Austin's SXSW ("they've become bigger players again in North By"), which has been sending up staff to help out. He also enlisted Toronto promoters Collective Concerts to help with the programming; former NHL player Brad Dalgarno of Starshot Agency as director of the conference and Cameron House Records' co-owner Mike Formusa as financial manager. "I've brought in a lot of third parties to work with. That's a different model [for me]," he says.

There will still be free programming at the tourist hub Yonge-Dundas Square, three days (June 16-18) called Game Land featuring emerging bands, video gaming, live e-sports and a movie, but people must buy tickets for individual concerts (generally CAD $13.50 to $20) throughout the city for what NXNE is calling Club Land. 

A one or two day pass can be purchased for the brand new outdoor gated concert site Port Lands ($64.50- $169.50), on the same grounds that Cirque du Soleil stages its productions late summer/early fall. Hip hop is on the first day, June 17 (co-presented by Manifesto) and indie rock the following day, along with food trucks, art installations, beer gardens and "cool activations." 

"You want to go to a place that's a cool site where you're still going to see new bands because there's a bunch of stages going, but you're going to meet new people, see cool art work and have war stories -- have an adventure in a place," says Hollett. "That's NXNE land. We're creating all these different ‘lands' to have experiences."

The one-day Future Land, Interactive Conference, June 15, at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management -- and featuring Atari founder Nolan Bushnell as the keynote headliner -- is $80 to attend.

"The gaming thing is going to get gigantic. We want to create great fan experiences, but we also want to help musicians find ways to make a living and gaming is going to be a big part of that," says Hollett, citing Canadians Cadence Weapon, Jim Guthrie, and the Arkells as artists who are either writing soundtracks or placing their music in video games. "At the conference, we're going to put those people together and then in the [Yonge-Dundas] Square we're bringing a new audience that will have gaming experience but also see new bands."

Last year, NXNE canned the full conference component, and introduced ticketed shows, which Hollett says went well because, quite simply, people were guaranteed to get in.

"The music scene has changed dramatically," he says. "When we started [22 years ago] using the South By model, we wanted to create a great fan experience but we also wanted to help musicians get in front of record labels and people who could advance their careers. People were prepared to run around the city on pure faith that they would see something interesting. There was no social media; there was no way to know in advance about so many of these bands. 

"Now the idea that you'd be seeing a band that you hadn't heard of, it's almost impossible. They're going to have some digital presence that allows you to preview them before you make the decision to go. So increasingly people don't want to be at a show; they want to be at the show.  And it really shows.  In 2014, we had thousands of people inside the Future Islands show at Tattoo and thousands more on the street. And then somebody else is playing at the Painted Lady to like 12 people.

"Lee's [Palace], Horseshoe and the [Danforth] Music Hall, all those venues are rammed, and in time people are getting frustrated because they can't get in. They bought a badge, but everybody came." That necessitated the end of the one price badge and wristband bar crawl for NXNE.

About the change to the conference, Hollett says members of the digital world and "Bay Street types" reached out to him about reinvigorating the NXNE brand. "Once I announced the gaming part, the gaming people just embraced it. It was also interesting, at South By this year, they've been onto gaming for about four or five years and they used to have gaming as part of the interactive element of the festival, at the front end of it, and this year they moved it so that it coincided with the music end because they saw the same connection I did."

For the music industry, Hollett says, "The conference is going to be the same that will draw them ultimately. This is our first proof of concept. We're just doing a really focused one-day thing this year, plus all the stuff in the Square but the conference will continue to grow.