Toronto's NXNE Adds Comedy Tent, Carnival Feel to Festival Site: 'It's Going to Be Social Media Heaven'

Jake Jarvis
Michael Hollett

Toronto's North By Northeast (NXNE) has undergone a major overhaul since launching 22 years ago and growing at one point to a festival featuring 800 bands in 30 venues, a conference; plus comedy, art and film. Last year, co-founder and managing director Michael Hollett practically gutted the operation, bringing in a fresh team and restructured the festival itself. He got rid of the one-fee club crawl pass and music panels, and added gaming and a one-site three-day music festival. He also rebranded each component with the suffix “Land.”

This year, Hollett has made changes again. 

He has reinstated the one-fee club pass, named Club Land, curated mainly by artists (including Billy Talent's Ian D'Sa, Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning and July Talk's Lea Fay), which kicks off tonight (June 19-22). Toronto-born Peaches headlines the Phoenix Concert Theatre for the opening party. Port Land, the single site for the music festival (June 23-25), features headliners Post Malone, 2016 Polaris Music Prize winner Kaytranada, and Passion Pit, and he's added some fun elements that he says will make it "social media heaven."

There is a day of speakers (June 21) called Future Land at The Great Hall, including panels about NXNE partners SXSW, Toronto's hip hop scene, and sponsorship and cannabis. The gaming tournament and exhibitor zone took place over the weekend, a free eSports event at Yonge-Dundas Square highlighting 8 of the world's best players competing in Starcraft.

Billboard spoke to Hollett about the reception to NXNE 2016 and the further adjustments he made for this year.

A couple of years ago, for NXNE's 20th anniversary, you did some “fine-tuning” to expand and better the music festival, but then last year you completely restructured it. What was the feedback North By 2016, both positive and negative?

People liked the Port Land idea. They liked the idea of a big festival because people do like big festivals. We've obviously been heartened by that and we expanded it a day this year and added tons to it.  People wanted more stuff on the site, which I get. So we've added a comedy tent, midway rides, carnival games, carnies. The setting is so nice. You're up on the ferris wheel watching Post Malone sing “Congratulations,” that's pretty sweet. I think it's going to be social media heaven to be honest because we've really embraced the kind of downtown, CNE [Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto historic fairground] vibe. The site decorating is pretty cool and pretty crazy and a little bit cheesy in a fun way.

Is it easy to get to? That is one gripe for people who don't live near there.

TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] is going to add buses. It's funny, but you go to Echo Beach [concert site in the west end by the lake), unless you're going to Yonge and Dundas, it's a bit of a hike. The two biggest bike routes in Toronto converge at our site, which is great. We're got car2go as a sponsor so you can hop in one of their cars and drop it there. Tons of parking.

And people missed the club pass. That was a big complaint.

There was definitely nostalgia for the club hopping, which we pretty much got rid of last year. Things have changed a lot; it's hard to get people to go see bands they hadn't heard of because now every band's got a digital footprint so you can find out about them without having to go see them, but we did definitely felt people were missing the club hop thing. So we've come up with this curator series, which is really cool.  No pay to play. No Sonicbids. None of that because I didn't feel good about that anymore because we both know the chances of getting signed by a record label are less and less, but that discovery thing is big. So now if you like [The Pursuit of Happiness/ The Trans-Canada Highwaymen] Moe Berg; if you like Billy Talent; if you like July Talk, well musicians in those bands have put their four favorite bands on each night, so I think the Club Land is actually going to be huge. Twenty bucks and you can go to everything.

You made the decision last year shortly after North By ended to step down from Now magazine [the popular Toronto weekly alternative paper he co-founded in 1981]. Was it because you had to focus on North By if you were going to keep it going?

Yes. As you can imagine, North By is more than a full-time job and I was doing two. North By, on a personal level, was fresher for me. I'd done Now magazine for 35 years, which has been amazing, but, to be honest, I see a lot more opportunity in the music business right now than I do in publisher. As we both know, it's a very challenging business right now. But mostly this is the opportunity to realize where I could take NXNE. When you're best friends with the guys that start SXSW, it's pretty easy to have a vision of how big this can get and knowing what they do and how they did it, I knew that I had to do this and it takes all of my energy.

You mentioned the challenges in the publishing business, but there's challenges in the music festival business.  In Toronto, TURF's not happening this year and it doesn't look like OVO is, and then you are competing with big shows at Air Canada Centre, Rogers Centre, Budweiser Stage, and the 10-day Luminato arts festival [June 14-25]. And, isn't it also a problem getting people inside clubs in the summertime?

It is for clubs for sure and that's part of where North By came from. We were trying to get people into clubs. But all the things going on in Toronto just underlines that it's a city where people go to do stuff. It's a great cultural tourism spot. No business is easy but the upside of music and music festival is quite immense and we intend to be that one. They're not all going to thrive and they're not all going to survive, but 23 years in, I'm obviously pretty committed to this one.

You've got Porsche as a brand new sponsor/presenting partner for this year. Quite unusual to have such a high-end car brand associated with a music and gaming festival.

It's amazing to have them and they are so committed. They're very visionary. They're not looking to sell Porsches tomorrow.  They're looking to remind people in their aspiration to want to get a Porsche. It's pretty sophisticated marketing. Basically, they do something like this once a year. They've done it in Shanghai. They've done it in Dubai. They're done it all over the world and they chose us and they  chose North By and I think it's because of our track record.  I think our partnership with South By underlines that we can deliver what we say we can do.  We are very fortunate that we are very well supported by sponsors and we have been for a long time. By the way, Porsche is building a  three-story structure in the Port Land. It's got music; it's got virtual reality, real experiential stuff so you'll feel what it's like to drive a Porsche. They have come full-on. It's impressive. If every sponsor was like this, it would be a different world.