NXNE Turns 25: Michael Hollett on His Evolving Fest, Embracing Esports & Missed Opportunities on Cannabis

Reed Hollett
Michael Hollett

NXNE, which kicks off in Toronto this weekend (June 7) and runs until the 16th, is celebrating its 25th year, and much has changed since Michael Hollett, founder of alternative weekly Now magazine, launched the summer music event as a Canadian version of Austin's SXSW. The city is dotted with more condos, the once seedy Yonge Street has been "cleaned up" and, in the music industry, A&R reps aren't as crucial to up-and-coming acts to get discovered.

A few years ago, Hollett overhauled NXNE, bought out his Canadian partners, and changed up the format of the festival, including adding gaming and Esports (dubbed "Game Land") and getting rid of the club crawl in favor of just ticketed shows. The latter didn't go over too well so he listened and adjusted again, bringing back the one-price wristband.

This year it's just $29 (USD $21) -- the same price it was in 1995, for 55 shows, curated by artists like Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, Charlotte Cornfeld, and Ian Blurton; and organizations such as Wavelength, Taiwan Beats and Raptors Uprising.  

As a whole, NXNE 2019  (June 7-16) is comprised of "Club Land," at more than 20 venues, for the $29 Curated Series, plus ticketed shows; the free Festival Village on the shut-down block of Yonge Street from Dundas to Queen (June 14-16), NXNE Talks (June 12), and Game Land (June 7-9).

Hollett talked to Billboard about the then-and-now of NXNE, the $29 wristband, opportunities lost by the government's restricted cannabis sponsorship laws, and why he's going back into the print business with a monthly music mag.

People aren't very accepting of change but since you revamped North By, have people come around, accepting and embracing of your new direction and format?

Oh yeah. There's some ways that the new is old, in the sense that we're back on Yonge Street so the big free show, but of course we've changed that dramatically by putting the stage on the street and, similarly, we're back to a big club hop with a wristband but it's different because it's curated by artists and cool associations.

The $29 wristband. Is that just for this year to coincide with the price when NXNE began?

I would love to make it work at that price. It's a pretty great price. Our goal is to have full rooms. There's nothing that makes me feel worse than having an emerging artist makes some great efforts to play a show and have four people there, which is why we came up with these solutions where we have curators, artists that have a draw on their own. Taiwan Beats, they're bringing pretty huge resources to make sure that people actually are in the room when those artists get here. So $29, if that helps make it easy for people to attend, I'm going to try to stick through it as long as I can.

What is SXSW's involvement now?

Very much as advisors. As much as we wish to be on equal footing, it's pretty clear that they know a lot more about this than we do. It's great to have them as a resource to tap into their connections and their learnings.

Has the funding cut by the Ontario government affected you?

We have received some of our funding and we are still waiting to hear, believe it or not, two weeks from our event. I hope it doesn't affect me, but we don't know. This is a crazy thing. It was better with the previous government, they did it two years at a time, which is very helpful in terms of what we're trying to do.

Did going into gaming encourage more corporate businesses to sponsor?

Absolutely. We were leading edge. We went into Esports four years ago, which a lot of people just didn't get what we were talking about. But I think more and more now people are understanding it. We've got sponsors like Porsche, who are super excited, about the gaming piece now. The music was the biggest part of their relationship with us. But gaming has got them going now. We're finding a lot of corporations are particularly interested in that piece.

Is there a crossover into the music component?

Definitely. People are sponsoring both pieces, like Porsche, Steam Whistle [Brewing], NÜTRL Vodka, and Xbox, I think, are in both places.

When you first launched, those initial years, was it difficult to get NXNE off the ground or because of SXSW and the music scene at the time. did it just start with a bang?

It started with a bang. Our partnership with SXSW gave us instant credibility with audiences and the sponsors. We had great support from both right out of the gate. I think there was a real appetite in a pre-internet world for some level of curated music discovery. People were prepared to trust us, which was essential for that to be successful.

When did you start noticing you needed to make adjustments?

It was relatively recently. It was a big change for us when we added Yonge Street. We first started doing those shows in 2003, but the first years were less ambitious, and it grew to become a huge part of what we did.

Explain to the U.S. readers, who have never been to Toronto, what Yonge Street and that particular intersection at Dundas is.  

Yonge Street is Toronto's Times Square basically. It's the place where people go when Raptors win the NBA hopefully, and things like that. It also has a huge musical history. It's where Bob Dylan discovered The Band. It's where all the record stores used to be. So we're tapping into the musical history of the city and it's a place where people naturally congregate in Toronto anyway. And it looks like Blade Runner, which is awesome [laughs].

North By used to have a conference, not as big as Canadian Music Week, of course, but it was significant. But that's changed too. You have the one-day NXNE Talks.

First off, I think Neill [Dixon, CMW president] does a great job with his event, and it's very close [in time] to what we do, so we don't want to be doing some approximation of what he does. Again, things have changed a lot. We used to have over a thousand bands coming to Toronto looking to build their careers in ways that people aren't really doing, in the sense of the rush to meet record labels and have a chance to get signed. I think people are even somewhat ambivalent about getting signed. The old model has gone on that. And our previous conference was more a part of that older model; it was a lot of ‘how to' stuff, and a lot of that information is out there on the Internet.  Our needs for our conference have changed. Our conference is less about "how to" and it's more about "why?" So we talk about issues, diversity and safety and maybe new technology conversations.

On the legalization of marijuana, has that brought any new opportunities to the festival?

Last year we had a cannabis company as our title sponsor, Aurora.

Before it was legal.

Yes. Everything changed on October 17. And frankly, it would seem that I have self-interest in what I'm saying here and there is, but I think the government is making a huge mistake right now because we have a legal product. We have the so-called three vice products — alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis. Of all those three, there's only one they write prescriptions for. The fact that it's being treated like cigarettes, rather than alcohol, is ridiculous. It's taking a huge source of revenue out of the food chain.

As governments are cutting back support for culture all over the place, we have cannabis companies that are eager to market, particularly in the music and arts spaces, so this will be changed, especially because, frankly, a lot of the people that have gone into the cannabis industry are powerful and influential and used to be in government.

The status now is liquor companies are allowed to sponsor public events, but not cigarettes and cannabis.

That's right. They are treating pot cannabis like cigarettes, rather than like liquor and beer, which makes no sense to me.

Three years ago, you stepped down from Now magazine to focus full time on NXNE. But you recently announced that you're going back into print, to expand BeatRoute, as its editor and publisher [it was founded in Western Canada in 2004 by Brad Simm and Glenn Alderson]. What do you know that the rest of us don't? Is there a resurgence the way we've seen with vinyl?

The vinyl parallel is a really good one... Frank Ocean published his magazine, which is almost like a coffee table book. It's like 20 bucks. People are buying it. It hit me again. Newspapers today are less about news and more about the tactile experience of the print. I think there's a huge opportunity if you make it a beautiful and interesting magazine with some staying power, that people will pick it up, especially if it's part of a bigger media piece and obviously having an important, dynamic digital and web presence is critical. The magazine can be a cool calling card for other things we're doing.

This publication, although we're starting with something that's 15 years old, it's fresh. Things better done digitally, like listings, we're not doing those. But things like beautiful photography and having some room for stories to spread out. Also, we're super-focused. When Now came out, we were targeted at a smaller audience. We weren't trying to be the Toronto Star; we were trying to speak to a smaller group of very particular people who had a certain lifestyle, and BeatRoute is taking that one step further. We're narrowing it right down to people that are into music. We have fashion, but it's from a music stand; we have film but we only music-related films or documentaries. And this month's travel is about Festival d'été.

Festivals 2019