Billboard spoke with NXNE co-founder Michael Hollett (who is also the publisher/founder of free alternative weekly Now magazine), about NXNE 2013 expansion, the fest's connection to SXSW, the hiring of new festival directon Christopher Roberts, and Canadian Music Week, which announced it will now run in May -- a month before NXNE.
Billboard: What new strategies were implemented for this year’s NXNE?
Michael Hollett: Five years ago we made a big move when we added Dundas Square programming. As we got comfortable with that, we pushed it out and made it more expansive. It’s fantastic that South by Southwest is so successful and so huge and there’s a spot that’s opening up for something that’s like what SXSW was like five or ten years ago, in terms of how we serve our audience and the scale that we operate on. It’s much bigger than what NXNE has been -- not quite as big as what SXSW is obviously -- but we have great programming in the clubs. The Dundas Square shows are getting obviously huge.
Those draw how many people? It shuts down the downtown core.
35, 000. We’re adding Ryerson to the mix. We’re trying to create more of a festival village. We have an independent music market on Victoria [Street] going up directly north from Dundas Square. All the Canadian indie labels are all selling vinyl and merch. We’ve added visual art and have an arts fair happening in the quad at Ryerson. Next year we’ll have more stages in there, too, live stages. We’re trying to really make it a festival village.
What’s NXNE’s affiliation with SXSW?
Minority partners. South By was started by the guys who published the Austin Chronicle. So that’s the alternative news weekly there. We became friends before they ever started South By. We were a bigger paper than them so we shared our tips; I talked them into going weekly. I remember when they said ‘We’re going to start this festival’ and it’s like, ‘Good luck. That’s nice. That’s a great idea. That’s cute. Whatever.’ (laughs). I’d been to Austin and it’s a great music scene; that’s no secret, but clearly I had no idea what they were going to do, but I think it was about 9 years in or whatever, they said to me, ‘You know some day we’re going to hit a ceiling in Austin. Because Austin is designed to accommodate 150K- 250k people or whatever it is. Toronto’s got the infrastructure for over 4 million. As you know from going to Austin, there are no more hotels. There’s not enough taxis. You can’t just build a hotel for a week. And that’s they started this event in Las Vegas and found oither ways to grow. Remember, the east side, the other side of the highway, was never part of South By.
When you say they, who specifically?
Louis Black. Nick Barbaro, and Roland Swenson, the three principals. They were up here with us. They checked out Toronto and said, ‘Oh yeah, this has got the same elements that we have in Austin.’ For the first five years they were here on the ground with us and then eventually we didn’t really need them and we wanted to take ownership of it ourselves. But now, this year, we’ve got more South By people here than we’ve had in decades because we’re getting ready for the next step. It’s a very expansive path we’re on right now.
Co-founder and managing director Andy McLean left. Did that shake things up in any way?
Andy was at a place in his life where the kind of expansion I’m talking about maybe wasn’t necessarily what he was looking for. He’s got a great life up in Huntsville [Ontario]. What we need for moving forward now is kind of incendiary. It’s very consuming and combustible. And Christopher Roberts with his background at Vice was perfect for that. He’s staged huge cultural events in Beijing and all around the world.
So it’s you, Christopher, and Yvonne Matsell now?
Yeah. Christopher and I are the lead hands. And, of course, Yvonne. The three of us”
How many delegates are you expecting this year?
I can’t answer that. You would think I would have that number but I don’t.
What, for you, will be the music highlights?
Because I was so much a part of launching it, I always love the Dundas Square shows. Every night. I’m pumped about Joey Bada$$. I actually love Imperial State Electric. I love them. I might not even get to their show (laughs), but I think they’re going to do a secret show, thank God, and the guys from the Helicopters, I really like them.
What do you think the appeal for the music industry is to come for NXNE? There are less executive-focused panels, it’s more music festival.
Nothing says it more clearly than the fact that Billy Talent got discovered at the 360 as Pez at NXNE in the 1990s and now they’re headlining and getting a nice check to play Dundas Square. The next Billy Talent is playing at the Garrison or somewhere else.
We have created a great easy way for anyone in the industry to get a quick snapshot of all the best talent. We have all the genres covered. Initially, it was pretty big on alt-indie, of course, but now we’ve got a great hip-hop presence and alt-county has made a huge rebirth. The programming at Cameron is going to be great. It’s partially because of the arts festival, we’ve shut down Cameron Street so there’s outdoor space there the whole time. That’s our stage and beer garden and visual art installations. I love that whole scene at Cameron these days, all these cool indie – alt country doesn’t quite cover it but I guess you could say singer/songwrites r – it’s a very neat scene there and they’ve embraced this and are being really creative.
What did you think of Canadian Music Week’s announcement that it is moving from its usual wintery spot in March to May next year?
If things are working, you wouldn’t change it radically like that -- so obviously they’re addressing a shortcoming. And I think we’re showing how it can be done and that we’ve established real credibility and a real brand with people for the timeframe we’re in. I think from their point of view it’s a move you make when you’re struggling. We’re not struggling, we’re robust and we’re growing. It’s like in publishing; it’s always like, what’s the magic number, what’s the magic circulation, what’s the magic page count? And really it’s always about having a great paper or a great magazine. That’s what we’ve been proving for 19 years.
It’s not wholly two different audiences, but CMW is very industry focused with its panels, awards shows, keynotes while NXNE is a festival for everyone.
We’re much more street and mass audience. Yeah, we are very different.
Do you think they can be a month apart and people will attend both?
I guess, we’ll see. I’m selling lots of tickets and there’s lots of huge interest and we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a huge city. You know, Luminato’s up and coming; MMVAs [MuchMusic Video Awards] were happening last year; I had a hip-hop show two weeks after a kid was shot at the Eaton Centre and had 20,000 people. If you’re looking for things not to work there’s always reasons. My event was packed last year to the extent that we had to grow and add stages like crazy this year and you know we intend to do even more next year.