Three months after the music industry converged on Toronto for the business-heavy Canadian Music Week (CMW), the city is hosting another music festival and conference, North By Northeast (NXNE). Now in its 17th year, the confab has grown to include a film festival (in its 10th year) and for the second year in a row an interactive component all running this week (June 13-19).
Co-founded by Andy McLean, Now magazine publisher/editor Michael Hollett, club booker Yvonne Matsell and Now editor/CEO Alice Klein, NXNE has more than tripled in size and length since its inception and now features 650 bands, 50 panels and 40 films spanning an entire week. Financial sponsors include Sirius Satellite Radio; new sponsor AOL and Spinner.ca; Astral, Now, and others. Billboard.Biz spoke with NXNE managing director Andy McLean about NXNE’s evolution amidst all the festival action.
.Biz: How did NXNE start?
Andy McLean: Going down to South By Southwest — back in those days when I was involved with promoting bands like the Barenaked Ladies and Lowest of the Low, which were just starting to do their indie thing — and seeing how that event was evolving, and then meeting up with Michael and Yvonne and saying, ‘Hey, this is a great way to provide the kind of step up for the new emerging indie scene,’ we had an inkling things were heading in that direction. Of course, we had no idea the extent of the influence the Internet would have, but we clearly saw that the established system of major label [was changing]. Being a musician myself and having signed three major deals with the major labels [for bands Tenants and Doubledare], I’d been through it so I knew what it was it was all about.”
What was NXNE’s affiliation with SXSW and what is it now?
They own a small piece of North By Northeast, which is run and operated by us. In the early days, they [SXSW co-founders Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro] were invaluable in terms of giving us some help and advice. We borrowed some of their systems wherever it made sense and then we developed in our own way and NXNE, from a Canadian perspective, has its own unique character now.
But the idea of combining business with music, first and foremost, and building from the grassroots up is what we wanted to do. We just wanted to get the best bands we possibly could and give them a stage to play on and figured the media, industry, and the infrastructure would come. That was our plan. Toronto’s not Austin, but it certainly has a really good live music club scene and it has the concentration that you can create the club-hopping atmosphere you get in Austin.
So you’ve built the festival component more than the conference?
Yes, absolutely. We thought we’ll put on a great festival showcasing great new music and we knew that the rest of the industry would come because that’s what it’s all about.”
How is it staging a big music festival in Toronto just three months after CMW?
Seventeen years ago when we started this, there wasn’t really anything of this nature in Toronto. CMW didn’t really exist as it does now; there certainly wasn’t a festival component. I think it was tied with The Record [Canada’s defunct music trade paper] so it was more a radio-type of awards event from what I remember.
How has the festival changed?
Now it’s the new industry, the new model and every band is a business. The Internet has blown the whole thing wide open. The major labels are not operating in any way like they used to. We just wanted to support the indie bands. We didn’t know that the indie bands were going to become the new major. We didn’t know that technology was going to lead that revolution. Our job now is to host this great event, bring together all the different components that a band needs to help develop their music and build a fan base. They don’t need to get signed anymore. It’s about building a direct relationship with their fans and trying to somehow make money and a living.
How did the internet component come about?
We added the Interactive conference last year because music is interactive. It’s three festivals in one. During the daytime sessions, everything is weaved through what we program now. We’re not just doing traditional music panels. We’re talking about bringing musicians into today’s technologies, bringing the tech world and the music world together because they’re all talking about similar things. The blending of those things has reinvigorated our daytime conferences.