The 22nd edition of North by Northeast has been shrouded in mystery, with some questioning whether the renowned Toronto music festival would even take place at all this year. Today (March 9), the fest's president and managing director Michael Hollett has clarified exactly what's going on with NXNE in 2016.
Certainly, there are big changes afoot. The festival has abandoned the wristband club-hopping vibe it was known for and will instead focus on new initiatives. Instead of hosting its headliners at Yonge-Dundas Square, the main festival will take place at two stages in the Port Lands. Yonge-Dundas will still be utilized, but will instead focus on live competitive gaming. Videogames will also play into a conference at Ryerson University, which will focus on how musicians can break into that industry.
Finally, NXNE has partnered with Collective Concerts to present ticketed events at large clubs like Lee's Palace, the Mod Club, the Phoenix, the Opera House and Danforth Music Hall, among others.
Speaking with Exclaim!, Hollett explains that NXNE has moved past its club-hopping days.
"One of the things I'm going for is a different experience for people," he says. "As part of their festival experience, they need an immersive element…. Things like WayHome — you go to a festival like that and you get cool war stories, in a good way. You wake up in somebody's tent wondering what happened. And you don't get that from running club to club to club. Coachella, you know — everywhere I go, the music is really important of course. But there's also just other pieces of that experience."
Relocating the main festival hub to the Port Lands was an idea that stemmed from frustration with trying to book Toronto's island in the past. "Everybody wants to do a show on the island in Toronto until they do a show on the island," he says. "People would leave those shows before the headliners were finished because they didn't want to get stuck on the ferry.
"But the Port Lands is the same vibe. You're down on the water. One of the most fun things we're doing is locating the stage to get a perfect view of the city in the background. We can have fun with the site. We're going to dress it. It's going to be like an art installation. There's going to be two stages going, and people will feel like they've been somewhere at the end of it all in addition to seeing cool bands."
Hollett promises that the event at the Port Lands will be "the cheapest festival of the summer." It will have a main stage packed with headliners, as well as a discovery stage. He hopes the latter will get eyeballs on some up-and-comers who normally would have played to half-empty bars in previous years.
"I think in that environment there will be a lot of patience for that kind of stuff," he says. "It'll be like, 'Okay I'll check that out. And then we're going to stroll back over to the main stage and see the big band that we bought the ticket for, but we'll check these people out.' Versus playing somewhere way out there that they're never going to get to. I definitely feel a huge responsibility for the acts, as well as the audience."
He adds that the purpose of a music festival has changed drastically over the years. Previously, these club-hopping experiences existed to get bands in front of record label representatives. But now that record labels are changing their roles and the internet is raising profiles independently of the music industry, people already know who they want to see long before a festival starts.
"I think people have moved away from the wristband festival-hopping experience," he admits. "When NXNE started, there was no social media, and there were record labels. That was our promise — come out, discover a band you've never heard of and go to this place. I just think there's less of an appetite for that. It's a big city, it's really spread out, and we're trying to centralize it a bit more and make it easier for people. It's not much good if you're seeing one band at nine and the next band you want to see is a 40-minute travel time away. You're not going to get there.
"I think more and more, people don't want to be at a show, they want to be at the show. And they can find out. You can know so much more about a band now than you could 22 years ago. You can know who you want to see, and if you don't your friends are going to tell you."
Rising acts will also be given the opportunity to perform at Yonge-Dundas Square alongside the live gaming competition. Hollett explains that he was inspired to introduce a competitive gaming element after first seeing it at SXSW.
"You probably know this, maybe you don't, but the rest of the world has already embraced this," he says of competitive gaming. "In Los Angeles, they sell out the Staples Center for gaming. It seems unbelievable, but it's true. And Cineplex has gone deep into this recently. I was just at their national Call of Duty championship on the weekend, and it's pretty cool. Gamers are playing and there's sports-style commentary going on. So we're going to play with that at Dundas Square, and we're going to have bands playing as well, and we're going to have celebrities playing against fans."
As for the big-name headliners, Hollett explains that this year's festival will be heavily influenced by its hometown hip-hop talent.
"The world is looking at Toronto right now for hip-hop — we are literally one of those moments," he says. "Liverpool in the '60s, Detroit in the '70s, Manchester in the '80s, Seattle in the '90s — Toronto right now is a musical epicentre. And I don't see a huge reflection of that in what I'm seeing booked around me. And I saw that with total respect for the colleagues in the business. I think we're going to really highlight this moment in time in Toronto."
NXNE will run from June 15 to 19. The lineup for the 2016 edition of the festival will be announced soon.