NXNE 2014: Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better
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NXNE 2014: Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

Do the festival's growing pains mean local acts are getting shut out?

St. Vincent drew tens of thousands to Yonge-Dundas Square for her free NXNE set.

By every metric, this year’s North by Northeast was the biggest instalment of the festival yet. As many as 30,000 people crammed into Yonge-Dundas Square, or stood on the streets nearby watching overhead video screens, for free sets by headliners St. Vincent, Spoon, and Juicy J. Wristband and pass holders, who paid considerably more than in previous years, got their money’s worth with exceptional shows at larger venues, including Massey Hall and Tattoo Rock Parlour, where they thrilled to the drums and choral magic of tUnE-yArDs, or to Future Islands, whose frontman Samuel T. Herring crooned and roared to a packed house.

But even as patrons were enjoying the biggest and best-run NXNE to date, an undercurrent of resentment bubbled up from stakeholders in the local music scene, toward whom the festival was unusually abrasive in the lead-up to the 2014 festival.

There was so much public ridicule of NXNE’s policies this year that the festival organized a panel discussion comprising vocal critics, entitled “Why NXNE Sucks,” in response. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd to the NXNE conference on Friday afternoon. Criticism of the festival’s newly instituted 45-day “radius clause,” which would have prevented participating bands from playing in Toronto for 45 days before the festival, was preempted by a joint press release from both NXNE and Canadian Music Week that morning announcing that the clause would be abolished. But panelists, among them reps from Pop Montreal and indie music series Weird Canada, still had concerns about the use of Sonic Bids (a subscription-based service) for submissions to the festival, and the continued practice of compensating most acts with wristbands or a $100 flat fee. (One of the Q&A complaints came from a member of the Scottish band Golden Teacher, who’d played Yonge-Dundas Square the night before, and claimed the hospitality they’d been shown by the festival was sub-par.)

It’s understandable that members of Toronto’s local music scene should be perturbed by just how big—and corporate—NXNE has become. After all, while Canadian Music Week originated as an industry event that expanded into music showcases in local clubs, NXNE began as a grassroots local festival. But where CMW has faltered in recent years in delivering both a smooth festival experience and enjoyable big-ticket events (their attempt to showcase M.I.A. at Yonge-Dundas this year was a bust), NXNE has grown by leaps and bounds, and its growing pains haven’t always been obvious—until this year.

Some questions not considered by the critical panel: Is NXNE beholden to the local scene out of which it grew? As a festival that accepts public funds, is it obligated to foster local music? Is providing an economic benefit to the city in the form of increased attendance and dollars spent the primary justification for NXNE’s public funding?

By comparison, arts festival Luminato focuses on bringing international acts to Toronto, and while there are always grumblings from those, say, in the local theatre community, about the scarcity of local content on the larger stages, there are other festivals (like SummerWorks or the Fringe) that feature emerging and local theatre talent. A festival needs to grow, or change, or die. (Perhaps if CMW were savvy, they’d focus more on their local music content, since they seem ill-equipped to compete with NXNE for big acts and splashy events.)

And yet there was plenty of local content among the 40-plus acts featured at NXNE this year. We thrilled to see Weaves, a local buzz-band that’s only been around for about a year, play their idiosyncratic tunes on the Massey Hall stage. It’s true that this was the first NXNE we can recall during which we didn’t attend any shows at smaller clubs like Rancho Relaxo or Bovine Sex Club. But we watched local synth act Ark Analog play for a packed house at Tattoo, and the mix of local and international talent at the larger venues was too irresistible to pass up.

Comedian Marty Topps, who recorded a whole album of satirical tributes to the Tapout MMA brand, won the second annual Laugh Sabbath/NXNE comedy shorts festival with his similarly brand-obsessed “Beep Beep (Buy Me a Jeep).”

Of course, some aspects of the festival are still in their nascence, including the comedy offerings. Big names like Kurt Braunohler (who had a three-night stand at Comedy Bar) and Reggie Watts (who was everywhere, even performing a set on a Mio Squirt-branded streetcar) drew casual comedy fans, but so did the local shows: Laugh Sabbath’s second annual comedy shorts festival drew a much larger crowd this year, for a slicker slate of local comedy on film. And the corporate sponsorship of NXNE comedy by masturbation aid Fleshlight didn’t faze the performers: at the late-night Strip Comedy showcase, Evan Desmarais joked about his drunken attempts to use the device, which he’d won on a showcase earlier in the week, while Steph Tolev dropped her trousers to reveal a Fleshlight attached to her underwear.

And of course, there were still plenty of unofficial shows to take advantage of during the festival that mixed local acts with out-of-towners. We spent an afternoon in the sun on Saturday enjoying acoustic sets by The Wooden Sky and Ottawa’s Polaris Prize long-listed Kalle Mattson at the fifth annual Live in Bellwoods series, organized by Young Lions Music Club. And on Sunday, we saw (for a third time) Weaves play an in-store set at Sonic Boom, followed by Australian rocker Courtney Barnett, who played three nights at the Silver Dollar, including a rollicking Sunday night finale.

It’s a good thing that local pundits, critics, and music scenesters are vocal when NXNE makes a rare misstep, as it did with the radius clause. It’s also good that NXNE is savvy enough to listen when these people warn of the festival losing touch with its roots. No matter how many great acts NXNE brings in from out of town, it will live and die with the support of local clubs, and precluding a club such as the Dakota Tavern from having a band do a monthly residency for as many as three months prior to NXNE is the sort of thing that could alienate that support base. While there was plenty of corporate presence at this year’s festival, it was well-managed; the only place where sight lines weren’t good for the Yonge-Dundas concerts was in the lineup for the Budweiser VIP section.

The competition between NXNE and CMW should be a healthy thing for local music fans and local bands, and we’re hoping that we’ll see more of that (and less of detrimental moves like the radius clause) in years to come.