Is NXNE Losing Touch With The Toronto Music Scene?

Is NXNE losing touch with the Toronto music scene?

As the festival celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's time to wonder if it's expanding beyond the local music scene.

- Jun 17, 2014

Every year in Toronto a noticeable shift occurs when the weather gets warm. The pent up energy, born of months spent indoors or grimly bundled under grey skies cursing the TTC, is expressed en masse in an orgy of art openings, magazine launches and afternoon drinking, as local art communities gather to show each other what they've spent the winter working on. The show schedule gets dense and audiences are frequently spoiled for choice of both Toronto-based bands and out-of-towners who begin coming through the city at a regular clip, and this buildup of musical energy typically crescendos in mid-June during the main weekend of North By Northeast (NXNE).

If the upsurge seems more dramatic this year, that’s no coincidence. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, NXNE is noticeably bigger and glitzier this year, with bigger headliners, bigger sponsors, and a higher price tag for a wristband. That does a lot to explain why the festival seems to jump out of the concert calendar more than usual, but there's also more to it.

Buzz bands and splashy headliners aside, the core of the festival has long been the Toronto music scene. By engaging and cooperating with all of the disparate elements of that scene, NXNE has performed a valuable role as a community builder, bridging the spaces between these elements and providing an opportunity for Toronto residents to discover the music that’s happening in their city year round. And so the festival has lived and died with the venues, promoters and bands that make up its environment.

This collaborative ethos has provided much of the impetus for the festival’s expansion, but this year, as the festival celebrates a milestone and welcomes a new Festival Director in Christopher Roberts, former long-time Head of Artists Relations for Vice Media, NXNE appears to be moving in a new direction.

As NXNE sets its sights on exponential growth, will it disregard the scene that enables the festival’s existence?

The most telling sign of their change in attitude has been the extension of the festival’s much-discussed radius clause — a contractual stipulation that requires an artist not perform within a region during a specified period — from a loosely enforced two weeks to a zealously enforced 45 days. This change comes on the heels of the decision taken by Canadian Music Week (CMW), Toronto’s other major showcase festival, to move from March to early May.

While the Toronto music scene is certainly robust enough to weather a relatively quiet month and a half, the extended clause has noticeably dampened the buildup to this year’s festival. Furthermore the change raises questions about how the festival views itself and to what degree it values the contributions of Toronto’s year-round music community. As NXNE sets its sights on exponential growth, will it disregard the scene that is responsible for building and maintaining the infrastructure that enables the festival’s existence?

Death From Above 1979 - Romantic Rights

NXNE acknowledges that it owes part of its success to its collaboration with local promoters and venues. Mike Tanner, NXNE’s Director of Operations, calls the festival “a big tent, or a big sandbox, and we want local promoters with vision and passion and connection to bring what they have to NXNE and that can’t help but enrich what we’re doing.” He also acknowledges the infrastructural benefits afforded to the festival by the year-round scene, claiming that “this festival couldn’t happen anywhere else.” He continues, “sometimes when I’m having conversations with people who do similar types of things in other cities across North America, I tell them, ‘look, we’re using 40 club venues as NXNE venues this year, and every one of those venues has live music throughout the whole year,’ and people’s jaws kind of drop.”

This hasn’t always been the festival’s approach. The benefits of a collaborative arrangement became apparent after a dispute with Dan Burke, the booker at the Silver Dollar and a longtime fixture (and character) of Toronto music.

Burke’s first exposure to the festival came in 1999 when he says the festival would dictate which acts would play in which venues from the top down with very little input from the promoters and bookers. In 2004, when Burke was booking at the The Comfort Zone, he was approached by Josh Reichmann of Tangiers who was looking for a last-minute venue for a bill he had put together with a then-surging Death From Above 1979. Burke offered the show to NXNE, but the festival did not share his enthusiasm.

“I went to NXNE to Andy McLean, who was the boss at that time (and they didn’t like me, because I was difficult), and I said, ‘We have a show…’" Burke remembers. "Andy McLean just looked at me and said ‘Make it go away.’ I said, ‘Just for that, I’m gonna do it every fucking year.’”

Wolf Parade- Dear Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts (video)

The show was a success, and true to his word Burke ran another slate of shows the next year featuring, among others, Wolf Parade. Burke’s NeXT showcase began gaining buzz at the expense of NXNE, which prompted Michael Hollett, one of the founders of the festival, to approach Burke at the NOW Magazine holiday party in 2005 and suggest that a collaboration would benefit both parties.

“It was a new direction for the festival,” Burke recalls, “and I have to say I respect the festival a lot today. I work very closely with them, they’ve maintained their relationship with me, and in fact these kinds of relationships have spread throughout the festival and now they’re doing great shows everywhere.”

In light of the obvious importance of the Toronto music community in enabling the festival’s operation, and the willingness of its directors to acknowledge the benefits it confers, this year’s strictly enforced radius clause seems particularly bizarre. In the words of NXNE’s new Festival Director Christopher Roberts, the move was taken to, “protect [NXNE’s] investment in the festival,” but in its widespread application it’s made it harder for local bands, promoters, bookers and venues to make a living.

In our interview Robert’s refuses to acknowledge the prevailing popular belief that CMW’s move was the motivation for the change, claiming instead that it was one of among a host of changes he made upon assuming his new position. “When I got here, you know, new brooms sort of sweep clean, so things that didn’t work in the past we tried to correct during my tenure here, in the short time I’ve been able to make such changes,” he says. “One of the changes in my view was that radius clause.”

The perception is that smaller bands playing smaller shows in smaller venues are the innocent bystanders who are getting shot in this turf war between these two big gangs.

Roberts sees the extension as a relatively minor change, comparing it to Coachella. “You can’t play in L.A. for half a year around Coachella," he says. But Coachella is a very different festival from NXNE, taking place in one location, rather than in venues that operate all across a city and throughout the year, and features almost exclusively large touring acts who receive considerable compensation for their performances, a far cry from the $100 or a festival pass offered by NXNE to the majority of their performers.

An apter comparison is SXSW, NXNE's namesake and its new "music city" partner with Austin, Texas. "You know SXSW has pretty much the same [clause] we do, 45 days in and out, which isn’t a lot, and most bands are pretty used to playing around a radius clause,” Roberts says. But contrary to his assertion, SXSW’s clause requires only that artists refrain from playing any non-festival shows during the festival between the times of 7pm and 2am, a provision that allows bands to play the unofficial day time shows that often constitute some of the most memorable events during SXSW.

When it comes to other festivals that take place within urban music scenes, Pop Montreal has no hard rule or contractual obligation, although a representative of the festival said that “we generally don't encourage bands to play a week or two before or after the festival.” The New York City based CMJ has no restrictions or clause of any kind.

Whether or not CMW was the primary motivating factor for the change, and it almost certainly was, the 45 day clause seems like a senselessly aggressive gesture towards a community that has provided a substantial base of support for the festival. As Jonathan Bunce, the artistic director of the long running Wavelength Music Series, observes, “It’s basically a turf war between them and CMW. And I guess the perception is that smaller bands playing smaller shows in smaller venues are the innocent bystanders who are getting shot in this turf war between these two big gangs.”

Jon Kastner, the programmer for seven years at NXNE who this year began working in the same role for CMW, claims that the rivalry is entirely one-sided, and that NXNE was actively poaching bands who had been confirmed for CMW in the build up to the festival season. “They’re threatened by what’s going on,” he says, “It’s not like they’re going after the other festivals in that time frame, they’re really just going after CMW, and the only people who are really hurting from this are the bands and the local venues.”

Kastner sees this as a shift in the festival’s interests from the period when he worked there, claiming that they’re trying to court more involvement from the international music industry. “That’s never been a thing” he says. “When I was running the festival there was no industry that really backed it so we were just throwing a great party. They’re definitely trying to move into that territory.”

It’s entirely possible that Kastner has an axe to grind, but in light of their behavior over the course of the last year it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the festival is less interested in serving the local music scene than it has been in the past. Roberts’ comparing the festival to Coachella and SXSW seems to imply that the festival’s new director sees NXNE as akin to two of North America’s largest music events, both of which have come under heavy criticism recently for embracing the total influence of major corporate sponsorship, and for prioritizing established headliners over the emerging bands they have putatively served in the past.

The Ketamines - Line By Line (HoZac Records 091)

For Paul Lawton, a vocal critic of what he terms “the mega-festivals,” (his irreverent Slagging Off blog caused some local controversy during last year’s CMW) and member of Toronto by way of Lethbridge, Alberta band The Ketamines, these festivals greatly over-estimate their own value to the smaller bands that they showcase. “The joke of them thinking that either of them are important enough to merit a radius clause is just fucking hilarious,” says Lawton.

He sees the festival’s relationships with bands like his, who are playing the festival this year, as “parasitic” and suggests that the local support bands are increasingly an irrelevance. “Let’s just move away from this and not have local support any more,” suggests Lawton, “because I think that’s the next step to all of this. Do you think that The Ketamines playing NXNE matters to anybody?”

While Lawton’s position may seem extreme, it is increasingly difficult to see the incentive for local bands and promoters to work with a festival that has evinced such disregard for their well-being beyond NXNE's limits, and that seems like a real shame. The festival certainly has every right to set its sights high, and to protect its interests, but its unconscionable to do so at the expense of the Toronto music community. There is no compelling reason why the festival can’t grow and grow the scene with it. Hopefully this year’s debacle is a momentary abdication of the responsibility the festival acknowledges it owes to the people that enable its continued success.

In response to some of the criticisms outlined in this piece, NXNE will be holding a "WHY NXNE SUCKS" panel discussion on Friday, June 20 at 1PM. No wristband required.

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