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NXNE kicks off in Toronto with a city-wide festival featuring 800 bands

Keen on a week or more of being fully immersed in music, film, art and comedy with 'activations' that take you down the rabbit hole to enjoy ever-more music? How about hopping on a plane to Toronto for NXNE Festival, it might even take the edge of the fact that you did not get Outside Lands tickets this year. The sister-event to SXSW, this Toronto-based city-wide multi-disciplinary festival which begins today goes till June 22.

NXNE kicks off today for nine-days of music featuring St Vincent, Spoon and Sleigh Bells among others.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Marquee acts such as St Vincent and Spoon are headlining this year, with other must-see buzz acts such as Sleigh Bells, Future Islands, Courtney Barnett, Juicy J, Omar Souleyman and a slew of emerging acts such as Perfect Pussy and Eagulls. Bay Area’s own tUnE-yArDs and Happy Fangs are also on the bulging program.

Being the 20th Anniversary of NXNE, the party is even bigger with approximately 800 bands, 30 films, 80 interactive sessions and 75 comedians performing during the week.

The event will rock Toronto to the core and for the first time will even take over Toronto Islands on Lake Ontario. Festival badges and wristband will gain you entry to the best events but Yonge-Dundas Square will stage free concerts where some of the most exciting and diverse acts such as St Vincent, Sleigh Bells and Danny Brown will be performing.

Yesterday, on the eve of NXNE, Festival Director, Christopher Roberts took some time off his busy schedule to speak to about its ticket sales for those toying with the idea of heading north. “We are trending to quadruple our sales from last year. At this rate, we expect to sell out by this time next week.”

He added: “For many years the festival was dependent a lot on the Canadian government for finance with support from the corporate sponsors. We have been looking at a business model that pushes the value of the wristbands. ” That means a lot of ‘activations’ - events that only those with the coveted wristbands will have unique access to and will give them 'bragging rights' but will be paid for by corporate sponsors.

Roberts who worked with Vice for many years signing on new bands also understands how important the festival is for emerging bands. San Francisco band, Happy Fangs who are on their way to Toronto for their showcase said: “We couldn’t be more excited. This makes us an international touring band. And is really important for us to play in places where we can be heard by totally new audiences and like-minded bands. We are also going a day before our set to take part in the conference.”

For more on the history of NXNE and what it has to offer this year, Roberts gives us the inside track.

What separates NXNE from other festivals?

The festival was started 20 years ago by Roland Swenson and Louis Black from SXSW in partnership with Michael Howlett from NOW Magazine - the alternative music paper here, in the same way that SXSW was an initiative by The Austin Chronicle. It’s not a gated festival like Bonnaroo, Coachella or Osheaga. It happens at bars and venues throughout the city. It also has film, comedy and art components to it. Basically, we are promoting big cultural ideas - we have a sandbox and we invite people into the sandbox to play and build their sandcastles as high as they can. NXNE also evokes the idea of being an indie festival, a discovery festival. At SXSW there is a lot of yelling going on to get your attention but at NXNE you can still find that next Grimes or Juicy J.

How have festivals changed and grown in popularity in the music industry’s landscape since NXNE started out?

I have worked in the music industry for 15 years. The European festival circuit has been developing for the past 30 years, and they have big anchor festivals like Roskilde and Glastonbury. North America is just catching up with this model. Lollapalooza used to be a traveling festival for a while but it hasn’t really worked in that model. However, others such as Coachella have become established festivals. As a music fan, festivals are a great way to enjoy music. Bands and record labels use festival dates as anchors, to pull and build a campaign around perhaps the release of a new album. For example, at SXSW everyone holds off any album release till the week after SXSW because there is just too much noise before hand. So festivals have changed the musical landscape.

How important are festivals for emerging artists?

Festivals are vital for emerging artist as they can work to get as many eyeballs on them as possible. For example, years ago I signed Black Lips to the VICE label and they did several shows at SXSW – The New York Times then did a piece on them called “The Hardest Working Band” and that really did break the band and brought them to the next level. If you are a baby band, getting in front of as many people as possible to get your music out there, that can really help make a band. If you are marquee level band like Spoon or St Vincent it’s great to just get the attention. St Vincent is on a meteoric rise at the moment and it’s an easy stage for her. Spoon are building on the excitement around their new album which is going to be released later in the year.

NXNE has been recognized worldwide as a festival for working musicians – what does than mean essentially?

There are bands and artists who do this as a full-time job. And if you want to have any semblance of longevity you need to educate yourself about the industry. And that’s why we have the conference (NXNEi). This year we have Paul Rosenberg who has been influential in the career of Eminem. And Oliver El-Khatib who co-manages Drake is going to speak about the youth market and how it’s not just a pipe dream but what you have to do to make it work. At NXNE you are not just here to play a gig and go home, as an artist you are also here to network. We have six folks from Pitchfork coming this year and people from the William Morris Agency – these are people with an interest in music and want to know who you are and what you are doing?

Are festival-goers coming mostly from Canada for NXNE or like other festivals from the US, and further afield?

We know fairly well that 70 per cent are coming from Canada, mainly Ontario and Toronto. And of the remaining 30 per cent – 20 per cent are from the US and 10 per cent from the UK, South Africa and this year, Israel. We are trying to appeal to more international festival-goers but NXNE is not a Canadian festival. It’s a festival of Canada, and it’s held in Canada but we are trying to achieve a critical mass of attention and spotlight for the whole festival and all the different bands and artists involved. And to create that cache of importance for industry business following in the model of SXSW.

So are festivals going to save the music industry?

I think music is going to save the music industry. It’s not going to be festivals, it’s not going to be labels, it’s not going to be publishing companies. It’s diversity – that’s what’s going to save the music industry. Gone are the days when record sales could pay off your mortgage. These days record sales can only recoup some of the initial costs. Bands have to have an online brand, play a lot of festivals and other live shows. You need more than one horse in the game. You need a stable.

Being the 20th anniversary they are a lot of exciting things going on – you get to take over islands! As festival director what are you most excited about?

Yes VICE is taking over Toronto Islands. There are other 'activations' happening too like MiO the liquid water enhancer is taking over a street car. As festival director, engaging the audience is what I am most excited about but I walk that tightrope of having someone pay for it. And millennials have the most efficient bullshit detector. I’m not quite a Millennial but I walk through a mall and I can switch off to all the logos. But Millennials just have no patience for any of it. And we don’t want to underestimate their intelligence. So they get to jump on board a MiO street car every evening and listen to acts like Reggie Watts and Pizza Underground. Budweiser is doing a secret show and only a few people will be able to experience this but it's going to create a memorable moment for those that do. And these moments will help with future sales for the festival.

For tickets to NXNE, please click here. There are a variety of ticket options with the top tier Platinum badges gaining you entry to the whole festival for $599. The Music wristband for $149 gets you into all music showcases, special partner activations and the comedy program. There is even an All Ages wristband for $40.

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