Music festival is bigger and better than ever before
16 June 2010
Since 2005, pictures of Sketchy, an androgynous – and apparently dead – rabbit have blanketed Toronto’s telephone poles and flyer-bombed concert hall walls and other cluttered surfaces. This year, Sketchy’s twisted visage has leapt from the confines of two dimensions into clubs, parks and Yonge-Dundas Square; as usual, he’s here to let people know the annual North by Northeast (NXNE) festival is back.
Sketchy is a mere five years young, but the event behind the unofficial mascot is a little further on in its years. Birthed in 1994, NXNE has brought together local acts from the GTA, Canada and other countries for 16 years. The festival can also take credit for unifying the efforts of 50 typically competitive concert venues.
This year’s musical bricolage consists of about 650 musical acts, up 400 from the year of its inception. The performers range from folk troubadour solo artists to post-punk dance dub groups and beyond; they include acts from Eagles of Death Metal, Sloan, Hawksley Workman, Attack in Black and PS I Love You.
2010’s NXNE will also include a massive free concert headlined by music legends Iggy and The Stooges on June 19 at Yonge-Dundas Square. Yonge Street will be shut down for the festival, something that NXNE managing director, cofounder and co-owner Andy McLean says will make the event “arguably the largest downtown city concert the city’s seen.”
The Stooges have endured a bandmate’s death, the comings and goings of several members, a breakup, several hiatuses, personal demons (including lead singer Iggy Pop’s heroin addiction) and a coup against the sound David Bowie gave them on the album Raw Power.
And like The Stooges’ lineup, NXNE has seen ongoing changes.
“It’s not like you just churn it out,” McLean insisted. “It’s custom-built every year.”
But while McLean ensures NXNE-goers that this year will be no carbon-copy of last year’s festival – he promises you’ll see 500 brand new and emerging bands there – he isn’t just talking about the artists.
NXNE’s technology has also developed over the years.
For musicians, said McLean, “everything’s done digitally, by email, uploaded here [at NXNE headquarters].” The NXNE website has become the main interface as the festival has adapted to the information age with a Facebook group and Twitter feeds, as well as two new mobile apps developed for the iPhone and Blackberry in order to help keep fans in the know on the go.
While the technology has changed for McLean, the industry he gets his talent from has gone through a metamorphosis of its own. But what McLean is determined to preserve is the experience of seeing bands up close and personal.
“You can cruise the Internet looking for bands,” said McLean. “But I think still going out and feeling that kick drum in your chest when you walk into a club – you’ll never replace that by going online.”
In order to perpetuate the band-audience exchange, McLean and people like Michael Hollett and Yvonne Matsell have put together workshops, conferences and interactive sessions headed by speakers like Alan Cross and Ze Frank. Here, musicians can learn about how to make money playing music, gather networking skills, meet with media and more.
Now that it’s time to unleash the musicians, NXNE is paying dues by throwing a festival of epic proportions, having opening night parties at the CN Tower, The Phoenix, The Courthouse and The Mod Club. And with many participating NXNE venues serving drinks until 4 a.m. throughout the rest of the week – a NXNE tradition fresh from last year – it will be a long and electrifying haul until the festival’s close on Sunday.
(Originally published by Excalibur on June 16, 2010)