NXNE is the Toronto music festival both modeled on and actively mentored by SXSW, and its goal is nurturing a viable local cultural economy. The fest, which turns 22 this June, has weathered pushback in response to Action Bronson's lyrical content and his headlining spot in a public venue, a radius clause banning artists on the festival bill from playing another Toronto show within 45 days, and NXNE's perceived unresponsiveness to public outcry.
But NXNE also spearheaded a municipal alliance between Toronto and Austin in 2013 and last year Mayor John Tory seemed confident about the future of the city's culture industry. However as the launch date of June 15 approaches, interviews with NXNE's president and founder Michael Hollett suggest fundamental changes are on the way. These changes impact NXNE's history of being accessible and discovery-focused and indicate a shift toward the popular site-specific, paid entry festivals of today.
Hollett described some of these changes in an interview with Exclaim!. The festival will no longer offer all-access wristbands for club shows, which will now be programmed as individual, ticketed events. In addition, the four days of free concerts that used to take over Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square—former headliners include St. Vincent, The Flaming Lips, and more—will no longer be the festival's centerpiece. Instead, the Square will host competitive video gaming. Music will make an appearance at the Square, but Hollett says the spotlight will be on video game premieres and events where fans can play titles like Call Of Duty against stars. In an interview with NOW Magazine—an alt-weekly that Hollett co-founded—he said this shift makes NXNE “the largest video gaming event in Canada.”
Live music fans will instead be directed to 155 Cherry Street, a new venue in a waterfront industrial district of downtown Toronto called Port Lands. But this isn't just a redirect, it's a shift in centrality, cost, and duration. (The line-up has yet to be announced). In a phone call, Hollett tells The FADER that the new events at Yonge-Dundas Square would still be free but he seemed less certain about whether that would extend to music programming. “There will probably free shows in parks and other smaller venues," he says, "but not to the scale of The Flaming Lips or Iggy and The Stooges.”
Hollett characterizes the wristband-and-club hopping template as an industry relic. “Wristbands were based on the original model of bands trying to get a record deal," he says. "Social media has changed that.” And though NXNE will incorporate creatively-styled, pop-up venues, Hollett believes that shifting the focus from live music and bar-hopping to something more experiential will benefit both artists and audiences. “It's better having an up-and-coming band playing the 'Discovery Stage' at the Port Lands than a Hungarian restaurant we've converted that no one comes to," he says. "I don't want to promise artists something I can't give them.” He continues: “The old model is broken. Gaming is the new model, and I want to be a part of that. It's not getting easier to be a musician. It's getting harder.”
It is perhaps due to these reductions in size and scope that Hollett has said that the Port Lands gigs will make NXNE Toronto's “cheapest festival of the summer.”
As last year's festival suggests, things can change at any minute. The FADER will update this story as it progresses. NXNE plans to unveil its line-up in the coming weeks.