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‘You’ve got to embrace the change,’ says NXNE founder Michael Hollett


AUSTIN, TEX.—Michael Hollett, the founder of Toronto’s North by Northeast festival, has created quite a stir in recent days by announcing a major format change for one of Toronto’s flagship music events and publicly musing that its time-honoured, get-a-wristband-and-go-club-crawling model had run its course.

It seemed fitting, then, to corner Hollett for a chat this week in Austin at South by Southwest — the festival upon which NXNE was originally based 22 years ago and which still holds a large stake in its Toronto counterpart —to suss out exactly what’s going on in Toronto in 2016.

Yes, NXNE 2016 will indeed look very different from North by Northeasts past. There will still be some club shows in major venues about town during the festival’s June 15-19 run. There will still be some free events at Yonge-Dundas Square — where a planned Action Bronson concert was relocated last year after an uproar over his lyrics.

But most of the action will be centred on the Friday and Saturday nights in a single, 40,000-capacity space in the Port Lands, the same location that Cirque du Soleil has called home in Toronto numerous times in recent years.

The wristbands are gone — for the time being, anyway — but Hollett promises NXNE will still “definitely be the most inexpensive festival of the summer” in a city that, he admits, has lately become somewhat cluttered with festivals. He just feels that Toronto has grown, and grown difficult enough to get around in, to the point that a citywide club crawl has become unwieldy.

For one thing, he says, it’s unfair to expect a band from, say, Saskatoon to drive all the way to Toronto only to get stuck playing to 13 people in “a Hungarian restaurant I’ve turned into a venue for the night” when everybody’s just parked themselves at the Horseshoe or Lee’s Palace for the evening.

Also, most NXNE-goers aren’t as committed to flitting about the city in search of new sounds as they once were, in an age when they can simply Google every act in the program and figure out whether or not they want to hit the show well ahead of time.

“This event is 30 years old, mine is 22, and things have changed dramatically,” says Hollett over a beer at a hotel in the epicentre of the SXSW madness. “You’ve got to embrace the change and listen to the change.”

The proliferation of audience-tailored “boutique” festivals such as T.U.R.F., Field Trip and WayHome in and around the GTA has convinced Hollett that creating a distinctive festival environment is now just as important as curating a decent festival lineup, too.

As he puts it: “People don’t want to be at a show, they want to be at the show.”

The Port Lands space thus provides NXNE an opportunity to trick out and have fun with a part of Toronto that’s still neglected enough to feel like an adventuresome, untamed wilderness even for locals for a couple of days.

“It sounds corny, but I’m really looking forward to dressing the site,” says Hollett, who relishes the idea of trying to mount a festival somewhere other than Fort York (home to Field Trip and T.U.R.F.) or Toronto Island, recently abandoned by Bestival due to last year’s logistical snafus, for a change.

“You’re going to enter NXNE Land . . . If you’re not from Toronto, it’s pretty bloody urban. It’s really urban and gritty and kinda cool, which makes it more exciting. . . .

To the critics who have lamented that NXNE will now simply be another festival on a very busy summer calendar in Toronto, Hollett says he hopes the festival will still be distinguished “by the artistic choices we make” — one of which, on the Friday night in the Port Lands this year, will be a huge emphasis on Toronto hip-hop, an exploding musical sector still given short shrift by most Toronto festival programming.

NXNE is still taking submissions from “discovery” bands, too — acts can petition the festival for one month for free through the oft-maligned SonicBids website — so the element of the “next” won’t be totally lost in the new format, he promises.

Is there private panic on his part over what might happen?

“Tons,” says Hollett. “But in that exciting way, like skating too fast or skiing too fast or whatever your thing is. . . .

“I think Toronto is a long way from being saturated with festivals. Is there too much live theatre in New York? I don’t think so. There’s one beside the other beside the other. We can be like that. There’s nothing in the way of that.”

TORONTO STAR | ENTERTAINMENT

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