NXNE President Michael Hollett on Fine-Tuning and Growth, 'Taking Over' Toronto (Q&A)

The Toronto music festival, which begins June 16, is expected to attract more than 350,000 people to its events and bring $50 million to the local economy.

Toronto’s North By Northeast (NXNE), whose music festival begins June 18 -- and includes an “Interactive” digital media conference (18-21), comedy (17-22), art (16-22) and film component (ran 13-15) -- is expected to attract more than 350,000 people to its events and bring $50 million to the Toronto economy.

Interactive has 75 speakers, including Songza managing director Vanessa Thomas, Not Impossible CEO/founder Mick Ebeling, Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi, Eminem manager Paul Rosenberg, Avaaz.org president and executive director Ricken Patel.

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Some 800 bands and artists will be performing in 30 venues from small clubs to theaters plus public parks and spaces. This year's line-up includes Spiritualized, Whitehorse, St. Vincent, Swans, Metz, Future Islands, Juicy J, Dearly Beloved, Sleigh Bells, Zeus, Eagulls, Run the Jewels, Lindi Ortega, Perfect Pussy, tUnE-yArDs, Low, Ryan Hemsworth, Joel Plaskett, the Cliks and the Golden Dogs.

Billboard.biz caught up with Michael Hollett, president and co-founder of NXNE, to get the low-down on his event's 20th anniversary.

Congratulations on the 20th anniversary. Is this the celebration you hoped for? Oh yeah. Because this year is bigger, broader; it involves the city more than ever in its history, so I’m just thrilled about that. That’s always been the goal. We have a much bigger city than Austin, but in Austin, music literally takes over the city and that is our goal. It will take us a while to completely do that, but we will someday. And we’re a lot closer this year.

You are working more closely than ever in partnership with South By. Who did you rally and what kind of help or feedback did they give you?
We’ve been dealing with a variety of layers at South By, including right from the top. Roland Swenson, one of the founders, has been really great with us. Maybe getting the NXNE staff a little more into the culture of South By, watching them, a little bit of shadowing, just seeing them in action, sharing best practices, all of those good things. You know, you’re dealing with people that are the most successful in the world. It’s a pretty great playbook to be able to look into.

And they’re coming up this year?
Yes, they always have to some extent, but last year we had over 20 here. It’s going to be that and more, this year, which is a dramatic change. That’s how it was at the very beginning, because they helped us launch, but once we learned how to stand on our own two feet, it got less obvious how they could help us. As our ambition has grown, it got more obvious how they could help us because they’ve done the takeovers that we’re now doing.

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One thing you did model is their SXSW Viceland. Yours is Vice Island, a concert that takes place on the Toronto Islands, a ferry boat away, featuring Future Islands and Pusha T.
The boat ride itself is going to be fun. The boat is licensed and there is a bit of a harbor cruise on the way over. Vice — if they’re in, they’re all in. And they do things with real style. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they play, but from the diagrams they’ve got great ideas.

This is also the first time you’re going to have shows at a soft-seater theater, the venerable Massey Hall, which holds 2,752 people. All pass holders can get in, not just a limited amount and the rest ticket sales.
Exactly. Wristbands and badges are the priority, which has never been done in Toronto before. We’re not even talking about selling tickets. I suppose we might, but it’s very unlikely.

You solicit feedback from the clubs after each NXNE, and keep your ear to the ground on what the rest of the industry and public say — you made adjustments?

Absolutely. We really want to make the badge and wristband experience paramount. That’s what South By always deals with as their success goes up. There are some years that it’s easier to get in with your badges and passes than others and they do all kinds of things to address that. So, yes, they are very helpful with that. One of the things they said is you need a place a lot of people that have badges and wristbands will want to go. There, they have places like the Austin Music Hall and the Austin City Limits space that they use, La Zona Rosa. We’re trying to create more spaces like that, obviously Massey Hall being the main one and there’s going to be one on Gould Street. Also the idea of just enhancing the wristband experience. For example, we’ve got a VIP area at Dundas Square which we’ve never done before.

Who are the VIPs?
First come, first serve badge and wristbands. So, real people [laughs]. It’s elevated. It’s right in front of the sound booth. And we’ve really cleaned up the square. Our sponsors have all agreed that there’s no value in them being in the square just getting in people’s way when they’re trying to see St. Vincent. That doesn’t really generate a lot of goodwill. So [we’re] managing that very carefully.

Besides Vice, you have other sponsors such as Budweiser and Redbull. What other relationships?
MiO [a beverage by Kraft Foods]. They’re taking over a streetcar. It has some charming name like the Squirtcar [their motto is "squirt some"]. It’s a streetcar that will go up and down Queen Street [with bands playing sets] and it will bring people to the Hoxton, which is their venue. And people like Macaulay Culkin’s Pizza Underground is playing in there [the streetcar] and Army Girls, good bands. They have some pretty creative ideas about how they’re going to use that.

During the Interactive portion of North By, you have a fun, cool and a little daring panel called "Why NXNE Sucks."  It’s like a town hall and people can come and voice their complaints?
[Laughs] Basically, yeah. I think we’re curating. The people who say the most crazy shit about us online, we’re inviting them in.

This article originally appeared on Billboard.biz

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