North by Northeast music festival brings indie scene to Toronto

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Last weekend, enthusiastic music lovers filled Toronto’s streets to partake in the independent music smorgasbord, North By Northeast (NXNE) Music & Film Festival and Conference. With over 450 bands playing in 40 venues, it was like a four-day Christmas for avid concert goers, aspiring bands and labels looking for the next Arcade Fire.

Now in its 13th year, NXNE was bigger and better than ever with bands like Urge Overkill, Icarus Line and Soundtrack of Our Lives playing in intimate venues. Late-night performances by Ron Sexsmith and Blue Rodeo rocked Lee’s Palace until the wee hours of the morning for exclusive NXNE badge and wristband holders.

While there was much anticipation for NXNExtra concerts such as Voxtrot, Junior Boys and Dinosaur Jr., there was always room for smaller bands in a festival of this size.

Although only 450 smaller bands were chosen from over 3,000 demo submissions, NXNE head of publicity Sue McCallum says it’s still difficult to choose which bands are worth seeing.

“It’s a good experience for bands to go through these things,” McCallum says. “That’s our gift from us. I feel that we’re helping spread that. Some bands are just more ready than others but if it’s not this year, it’s next year. It just depends on how ready that band is to be a part of NXNE.”

Vancouver buzz band Mother Mother’s lead singer/guitarist Ryan Guldemond agrees these festivals nurture the bigger bands, but it’s all about timing.

“When you already have momentum in the band, it’s the best time to play in these festivals. But it feels nice, you feel like you’re getting somewhere. It’s kind of what you want to happen.”

Deciding which bands to see each night was hectic in itself. With each band playing on the hour every hour, you’re forced to choose between seeing the cool new dance punk band recommended by a friend or checking out the exclusive DJ performance from your already-favourite band.

“It’s exciting and stressful at the same time,” NXNE volunteer Julz Diva says. “There’s that rush of everything and you’re meeting so many people.

“One of the conference co-ordinators told me to go to a band that’s from out of the country because you can always see the Toronto bands. Most of them only come for North By Northeast and we probably won’t see them ever again. But word of mouth is definitely important. Many of the bands I saw depended on word of mouth or by listening to their songs on MySpace.” Music aside, the NXNE Conference portion attracted industry honchos and unsigned bands seeking advice on how to get their name out there.

For three days, the conference offered liquor-licensed sessions, artist panels, round tables, legal clinics and crash courses on songwriting and financing. The conference kicked off with the NXNE Town Hall at Much Music Studios last Thursday. Participants included major label reps from Sony/BMG, Universal and Warner as well as small indie labels like Six Shooter Records and Paper Bag Records.

Alexisonfire’s vocalist George Pettit and Moneen’s singer/guitarist Kenny Bridges also joined in the tense discussion about the plight of music industry sales and the hard truths about digital music.

Conference highlights also included celebrity interviews with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Peaches who were interviewed by Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley.

Saturday’s Indie Music Market saw tents lining Yonge-Dundas Square where indie bands sold merchandise and offered patrons the chance to demo their music. Live outdoor performances by a band of seven year-olds, Burning Boyz, and funky Spanish electronica group, The Pinkertones, stole the show.

Despite the tightly scheduled activities, McCallum dealt with minor setbacks that arose throughout the day while still having an amazing time.

“Independent music festivals bring a different element to Toronto and we’ve had an overwhelming response from people who wanted it,” McCallum says. “It’s so important. There’s so much talent all over the country and all over the world. We were lucky that the media views our festival as an important and vibrant event.”

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