Toronto’s North by Northeast Festival, a nine day extravaganza celebrating music, film, art, comedy, and all things industry, took over the City of Toronto once more. Thanks to the kind folks over at My Apollo, a new social media network that prioritizes privacy for users, I had the opportunity to hop around Toronto during the music portion of the festival and catch some fantastic up and coming Canadian and international acts.
NXNE certainly knows how to pull together a great bill of artists. Like most festivals, it becomes really difficult to set up your schedule and pick who you are going to see, when, where, and sometimes, how many times (if you are a huge fan of them.) For me, there were many hits, rare misses, and zero regrets about my choices, even during those times I cursed myself for trusting public transportation to get me somewhere on time. One could be mad that NXNE was unable to bring teleporting stations to their twentieth incarnation of their festival (two decades!), but between the endless options of artists to check out, awesome brand partnerships and their related showcases, 4am last call time and yes, those rather aesthetically pleasing wristbands that automatically entered you into a cool kids club, the lack of instantaneous travel can be forgiven and forgotten.
While I am sad that I was unable to catch artists like Pusha T, who performed on the Toronto Islands (dubbed Vice Island for the day), A$AP Ferg at Tattoo, and Snowmine, there were quite a few artists that I got to cross off of my bucket list and add to my must-see-again list. I managed to check out partial and whole sets of the following artists at this year’s festival: Danny Brown, Weaves, Sleigh Bells, Whitehorse, Holy Child, Tove Lo, Glasser, Kelela, Ryan Hemsworth, Seoul, Dragonette, Craft Spells and Mac DeMarco.
I can easily peg the highlight of my entire NXNE experience on Kelela’s set at Wrongbar last Friday. I showed up early because this girl has been on my radar for months now and I had to ensure a front-row spot. Her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, made my list of favourite new releases in 2013, and her live show only confirmed my thinking about her role in R&B in the months to come (see: major). With Solange backing her (Kelela is signed to Knowles Jr.’s label, Saint Heron), incredible talent and natural stage presence (she danced, she cooly walked straight into the audience to sing, she joked about people only knowing her based on her collaboration with Kingdom) I am sure that she will catch on in bigger ways amongst indie fans soon enough. I heard a lot of praise about her performance at Massey Hall the following night, which I would have attended had I not been watching Dragonette perform on a TTC streetcar.
Yes, you read that correctly. Dragonette, the Canadian darlings featured on Martin Solveig’s various hits, loaded their gear onto the back of a TTC streetcar and performed a mini-set as it moved along Queen Street West. MiO Canada (a title sponsor of NXNE and a water flavour enhancer owned by Kraft Canada) curated an incredibly unique experience for NXNE festival-goers by renting out a TTC streetcar, dubbing it as the MiO Squirtcar, loading it with a MiO tasting bar and photographers with Polaroid cameras, and bringing on four to six acts to perform on the streetcars for four of the five nights of NXNE Music. One of the best parts of the entire ride was watching people outside of the Squirtcar stare at it partially amazed, slightly confused, and probably completely envious. MiO brought in artists like The Pizza Underground, araabMUZIK, and Reggie Watts to perform on their vehicle. While I was unable to see any of those acts (I know, missing Macaulay Culkin singing pizza-themed cover songs will be one of my biggest regrets for the rest of my life), I am certain that attendees were as impressed as I was with the entire concept. I hope that it becomes a staple to future NXNE festivals because it is truly original and 100% Toronto-ish.
I love seeing how brand strategies unfold during large-scale events such as NXNE and how they integrate into a company’s overall approach. I think it’s especially interesting how brands at festivals, where they have access to significant portion of the 20s-30s demographic, chose to utilize social media versus direct, person-to-person engagement. I was surprised at how little of the latter there was in the end. Many title and secondary sponsors had booths at Yonge-Dundas Square to initiate contact, promote services and give away free products. MiO had sample bars across NXNE venues, Queen Street West and at YDS. Gap, in conjunction with Sidewalk Hustle, held a free showcase at their Queen Street West storefront. Outside of this, I did not see too much direct contact.
Generally speaking, I found that a few brands used NXNE to initiate relations with this key demographic with the intention of immediately transferring it over to their social media platforms. Red Bull, for example, set up a mini-version of their LA-based Red Bull Sound Select Academy over at Tattoo, complete with neon signage and a digital screen with a collage of images. The hashtag #BreakMusic was posted all over the venue, to remind attendees to join their online network where they promote up and coming artists, share the locations of their next shows, and facilitate a community of fans who are interested in hearing about such artists. Red Bull even had a #BreakMusic pop-up shop next door to encourage fans to sign up. When secret shows were announced, Red Bull and NXNE requested users to RSVP using their network (although RSVP-ing did not guarantee entry into a show.) Red Bull’s entire brand is based on crafting cool out of what is different and aims to create extraordinary moments, and NXNE was no exception to that brand persona. I think they were very successful in their attempt and curated a series of showcases that will be remembered for their unique artist choices and atmosphere. Oh, and that giant line on Queen Street West when Future Islands was getting ready to play. Or when Mac DeMarco led the charge in a cover of Coldplay’s song, Yellow.
Many sponsors also focused on highlighting NXNE attendees’ unique experiences and perspectives. Samsung encouraged users to share their selfies using the #SamsungNXNE hashtag for a chance to have it displayed in Yonge-Dundas Square. MiO similarly created the MiO POV app so users could share their view of the free shows that took place at YDS and have it projected on the screens. Seinheiser promoted a scavenger hunt that took place around the YDS core on their social media channels. Given the highly concentrated amount of social media users in Toronto, it makes sense that companies opted to prioritize online relationships over in-person. The fact that both types of strategies tended to revolve around YDS not only gave them an opportunity to tackle a large NXNE-centric crowd, but also access a whole secondary market of people strolling down Yonge St, shopping at the Eaton Centre, and curious bystanders. I wonder about these companies’ social media return and what their resulting statistics are like, especially at an event like NXNE that grows every single year. It would be interesting to compare them to American festivals, like SXSW, and see what their reach is like there.
One of my favourite parts of North by Northeast is walking into a venue without any knowledge of the artists on the evening’s bill and walking out with something new to enjoy. On my very first night at NXNE, I headed over to the Red Bull Sound Select headquarters to catch Ryan Hemsworth’s secret show, only to discover Tove Lo. Tove Lo is a Swedish pop singer songwriter who has worked with the likes of Icona Pop and Cheryl Cole and will be opening for Katy Perry on the Australian leg of her Prism world tour. It was pretty much love at first sound, as I tend to enjoy electro-inspired pop music (and apparently Swedish artists: I love Lykke Li, Robyn, Miike Snow, and Junip, amongst others.) I felt completely late to the party as Tove Lo’s fan base had already flooded Tattoo for her very first Toronto show and were completely ecstatic as she performed, but she made a great first impression on those of us who were just discovering her that evening. I didn’t have as good of luck at other random shows (I did not quite enjoy Whitehorse or Mac DeMarco as much as others did), and I didn’t even end up staying for Ryan Hemsworth that night, but I was really glad I decided to go to Tattoo anyway.
I did see Ryan Hemsworth the next night. I intended to only stay for half an hour, but I watched the east coast Canadian take over Adelaide Hall for 90 minutes (and he was still going when I left). Between an awesome mini remix set of Lorde’s songs and throwing McDonalds hamburgers into the audience (though there was no love for those of us who were hanging out upstairs, prompting a 4am trip to Tim Hortons post-performance), Hemsworth’s set had a great vibe and was just fun. So much fun.
I could go on and on about NXNE, but I’m looking at my un-wristbanded wrist right now and I am starting to feel sad that it is all over (for the gazillionth time in the last two weeks.) So instead, I am going to turn it over to you guys. Were you at the festival? What show did you enjoy the most? Let me know what you thought in the comments!
I won my wristbands through a Twitter contest held by My Apollo.