An Elegy for NXNE

By Angelo Gio Mateo, Featured Photo via Angelo Gio Mateo

What happened to you, North by Northeast (NXNE)? Long gone are the days of free concerts by top artists like The National, Run the Jewels, and Stars at Yonge and Dundas Square. Instead, we find ourselves in a dystopian nightmare, complete with creepy carnies and midway rides, in the middle of nowhere – Toronto’s Port Lands. Two years in, after the change of format from the club-hopping week-long event to a more traditional music festival, NXNE’s experiment has failed spectacularly. Kristel Jax of Chart Attack reported that many of the former primary staff members quit en masse since the change, and the results are clear. NXNE lacks what you need for a successful music festival, including most importantly, strong leadership and a real vision.  

This year, I attended the festival with my girlfriend, and we spent the whole time lamenting the event’s many problems. The first thing to note about NXNE is its location. Situated in a forgotten spot of Toronto across from the former Sound Academy, the festival is quite inaccessible; the area is serviced by two infrequent TTC buses and susceptible to post-event Uber surge pricing and congestion.  

We arrived in the late afternoon to an empty parking lot. There were maybe 20-50 people standing sparsely by the main stage. The second stage was completely inactive – no one was setting up and no one was waiting for the next act. We thought that maybe the scattered crowd was a result of the terrible weather, or that NXNE coincided with Pride Weekend. Yet, we arrived on Sunday to the same scene and the crowd turnout only slightly increased as the weekend progressed.

Unlike other music festivals where you can relax on the grass, there was nowhere to sit except the hot concrete. There was little shade to hide from the heat for General Admission attendees, beyond the numerous sponsor installations from Porsche, Budweiser and Pop Shoppe Hard Soda. The promised “art” installations were nowhere to be seen. They had an option to link your RFID enabled wristband to a credit card and then use it to buy food. However, the food truck that we bought our meals from didn’t even have the system set-up to accept the wristband. There was one water refill station, but it was hiding in a corner. Instead, the festival obliged you to pay three dollars for a water bottle. There was no info or directional signs, no set lists, an absence of volunteers and poor logistics all around. NXNE lacked almost everything that makes music festivals bearable. And just to make the festival even more of a farce, there were people at the front gates giving out rolling papers if you could tell them a Post Malone song. Nonetheless, they did play up the midway carnival aspect with enjoyable free rides.

Ultimately, a music festival is judged by its music, and NXNE was mediocre. The festival featured an uninspiring lineup, with headliner Tyler, the Creator dropping out just weeks before. The first act that piqued my curiosity was MUNA, an indie pop band from California. There’s an 80s vibe to them with a little bit of HAIM and a splash of Future Islands. One song sounded so similar to The Killers’ “Shot at the Night” that I thought it was a cover. MUNA is certainly one band that actually shows some potential. We also saw Bleachers, who simply sounded like the Arkells, and were nothing special to set themselves apart. They did a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” which was the only interesting aspect of their set. By mid-evening on Saturday, my girlfriend and I decided to leave before Kaytranada’s performance.

On Sunday afternoon, I wanted to catch River Tiber’s set. I’ve seen them multiple times before and I’ve always enjoyed their ambient sound, influenced by R&B and hip hop. Yet, they only disappointed this time around. They started 30 minutes late and their sound was shambly and out of sync. They switched the piano for a sampling machine and ditched the drums altogether. At least their single, “No Talk” (which was sampled by Drake for his song “No Tellin’” off of If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late), turned out alright. Feeling frustrated, we decided to sit down in the Comedy Tent, but the misery didn’t end. The comedian we saw was awkward, with his two-year-old daughter refusing to leave the stage. The extent of his act was asking his child about her favourite member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The Soul Rebels and Talib Kweli were one of the few acts that actually put a bit of heart into their performance, and the crowd actually came out. The Soul Rebels are a hip-hop-inspired brass band from New Orleans. They actually got people to dance – a hard thing to accomplish with the festival’s small and unexcited crowds. They played “Can I Kick It” with a shout-out to the late Phife Dawg. Talib Kweli paid his respects to the late Prodigy from Mobb Deep. By the end of their set, the festival seemed to be turning around, with a real crowd actually amassing and excited for Passion Pit.

Alas, even Passion Pit was not issue-free, as they were plagued by tech problems throughout their set and came out with muted vocals. However, that didn’t stop lead singer Michael Angelakos from performing with energy and seemingly enjoying himself. They played primarily from their second album, Gossamer, with a mix of hits off of their two other records. We felt a little bad for them, to have to play to such a pathetic crowd. They ended with an encore of their classic hit, “Sleepyhead” and ended the festival on a high note.

In the next few days, I doubt that NXNE will admit their mistakes. They have already begun to pull off a Donald Trump, spinning the festival’s turnout as being “exponential growth” and “more than triple the attendees.” We need to hold NXNE accountable, because they are one of the biggest music festival recipients of the Ontario Music Fund grant, receiving $60,000 this year according to the Ontario Media Development Corporation website. NXNE lacks the identity, the vision, and the leadership to succeed in Toronto’s saturated festival scene, and they don’t deserve the grant money they were awarded for the nightmare they put on this year. Perhaps it should return to its previous format of free shows at Yonge and Dundas Square and bar sets around the city. Their Club Land Curator Series seems to have worked – I attended Brendan Canning’s curated show, and I discovered some great new local musicians. It’s clear that the festival, in its current format, is not sustainable. NXNE’s experiment has failed spectacularly, and I fear for the future of what used to be a great festival.

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