Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

NXNE aims for the top of the festival circuit

Vital Stats
North By North East
Michael Hollett, Alice Klein and partners including SXSW
Mike Tanner, director of operations; Christopher Roberts, festival director
189 Church St, Toronto M5B 1Y7
20 years
Music, film, comedy, art, and conferencing festival

With a brutal winter now in the history books, the city of Toronto is preparing to welcome back the busiest event calendar in the country, cramming dozens of festivals into a brief five-month season.

With so many major events descending on the city at once, organizers of the 20th annual North by North East festival are pushing to remain a staple of not only Toronto’s music scene, but the wider festival circuit across North America.

“I used to say that there was something every weekend, now there are two or three things, so people have hard choices to make,” says Mike Tanner, NXNE’s director of operations.

With events like OVO Fest drawing in 40,000 hip hop fans, Canadian Music Week attracting over 100,000 music lovers, and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival welcoming another half a million, Torontonians have plenty of options when deciding which wristbands to purchase each spring.

What began as a “discovery festival” over three evenings in 1994 has evolved into a takeover of more than 50 music and entertainment venues from Pearson Airport down to the waterfront, including Massey Hall and Yonge and Dundas Square.

This year’s NXNE festival has been extended to 10 days in mid-June and expects 350,000 attendees, 800 bands, 150 comedians, 70 conference presenters, 25 artists and a film festival with 30 movies in partnership with Hot Docs.

“It’s a juggernaut in terms of all the activations that are happening across the city,” says Christopher Roberts, NXNE’s festival director.

Though the festival is celebrating its 20th year, the event only recently reached new heights of popularity, when they began to receive public sector support from the provincial government in 2009.

“With that support we were able to start upping the level of the programming. A good example of that is putting these headline acts on at Yonge and Dundas Square, which became a signature piece,” says Tanner, adding that the stage has hosted performers such as Iggy and the Stooges, The Flaming Lips, and Ludacris.

Since building the headlining stage at Yonge and Dundas Square, NXNE has also started to compete against major music festivals across North America. The music publication Consequence of Sound recently rated NXNE in sixth place on their list of the top 10 North American spring music festivals, placing them in the company of notoriously massive events such as Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Montreal’s Osheaga festival.

“It could be that someone only has one or two things they can travel to this summer, maybe it’s Osheaga, maybe it’s Bonnaroo, maybe it’s Coachella, maybe it’s us,” says Tanner. “We want our festival to be right at the top of that list.”

Though the festival has brought in some major acts in recent years, Tanner and Roberts are keen to maintain its original mandate as the place to, in the words of NXNE’s 1994 slogan, “Discover your next favorite band.”

“In 2012 at the Horseshoe,” — a 400-person capacity venue on Queen West — “The Lumineers played as part of our festival, and now all of a sudden you can’t take two steps out of your house without hearing The Lumineers,” says Tanner.

Tanner and Roberts also see that element of discovery as a way to stand out from the other major festivals both sides of the border.

“You won’t hear these bands on the radio,” says Roberts, “but you do hear them coming out of every millennial’s playlist.”

In crafting its brand, NXNE also has the added challenge of carving out an identity distinct from its sister festival and part owner, the behemoth South By South West, in Austin, Texas.

“Toronto isn’t Austin, it doesn’t have the same layout and infrastructure and capacity, so it can’t be a twin of SXSW,” says Roberts. “We’re not trying to be a mirror copy.”

But with such similar names and mandates, NXNE’s brand will be forever tied to that of SXSW, argues Mitch Joel, President of Twist Image, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency.

While Roberts and Tanner are proud of the association with SXSW, Joel believes if NXNE wants to build its own identity, it will have to distinguish itself from the SXSW brand, which was established eight years prior.

“If you come second you’re hopeful that association augments audiences and creates a level of familiarity, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Joel. “If along the way 20 years later you feel that association is becoming less relevant and less important, than the only thing to do without changing the name is a very concerted, very top level recall of what makes it so different.”

Finding a unique brand identity will be vital in convincing festival goers — many of whom travel long distances to attend the event — that NXNE is the only festival they need to attend this season.

“We strive to continue to elevate this festival so that it is one of the absolute jewels in the festival circuit anywhere in the world,” says Tanner.


As Interviewed by: Rosemary Westwood

Great festivals are built on great venues, and as is, I don’t think NXNE can be as successful as it wants to be, and compete with the top festivals. NXNE needs a single, big, accessible location. By telling me how many people attend, but spreading it out over the city, it doesn’t give that feeling of a critical mass. If NXNE were held at Downsview Park, for example, imagine the coverage: TV helicopters flying over the masses, photos of the crowds making their way from the subway. Yes, NXNE is built on the SXSW model, but this isn’t the U.S., and Toronto isn’t Austin, Texas. The weather is more unpredictable, the city is larger. When shows are spread out, time is wasted trekking to a location, and if the band does not measure up that may decrease NXNE brand equity. But if it was held in one large venue — like Osheaga (St. Helene Island in Montreal) — you could easily move between stages to find a show you like. NXNE can keep doing what they’re doing, and that’s fine. Or, they can change: blow out their model, go big, and compete with the best festivals.

by Steve Tissenbaum Ryerson

The NXNE brand has longevity, growth, and a loyal following. The challenge is in ensuring brand differentiation from its SXSW counterpart and increasing brand familiarity for continued growth and patronage, given a saturated summer music festival category. The solution to both of these issues is a concerted social marketing campaign that aims to communicate how the NXNE brand differs meaningfully from the SXSW brand, while also increasing reach and impressions to drive brand familiarity and interest. The target market seems to be Millennial, urbanite, taste-makers who are looking to stay one step ahead of mainstream, popular culture — who, in fact, ultimately create it. Communicating to this market can be challenging but is typically relatively inexpensive: the message has to be ‘just right’ and include a meme or cultural hook of some kind (so taking time in research and development is often necessary), but once accurately determined can spread like wildfire throughout the social networks of this population thanks to their level of technological mobilization and online interacting.

by Brynn Winegard - SEEC

The SXSW connection gives NXNE the best of both worlds: leveraging the clout of the big-time festival, it is still differentiating itself with its (literally) opposite name, and music. Setting itself apart from the southern, indie (but established) rock scene of SXSW, it has of a clear vision for cutting edge new music and new bands. They need to polish and shine that image. Leverage social media, use their YouTube channel as the hub where new music fans can interact, vote on new music, and post the latest sounds that move them. They need to attract Canadian 20 and 30-somethings, those with the time and money to go to the festival, who may feel NXNE is less cool than the other big festivals because it’s in Toronto, or Canadian. Let them know how truly international and cutting edge NXNE is. Brand the cool, clear blue north “newest music” in all of their media, and leverage fan interaction on social media to deliver this message. They are on the verge of the next phase of rapid growth that will truly put them on the international map of great music festivals.

by Deirdre Fitzpatrick - GBC