I spoke with the managing directors of two prominent Canadian music festivals for a behind the scenes glimpse of what it’s like to be at the forefront of the Canadian music scene. Andy McLean works with North by Northeast in Toronto, and Zakary Pashak is at Sled Island in Calgary. Both festivals are multi-venue, urban festivals which differ from the field, camping-style festival in that there is more room for spontaneity. It’s a choose-your-own adventure, with no two experiences being the same. Both boast extensive and talented lineups that are international but also heavy in Canadian content, and both also feature a film festival component. The similarities of these festivals end there, however, as they are vastly different in size, location, and vibe.
C: What made you decide to create the festival?
AM: Back in 1995, the music industry was starting to change, the indie scene was starting to emerge and the original founding partners of NXNE had been down to Austin, Texas and had seen how SXSW was developing the careers of bands. There was an opportunity in Toronto to do the same and we wanted to create this place for discovery.
ZP: I was inspired by Pop Montreal, which is really independent and grassroots. It does good things for the Montreal music community and I thought that Calgary should do something along those lines. I like that it’s a multi-venue festival as well, because I really prefer seeing a band in a bar. I went to Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and there were 20,000 people in a field so it’s hard to connect with the band. With a festival like Pop Montreal, where you’re in a little room with 100 people seeing a show, it’s a much richer experience.
C: To what does the festival owe its success?
AM: The core team of founding members had a vision to build the festival from the ground up and that’s what we’ve done. The idea was to give new and emerging bands a chance to reach a new platform without going through a typical music industry structure. The success of the festival is based on that idea of grassroots and discovery of new bands.
ZP: Calgary gets excited about concerts. There’s enough of an audience here that it’s definitely taking off. I think people really respond positively to the lineup, the aesthetic and what we’re trying to do. We’ve always got great people volunteering, putting their time, creativity and positive attitudes towards the festival, so that translates.
C: What is the objective of the festival?
AM: Originally it was to appeal to a core audience of new music. Now we’re adding many layers like our film program, the new interactive conference and large outdoor shows like Yonge-Dundas Square. The NXNE brand is synonymous with finding new talent but now it’s also about getting a mix of new talent with bigger names to attract more and different people.
ZP: To be a community activator by bringing some focus to bands in Calgary, and also giving people in Calgary something they can connect to. We have the Stampede here and I think some people don’t identify as much with the cowboy culture – which doesn’t really apply to the urban Calgary experience at all. Having an alternative event helps people feel connected to Calgary in a different way.
C: What makes this festival different from the others?
AM: We’re in an urban environment and it’s now seven days long. It’s not Glastonbury or Coachella where you drive out to a field and see lots of big names; we’re offering 650…bands from obscure to well-known. The urban environment of the festival helps us provide opportunities for fans to come away discovering what’s new because you can take a chance on an unknown band, experience different venues and atmospheres, and explore the city.
ZP: It’s not different. I think it’s similar to Pop Montreal. It’s a little bit like SXSW I guess, but smaller and with less corporate sponsorship. The thing that makes it different is that it happens in Calgary.
C: Are any attempts being made to make the festival green?
AM: Certainly, there is always more that we could do and we are always looking for new opportunities. We do stuff like printing on renewable forests paper and our staff is very eco-conscious, riding their bikes to work everyday. Using established venues cuts down on waste like paper/plastic cups or other things that might go along with an outdoor festival. Being in the city makes it very pedestrian and bike-friendly. We work closely with the local transit and encourage people to use public transit, walk or bike from show to show. We keep that in mind when planning shows, and try to cluster venues together.
ZP: We’re working with an oil company with a sustainability department that volunteers their time, energy, and money towards making sure Sled Island is a zero-emissions festival. Also, we don’t sell bottled water. There’s a lot of money that can be made selling people tap water, but I don’t really want to be part of that. I think the bottled water business is really, really bad. Instead we make sure that there’s free water for everybody on the site, with a big tank of water and washable cups. I believe water is a right.
C: What makes you the most proud about the festival?
AM: We have over 700 volunteers involved now. The community engagement and dedication is amazing. When I see the amount of work that they put into the festival on a volunteer basis and the amount of volunteers that return to us year after year, it’s extremely gratifying. A lot of the festival components rely on the help of volunteers and I think they deserve the biggest thank you.
ZP: I’m proud that it’s still going and that it looks like it’s going to keep going forever. We’re getting to a point where we’re starting to get recognition and funding, slowly. There have been a couple festivals in Calgary that only operated one or two years, so the fact that we might carry on is something.
C: What makes you the most anxious about the festival?
AM: The festival is obviously growing – this year we’ve expanded to seven days and have a new interactive component, so the logistics and organization needed to make that all come together in a synchronized way to give people a really good experience is at times quite daunting. But somehow, magically, it comes together.
ZP: You know, the whole thing kind of does. It gets me a little anxious sometimes comparing our level of support to other festivals that receive massive amounts of funding. That shouldn’t be a concern when I want to just focus on making the festival great but when we’re receiving $30,000 in comparison to $3 million, we can’t afford to pay staff and we rely on people to do it for free, essentially.
C: What’s your best advice to a first-timer?
AM: Wear comfortable shoes and get lots of sleep beforehand. Take a chance. Go out and see something you haven’t seen before, that you’ve never heard of but that piques your interest and discover something new!
ZP: Bring or rent a bike and go to as many shows as you can. Go to shows that you don’t think you want to go to: challenge yourself. I have a lot of say in the programming and it’s really solid.
For coverage of these festivals and more, be sure to check out theconcordian.com throughout the summer!