Pop Winds was one of 22 bands representing Montreal at North by Northeast (NXNE) this year. They agreed to take some time between gigs to write about the experience of navigating the industry-heavy, 7-day festival as an emerging band; the lessons they learned, and the perspective gained.
We began the week expecting to play a single show at a friend’s showcase on Thursday night,
but what started as a one-gig spot in the festival quickly grew into three opportunities that we weren’t prepared for. While en route to Toronto, we received a call from Crispin Giles, the festival’s programing director, asking if we would like to open on Saturday night at Lee’s Palace. Distracted by the knotted asphalt and merging traffic at L’Acadie Boulevard’s junction with the 40, we politely declined the offer as we thought ahead to other commitments later that week back in Montreal. A bit surprised, Giles gave us his number in the event that our attitudes changed.
After a half hour of quiet deliberation, we realized how naive we had been: this guy curated the entire festival and was trying to give us a break. Needless to say, we quickly called him back and confirmed the Saturday show and another spot he offered for Thursday afternoon at the festival headquarters in the Hyatt.
Our reaction indicates how clueless we were about how large festivals operate. We now buzzed with excitement, thinking that these shows would lead to new and exciting things, only to later make two humbling discoveries. The first was that come concert time, your turnout is largely out of your control. Often it’s determined in advance by the online buzz; playing more shows changes very little if no one knows who you are. Our audience on Thursday’s show at the Whippersnapper Gallery was a modest mix of fans of the bill’s lineup. As a musician at a festival like NXNE, where hundreds of groups converge, you quickly realize how small your bubble of local support and notoriety really is. Every other performer shares your ambitions and has come to Toronto distinguish themselves within the festival’s program – just like you. It appeared that many groups fell back on MySpace-styled self-promotion tactics. Some resorted to on-stage gimmicks, like flashcard homages Ã la Bob Dylan, while others filled their sets with stand-up banter about their tour vans.
We spent the next few days rehearsing at our friends’ apartment, an old storefront on Queen. We caught great sets by Indian Jewelry, Health, Mudhoney, The Strange Boys and Anamanaguchi while enjoying the city and attending the festival’s conference sessions. The latter proved to be incredibly helpful as representatives from all sides of the industry offered their advice and insights into receiving grants, booking American tours, and attracting bloggers’ attention.
Our second humbling discovery came when our much anticipated Saturday slot fell half an hour before Iggy Pop’s free concert with The Stooges in Younge and Dundas Square. His show was the largest in the square’s history, drawing several thousands of people and closing much of downtown. Not surprisingly, we played for just a handful of people in the giant concert hall, which still managed to be a surprising amount of fun. As one of the city’s biggest venues, the sound at Lee’s Palace was loud, crisp, warm, and balanced well between the three of us; a rare treat! Additionally, the venue’s staff handled our equipment and pampered us as though we were headlining; we even had a private room backstage equipped with food platters, leather couches and ice chests packed with local craft beer.
Overall, our time in Toronto was eye-opening. As it turned out, much of our anxiety and euphoria was naively misplaced. We now have a clearer idea of the music industry’s size, scope, and internal mechanics; indispensable knowledge as we tour our way out to Vancouver and back this August. Aside from all of the Business business, we still managed to take in as many shows as we could, while supporting fellow Montrealers and label-mates like Grimes, Sean Nicholas Savage, the Silly Kissers and Tonstartssbandht.
Pop Winds return to Montreal late August after a cross-Canada summer tour. Check out www.myspace.com/thepopwinds for local show info.