No longer the ugly step-sister, Toronto’s North by Notheast, started seven years ago as a Canadian counterpart to Austin, Texas’ venerable South by Southwest, is quickly growing up. The 15-year-old SXSW has grown into one of the premier venues for new music fans, and music industry schmoozing, and Portland’s franchise North by Northwest is going into its sixth year. It’s both a music industry conference and artist showcase. The conference is heavily industry-oriented, featuring workshops like Music Managers vs Record Companies, clinics on entertainment law, demo critiques and a songwriting panel. It’s great if you’re an up and coming singer-songwriter, but for most, the clubs are where the action is.
The showcase stretches three nights and almost 30 clubs with showcases presented by sponsors as varied as SOCAN, CFNY, Hamilton-based record label Sonic Unyon and the CBC. The venues vary from rock institutions like the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace to smaller, more intimate spaces like Free Times Caf for the folkies. There’s been increasing emphasis on urban music in recent years, and this year was no exception with the Comfort Zone and Reverb as ground zero, featuring artists such as 7 Bill All Stars and Mathematik. A welcome addition was the willingness to mix things up, with Jully Black playing right before Montreal indie rockers Tricky Woo at the traditionally urban music-phobic Horseshoe.
There are the spectacles, like the Molson Canadian Rocks Block Party, with DJs and strobe lights galore, broadcast live on Energy 108 — and the winner of the NXNE DJ search, who gets a shot at spinning on Electric Circus. There’s also, of course, the big-name White Ribbon benefit concert, organized by Tea Party frontman Jeff Martin and featuring Moist’s David Usher and Gordie Johnston from Big Sugar. But for those who’re looking for more than a live-action version of MuchMusic, the real story is the smaller acts that struggle with stringently-timed 50-minute sets, no sound check and no control over the club’s lineup. While it might seem a recipe for disaster, things usually go smoothly. The bands are hit and miss, though the misses can be lessened by a little research, but finding a hit is what makes it all worthwhile.
The biggest problem is the overwhelming abundance of venues and acts. Stretching from Bloor Street almost to the waterfront, with a heavy concentration of clubs on Queen East, it’s easy to park in a convenient Queen St. location and see what happens. To do that, though, is to miss several highlights — like Montreal’s Les Sequelles, for whom fans happily trekked out from Queen to karaoke bar Clinton’s way out on Bloor. The real junkies are the ones who will line up to get a glimpse of the act that’s been generating buzz. Scrunched between diehard fans and oily record execs, audiences can check out dozens of bands who might be household names next year, but who are far more likely to go back to indie obscurity.