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North by Northeast Music and Industry Conference 1998 - Part 1
by May Lebrun

I went to North by Northeast ’98 (NXNE) with the head of a journalist and the heart of a songwriter. I knew what questions to ask as a journalist, but I knew what I hoped to see as a songwriter. Here are both my professional and personal perspectives on the event.

NXNE is the international music festival and industry conference held annually in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The event is only a few years old, but already it attracts songwriters and music artists from every corner of the globe. I met Australians, British, Americans and fellow Canadians from as far away as Vancouver.

Just over 400 bands and solo artists were scheduled to play at the many venues taking part in the conference. There was no way to take in all of them, but Kensington Market was buzzing with activity as conference-goers hopped from club to club every evening to check out as much as they could. They didn’t seem to mind the strong fishy smell or the mountains of garbage piled up outside the markets at night waiting to go to garbage heaven.

The main conference itself took place at the Holiday Inn on King Street West. NXNE took up an entire floor. There was a trade show going on in one of the large auditoriums where many companies had set up shop to show their wares and demonstrate their expertise.

I love presents. I was thrilled when I arrived and they gave me a tote bag full of goodies and a media survival kit, which included headache pills for any not-so-gifted performances I might encounter. There were free copies of music magazines, CD samplers, cassettes, stickers, catalogues and endless pamphlets.

Gingerly, with my media badge conspicuously displayed, I asked the D’Addario rep to let me try out their newest electric guitar, a replica of a model from the 1950s that made me salivate. I want it..want it...want it...oh, excuse me, back to the article. At that point, I had to come clean and confess that I was a songwriter wearing a reporter’s badge. He smiled and stuffed some free stickers and picks and pamphlets in my bag.

I checked out booths for various companies offering to dub, record, replicate and part the Red Sea. Oh, no, they didn’t part the Red Sea. It was interesting, and they stuffed more stickers and pamphlets into my bag.

It was then that I heard it. It was a high-pitched sound that sounded like the amplification of a mosquito; a very happy, even trippy mosquito. I had to check that out, so I peeked around the corner from the D’Addario booth.

Peter Pringle (you may remember a few hits he had in the 80s) was standing on a platform with an antennae in front of him and this giant happy mosquito was actually him. He was playing an instrument (an instrument?) called a Theremin. It wasn’t just any Theremin. It was a vintage 1929 RCA Theremin that has been played on thousands of Hollywood soundtracks. Just watch some of those old movies...that high-pitched, whiny, melodramatic music in the background is done on the first, original electronic instrument.

I was amazed at how well Peter Pringle played the giant mosquito, I mean, Theremin. It is a fascinating thing to watch. The players hands never touch the instrument, but, rather, the notes are made by sweeping movements of his hands in the air at specific places. I wanted to try my hand at this awesome beast from the past and, I was invited to do so, but the chicken in me talked me out of it.

The Theremin was definitely one of the most fascinating attractions at the trade show (and the strangest). It was especially interesting because the whine of the Theremin was often in competition with its next door neighbour, a company specializing in recording. They were demonstrating with loud rap music, complete with scratching turntables. The combination of sounds was truly awe-inspiring, and I was thankful for that headache pill in my media survival kit. I donated it to the man whose booth was in between the Theremin and the rap music.

Artists Against Racism had a terrific display at the tradeshow and it was gratifying to see their presence there. I wore my purple ribbon all weekend and it made me feel proud to be an artist. They didn’t give me a lot of free stuff, but for a small donation, I was able to stuff some stickers and a bookmark into my goodie bag, which was getting pretty bulgy by that point.

The Sound Mind Sessions looked very inviting, but I decided to watch other willing volunteers in a session. This company specializes in brainwave biofeedback, a process which they claim relaxes the songwriter’s brain so that the creative juices flow more freely. Whether these sessions really did benefit the participants is a mystery, but curiosity certainly flowed freely around that booth.

Enough of the trade show, there were plenty of other things to do and see at NXNE besides companies trying to make a sale. In the same auditorium as the trade show there was an acoustic stage featuring artists every afternoon. There was a wide variety of music styles featured on that stage, but generally it focussed on folk and Celtic and the types of music that wouldn’t drown out the trade show conversation.

I took in the folky, homey sounds of Benji, from Guelph, Ontario. The blend of male and female vocals was refreshing and they interacted well with the crowd. They covered classic Dylan tunes as well as offering some of their own original material. Benji was well-received, though I thought the crowd that came to hear them could have been larger.

Down the hall, away from the vendors and the acoustic stage, NXNE hald a variety of events including workshops, seminars, round table discussions, panel discussions and artist mentor sessions.

Two legal workshops were held in which songwriters and artists could take in information regarding copyright laws, publishing, contracts and anything else associated with the sticky business end of songwriting. Questions were encouraged.

The demo session was very popular. Songwriters brought in demo songs for critiquing. All the demos were placed in a bin and were chosen at random, with no names on them, so that the industry professionals and established songwriters heading the session could give their honest, unbiased opinions. It was like a mini lottery. Who will be the lucky winner?

The room was jam packed for the A&R panel discussion on Saturday afternoon. There were representatives from a number of major record labels at the meeting, all waiting to evade..I mean...answer questions and talk about what the industry is looking for today. This particular session was the most discouraging and not well-received by many of the songwriters I interviewed afterward. They felt that most of their questions were either skirted or given pat answers.

The songwriter in me must confess to also being unimpressed by this particular session, but not because of NXNE itself. A&R is just annoying. It must be their purpose in life. They are calling a lot of the shots, but are not artists themselves, for the most part. Ah, the age-old rift between artists and businessmen continues. En guard! Draw your sword...or maybe just your guitar.

One rep stated, distastefully I thought, that bands like the Rolling Stones, with their longevity, are a thing of the past. He claimed that no songwriter or artist will ever have more than 3 or 4 albums in a lifetime and that the glory days when bands stayed together, playing and recording for years, are over. Just like that. No chance of redemption there. This was distressing and infuriating for many artists.

The songwriters round table and the producers round table were well-received and well attended. At the songwriter’s round table, the one I personally attended, the audience sat in a circle around the featured guests, which made it more informal and appealing.

Two songwriters, one from the band, Rusty, and another from the band, The Doughboys, were there to give their views and advice on songwriting, both the business and the creative end. It was interesting to hear how the young man from Rusty (and pardon my French – I forgot to get his name) tried for eleven years to get a recording contract, with no success. When he formed the band Rusty, he said it just suddenly "happened", without the struggling and the striving. It introduced the variable of timing as well as the need to find the right people to click with. Questions were answered patiently and clearly and everyone appreciated their openness and honesty.

They were respectively young, but it was evident, even to those of us who were older than they, that experience had taught them a lot of valuable things. They had to rush away immediately after the session to play outdoors at John Street even to be discussed as part of the venues later on in this article.

Last, but certainly not least, were the mentor sessions. These were so popular that they required a sign-up sheet and a waiting list to get involved. During the mentor sessions, songwriters were able to meet one on one with an established songwriter/artist to ask questions, listen and learn the things that are best taught face to face and heart to heart.

People clamoured to get into these events, and still, many were turned away for lack of space. If any one event will be expanded next year, this will be the one and, judging from the feedback I heard, this was the best part of the conference itself, apart from the club scene at night.

Stay tuned for the second part of this article, which will give a more detailed description of the artists and establishments involved in the venues at NXNE.

Check out the second installment of this informative romp through the NXNE!

H. May Lebrun is a singer/songwriter/journalist from Arnprior, Ontario, Canada.  She has two children, Anthony, age 13 and Kendra, age 12.  She will be performing her own compositions at the end of August at the Ottawa Folk Festival, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, sharing a stage the same day with artists such as Arlo Guthrie.
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