The Future (Land) of NXNE
“Stop smoking pot, watching cats on YouTube and trolling people online — that does nothing for society,” ranted Shaharris, CEO of Hackernest, as the audience erupted in applause. “We need our smartest people solving our biggest problems. We don’t need another Pinterest, where I can waste hours staring at people who are richer and better looking than me.”
Shaharris was speaking as part of the Designing the Future panel at NXNE’s Future Land Interactive Conference — a one day event in the middle of the week that is NXNE, self described as a place for the “rule breakers, visionaries, and the best minds in gaming and music.”
The biggest story from NXNE 2016 has been its shift from the club-hopping model to having central performance stages at the Port Lands, a hotly debated move by both critics and fans across the city. NXNE Co-founder and managing director Michael Hollett told The Fader that the changes were about accessibility and giving both artists and fans a more immersive experience: “It’s better having an up-and-coming band playing the ‘Discovery Stage’ at the Port Lands than a Hungarian restaurant we’ve converted that no one comes to.”
In another interview a few years ago, Hollett explained that what “distinguishes NXNE from other festivals that have been around is that we’re very much about the music. The live music component is the defining thing.” While NXNE still featured some great talents — both up-and-coming and established — at the Port Lands, the move made a large part of the NXNE experience exactly the same as many of the other major music festivals in Ontario. Sweatily bouncing from club to club is what many people remember fondly when they think of NXNE. Though this aspect isn’t totally gone, this year’s club lineup was far smaller than in the past.
It’s unclear what NXNE will look like next year, but as the multiple presentations of live music across Ontario become more and more similar, NXNE needs to find a way to not only stand out but connect better with the communities of artists, fans and critics. The Future Land conference could be its golden ticket.
This year’s Future Land focused on technology and gaming, and where music can intersect with the two. While Pong creator and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell gave an entertaining talk, the panels gave attendees real value for their money.
Topics included composing for video games, a frank discussion on the shortcomings of VR today and what’s needed to propel the medium forward both from a creator’s and venture capitalist’s point of view, and gaining independent success in both gaming and music. These sessions were less focused on inspiration and more on tangible advice, with panelists like Shaharris, indie game musician Maggie Mclean and Albert Lai of Big Viking Games sharing unfiltered thoughts on their respective goals for their industries, finding employment, and working towards more equitable spaces and practices in business, music and gaming. FACTOR hosted an info session on its funding processes and offered tips on grant writing.
This was the first conference in a long time where I left not just with a stack of business cards but information that I could apply to multiple projects. One word to describe Future Land is “useful.” Although not sexy, it’s unique. Usefulness is a quality that too often eludes conferences, many of which are so focused on presentation they forget to actually produce good content.
With the name Future Land, it’s not difficult to guess that the conference was targeted towards those immersed in emerging industries. As Bushnell half-joked in his talk, “If you were a total geek in the fifties, you were into ham radio. If you’re one today, I guess you’d be here.” This niche focus explains why the conference was overlooked in the coverage of NXNE — discussing the next steps in VR development just doesn’t resonate with enough people.
But what if NXNE could take this format and expand it? Creating multiple simple, yet effective discussions around the city throughout the week of the festival. Future Land doesn’t just have to focus on gaming and music. Our city’s collective future will be built through how we develop a variety of industries and move forward on numerous social issues. A 2016 Future Land week could have days where we focus on sustainability in the city, bring together residents, police and politicians to discuss racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, discuss how to actually foster a supportive and attractive environment for the world’s best startups, or debate how to truly make Toronto a “Music City.”
Larger discussions could be placed in Yonge-Dundas Square — drawing passersby like the free concerts used to — with smaller, more niche discussions held in universities or community centres across the city. The discussions could have an equal emphasis placed on panelists’ thoughts and audience interaction, offering unique forums for open exchange of information and perspectives.
With engaging and meaningful topics of discussion, the status of the panelists doesn’t matter as much as the experience they bring. With this model, NXNE doesn’t have to worry about getting a big keynote name to draw people, because it’s the content that matters. While the mayor may be featured on stage at Yonge-Dundas square, a forum held in a community centre discussing small business ownership in the city could draw just as many people.
By adopting a model that focuses on Future Land just as much as live musical performances, NXNE would stand out not only as a unique festival, but an opportune platform for civic engagement. Sure, a model like this would start small and draw niche crowds, but imagine five years from now when NXNE could be established as the time of year where you can spend a day debating one of city’s economical, social or cultural issues, then head to the Port Lands for one hell of a party. As a Torontonian, that’s a festival I would be really proud of.