“It’s a party boat, baby,” says the girl behind the makeshift ticket booth at the ferry terminal, with an air of nonchalance. I had asked why it would take 45 minutes for the ride to Toronto Island that usually takes 10. The reason for leaving the mainland is the North By Northeast music festival (NXNE), and I’m eager to not miss my favourite Baltimore synthpop band, Future Islands, play.
In its 20th year, NXNE spreads across Toronto over the course of 10 days. Organisers tout it as the younger sister of the more internationally known SXSW in Austin, Texas; to formalise relations, the two cities signed the world’s first music city alliance last autumn.
For Toronto, the hope is to elevate its music industry and the festival – which pumps around CA$50m (€34m) into the local economy – by establishing a “music pipeline” to Austin. During NXNE, the Austin Airstream, a 1974 trailer, is driving around town and staging pop-up concerts. Mike Tanner, NXNE’s director of operations, hopes the alliance will grow to include other music cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
This venture has potential. There’s no doubt that Toronto is a music city: it has a healthy number of independent record labels such as Arts & Craft and Paper Bag. More importantly, more than any other art form where artists often have to make it big elsewhere before they’re accepted at home, Toronto’s musicians are well loved by Torontonians. When I first moved to the city, a stranger told me that there’s always live music playing in some bar somewhere. He was right.
The alliance will boost the profile of Toronto’s numerous musicians and reflects a growing confidence (who says Canadians are modest?). But some criticise the lack of concrete “next steps”. I’m not one of them. In fact, I believe too much top-down direction is bad for an industry fuelled by creativity. Also, while it’s true that artists influence other artists, music is and should be unique and contextual: Nashville, New Orleans and London all have distinct sounds.
Toronto is slowly but discernibly finding its own voice in the city’s many bars and it would be a shame to lose ourselves in the alliance – or, worse, lose our performers to other cities. What the Music City Alliance should be is a touchpoint where a diversity of music styles is embraced and celebrated, not a melting pot.
Meanwhile, I’ve arrived at Toronto Island. The Future Islands are great and I wonder if maybe I should go to Baltimore.
Jason Li is researcher/writer in Monocle’s Toronto bureau.