Blue stage lights shine upon the guitarist of Sumo Cyco as sweat drips down onto the strings of his guitar. When his head begins to rock to his band’s metal-tinged sound, these beads of sweat are flung onto the brightly lit stage. The lead singer’s chest is flushed; her face reveals mixed signs of nervousness and exhilaration. The drummer violently thrusts his head back and forth to the beat of his instrument, his blonde hair simultaneously suspended in air and draped over his face. Sumo Cyco has made it to the Indie Week finals and are performing for a chance to headline the festival’s brother show in Ireland, the annual prize awarded to the artist deemed the Best of the Fest at this independent music showcase.
Indie Week, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, is one of the three main music festivals in Toronto. It’s held in October, after both Canadian Music Week and NXNE, respectively. It’s also the smallest of the three, perfect for musicians trying to make themselves known.
Founded 10 years ago by former band member and now promoter Darryl Hurs, Indie Week has become the event for upcoming artists to showcase their untapped abilities.
The artists represent various genres, and they’re as colourful as the copious amounts of alcohol they’ll consume over the five-day event.
These musicians include the bang your head, scream your lungs out metal-style of the past two indie week winners, Sumo Cyco and Burning the Day. The festival largely consists of indie rock, yet you could find yourself in the middle of the country crooning’s of the Tennessee-enamored singer Jessica Mitchell, or the exuberant local rapper Philly Moves, given the night or venue you decide to pop into. It’s a five-day access to music unfettered by big-label/big-money involvement.
“[The festival] is about bringing awareness to that level of Indie bands,” said music publicist, Laurie Lockhart.
Gift bags handed to the media are filled with business cards of various musicians, regardless of headlining status. Their twitter feed during the event constantly alerts followers to what bands are playing where, and at what timeslot. Their headliner for the week was the 2013 Ireland ndie week winner, The Mad Violinist and the Symphony Crack Orchestra, an act that literally had members of the audience turning their heads back and mouthing “wow” as they performed. Contrast this with NXNE, who heavily promoted bigger names like Billy Talent and Joey Bada$$, and who had platinum-album-selling rapper Ludacris as their headliner. This doesn’t make Indie Week a better festival than NXNE, or even Canadian Music Week. It just makes it different, distinct.
On top of Indie Week being a showcase to the fans, it’s also a showcase to those inside the music industry. There’s a competition aspect to Indie Week, where participating bands are judged by fellow musicians, label representatives, and publicists like Lockhart.
Bands in the competition are judged based on their live performances, and their potential to succeed as a professional act within the industry. In various venues, one act will be chosen to advance to the next round. This culminates in the finals held at the Tattoo Rock Parlour. Each round, the artists who advance get the change to play showcases, and therefore receive more exposure within the industry. The classic-rock inspired Calgary band Open Air, the second runner up in the competition, played six shows within the span of the five-day festival. When the winner is announced, it means they have won at least two things: a trip to Ireland, and recognition.
“Ever since we went it’s been a snowball effect,” said Burning the Day. “After we won, our e-mail was just off the hook. All kinds of managers were contacting us. . . so many people were getting in touch with us just because we won.”
The spotlighting of lesser known artists has been a hallmark for the past 10 years of Indie Week, yet the yearly growth of the festival could end up adversely affecting this goal. With now 20 venues spread throughout the city, and the number of bands participating exceeding 200, concerns arise that Indie Week could become too spread out.
“Yeah, I guess it depends on the venue…” said singer Stephanie Braganza. “If they don’t have much foot traffic, [that’s a problem].”
Depending on the time of the performance, crowds can be sparse. Artists who perform earlier in the evenings can be in danger of this, limiting their exposure to potential new fans. On one Thursday-night set, only six non-judges/journalists were there to watch.
“If [there aren’t enough fans in each venue], then maybe they need to restrict it to a smaller amount of bands and venues,” said Australian rockers Arcane Saints. “But as long there are enough people checking out each band, [that’s all that matters].”
Indie Week can have an impact on the bands that make it to the five days of partying and music. Burning the Day is now “unofficially signed” with a U.K. record label, and Sumo Cyco is going to Ireland. The last 10 years have given audiences chances to hear new talent, and a platform for the artists to showcase it.