The Value of CMJ

Festival Kicks off Today in NYC

by Dennis Shin

18 October 2011


So what can CMJ Music Marathon attendees expect? Using 2010 as a guide...

Thematic Issues

A good degree of energy will be spent genuflecting on the issues of the day. Riffing on themes laid out at other recent industry conferences, CMJ 2010 brought attention to new tools for artist discovery including portals that assist bands with various aspects of marketing, distribution, and matchmaking to potential partners. Some of the more fascinating perspectives were presented by panelists such as John Boyle of Hello Music, a service offering that provides artists with much of the value associated with being with a major level. At the same time, smaller independent labels such as Merge, Sub Pop, Epitath and Matador offer a way forward, both in terms of the way they work with artists, and in the role they play as curators for music fans.

Merge, the creation of Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, and based in North Carolina, has gained particularly notoriety in the wake of their work with Arcade Fire, and the stunning (at least to non-hipster industry insiders) Grammy Award win for the Suburbs. Expect more attention this year on the impact of platforms such as Spotify and Grooveshark in providing a valuable service to both listeners and artists, offering further refinements in the quest to monetize digital distribution. Generally, expect variations on the theme of service delivery models that facilitate the DIY model, and further micro-segments the array of services that labels used to provide artists under the old school label model.

The Continuing Legal Education (CLE) sessions have in the past offered tutorials for attorneys, managers, and artists on various contract and licensing issues, while addressing broader policy issues, including the fundamental issue of advocacy in support of payment for performers, on top of the traditional industry recognition of payment for songwriters. Policy discussions in this ongoing debate have revolved around the collective rights and responsibilities of writers, performers, and content users, such as broadcasters. Expect some interesting lines in the sand drawn, particularly where natural adversaries such as labels, broadcasters, and performers share the panel in town hall like settings.

Artist driven panels will typically range from practical advice on DIY marketing and cross-promotion, to one of the more compelling issues—practical considerations of 360 degree deals, in which in consideration for a substantial investment and profit sharing, entities ranging from investment firms to record labels, take title to an artist’s entire revenue stream. The deals recognize that artists income is increasingly drawn from revenue sources outside of the sales of music, and also the reality that by assigning these rights , artists create the right incentives for the entities to, as a wise man once said “grow the pie higher”, maximizing the artist’s return. A compelling reality is that in the DIY world, artists can universally point to fairly instant successes: healthy sales on iTunes, placements on TV shows, commericals and the occasional movie soundtrack. And yet, no one is feeling financially secure, much less getting rich.

Musical Highlights

Be prepared for crowds, crowds and crowds and little bursts of music. Not only are showcases numerous, but don’t be surprised if they consist of three or four songs. The average set can run between 20-30 minutes. Bands are under the gun, with as many as a dozen appearances and up to three in a day, hope for an above average performance, and be on the lookout for the rare meltdown. A badge will get you in anywhere, but badges are not really essential, given the abundance of free parties, and relatively inexpensive showcase events (ticket prices to many events between $5-10, with even bigger name artists such as Titus Andronicus and Eleanor Friedberger at the Bowery Ballroom for a reasonable $15. While not serving as kingmaker, CMJ 2010 did include a range of highlights. With as many as 1000 showcasing artists, it is seemingly impossible to take it all in. This year, PopMatters will have as many as four staff tracking new and emerging artists. With last year as a guide, expect some of this year’s highlights to include:

New artists:

The first task is to identify must see artists. Naturally the hype cycle has a follow the tail quality, programmers, promoters, journalists, program directors, and bloggers look to each other, yet forge strong opinions based on very limited data. Taking some time away, and then revisiting a must see list over a period of time, provides an interesting case studies in the fallacies of thinking. What happened to that buzz band with that YouTube that went viral?

Impressive showcases by the likes of Fences, No Joy, Dominique Young Unique portend a bright future. An assortment of buzz acts: Dom, Tamaryn, Oberhofer, originating from Worcester, New Zealand, Washington state, but all familiar to Brooklyn audiences, thrive on a bigger stage. Teens and Glasser highlight the Fader Fort showcase, a toned down NYC affair compared to the epic outdoor Tower of Babel/Thunderdome superstructure that sprouts up each year at SXSW as one of Austin’s first signs of Spring. Showing up randomly on the lower East side, I’m pleasantly surprised to run into one of the breakout acts from SXSW, the Smoke Fairies, an English duo blending roots based blues with ethereal Celtic vocals, (a mashup between Ali Farka Toure and Enya, if you will).

The supper club setting of the Living Room has the feeling of a wedding respect, so I pay respect to one of the Fairies, who I met in Austin at a Mojo magazine party, and then kibitz with a sound engineer from Buffalo, who in a previous life was an original member of Ministry, until Al Jourgensen decided to lay waste to the entire original lineup. The youthful enthusiasm of Teenage Bottlerocket should win them sort of festival spirit award.

The one-man electronic show that is Baths is a force of nature and generates a rave response at the BrooklynVegan day party on the Lower East Side. BrooklynVegan wins the award for creating the right environment for emerging artists and shine, mixing inspired bookings with largely non-industry fans. The buzz is palpable. Months later, it’s impossible to get into see him at the Mercury Lounge. A future booking at the next largest venue in the pecking order of New York clubs, (Bowery, Webster Hall?), the incremental march forward of touring artists seeking to gain traction in a given market, lies on the horizon.

Underground environment:

Next in priority to catching a new band, is catching an act in a cool or unusual setting. The Cameo Gallery, the cavern like stage tucked inside a bar, requiring a circuitous walk down a passageway under the kitchen, is one of the better places to see an artist, especially when it’s seeing the Neutral Milk Hotel play their landmark album in its entirety. Impose Magazine, garnering a reputation for inspired underground shows, deliver 50-plus bands over the course of seven shows at three venues. One of the most inspired shows was hearing the thrash of an unsigned Mississippi band at the Impose showcase, in part due to the venue’s location at Don Pedro’s in Bushwick, as out of the way one can get, and a graveyard post-2am slot to boot.

Established artists:

CMJ each year will offer opportunities for career retrospectives, or returns to form by artists who rarely have the opportunity to tour. Last year included inspired sets by Gary Numan, playing before an appreciate multi-generational audience, who seemed attuned to his impact on electronic music, and a career spanning show by Fishbone, capturing the raw intensity and playfulness that the band put on display on the original Lollapalooza tour.

Innovative Bookings:

CMJ offers an opportunity for experimentation, guest appearances and strange settings. Last year’s CMJ festival offered a number of fascinating settings. The careening gypsy punk of Devotchka is viewed in a new light, when playing under the big tent of the Big Apple Circus, accompanied by trapeze artists and acrobats. A 2010 CMJ highlight was the inspired staging of Dean and Britta, which delivered a magnificent tribute show to Andy Warhol at NYU (and then a few hours later, did double duty by playing as Galaxie 500 at the Bowery. The Warhol show mixed music, performance art and mixed media. The 50th show on its tour of theaters, in which silent video of the cast of characters that inhabited Warhol’s world flickered in black and white on large screens set up on stage, while the band played the soundtrack to these characters personas, the performance took on a special aura when considering that the performance itself took place steps from where many of these characters lived and worked in the village. From time to time, the musicians would turn their attention back at the giant screens, gazing up at the looming visage of a Nico or a Lou Reed, and admit that their spectre was a constant presence.


Expect a lot of charisma, particularly when artists are thrust into a high profile slot, as was the case of the streaming online performance featuring Surfer Blood (who excelled). In the case of Dominique Young Unique, her performance showed off the stylish flair and charisma that suggest an “it” stage presence, capable of catapulting her to the next level. On the flip side, the robotic machinations of the lead singer of the Drums’ seemed a bit much. Seeing the band pogo on Record Store Day is a sign of youthful exuberance. Seeing the band’s careening antics at gig after gig gets tiresome though, and one wonders after a few tracks of this whether, despite their fine musicianship, will they start popping up on lists of bands you most want to slap silly. The leader singer of Francis and the Lights, whose choreographed dance moves at the performance seemed overly slick by a half. And then the first appearance by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Jr. catches the audience by surprise.

Disappointing shows:

Invariably, an artist will show up late, ill-equipped, or the sound will go out. At South by Southwest, one recalls an interminable sound check by Peter, Bjorn, and John that tested the patience of fans. One of last year’s disappointments, was a booking of three buzz bands at the top of their game, Phoenix/Dirty Projectors/Wavves at Madison Square Garden, which perhaps was an overreach for the conference organizers. Despite alerting conference badgeholders that MSG Live had notified CMJ of a sellout, thus cutting off badgeholders from attending one of the most highly anticipated performances, the show played to a significant numbers of empty seats.

Secret Shows:

While few things are truly secret, with independent media, bloggers, and social media providing near real time information on rumors, expect plenty of interesting chatter about rumored appearances and celebrity spotting. Corporate sponsored parties are a good bet for drop-ins. While warehouse shows and day parties are no longer a secret, the most intriguing variant are a series of special tapings, of surprise artists, playing nontraditional venues, at odd hours. I just confirmed attendance at one of these. Not at liberty to say who or where, except that it entails dropping in at an apartment in lower Manhattan, at 9:30 in the morning on Wednesday. We encourage you to add fuel to the fire by sharing any amusing anecdotes of your own, celebrity spottings, or secret appearances.

Topics: cmj 2011
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