CMJ Music Marathon: Do It Yourself (And With the Help of Your Licensing, Marketing and Publicity Tea
Associate Concert Editor Christine Di Bella takes a look back at what CMJ really had to offer its participants -- and the answer might be a redefinition of the DIY ethos.
"It's too early for this," proclaimed Canadian rockers Broken Social Scene as they closed up an early afternoon set on the Daystage at the New York Hilton. Understandably, in the context of the CMJ Music Marathon, where shows run into the wee hours of the morning, for some, 1:45 p.m. on a Saturday translated into "too early." But to others, it was a perfect time to get some advice on throwing themselves on the altar of the almighty dollar.
If all you know of CMJ is the ridiculous bounty of high-quality shows at venues across New York City over a four-day period in October, you might not realize that it's also a professional conference for the music industry. As such, the daytime hours are filled with your typical professional conference (whatever your profession may be) trappings: a drab hotel meeting room setting, an exhibit hall for vendors to ply their wares (and for attendees to load up on free, logo-emblazoned crap), people swapping business cards, semi-big name keynote and plenary speakers, and myriad panels and workshops designed to incrementally aid you in your professional development (while simultaneously providing their presenters with justification for an employer-subsidized vacation).
My introduction to this more mundane side of CMJ came on the marathon's final day. Now if CMJ's conference follows the pattern of the many (non-music) conferences I've been to, by the final day, most people are fairly burned out and seeking stimulation elsewhere; as such, CMJ Saturday may not have been its most representative display. My curiosity was piqued, however, as the theme for the day's panels and workshops was "DIY," as in "Do It Yourself," as in one of the most basic tenets of punk and indie rock -- as in seemingly antithetical to paying money to sit at a conference and have other people tell you what to do.
Actually, it wasn't really as nefarious as it sounds. As Wayne Kramer, leader of touchstone DIY'ers the MC5, asserted in his keynote address, DIY isn't really about lone wolfing it, though being in charge of your own destiny is the most fundamental aspect. DIY is also about knowing when to partner up and enlist the help of others to get where you want to be. (For many aspiring musicians, that experience comes through building support networks in their own communities over months and years, through honing their skills and working their way through the ranks, but CMJ Saturday offered something more instantly appealing -- an opportunity to do it all on an international scale over a six-hour period.) To a woefully underpopulated room, Kramer also talked about how to avoid being caught by what he called "the great lie of rock and roll," the illusion that achieving mainstream success will somehow make you better. It was a reminder that in a true DIY setting might have seemed ridiculously clichéd, but in this one seemed worth hearing.
Many of those who attended the DIY music panels seemed a bit more interested in achieving the success than exposing the lie. Plenty of seemingly well-meaning, vague-but-moderately-worthwhile tips and insights for the former were offered throughout the day. The well-attended "As Seen on TV" panel featured music supervisors for film, television, and video games providing advice on making your music both profitable and ubiquitous away from the context of your main gig. The panel also included one indie label representative, Shawn Rogers of Sub Pop Records, who infamously got the Shins a soundtrack slot on a McDonald's commercial last year. Rogers provided one of the panel's few nods to bands' usually unavoidable concerns about "selling out," holding up the example of the Thermals as a band "who wouldn't even let [him] put them on an Urban Outfitters sampler." Artistic integrity is constantly being redefined, I guess. Those who asked questions wanted to know more about step deals, exclusive licenses, and how much video games companies pay. (In case you're wondering, very little -- but really, shouldn't the thrill of being featured in Madden 2004 be its own reward?)
"Music Marketing, Publicity, Promotion", which featured a host of publicists and a radio promotion expert, was standing room only. The question and answer period was particularly active, even when you discounted the people who just asked questions to get the name of their band out into the room. Attendees got some rate quotes for publicity companies, some ideas for wacky promos and off the beaten path marketing tactics, and some unintentionally amusing examples of non-musical hooks that could lead your band to famewhoredom, including wrestling alligators and having your lead singer thrown into jail by the INS.
Back on the CMJ Daystage Swedish electroclash trio Revlon 9 provided a real-life implementation of the lessons of the day. I don't know what angle their publicists employed (maybe something to do with the trio's spandex silver getups?), but apparently it worked: their performance was attended by more people interested in photographing them than listening to their music. The vast empty space between the stage and the few people clustered in chairs at the back of the room (space that had been packed to overflowing with appreciative fans when Broken Social Scene played) turned into a runway, as band members jumped off stage to preen and pose while the photogs snapped shot after shot. The music, while enthusiastically performed, may not have been much to write home about, but those pics just might turn them into the next big thing. And isn't that what DIY is all about? Hmm . . .