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10 Rules on How to Sink or Swim at CMJ

Though several bands demanded double-takes, and many impressed, there were no obvious standouts at this year's CMJ. Instead, our writers found bands that exemplified standards for success, and failure, putting together ten rules on how to sink or swim at CMJ.

For an aspiring artist the CMJ Music Marathon used to be the opportunity to make it or break it, to land that exalting record deal, to meet that catalytic publicist, or to simply generate the resounding buzz that would launch a career into the next stratosphere. It was a must—because A and R scouts stalked it and, for some, success followed it. But we all know what happened next: the internet came, saw, and conquered recorded music while giving anyone with a computer and conviction the opportunity to launch a music career. Just as the MyFaces are inundated with artists all trying to get noticed so is the CMJ Marathon, and the opportunities to be heard or seen are more competitive and saturated with bands than ever before.

Whereas past CMJ Marathons used to be able to boast of genre-defining bands “play[ing] career-defining shows,” 2009 was a 1,100-band scrum, each one elbowing to distinguish itself in a sea of exhausted critics, deal-makers, and music fans. What was once a pool of music business deal-making has evolved into a DIY endurance swim. Bands play over 10 shows in five days, hoping to be featured in some sponsoring blog’s showcase (another sign of the times.) But since preemptive hype is generally required to make any sort of splash, often the bigger story is who didn’t show up to CMJ rather than who did. This year highly anticipated sets from The Very Best and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle were voided due to visa complications. Toss in diminished industry attendance from a reeling economy and getting noticed was as hard as hailing a cab on a rainy Friday night.

Though several bands demanded double-takes, and many impressed, there were no obvious standouts—thus no gold stars. Instead our writers found bands that exemplified standards for success, and failure, putting together ten rules on how to sink or swim at CMJ.

1. Tuned Guitar Not Optional

When you are an accomplished musician, such as JD Souther, it probably shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to tune your guitar before playing one last song. Instead, telling extended stories at the Living Room ultimately lost his audience, and never actually produced a tuned instrument. Mr. Souther could have stopped his ship from sinking but he just stared at the holes. Not unlike Mr. Souther, VEGA’s mop-topped guitarist pulled out a painfully out of tune axe to start their third song at Webster Hall’s studio. Thirty seconds in and finally noticing, he stopped playing and simply mingled with the front row, unperturbed and uninterested in tuning it himself, until a subordinate came running with a tuned loaner. All the while Alan Palomo and drummer finished the song sans guitar. In a brief set of precise pop such indifference for intonation was not appreciated.

2. Save the Face Paint for Halloween

I remember the moment that the "band" who calls themselves the Bodega Girls officially lost me. One of their two lead microphone-holders was comfortably in the crowd, pumping his fist and screaming "We're all losers" to the easily bought crowd. But when his counterpart proclaimed "I looooooooove your face paint" I had had enough. Unless you’re the ultimate warrior, or KISS, spending time on make-up is over-rated. Isn’t one really just masking something that nobody wants to see, or in this case, hear?

3. Etiquette Counts

Being a gracious host can only make you look better in the eyes of your beholders. So when Bang! Bang! Eche! leader T’Nealle Worsley slipped off the stage in a fit of musical passion and accidentally knocked into a photographer, he sought out the victim and apologized immediately after the song was over. And for a moment the world was right and everything was A-OK. Similarly, before Motel Motel lead singer Eric Engel walked off stage, he thanked so many people you thought the “cut to commercial” music was about to come on. Saying “thank you” when you are given a compliment and “sorry” when you make a mistake never goes out of style.

4. Perspiration Counts

Everyone has gushed about Joseph D’Agostino’s frenetic strumming and Cymbals Eat Guitars’ propulsive, unrefined sound. But part of what made their Santos show so compelling was the shear ferocity with which D’Agostino attacked his instrument, perspiring like a heavyweight in the ninth round of a championship bout. There’s no better parameter for energy and effort than perspiration.

5. Use Visuals (Wear Costumes)

CMJ-goers see so many bands in such a short span at so many levels of sobriety that even a great song and vats of energy are often not enough to make a lasting impact. But paired with entertaining and glitzy costumes can put a band over the threshold. At Piano’s Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt brought enough costumes for everyone, enabling their frenzied collective to share more than just their euphoric anthems with the crowd. Alternatively, Norway’s Ungdomskulen donned sequin tops and tight bottoms to match their Spinal Tap-worthy stage personas. Who knew prog rock could be so glamorous?

6. Live Trumps Programmed

As '80s drenched electro pop becomes the median indie band’s de facto sound, more and more bands eschew instruments for machines. But technical prowess and studio wizardry never trumps raw musicianship in person. Live drums are a start, but it requires a phenomenally precise drummer to work—ditto for bass—and usually that’s as far as many bands take it. Though some underlying samples were unavoidable, Sugar & Gold’s keyboardist and tight rhythm section recreated their verdurous brand of disco brilliantly. The same was true of Body Language, with their myriad keyboards, bells, and synthesizers all coalescing under a human touch.

7. Don’t Be a Hero

Billed as a "marathon," CMJ really is no joke. It easily demands the stamina and perseverance required for a real 26.2 mile haul. Surfer Blood famously took on over ten showcases before showing fatigue. This also applies to fans however. Personally, I spent about three days recuperating, not to mention the emotional toll taken by constantly wondering whether it was all just exhaustion or the wind-up to a bout of the pork flu.

8. Bring Earplugs

Big thumbs up to the Altec Lansing folks for giving out sweet isolating earbud headphones that could pull double duty--both during loud shows like the Cymbals Eat Guitars set at Le Poisson Rouge and also while ambling around on the sidewalk between them.

9. Begin Band Name with “The…”

With over a thousand bands at CMJ, it’s hard to be taken seriously with a totally unique name like Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt or Bin Laden Blowing Up. As attendees scan their guides, preferring to gamble with one-offs instead of reliable showcases of established bands, projecting legitimacy and sophistication is key. Therefore your band name better begin with a “The…” as established by such past CMJ success stories as The Hold Steady, The Killers, or The Arcade Fire. Coincidence? I think not.

10. Only Human Fans On Stage

At bigger shows, it is routine for audience members to hop on stage with their favorite artists, to a) sing along, b) bump and grind, or c) knock shit over. Polyvinyl supporters at the Bell House did just that, while treated to an array of artists including Headlights, Cale Parks, Common Loon, and headliner Japandroids. But the duo of distortion enthusiasts had more than one type of fan join them on stage: a massive wind turbine expertly placed to make singer Brian King’s luscious locks flourish and sway. King’s skilled tresses could rival Jon Bon Jovi’s, and when he wasn’t adjacent to the fan he was sure to situate himself against David Prowse’s drum set for some dramatic profiles. A lot of practiced positioning, for sure, but for CMJ success, always ditch the posturing and instead sing to the fans in the crowd.

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