The Value of CMJ: Festival Kicks off Today in NYC

Dennis Shin

Exploring CMJ 2011 as it kicks off today. The state of the world is much different, for better of worse, from the time of the first CMJ conference in 1980. So what can CMJ Music Marathon attendees expect? Using 2010 as a guide...

The CMJ Music Marathon kicks off later today, a five-day stretch that will bring together thousands of conference attendees, centered on the target segment of college radio programmers, who once again will convene on NYU’s campus. But CMJ is known more for the wide range of new, emerging, and unsigned artists, with a smattering of established accts, who will be performing at venues across New York City, and the army of club owners, promoters, publicists, and journalists who will be circling one at showcases, panel discussions, and industry parties. Like industry confab South by Southwest, CMJ is a boon for music lovers, who will be bouncing from one venue to another at a seemingly endless array of day parties and evening showcases.

While continuing to serve as an instrumental convener of a critical mass of industry figures, CMJ no longer possesses the make or break influence it once did to jump start the careers of aspiring artists. This is no fault of conference organizers, nor a slight on the vision of founder Robert Haber, who famously co-founded the College Music Journal as a student at Brandeis University as a means of tracking non-commercial and college radio airplay. In the days before independent and unsigned artists possessed the means to get exposure to label executives or audiences through radio airplay, CMJ was a pioneer in exposing influential program directors at College radio stations to new, emerging and unsigned talent. Back in the day, CMJ could take credit for showcases that helped propel the prospects of the likes of Muse, Killers, R.E.M., Eminem, Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga.

But the state of the world is much different, for better of worse, from the time of the first CMJ conference in 1980. The dislocation of the traditional industry model of major labels, rostered artists, and middlemen greasing the wheels of commerce, offering the fortunate few a complete model of cradle-to-grave service offerings has had a liberating effect on both artists inside, and outside the traditional label structure. Artists are less captive to the indentured servitude which coupled hefty upfront signing bonuses and the prestige of having arrived, with disheartening sense that artists were locked in to the assembly line demands of churning out product. Equally worrying was the realization that the labels could derail an album’s prospects for success through a lack of support, or in a worst-case scenario, shelve an album indefinitely, while offering the artist little or no recourse.

The consolidation of the music industry, the shrinking of A&R budgets, and the release of many experienced employees within the industry over the years has had the effect of creating a level playing field between established and emerging artists. At the same time, internet distribution and social media have made DIY, once a necessity, inherently cool. With multiple means of marketing, distribution, and promotion at an artist’s disposal, musicians are opting out. The full service model has been replaced by an a la carte model. Artists can self-record, turning to journeymen or freelance producers and engineering staff, given the numbers of talented soundmen out on the street, or better yet, seek out each other: the era of the superstar musician wearing multiple hats is in full swing.

Steve Albini, a pioneer in lending his talents to aspiring musicians at any level is one option. Top tier talent such as Jack White and Dan Auerbach are representative of the artists who have shared their passion and vision with other artists. Artists are much better positioned to work with labels on an arms-length basis, picking and choosing what set of services they need, and which they will do themselves or contract. Artists can hire their own management, turn to specialists for tour support, outsource marketing and promotions, or in the era of social media, handle as much of it on their own. The DIY model is not just a necessity for those on the outside looking in, but a 24/7 reality for those on the inside. So what does this mean for big industry showcase confabs such as CMJ and SXSW?

The conferences have lost real sway as tastemakers. In a DIY universe, artists are adept at using social media to manage communications with the public, cater to an army of faceless bloggers, make use of real time alternative distribution models such as online music platforms and digital distribution, and gain mindshare through placements in films, TV soundtracks, and commercials. The ability of dog and pony showcases are not likely to break in a new band. Next, the discussions at these events are less about how do we divide up the pie, and more about hand holding, and offering constructive advice on how to weather the crisis -- not only the current economic recession but the reality of a commercial landscape that has been irreparably scarred.

Arguably, even CMJ’s more modest core goal of influencing what college music programmers play is debatable. Representative of the view point of many in the industry is the comment of a small label promoter -- who in a recent breakout session at the PopMontreal symposium last month, received a lot of nodding heads in the audience when he noted that his job of promoting new and emerging artists is made easier by the fact that “perhaps five radio stations possess the ability to influence listeners, along with a handful of major blogs”, and that most college radio programmers are relying on the major blogs. Like it or not, promotional staff are catering to a handful of faceless bloggers, living in their parent’s basement, who wield disproportionate influence.

The reality of the waning influence of the industry insiders was perhaps best driven home by last year’s CMJ festival, when Pitchfork, which more than any one source has had a bull in the china shop impact on the role of traditional music industry media, commandeered widespread attention with the audacious move of undercutting the CMJ festival on its own turf. Day parties and sidebar events at industry confabs have long been a staple, the cost of setting up a lemonade stand just outside the carnival is low, and you’re likely to draw in both conventioneers dismayed at beating the same damn horse, as well as music fans and artists on the outside. Pitchfork took this to a whole new level, counterprogramming with three days of buzz-worthy artists at its Offline Festival, held at hipster haven Brooklyn Bowl. For as little as $30 for a three-day pass, attendees could take in sets by the likes of buzz artists such as Surfer Blood, Zola Jesus, Titus Andronicus, Avey Tare, Marnie Stern, many of whom were also running the gauntlet of official CMJ showcases.

Providing non-attendees alternate programming during the festival is one thing. Offering access to many of the same artists by effectively undercutting the value of a $495 all access CMJ conference badge is another thing entirely. While asserting innocence (details of Pitchfork Offline were announced at the last minute, seemingly past the decision point for CMJ conference attendees), Pitchfork at best offered a wry and witty example of the disintermediation at play brought about by digital distribution and social media, and at worst was firing a shot at the bow of CMJ and their industry brethren.

Yet, CMJ still plays a leading role for college radio stations. Dan Sloan, music director at WNUR, Northwestern University, one of the leading experimental and avant garde college station notes: “The fact that musicians can now record and market themselves means that there is more interesting music than ever floating out in the ether -- it's now easier than ever for programmers to come across interesting music. Unfortunately, it's also easier than ever to miss great stuff in the chaos. In bringing together bands and stations in one physical space, CMJ Music Marathon helps make this chaos more comprehensible to everybody… the important thing about CMJ is not curation, but the facilitation of curation by stations themselves. I think this role -- bringing together stations and bands -- is the most important aspect of CMJ.” But he also notes: “I don't think the reviews it publishes are really very relevant today: I'd rather hunt down a band's music and listen myself than read a review.”

To that end, the bi-annual gathering of the tribes at the two major industry confabs continues to be of relevance to the industry, as it does represent a critical mass, which gives labels, artists, and the army of service employees who grease the wheels of commerce ample incentive to put their best foot forward. The winner in all this is the music fan, who still have the option to purchase a conference or showcase only pass, or, eschewing the conference entirely, can take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that will hit the New York area in the next five days, in the form of day parties many of them free, at venues scattered across lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Two of the more prominent CMJ alternatives, Pitchfork and Impose have scaled back on events, with nothing as extensive as the 2010 versions of Offline or Imposition, offering in their place evenings that are oriented towards electronic music.

Budget conscious fans will have their pick of free parties by magazines such as Fader, Paste, and Vice, bloggers like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan, and in perhaps a new and emerging trend, technology providers. KEXP is offering another in its series of on the spot live shows, including high profile sets at the Ace Hotel featuring breakout buzz acts such as the Dum Dum Girls and EMA. Official showcase events are still largely centered at the many established venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn -- Webster Hall, Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, the gaggle of lower East side venues and the many fine hipster havens in Williamsburg. As CMJ and the accompanying non-official, official showcases and guerilla events expands, it’s getting harder and harder to get off the beaten track. I suppose that Flushing Queens and Staten Island still remain untapped areas, maybe even Jersey. But many of the once underground places out in Bushwick or in the deepest reaches of Williamsburg are becoming familiar to showgoers.

Todd P, the one-man ingénue who puts out an entertaining show paper and is once again fielding an alternate lineup of inexpensive or free shows, is holding court again, this time at the 285 Kent space that along with the neighboring Glasslands Gallery has become a favorite hangout of fashionistas, musicians, and their housemate pals. My favorites, from the last few years bouncing around Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Bushwick at the community oriented Northside Festival (like Denton has become to SXSW, the new new place to discover new and emerging talent) include Cameo gallery, the hermetically sealed cave-like venue across from the higher profile MHOW and Public Assembly, that comfortably accommodates several dozen fans and Shea Stadium in Bushwick, where one can grill on the deck, sit on one of the ratty couches, and mingle with the artists, since seemingly everyone in the joint, is an artist, model, or friend of all of the above. This year, Shea Stadium will once again be home to some quality bands, and the ethereal singer songwriter Sharon Van Etten is spinning. Let the trolling for bands, food, and open bar begin!

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