The Value of CMJ: Festival Kicks off Today in NYC

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!

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.

Showmanship: 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.