This humble reporter decided to get a taste of what the 25th annual CMJ Music Marathon was all about, you know, during the day. Held every year in New York City, CMJ offers an unconscionable storm of music performances but also a plethora of seminars.
PopMatters @ CMJ 2005
CMJ Seminars: Day 1, 14 September 2005
by Lou Friedman
This humble reporter decided to get a taste of what the 25th annual CMJ Music Marathon was all about, you know, during the day. Held every year in New York City, CMJ offers an unconscionable storm of music performances but also a plethora of seminars. My mission, as I chose to accept it, was to attend various seminars and give a snarky synopsis of what took place (the "snarky" part was strictly my idea).
Arriving at Lincoln Center for check-in, there were people of all ages, sizes, races, and genders (well, just two genders) all doing the same. Receiving the coveted badge, which had name and affiliation on the front, I noticed there were several other things hanging from said adornment. A quick look showed that everything attached under the badge proper was an ad and/or coupon! I also received a woven bag with all sorts of useless things inside (except the listing booklet of course). People pushed flyers in your face if you dared walk outside the building (which I had to do, since the only seminar held outside the building was at Tower Records, one block away). There were booths set up with companies hardly anyone ever heard of, from CD artwork to a database where radio listenership is measured. (Never one to turn down a cool freebie, the only decent piece of graft I helped myself to caused me to sell my soul to the Devil: a nylon backpack with the Clear Channel logo at the bottom.)
Because it was the first day, there were only two start times for seminars: 1:30pm and 3:00pm. Since there were four scheduled for each time, it was a case of pick and choose. The two that I attended had some linkage, both delving into the always-edgy topic of artist development.
"Retail's Role in Breaking New Artists" dealt with indie record stores vs. box stores (Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.), product placement, the role of radio, and other pertinent venues for getting an artist heard. Two of the speakers (including the moderator) own indie stores; one was an A&R person with the Sony/BMG group. One thing that the panelists all agreed upon was that the best way for an artist of a band to get noticed at all is to simply make good music. It also came to be said that those who worked for the indie store did so more for the love of music than financial gain (one owner mentioned most of his workers earned minimum wage). So even though indie stores are one of the bigger grassroots support systems for new music, the pay sucks. One of the panelists jokingly said that his choice was to either own a house or be involved in music.
What tends to happen is that bands just starting out try to make it big in indie stores, or what is called the "minor league". A&R people from the major labels are constantly checking out said stores to see what sells and they'll check out the recommended band's music if there's enough buzz. If they like what they hear, and feel the band is worth the time and effort, they'll try to persuade them to go to the next level.
The other seminar, titled "The Hit Factory: Whatever Happened to Artist Development?", also took on a marketing slant, but inserted a few more of the machinations involved. Things such as the role of the artist developer were discussed in terms of working on an actual album, working the press, working radio, and touring. These things all play a part in how far an artist or band can go. Everyone quickly added that there was an element of luck involved in every success story. The eye opener was that some of these panelists (including Wrens lead singer Charles Bissell) firmly believe that one solid album review is worth more in terms of publicity than any number of radio spins.
The bottom line at both seminars is that even though there's a bit of luck involved, it's mostly all up to the musician(s). They have to write good songs and be prepared to promote the hell out of them when, and if, the time comes.