This week is the 29th running of the CMJ Music Marathon, in which bands and bloggers and media-types and music-biz bees (and even a few people who don’t fall into any of those categories) run around New York in search of free/sponsored beer, late nights, and the chance to say that they saw a band with 45 or so other people in a dank New York club. (A scenario that is often romanticized far out of proportion. But I digress.) Perhaps it’s because my tastes have shifted away from provincial “indie,” or because of the economy’s clamping down on budgets for big trips, or the simple fact that the Internet has so many damn media outlets it’s easier to cocoon into your own news cycle than ever, but news out of the festival seems sorta muted.
In the past, CMJ was seen as a way for bands to announce that they were ready to be considered the next big thing—a debutante ball for dudes in ripped jeans, so to speak. But in the past few years especially the perceived power of college radio (which provided the “C” in the festival’s title) has not only waned, but shifted to bloggers—the tail that’s started to wag the dog, so to speak, by sprouting day parties that just so happen to feature the festival’s most-buzzed-about artists. Improbably, those reblogging cycles have gone into overdrive, to the point where next big things can mushroom into existence even before they’ve celebrated their first seven days of playing together. Not to mention that this particular festival is in New York City, where multiple shows on the same night are the norm. One has to wonder what the point of putting on a week-long marathon is, particularly as it relates to the power that it once had as far as helping talent “emerge.” The New York Times‘ Ben Sisario sat down CMJ founder Bobby Haber and concert promoter John Scher—a co-CEO of Metropolitan Talent, which is on the verge of becoming one with CMJ—to find this out, and their answers were somewhat surprising, in a “justifying one’s existence by ignoring the present” sort of way. Haber tells Sisario:
We know that among the 1,300 acts that come through here every year there were will be a small number — whether 2 or 6 or 15 — that six months or year from now people will be talking about in exponentially larger numbers. Our A&R guys have a reasonably good sense — it’s not a science — of who those bands may likely be, and we will have the opportunity to put those bands on tour, potentially even have management opportunities or digital label opportunities. These are the kinds of things that CMJ has always done well, but we’ve never had the opportunity to capitalize on. We have in the in past identified that acts and effectively teed them up. Now there really is an opportunity to say let put the four biggest bands from CMJ 2009 out on tour in spring 2010, or let’s do a digital deal with them, let’s manage them.
But why bring all these bands to New York City during the same bleary-eyed period? Why, if these A & R guys “have a reasonably good sense,” do they have to only capitalize on bands who are peaking right around the third week of October? It’s nice to give lip service to the “digital” world, but disingenuous to not realize that said world has also resulted in an acceleration of the news cycle, one that, sadly for everyone, results in October 2009’s hot new thing having the potential to be the spring of 2010’s old news. If anything, by hinging so many hopes on this infinitesimal window, the company is hobbling itself, operating under old timetables of the music business while spryer companies with just-as-hearty appetites for new revenue models act with the knowledge that meal tickets can sprout up at any time. Does having the marathon be an “event” raise the decibel level for people outside the music sphere, which would conceivably rise all the boats in the harbor, from bands to A & R types to blog-ready kingmaker-wannabes? Zach Baron at The Village Voice was just as baffled:
The logic of CMJ has long been understood to be the above, especially in the pre-internet days, when finding out about bands took far more legwork and resources. CMJ made that much easier. But in 2009, CMJ effectively discovers no one. Their booking is determined, in fact, almost entirely by what’s already been discovered: that’s why the work of putting together showcases has effectively been contracted out to every PR firm/music blog/media outlet in the city. (Don’t believe me? Look, to take just one example, at the Cake Shop’s day-show slate. Or at Pianos’, next door.) Because that’s where discovery happens now: online, at Stereogum and Pitchfork and at every level below. CMJ shows for bands like Surfer Blood, for instance–or Black Kids, for that matter–are coronations, not introductions.
It’s even conceivable that the bands, by the time they get to CMJ, might be slightly past their coronate-by date. The old “Track Marks” feature on Idolator, where we charted blog-big bands, was discontinued in large part because it tacked to the MP3s arriving in this site’s tips inbox more often than not. But it also got kind of depressing, because the window for bands to be a “big thing” (or even a largeish-medium thing) shrunk for a variety of reasons; churn (see the week-old band linked above), the stasis of an alt/indie hierarchy led by the likes of Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, the grim reality that any blogger in any discipline who wants to bring in revenue-generating eyeballs needs to be at least a little reactive in their coverage and post about things that Joe User was looking for, which in music-blogging terms means tackling topics like Kanye West (No. 3 on the music-blog tracker elbo.ws) and Rihanna (No. 5). (Not to mention Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear.)
“Why hasn’t #CMJ been a trending topic?” one user of Twitter asked of the service last night. He theorized that it meant that the microblogging platform was losing its “alt” status. But could the reality be that a ton of factors (really, don’t discount the crappy economy) are resulting in CMJ shrinking just a little bit, and turning into a days-long party for the people directly involved—whether they’re sitting on panels, throwing blog-sponsored parties, or just trying to play their music in front of a New York crowd—and not really many others? You know, the sorts of people who would turn a band into an actual Next Big Thing, instead of one just pumped up by an ever-streaming hype machine?
Mergers And Music [ArtsBeat]
Why Does CMJ Exist, Exactly? [Sound Of The City]
[Photo by Derek Nicoletto]
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