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2010 CMJ Music Marathon: The echo chamber and the dying breed
Discovery or time thievery?
It’s CMJ Music Marathon week: User beware.
This week, 1,200 artists will be playing at a few dozen New York venues. Over 100,000 music fans – many of them college-aged – will throw a lanyard around their necks and drink all of our alcohol. Many may invest in a good pair of walking shoes after attempting a night out with those cool hoofs and vast majority have a Tumblr primed for use.
Publicity and agency people are checking out potential new clients, maybe a few L.A. label folks already have checked into their hotels or friends’ couches (they all already know the rules on footwear). Indie, metal, hip-hop, folk, twee, electronic, etc. bands have scraped together the money so that all their members could come this weekend to play for pennies.
This would be my eighth Marathon, if I picked up a badge this week, and I know I’m not the only New Yorker proceeding with caution.
For CMJ and South By Southwest, every year, there’s the crop of articles and posts from music journos declaring that these business-consumer destination conferences don’t serve a purpose anymore. This may even be one of them. But I’m parsing particularly why 2010 should be any different for CMJ naysayers, and I think it’s a matter of numbers.
[More after the jump...]
Now, our second in the year of Our President Obama, we're still knee-deep in a recession, and one of the foulest years for the concert and touring industry. College radio remains diverse but marginal in influence. Marathon is what keeps CMJ – that perpetually sinking ship – afloat and, damn, do they need bodies here.
Quantitatively, 1,200 bands is a lot of bands, and not all bands are created equal. Some are going to be totally great. Many will be mediocre and even suck. But every single one of them will somehow, somewhere, get lip-service, through a blog, through your brother's roommate's "label." And that’s OK too. Bigger sites like our friends over at Pitchfork, Stereogum, BrooklynVegan, Daytrotter have to enter into the echo-chamber of breaking buzz bands, a way of self-fulfilling prophecy, especially as their brands grow into larger-picture business enterprises – PFM with its festival and CMJ competitor/tandem mini-fest #Offline, Daytrotter with its label, the ilk.
CMJ itself – which has mostly remained a media and event company – now has a vested interest in the success the bands it touts: in time for the Marathon, the network is merging with artist management and promoter Metropolitan Talent. Conflict of interest went out the window long ago (while the Syndicate’s Conflict of Interest party continues to rock) but another level of the fest’s deterioration persists. CMJ hardly seems to have a hand in its own curation – its 1,200 strong, with all its funny names – and instead hands the reins entirely over to a big number of third parties.
That’s the sponsored showcases, from the liquor companies and classiest mags to the struggling PR upstarts and scrappiest blogs. And, hell, HitFix may one day join ‘em.
But aside from its panels and day shows and often shrug-inducing headliners, it’s hardly CMJ’s show anymore. At least at Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo, I know that their guys have actually listened to their stuff – and my ticket actually guarantees I get into the show.
The name of the game is the same at SXSW, where it matters less if a band is selected by the festival brass and more if they have an “in” showcase sponsors. It’s not an electoral college or rocket science, it’s gaming. It's crowd-sourcing.
Which leads us back to the numbers. As Rob Harvilla and Zach Baron at the Village Voice point out, the leaders of the “wow” factor during Marathon this year may have more to do with how many and whose showcases a band is playing, as opposed the quality of those performances (after a 10-minute set-up/sound check and 35-minute slot). Some bands just play one, some as many as 11 -- a manager friend from Denver today said with both excitement and frustration that his act is on for seven. Do bands like Neon Indian and Surfer Blood even need to do this from a business or fan standpoint? How much will the endorsements for Young the Giant, Lia Ices, Suckers, Lissie and Pharoahe Monch advance their already-budding-if-not-blooming careers?
It’s already been predetermined, in a way, who we’ll be talking about in Austin in March. I don’t blame the bands, or the publicists or the blogs or anybody for trying to shout the loudest – we allowed that system to persist and now we’re all adjusting. Even Arcade First turned the (black) mirror on itself as they were being “discovered” at Mercury Lounge during CMJ six years ago: “Hi,” said Win Butler from the stage, “We’re Flavor Of The Month.”
This ain’t a wah-mbulance for the first timers, the college ‘jockeys and collectors who have been talking since freshman year about how they can’t wait to go to their first Marathon. New music lovers should go and see as many artists and as many kinds of artists as humanly possible, as a way of learning what they love, what’s crap, what in music to their ears is acceptable and not acceptable as an art form. For the rest our lives, those notions can (and should) be challenged.
But festival-goers – like those I advised for Austin City Limits – should keep their expectations low or ask for more out of their recession-earned dollars ($300-$500/badge for five days and hectic scheduling). Artists should beware the sometime unhappy emotional, physical and literal cost/benefit of playing CMJ, in a biz where the “getting discovered” methodology is being replaced by systems like Roadrunner’s SignMeTo (just Google it) or the interns watching the Twitters.
I can’t dismiss CMJ – hell, they gave me an internship when I was a puppy, and Marathon treated me well when my time investment was in quantity. I’m excited to see the few bands that I’m seeing this week (with reports to follow). But this is fair warning to Marathoners, to choose wisely, don’t hype the first band that gives you free beer and step out of the echo chamber if only to hear again.
Or just move to New York. We see this sh*t all the time.
Here are some CMJ band recs -- many in the echo chamber -- so that I can take credit when any or all of those bands blow up and get famous. The big names this year include Yo La Tengo, LMFAO and a triple bill of Phoenix, Dirty Projectors and Wavves (wtf.) at Madison Square Garden (WTF.).