One of the interesting things about CMJ for a New Yorker, especially one who works in music like myself and many of my friends, is that it drives you to venues you would never normally set foot in. Case in point: the fabulous Spanish expats Gold Lake only had one show at CMJ this year, on Tuesday at Kenny's Castaways, a sort of nautically themed bar on Bleecker St. usually frequented by college bands and their fellow-student fans. I stopped counting how many times I heard "Wow, I haven't been here in years. It's actually not a bad room," from the assembled crowd of over-30s. We leaned on the wall-mounted anchors under pirate flags and listened to a really great set. Then we quickly evacuated back to the safety of Brooklyn. There are limits to our game-ness.
Over the course of this week of live music madness I might not go to any of my usual haunts. Not because they aren't participating, but because I feel like it's in getting into the spirit of things to embrace the way all of New York becomes a venue for a week at the end of every October. During CMJs past I’ve been to art spaces, vacant hair salons, warehouses, public parks, rooftops, offices and even on boats to see bands. In fact, the Monday night prior to the first day of this year’s CMJ found me in a subterranean recording studio called The Bunker. A music booker friend had dragged me into something called a Headphone Party to see a new local Brooklyn band called Appomattox he had discovered after hearing their EP playing on a bartender’s iPod. The gist is that all the spectators crowd into the different rooms of the studio, plug in their cans, and the band plays in the main room, pumped through the system. It sounds a little sterile, but it was fantastic. I haven’t paid such close attention to a show in yonks. They filmed it, so you can see what it was like!
CMJ doesn’t just carry us to weird new places; we also see music this week at unusual times. KEXP dragged me, a coworker and assorted other industry buds out of bed early on Thursday morning and up to the Ace Hotel. The hip Seattle station was in town broadcasting from the hotel’s lobby in conjunction with Free Yr Radio, and we trekked up there to see Adam Haworth Stephens play at 10am. It was also a great opportunity to grab some of the Ace’s unbelievable Stumptown coffee for meeting fuel.
People question the relevance of CMJ these days. We all wonder if bands are actually "discovered" here, especially since the old model -- get seen by A+R, sign, arrive -- is no longer the norm. But also because the perception (and to a very large extent the reality) is that even the music supervisors with budgets do most of their scouting online. It's true that radio is becoming vapor and disseminating out into different forms of media, so the College Music Journal whose job it is to monitor college radio will have to evolve, too.
But what is abundantly clear from every angle on the ground in today's music industry is that the internet hasn't taken away people's desire to see music live, to experience it together with others. And there are still important conversations to be had about working with music and the internet in tandem, what the future holds for art and business as information becomes an odorless cloud in our imaginations instead of even on our hard drives (I get this concept from a breakfast meeting I had this week with the brilliant Benji Rogers of Pledge Music). And we're having these conversations here, in person. Not on Skype or by tagging each other in Facebook diatribes. Over eggs and toast. We are careful not to get crumbs on our iPads.
A contributing factor to the perception that CMJ is no longer relevant is that many of us deal with our secret fears about the future of music business by dismissing its past. As if asserting that we are too cool for music conferences in some way elevates us above the rubble of the label system. An even more commonly heard phrase than the one about the forgotten good rooms is “I’m burned out on CMJ.” This is usually on the first day. The number of people approaching South by Southwest with this attitude is significantly less, even though both events are the same length and based on generally the same concept. I believe that this is because the Austin-based conference has managed to turn itself (unintentionally, I should add) into the music industry’s version of Spring Break, filled with beer and nachos and freebies, while CMJ has remained the studious sister with less surface sex appeal.
A buddy of mine who books a great venue in New York had a really funny email autoreply set up the week of CMJ. It sarcastically invited conversation about CMJ and guest list requests, adding “all I got is time.” I laughed out loud when I read it. He’s sick of fielding favors, and I don’t blame him for that. The burnout that comes to those who spend every day chin-deep in emerging music is understandable. HOWEVER, walking around calling it CMJaded and sponsoring “anti-CMJ” shows is not understandable, it’s show-offy and unwarranted. Not to mention ironic considering the fact that you are at CMJ, whether or not you consider yourself too cool or too experienced for it.
At our official ASCAP CMJ Showcase, we showcased six truly strong bands. One in particular, Reptar, caught lots of attention for their weird outfits, spasmodic dance moves and smart, catchy electro-pop tunes. They were unpolished and young, the kind of band you can see being the next Vampire Weekend next year. They got me thinking. And the next day when I ran into my friend Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered on the Lower East Side, he summed it all up perfectly. He was running around seeing bands all over the neighborhood, mostly bands he had never seen before, and looking for recommendations. “I’m looking for 2011,” he told me. We were standing outside The Living Room, and without knowing who was playing inside, he and a colleague went right in, plopped down in the front row, and proceeded to discover The Kopecky Family Band.
They seemed to understand what CMJ is supposed to be about and what it still can be about. People may be sick of the party grind, but they aren’t sick of the music. We could all learn a lesson on keeping it real from Bob. 2011 will need music, as will 2020 and 2050. And it’s our job to find it and continue to work on figuring out how to sustain it, nurture it and bring it to those future ears.
For non-hand-illustrated information about CMJ, visit the official CMJ website.