Skip to main content

CMJ, Despite the Internet, Logistics, and Few Brands, Keeps Kicking Out the Jams

'Why do people still care about CMJ?' It has to do with the beauty of a live show and the electricity of New York City.

Everything you need to know about CMJ Music Marathon naysayers can be found in Brooklyn Vegan‘s endlessly infuriating, occasionally informative comments section. Last August, when the initial lineup for New York City’s 33rd annual festival and conference was announced, the people weighed in immediately. From within the usual snark — “This line-up kinda sounds like it could be any random consecutive 4 days in New York, right? No festival required” and “Not a single good band in that entire lineup. Nice,” among others — emerged an interesting question: “Why do people still care about CMJ?”

The answer, like the music industry today, is complicated. For five days starting tomorrow (Oct. 21), bands, brands, managers, bookers, college radio DJs, entertainment lawyers, and musicians like David Lowery and Superchunk‘s Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan will converge in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to, at the very least, continue the conversation offline. CMJ’s 34-year mission of music discovery seems redundant when every streaming platform suggests to listeners a new band they might like at the click of a button; and yet, there’s no substitute for the sweat, booze, and (possibly) blood of seeing an artist in the flesh, especially for attendees that aren’t based in a live music metropolis like New York City. 

“There’s something that coalesces around the live shows, when everyone is kind of there in one place, that can really propel a band out of something like CMJ or South by Southwest,” says Matt McDonald, CMJ’s music director. Darius Van Arman, co-founder and co-owner of the Secretly Group, cites Grimes“coming out party” at CMJ 2012. “A lot of labels were interested in working with her, and seeing her live probably crystallized their interest,” he tells Billboard at his label headquarters in Greenpoint.

Van Arman has only held a few showcases because they don’t make a lot of economic sense for a label of Secretly’s size. “The artists we’re working with have to choose between a paid gig or being part of our showcase,” he says. “If they do a New York City show it might diminish how much they can play here at other times,” especially considering how expensive it is for bands to stay in the city. It’s “logistically simpler,” he adds, for a blog like Brooklyn Vegan, a booking agency, or brands. “What bands are naturally coming through? ‘Oh, cool, you guys can play our showcase.'”

After hosting unofficial CMJ showcases at now-defunct venue 285 Kent last year, online publication Pitchfork also decided not to hold events this year for similar, bandwidth-based reasons. “We have such a small staff, we want to spend time doing stuff that feels a little more special than just another run-of-the-mill showcase,” says editor Brandon Stosuy. “It’s rare to have that discovery moment. Even the smallest bands have Twitter feeds, Facebook, Instagram.” 

Windish Agency founder Tom Windish disagrees. “It’s funny,” he writes to Billboard in an email, “as the ‘power’ of CMJ has dropped off, meaning the lower number of tickets an badges sold, the lower hype, I actually think the value of CMJ for my purposes, as an agent, has grown. There are a ton of new, unknown acts that play and for me, that’s an extremely valuable thing.” 

Take Minneapolis four-piece Carroll, for example, who spoke with Billboard while traveling to New York in a white van — a time-honored tradition as much as a vehicle — as part of its East Coast tour. Since CMJ rejected the band’s application last year, Carroll has been steadily accumulating a respectable resume for an unsigned band: opening for Dr. Dog at First Avenue, recording their debut LP with producer Jonathan Low (Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile), getting written up in local publications, and getting more spins on affiliate radio stations.

Still, even though CMJ would seem like a good opportunity to catch the wandering eye of a label looking for the next buzz band, it’s not their “top priority,” says frontman Brian Hurlow. “It’s like, we’re going on tour, and it’s the cherry on top. In terms of concrete goals, we don’t have anything specific — just networking with a growing list of contacts we’ve been in touch with over e-mail.”    

That’s where tastemakers like NPR, which will hold its third unofficial CMJ showcases at subterranean Manhattan venue Le Poisson Rouge, can help out up-and-coming bands, especially since this year marks their first without a marquee headliner like Flying Lotus (2012) and Pusha T (2013). “The more established, bigger bands aren’t coming to CMJ this year,” says Saidah Blount, who manages events for NPR Music. “Ironically, at the same time, there were a lot of new acts that everyone was really excited about.”

Like B.J. the Chicago Kid, who’s gotten co-signs from Freddie Gibbs and sung backup for Kanye West but who might benefit from that kind of additional exposure. “He’s definitely someone who has much more shine and more name value via the internet, but that’s why we want to bring him to a larger audience,” says Blount. “Our team thinks he has something interesting to say, so why not give him the chance to show something on a national, global platform?”  

Indeed, why not? As music festivals host an endless parade of the same headliners and SXSW gets ever more crowded and branded, it’s refreshing that CMJ remains free of Doritos-sponsored stages, even for jaded New Yorkers who bristle at the very idea of thousands more people descending upon the city’s bars and subways. But as long as there are bands willing to perform in New York and people that want to come see them, CMJ will continue. “It would be too bad if CMJ weren’t around in terms of music being championed and showcased,” says Van Arman. “That’s a good thing.”