Monday, November 3, 2014

CMJ Wrap Up and My Unsolicited Advice for Future Festivals

  This was the first CMJ I had a badge and no job, SO, it was the first Music Marathon that I really got to fully experience. It was pretty much five straight days of being out and about from 2-2, living off mostly beer and pizza with a healthy mix of dumplings, night nachos, and Vita Coco thrown in for good measure. I didn't do a great job taking notes/videos/etc. I figured the sets that were worth remembering would stick in my head. I could have made it out to more shows (like Northside '13 when I saw a whopping 38 bands (not counting the 2 I played in) in three days), but seriously, it's not a contest. Anyhow, you'd have to be sharper than I to digest all those tunes into something other than a throbbing grey blob of hip haircuts, PA feedback squeal, and wobbly half-drunk "good-set-man" after show handshakes.

View from the artist lounge at the The Hotel Rivington. I'm really not classy enough to be up here.

For those of you who don't know the history of the festival, here's a brief rundown; CMJ (College Media Journal) was started in the late 70's as a sort of Billboard charts for college radio stations (and still functions in that capacity today). Beginning in 1980, there's been a yearly gathering of these bands, at first mostly in NYC's Lower East Side, but now split between the city and Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This was bomb shit for the music industry back in 1984; you could see all these regional bands in one place and scout new talent without having to send your minions out to Athens or Minneapolis or any other nowhere town that didn't begin with "New" and end with "York City."

Needless to say, media has changed a lot over the years. Spin magazine, 120 Minutes, Alt-rock becoming mainstream, and lastly (but most importantly) the emergence of the internet, all contributed to CMJ's steady decline as a taste-makeing powerhouse. Buzz that was once generated by hand now rolls off an almost entirely automated assembly line. There isn't a band who doesn't want college radio airplay, but it's nowhere near the priority it once was. Despite the ability to stream college radio from almost anywhere in the world, it's becoming more and more rare for anyone, even in hardcore indie circles, to turn to college radio as a discovery vehicle.
Captured on Instagram as I begin my CMJ vision quest.

So what does this mean for the CMJ Music Marathon? I don't know. It seems like they are trying to patch a relevancy gap by adding more bands and a few already well known headliners. Makes sense, but I'm not sure it will get any real results. I know the changes I'd make, and I'll address them after the recap. For now though, here was my strategy more or less for the weekend: see some out of towners (there'll be time for Brooklyn bands next week), stay well fed and hydrated, take care of logistics and still have enough energy to play well on at my own shows, and get a free JanSport backpack. 

Here are some highlights:
(apologies for the video quality, most of the audio is good though)

PINS. Four girls from Manchester playing darkened indie-pop. Part manicured model-pop, part Brit-punk working class curled upper lip attitude, they're a band to watch. I think they have an album coming out soon and I bet the establishment shits a brick over it (calling it, Pitchfork 8.6). The drummer has a second floor tom instead of a hi-hat and I LOVED IT. (ps. I pretty much only watch drummers now).

The #1's. Four dudes from Ireland who we were lucky enough to get for the HBR unofficial showcase at Hank's Saloon (basically the whole reason we booked the show in the first place). Power-pop/garage pop, they're tight minimalist rockers with hooks galore and GREAT bass playing (like all pop music needs, IMO). 

Literature. Philly Brit-poppers. Clean ringing arpeggios and quick hitting pop melodies. I got a decent recording of an unreleased track in Cake Shop's basement. Check it out, and check out their album, Chorus.

Splashh. Another UK (+Australia?)  band, they do the massive post-Radiohead wall of sound thing. A little over the top at times, but overall, striking texturally, if not always melodically. The have sound worth getting into like, with a deeper analysis and understanding then the AM radio quality memory samples you leave a show with. Check out Comfort if you're into that sorta thing. 

Splashh at The Knit. Brits in flannel was a running theme.

Roomrunner. A Baltimore act, straight forward loud indie with heavy riffs. They were the last act I saw at like 1:30 am at Silent Barn on Saturday. I was so tired, and kinda bored of bands by that point, but they really woke me up. In my old age, that's really a mark of an excellent act. Lots of kids at that show too; really refreshing.

I didn't get a pic of Roomrunner, so here's a shoot of the burger I ate after the show.

My favorite all around set was Honduras late Thursday at our unofficial showcase down in Boerum Hill at Hank's Saloon. I was pumped to play with The #1's and have a pretty decent crowd out for an unofficial showcase that was kinda off the beaten path.

Sunset Guns opened up our official showcase minus guitarist/vocalist Derek Hawkins. They still rocked as a three piece though. (Sorry, the lighting in Legion was terrible).

I caught local act Whiskey Bitches at Cake Shop one early afternoon. It was a really strong set to start the day.

Green Gerry was a random friend of friend's band that came all the way from L.A. and was looking to play an extra show or two. We were lucky to have them open up the 10/23 Hank's show for us.

The Jeanies are an incredible local garage-pop outfit, and they also played our official show. If I'm not mistaken, they have an album in the works. Definitely keep your eyes open for that one.

The Black Black are a local post-punk trio with a super tight rhythm section and loud melodic/counter melodic guitar riffing. Always a high energy, fun show; they played our official showcase.

Last, but not least, here's a video of power-poppers, American Darlings, rocking at Hank's Saloon on 10/23. Seriously, a magical night.

Make sure to check out the other awesome bands who played our showcases: Big Quiet, Light Therapy, pow wow!, The Planes, and GHOST PUNCH. I didn't have time/presence of mind to get video of all of them.

Things I learned at CMJ...

If you want to know what shows to go to you're better off asking three photographers, than reading all the blogs in the world. They're on the front lines of everything and have no reason to hold back their opinions.

Dean knows how to maintain the intensity for a full 5 days.

All slices at the place across the street from Cake Shop are $2 before 6pm. There is no limit to how many you can buy.

Just because it wasn't ok for kids who grew up in the '90's to make '90's music in the '00's, doesn't mean it isn't ok for kids who grew up in the '00's to make '90's music in the '10's, in fact, it seems like it's encouraged.

"Wake up - Water - Shower - Coffee - Bagel - Water - Beer - Beer - Water - Beer - Pizza - Water - Beer - Beer - Water - Beer - Dumplings - Water - Whiskey - Beer - Beer - Water - Beer - Water - Whiskey - Beer - Whiskey - Nachos - Sleep" when started at 11am and paced evenly until 3 am, will ensure the best overall results.

The price of rent is really affecting the quality of young artists here in NYC. I don't have any empirical evidence to support this, but it feels like there's a lot more good stuff coming from Philly/Baltimore and the rust belt cities. Don't get me wrong, it's great for those scenes, but my gut feeling is that those were all kids that went straight to Brooklyn a decade ago right after college or even high school, and now they're staying put or seeking an alternative. 

The Wytches at The Knit. They were really good when they weren't trying to be Nirvana.

What I'd like to see happen to CMJ...

Put bluntly, I don't think that I should have been allowed to throw an official show. Letting anyone be a curator defeats the purpose of curation. I don't think small local bloggers, small promotion companies/record labels, or just small time rock promoters in general should be involved, unless the festival has some reason to believe they are actually important tastemakers. Now don't get me wrong, I think people in my situation should take advantage of whatever opportunities they can. But there's like 1,400 bands or something insane like that. Hell, there were like 100 singer songwriters at friggin' Rockwood Music Hall who were official CMJ acts. C'mon, are any of these people getting serious play on college radio or really being artistically relevant at all?

I think 1,400 bands is way too much; too much to make any sense, and too much to make the festival feel special. I think they should cut that number in half (or even down to a couple 100) and try to make a point of curating the curators. Let's put an emphasis back on the Lower East Side and on college radio. Why not get the top 25 college radio stations to each curate a show, 5 a day for each of the 5 days of the festival, and make a point in promoting them as the premier events? At it's core, CMJ is a throwback trade show, and I think there's more integrity and appeal in returning to that form than there is trying to morph into SXSW-like festival with a billion acts and big headliners.

Props to CMJ for avoiding the tech conference that turned SXSW into spring break for fratboy bro-grammers, and keeping an arms-length from the mainstream music industry. Personally, I don't think bands like Slowdive and Shonen Knife belong anywhere near the festival, though it's nothing like Kanye, Taylor Swift, and whoever the fuck else plays at SXSW and makes them a ton of money. I think the festival has done an incredible job of maintaining itself, given how drastically the media landscape has changed in a relatively short period of time. I don't want you to think I'm a hater of CMJ. In terms of relevancy, coolness, and discovery potential, it blows SXSW out of the water.

The final thing we need to address is Sonicbids. CMJ isn't the only festival that uses it; I'm only singling them out because they were the last big thing to happen. For those of you who don't know, Sonicbids is a website that allows you to make a EPK (electronic press kit, basically something you can easily make on your own), and apply for spots on festivals, showcases, etc. If you don't have a personal connection to a booker, or are really blowing up, or paying the right promo company, this is the only way to get into the festival. I remember back in '08 they were charging $35 to apply to CMJ. So basically, it's pay to (maybe, but probably not) play. Sonicbids is bullshit, and I've never met a musician who speaks favorably of them, just check out their Yelp reviews. Why would a festival want to partner with a company that musicians universally hate? Are they really making that much off application fees? And if they are, isn't it even kinda worse that this whole thing is funded by the broken hopes and dreams of some starry eyed kids off in some suburb somewhere? 

So there you have it:

1. Cut down the number of acts.
2. Condense the festival geographically.
3. Focus on well curated showcases by actual tastemakers (maybe make curators apply).
4. Find a more better way for bands to apply then Sonicbids.
5. Try to capture the throwback appeal. 

Me and Jason from American Darlings, clearly NOT being haters.

I hope that CMJ sticks around. I hope there's a spot for my bands to play, and I hope there's a chance for me to be involved, but I'd rather it became special again... But as long as there are $2 slices and free day shows, I'll be happy. 


  1. Great write up! Turned me onto a bunch of new bands!

  2. Well said. You made some really interesting points--I agree with your suggestions for improvements for the festival and your observations about the impact on college radio sadly diminishing and Sonicbids sucking. Both your official and unoffical HBR showcases were fantastic and highlights of my week. Nice work, SP! Marisha

    1. Good analysis!
      FYI the first drummer to substitute floor toms for Hi Hats was Keith Moon. I agree, it is pretty darn cool.

  3. You have it backwards on the issue of tastemakers. The current major media outlets don't have a single clue about how to scout up and coming bands (also neither do labels, but that's another issue). The reality is that a very small subset of blogs are actually on the front line, going out all the time and seeing a bunch of smaller/newer acts.

    Thanks for coming to our show and I'm happy you're featuring Whiskey Bitches in this post because they are a good example of exactly the opposite of what you propose. This is a band that had virtually no attention when I saw them back in February. But they were a huge success at CMJ in large part because they were pushed by people like Impose Magazine, Pancakes and Whiskey and Sixdust. Not a single major media outlet had any idea who they were, but now they're getting bigger/higher profile gigs simply because the frontline people supported them. Without the ability for smaller media outlets to "curate" shows, a band like Whiskey Bitches never would have even had a CMJ gig.
    Also like SXSW, the real discoveries and the better showcases are the unofficial ones where curation is not muddied by the influence of corporate "tastemakers".
    In short, I know more about curating a show than some PR person at Converse.

    1. I think there's a little bit of confusion (or more likely that I didn't communicate it well enough), as to what I mean by "local bloggers/small local bookers" and "tastemakers" (I actually edited in the word "small" in front of bloggers to show that I don't mean all local blogs). I think the NYC taper day show at Cake Shop is EXACTLY what CMJ should be about. You guys have definitely put in the work over the years, are super active, and somewhat well known. I think that I'm too small and inconsequential to be throwing official shows, and I think operations similar to mine shouldn't be given official shows unless they can put together a really impressive bill. My show had a really good crowd for a small place; all the bands were great and everyone had fun, BUT, we could throw that show any day of the week. My point is that it kinda away from the idea of the festival being about discovery when it's just friends and friends of friends getting hammered together and patting each other on the back. I think it's distracting, and it's not really what the festival should be about. Does that make sense?

      So yeah, IMO, the range of tastemakers between your level and like, maybe Pitchfork level, (or maybe even whatever rung on the ladder is right below them), along with 25-35 college radio stations, should be the one curating the festival. And yeah, fuck corporate curation, I definitely don't think of Converse as being "tastemakers" anyhow.

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