CMJ Would Have Happened This Week. Where'd It Go?
Something feels off about this month in New York, and it isn’t just the election anxiety. For the first time since 9/11 forced the CMJ Music Marathon to move from September to October, we aren’t bracing ourselves for its annual onslaught.
The multi-day independent music festival, college radio summit, and industry conference that has convened here since 1981, when CMJ founders Bobby Haber and Joanne Abbot Green introduced it as the College Radio Brainstorm, may finally be dead. It certainly isn’t happening in October—and, by almost all accounts, none of the groundwork has been laid for it to happen at any other time in the near future, either. The only person who seems to disagree with this assessment is Adam Klein, the CEO of CMJ’s current parent company Abaculi Media, who insisted to Billboard last month an event wasn’t off the table for 2016.
Maybe Klein will manage to get another festival together someday, but CMJ’s demise seems inevitable regardless. Like the company’s two defunct print publications—CMJ New Music Report, which compiled college radio charts and playlists, and CMJ New Music Monthly, an indie music magazine packaged with a mix CD—the marathon has become obsolete. Mainlining live music used to be the most convenient way for the press and industry to get acquainted with up-and-coming acts. In the early aughts, when I was in college, missing CMJ (as I always did) made you feel hopelessly out of touch. But in 2016, why drag yourself out to clubs for a punishing five-night stretch when you could hear the same artists on Bandcamp?
Although CMJ’s financial troubles date back to the mid-‘90s, the internet has been chipping away at its business model ever since Napster, Pitchfork and MP3 blogs came to prominence around the turn of the millennium. In the past few years, a raft of open, legal platforms have made it even easier for bands to get their songs heard without impressing gatekeepers, which is great for fans as well as artists. But CMJ was one of just a few major yearly events that critics and A&R types used, in tandem with the internet, to find new talent. Its survival was a testament to the continued relevance of the live experience—an acknowledgment that a band’s power to move an audience is as important as its recorded material.
The internet has been the single biggest force in music discovery since today’s college radio music directors were toddlers, but CMJ’s apparent demise brings us one step closer to a bleak landscape where it’s the only force. It was just twelve years ago that the marathon so famously launched the Arcade Fire juggernaut with a breathlessly reported-on Mercury Lounge set. Now, it’s unfathomable that a single performance in front of a tiny crowd could make a band’s career. Maybe it’s just because I recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger and was reminded that music industry visionary Danny Fields signed the Stooges on the strength of a similarly small show, but that shift in the culture feels like a major loss.
It’s not one that New York’s music community is noticeably mourning, though—and that isn’t so surprising. CMJ was an event that most attendees (at least the ones who weren’t starry-eyed college DJs exploring the city on their university’s dime) loved to hate. The first time I covered it, in 2006, I found out why: The showcase sets were short, the badges didn’t guarantee entry, and most of the venues were small enough that you could waste a whole night camping out in line to watch four 22-year-olds play five songs. If SXSW is spring break for the New York-based music industry and press, CMJ felt like homework. I can’t tell you how many one a.m. headliners I sat through, nodding off after multiple late nights out and already panicking that I’d be a zombie at work the next day.
Those nerve-racking nights didn’t stop me from thinking enough of CMJ to intern with its editorial team for a few weeks in 2008, though it was obvious to me by the time I quit that the marathon and the magazines were in decline. By 2013, the company had been slapped with a lawsuit following a failed merger, in a case that is still pending. The next year, under Klein’s new leadership, it parted ways with Haber and Green.
But even as CMJ seemed to be unraveling, the marathon continued to attract electrifying new live acts. I caught Cloud Nothings in 2010, for instance, and Sky Ferreira in 2012—both because some other, long-forgotten show was full. CMJ could be frustrating as hell, but its obstacles had a way of diverting your attention away from mediocre buzz bands in favor of lower-key shows that turned out to be surprisingly great.
I’ve never had quite the same serendipitous experience at any other New York music event. We may have a more enjoyable small-venue festival in Northside, which returned for an eighth year in June, but its outdoor shows with bigger headliners and focus on local acts make it more of a community-wide celebration than an opportunity to find your new favorite band. Haber and Green resurfaced last month with Mondo.NYC, which sounded like a more tech-focused CMJ, but its shortage of high-profile musical acts prevented it from filling the marathon’s niche. So now that we’ve reached the time of year for tipsily rambling through the city, hoping our badges will lead us to some revelatory performance or other, CMJ’s absence is palpable.
Like most people who lived through it more than once, I hated CMJ at least as much as I loved it. But now that it’s gone, I’m starting to worry it was irreplaceable.
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