The CMJ Music Marathon: Big Hype
This week, the CMJ Music Marathon invades the city's clubs, bars, and event spaces, with hundreds of artists from all over the globe performing at showcases and day parties in hopes that they'll briefly bust into the realm of Next Big Things. The conference started as a way for college-radio types to talk about issues collectively facing them in 1980, but the online music age has altered and widened its scope. In addition to the mushrooming number of bands hoping to make their New York break, Internet music wags and people working for cool-mining brands show up in hopes of being able to pluck an act out of obscurity—scoring points for their own "curation" abilities at the same time.
In the post-MP3 age, acts can take a few different tactics to get out in front of the competition: hiring public-relations companies with proven track records, buddying up to the right blogs, pinpointing the precisely right aesthetic qualities in order to seem absolutely of-the-moment. There's also the potentially ruinous idea of taking the "marathon" portion of the festival's name quite seriously; a recent press release trumpeted the fact that the Brooklyn band Caveman would be playing 10 times over the course of the festival's five days.
With the crush of media covering the festival and the onslaught of acts hoping to be heard, CMJ can result in the music world turning into a bit of a mess—bands running themselves ragged to keep up with performing the same set for different groups of people all over the city, bigger artists deigning to bless the up-and-comers with their presence (and score some cred), media outlets filing reports on those shows that are breathless in both their excitement and the exhaustion behind them being cranked out. For the casual observer it can be, frankly, exhausting to the point of tuning out all but the known quantities, and for those people existing in the hothouse online-music environment, it can seem like a week of having a big bucket of burrs poured on one's head, each one representing a band that has been hyped as having potentially world-altering properties, one or two of them sticking after being shaken off.
Friday night at Cameo Gallery, the Norwegian band Razika played its inaugural American show. Its members have yet to turn 21, though the music the quartet specializes in is straight out of 1981's seven-inch singles bins. Their feather-light guitars, simple harmonies, and ska-tinged beats recall heroes of early twee like Orange Juice and Dolly Mixture; the single "Vondt i hjertet" is bittersweet and bubbly, its Norwegian title translating to "pain in heart." They were absolutely charming during their brief set, splitting their lyrics between their home tongue and English and discussing how excited they were to be in the States. During one bit of between-song banter, frontwoman Marie Amdam excitedly recounted how, while snatching up fashions at Topshop, a song of theirs had come on over the in-store radio.
Razika formed when their members were 14. Their discography right now consists of an album (Program 91, out on the Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound) and a couple of EPs. That they'd already graduated to in-store-play status for a multinational fast-fashion chain shows just how fast the hype cycle can be these days—a band can soundtrack a shopping experience for people in countries its members have never set foot in. Even in an era where making money as an artist can be a dicey proposition—thanks to factors both endemic to the music industry (the decline of the record industry, the massive amount of competition for attention spans), and the world at large (the global economic meltdown, etc.)—the currency of coolness still holds quite a bit of cachet.
Razika's single New York–area show happened before the CMJ crush, which was a pretty savvy move. Cameo Gallery was pretty packed, and it might not have been had there been dozens of showcases competing against it. (No offense intended. The show was certainly one of the more glee-inducing I've attended in recent weeks.) But the rush to be the evanescent success of CMJ (or its warmer springtime companion, South By Southwest) still exists, and the competition is ever fiercer. One wonders what the Florida act Black Kids, which went from having its ramshackle demo bestowed with Pitchfork's Best New Music tag to becoming the buzzband of CMJ 2007 to becoming a whipping boy for all that was wrong with the hype cycle of four years ago, would have to say about all this. (They were even renounced by the outlet that crowned them: Their debut album was panned via a 3.7, a sad emoticon, and two bummed-out-looking pugs.) Last week, their breakthrough single "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You" served as a key plot point on the grating "adventures in still-ungentrified Williamsburg" sitcom 2 Broke Girls. The episode's airing so close to the CMJ opening bell seemed to close the book on that band's fractured fairy tale, and maybe serve as a glimpse into the future for whatever artist closes out this week as its "winner."
And not to get in on the Next Big Thing-dom, but I do have five CMJ recommendations: Widowspeak (Brooklyn-based music with big guitars that recall wide-open skies), Tunabunny (terrible name, but the punky, scrappy, snarly energy more than makes up for it, Machine Gun Kelly (hyperactive MC who can leap tall amp stacks without missing a rhyme), EMA (hazy, confused confessionals by a woman who attacks her guitar like it can unlock secrets), and En Vogue (r&b quartet returning in time for the new generation to start jacking its swing, and let's not forget that "Don't Let Go" is still a monster ballad).
CMJ runs through October 22 at venues throughout New York City. Complete schedule of official performances at cmj.com.
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