Why Pitchfork Is Challenging CMJ With Their #Offline Festival

Screaming Females at CMJ, last year. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne.
Screaming Females at CMJ, last year. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne.

In case there was any doubt, it's now official: next week's Pitchfork-sponsored #Offline Festival will have no CMJ affiliation whatsoever. "This is purely a Pitchfork event," a representative for the website told us yesterday: "just putting together a lineup we'd like to see in one spot, convenient, affordable. Kinda like the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and our showcases at SXSW." That means no badges, no cross-promotion, no cooperation on scheduling, sharing bands, or distributing showcases around the city. It also, if it weren't already obvious, means war--a not-so-small insurgency in the heart of Williamsburg. The rhetoric may be friendly, but the underlying actions are anything but. CMJ is surely dismayed this morning (so far, they've declined to respond to our requests for comment). But this was a long time coming.

Pitchfork, of course, is not the first foreign presence to set up shop in New York during CMJ. Rivals like Todd P and Impose have both staged competitive showcases around NYC in the past (as both are doing again this year). There is a kind of elegant jujitsu to the counterprogrammed DIY shows that spout up around SXSW and CMJ every year--small entities with limited resources using the fact that all these bands and audiences have been brought to town already against the festival that brought them there in the first place. But Pitchfork is far from a small entity: Pitchfork Music Festival is now one of the biggest stops on the national festival calendar, and at this point, the site's editorial wing exerts more influence on the music world than any other outlet. Pitchfork has far more leverage with the nation's various booking agencies and bands, and as a brand, has a national prominence that ranks with CMJ's, despite the fact that the Marathon is celebrating its 30th year in 2010. So this is an incursion of a different degree, one that some have cast as a struggle between a corporate bully and a local independent festival. (Though it requires some intellectual gymnastics required to cast CMJ in the latter role; read, for instance, this article in the Times from last year).

Either way, it's happening. And it may well work. Why?

Because It's $465 Cheaper Than A CMJ Badge

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A CMJ badge in 2010 costs $495. Admission to all three nights of Pitchfork's #Offline festival? $30. Note again Pitchfork's language in explaining why they're doing this: "just putting together a lineup we'd like to see in one spot, convenient, affordable." That last word is not accident. The pricing at CMJ has long been arguably out of scale with what the festival offers. (As we once pointed out, at $495, to get your money's worth, you'd have to attend 50 shows that would otherwise cost $10 or 20 shows that would normally cost you $25. That's not 50 bands--50 shows.) Plus, as anyone who has ever attended the Marathon can tell you, a badge is far from a guarantee of entry. Pitchfork just created something far more affordable and, if you look at the line-up, it's competitive--not equal (no Phoenix, the Blow, Surfer Blood, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Ghostface/GZA, Screaming Females, etc.), but competitive. You could see more than thirty bands just loitering around Brooklyn Bowl and then do the rest a la carte, if you wanted to, and still come out ahead. CMJ may or may not be justified in pricing their badge as they do, but either way, it leaves them extremely vulnerable to what Pitchfork just did.

Because It's More Convenient

That's Pitchfork's word, not ours--"a lineup we'd like to see in one spot, convenient, affordable." CMJ, which sprawls from the West Village to East Bushwick, from midtown to the further reaches of the Lower East Side, has always been more logistically challenging than comparable festivals like SXSW, which takes place largely along one big street. Despite the kind of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist thrill of haring around the city in search of the next showcase, it's exhausting, heavy on cab fare, and makes it even harder to milk that badge for anything close to what it's worth. Meanwhile Pitchfork is doing what are more or less 12-hour days in one spot, three days running. Brooklyn Bowl may not be the most ideal place to see a band (some might actually say that standing around this venue for three days straight is the last thing a rational human would want to do, actually), but at least it's not teleporting this way and that across the city. Plus, fried chicken!

And Because Pitchfork Long Ago Assumed the King-Making Role CMJ Used to Play, Anyway

The CMJ Music Marathon was born as a way to connect industry guys and record labels with up and coming bands--in a pre-internet age, it was about getting these two groups in the same place at the same time. And to this day, that myth--that bands are made at CMJ--persists, with the New York Times, Pitchfork themselves, this publication, etc., hastening to crown a new artist every year, from Sleigh Bells to Surfer Blood to the Black Kids. This is also still very much CMJ's self-image: "These are the kinds of things that CMJ has always done well but we've never had the opportunity to capitalize on," CMJ CEO Bobby Haber told the Times last year, by way of explaining an ongoing merger between CMJ and Metropolitan, a talent agency. "We have in the in past identified that acts and effectively teed them up. Now there really is an opportunity to say let put the four biggest bands from CMJ 2009 out on tour in spring 2010, or let's do a digital deal with them, let's manage them."

The only problem is, CMJ has long since ceded this role--to the internet, in general, and maybe specifically to Pitchfork more than any other one entity. Bands are now broken at Stereogum, Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, etc.--by the time they make it to CMJ, they're usually in line for a sold out show, not a discovery. Since Pitchfork is doing the heavy lifting here, why not make if official, and hold their own coronation ceremony?

So that's why Pitchfork is staging #Offline. And that's why CMJ is vulnerable to them doing so. We've been hard on the marathon before but ultimately, it's besides the point: Pitchfork's move may be every bit as mercenary and cynical as CMJ's recent festivals have sometimes seemed to be, but the fact is--like or not--Pitchfork is in a far better position to do what they're about to do next week than CMJ is.

Perhaps in a perfect world, this will lead to a reinvention on both fronts: CMJ evolving, something they haven't necessarily done enough of in the past decade; Pitchfork acknowledging the enormous role they play in the music world at this point, and finally laying out some of the infrastructure they'll need to maintain it. Or maybe both festivals will soundlessly disappear down the maw that is the abundance of concerts New York faces every night, CMJ or no CMJ. Guess we'll find out next week.


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