Why Does CMJ Exist, Exactly?


And who is it for? A question we’ve been asked a bunch this week. Once, we wrote an essay asking essentially the same thing. (The condensed answer being, basically, that’s it not for either the bands or the audiences that come to see them. From a fan perspective, CMJ simply doesn’t function as a festival–the vaunted badge’s skewed economics/lack-of-effectiveness ensures that. And as for shows, well, we get ’em every night in New York. Nor do we envy bands whose take per show is split an absurd amount of ways, and who play over and over in really unenviable conditions.) Venues probably do OK. Sponsors did, in plusher times. And an interview in the Times today suggests that another beneficiary–even in the era of A&R-by-blog, YouTube, etc.–are the festival’s old standby, management and concert-promotion companies, who we’d have thought had gone the way of the unicorn at this point, as far as “discovering” bands in New York City clubs goes. Apparently not.

Ben Sisario sat down Bobby Haber, CMJ’s founder and chief executive, and John Scher, who runs the Metropolitan Talent agency, and asked them about a merger the two companies are in the process of finalizing. Sisario’s summary: “The idea, both men said, is synergy: CMJ has always been involved in the music-discovery process but now, with the resources of Metropolitan, can also profit by booking tours and making branding deals.” Scher and Haber’s quotes are also quite telling: “What CMJ gives Metropolitan is access to music and new opportunities in the most important, most desirable demographic out there,” is how Scher answers the merger question. As for Haber:

    We know that among the 1,300 acts that come through here every year there were will be a small number — whether 2 or 6 or 15 — that six months or year from now people will be talking about in exponentially larger numbers. Our A&R guys have a reasonably good sense — it’s not a science — of who those bands may likely be, and we will have the opportunity to put those bands on tour, potentially even have management opportunities or digital label opportunities. These are the kinds of things that CMJ has always done well but we’ve never had the opportunity to capitalize on. 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.

This is baffling. The logic of CMJ has long been understood to be the above, especially in the pre-internet days, when finding out about bands took far more legwork and resources. CMJ made that much easier. But in 2009, CMJ effectively discovers no one. Their booking is determined, in fact, almost entirely by what’s already been discovered: that’s why the work of putting together showcases has effectively been contracted out to every PR firm/music blog/media outlet in the city. (Don’t believe me? Look, to take just one example, at the Cake Shop’s day-show slate. Or at Pianos’, next door.) Because that’s where discovery happens now: online, at Stereogum and Pitchfork and at every level below. CMJ shows for bands like Surfer Blood, for instance–or Black Kids, for that matter–are coronations, not introductions.

Why Metropolitan can’t read Gorilla Vs. Bear or whoever like the rest of us, rather than waiting for an arbitrary time of year in which some small fraction of up-and-coming bands play, is a mystery. (And it’s not like CMJ is comprehensive at all anymore: if it was, Girls, the Big Pink, Discovery, and about 20 other acts that aren’t here would be.) The bands certainly don’t need CMJ or Metropolitan’s help–there are much more important co-signs to be had out in the blogosphere/licensing sphere, and an equal amount of managers and labels who are savvy and skilled at helping them navigate that world. That may well be why a band like Girls isn’t here, come to think of it.

Which is to say it’s hard to see how this merger helps either party. Maybe if it were 1999. But it’s not. So the question again: who is this festival for?

Call it a trick question: CMJ may well be for no one in particular at this point, give or take a few Europeans who come over, happy to have a decent amount of otherwise far-away things grouped in one place. (Ditto otherwise non-nightlife prone A&R types, who can knock a bunch of look-sees out at once.) It’s an event that persists out of inertia. Matador doesn’t need the help. Neither does the Music Hall of Williamsburg, or the xx. And while I look forward to Pareles’ or Caramanica’s king-making Times essay come Monday, we all know where the Black Kids are right now: pretty the same place they were the day after the 2007 festival ended. Nothing is decided at CMJ.

And as for the ol’ capitalizing-on-the-youth-market thing Scher and Haber seem to be so excited about? There is indeed a yearly ritual in New York with that kind of sway, influence, and access. It’s called Gossip Girl.