It’s that time of year again where the venues of New York City–in particular, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg–are flush with eager music fans hoping to catch a secret show with an artist they love or discover their new favorite band from Iceland/the UK/New Zealand/etc. The CMJ Music Marathon kicks off Tuesday, and there are a plethora of events–including rock n’ roll yoga and film screenings–to choose from.
… Or are they? CMJ offers plenty of options for festival-goers and badge holders, but the golden ticket (or, in this case, laminate) won’t necessarily get you into the show you’ve been dying to see. Even if you know the door guy. Even if you’re friends with the manager. And even if you’ve come to New York from far away and you made the mistake of thinking that dumb luck would get you into 285 Kent on Saturday night five minutes before the band’s supposed to go on.
Approaching CMJ with a game plan in place will drastically reduce the amount of hate you have for your wallet, your shoes, public transportation and the rock and roll gods, as a music festival, more often than not, presents as many challenges as it does unforgettable, inimitable moments of sonic bliss. Here’s a quick and handy guide to maximizing your CMJ experience so that you don’t wake up on Sunday morning with a bitter taste of regret. (Or less of a taste of regret, as hell, a lot of these parties involve free beer or open bars and very few of us are immune to that kind of debauchery.)
Plan accordingly, because “at capacity” means “at capacity.” Bad news, badge-holders: there are only so many spots for even those with cred to get into the packed shows. Get thee to the set you’ll be most bummed to miss an hour early just to be sure. Bonus: you’ll get to catch openers you wouldn’t necessarily seek out and likely head home with a new favorite band to listen to on the trek downtown the next afternoon.
Pick and choose. It is completely and totally impossible to hit every set you want to without bending the laws of physics or the MTA. Instead of focusing on what bands you’d like to see, take showcases into consideration on a lineup-by-lineup basis. Do you love KEXP’s live sessions? Grab a great cup of coffee and put your feet up for a couple of hours while watching them tape one live. Is your new favorite music blog partnering up with a label or putting together a showcase of their own? Trust their judgment and take in a bit of the lineup they curated as opposed to popping in for a 20-minute set and ducking out early. Two to three hours in the same location will save you the hassle of trying to find a cab on Rivington at 8 p.m. on Saturday night (which is a laughable feat) and you’re guaranteed to discover some new favorite bands following that lead.
Eat stuff, but don’t go to Meatball Shop. We only say that because we want to go to Meatball Shop when we’re running around like crazy people and playing hopscotch between Arlene’s Grocery, Cake Shop and Piano’s, and we don’t want to wait a million years for a table and a meatball smash. This is a purely selfish move. We admit that. But seriously though, plan ahead if you want to meet up with friends or grab a bite in between shows below Houston, as the weekend pedestrian traffic in the LES multiplies exponentially during CMJ.
Geography is a bitch, so don’t get ambitious when it comes to booking it between shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Here’s a completely feasible CMJ conundrum: there’s a band you’re dying to see headlining the Mercury Lounge at midnight, and there’s another band you want to scope out at Glasslands, the Rock Shop or, hell, even Terminal 5. Due to the probability of a shut-out situation we previously mentioned, ditching one venue for another likely sold-out show that’s more than two Subway stops away–say, Father John Misty’s scheduled solo set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Saturday night, or Sondre Lerche at the Bowery Ballroom Tuesday–will likely result in you getting all the way to your destination and wishing you’d stayed put, even if you’ve got a badge. Sometimes, you have to choose between a killer show and a killer show, so check out the CMJ schedule, make a list of every single band you want to see by day, and pay attention to the venues. Plenty of these acts are playing multiple times over the course of the week, sometimes over the course of a single day. Your two favorite bands may be playing on stages across the river from each other, but another band you’re into could be hitting the stage next door 45 minutes before that set begins. Look into (and bank on) alternatives.
Don’t bang the drummer. That’s pretty basic. This also applies to every musician ever, even if they are from Australia and they do need a place to crash for an hour or two before leaving for JFK.
The general rules for music festival enjoyment do apply. We’ve been through this before, but a good festival experience comes out of solid preparation, healthy decisions and a low maintenance attitude. Drink plenty of water. Jokes about Meatball Shop aside, go there, and plenty of other places, because eating is important when you’re cracking your first beer at a show at 11 a.m. on a Thursday. Remember that it’s not the door guy’s fault that everyone in New York City got to the venue before you did, and that he can’t magically make the line curling around the block disappear with a snap of his fingers.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 15, 2013