Named after the New York City running event with which it sometimes coincides, the annual CMJ Music Marathon came to a finish in the early hours of Sunday morning, following four days of panels and hundreds of performances catering to crowds of mostly young people into making new music, seeing it and selling it. Run by the College Music Journal media group best known for charting songs on non-commercial radio, this year's CMJ also celebrated the event's 25th birthday.
Speaking at a CMJ panel last week, Charles Bissell, songwriter for the Wrens, recalled working as a volunteer to gain entry to his first CMJ in the early '90s. After a false start he blames in part to working with too many lawyers, his band finally found long-deserved success last year, their story becoming instant indie rock legend. He was back at CMJ as a performer this year, headlining one of the marathon's hot ticket shows at the Lower East Side's Mercury Lounge.
Musician Mary Timony attended her first CMJ back in 1994, with her former band Helium. In the basement bar of a club blaring Hall and Oates on Thursday, she joked about being a "snotty punk" back then, with a cavalier attitude toward the event. Coming upstairs to the stage at Rothko, she greeted fans as a top-billed solo performer at this year's CMJ.
She and Bissell were joined by hundreds of musicians new to the event, at which many bands are booked based on their submissions to CMJ. They came from all over America, sleeping on couches and playing multiple shows to rooms both packed and empty. Their vans and trailers clogged the downtown streets where Manhattan's rock clubs are clustered, packed to the hilt with guitars, drums, organs, accordions and a variety of thrift-store noisemakers -- anything that might be used to create something audiences had hopefully never seen or heard before but would want to experience again.
There have been mad times for music since the new millennium. Record companies began logging year after year of shrinking sales and increased marketing costs, while going to battle against illegal downloading. Independent bands trying to make it sailed against a new wave of boy bands and manufactured pop princesses. Many who did land a contract discovered that in such a climate, it's far from a guarantee of success. "Artist development is huge," Brendon Mendoza, A&R director for the major label American Recordings, noted during a panel titled The Hit Factory, "But not so widely practiced." Meanwhile, the fans whom both sides of the contract rely upon complained of rising CD prices, concert costs and Ticketmaster fees, and reacted with anger to file-sharing lawsuits.
The celebration of CMJ's 25th anniversary isn't the only positive sign for music in 2005. U.S. CD sales went up 2.3 percent in 2004 - not a lot, but an end to a four-year decline. More people are paying for MP3s, at an average of 6.7 million downloads a week last year, and the Supreme Court sided with the industry in its case against makers of file-sharing software that facilitates illegal swapping. Musicians and fans continued to find new outlets online, through the popularity of the 28 million-member social networking community Myspace, the powerful influence of online news and review sites such as Pitchfork and the rise of MP3 blogging.
CMJ attendees not in a band themselves were there to talk about these issues, network, angle for their first job out of college, see what's cool (this year's biggest overheard "ooohs" were earned by lucky owners of the new iPod nano) and party with friends old and new. But above all CMJ is about the hunt for the next new sound to love.
Last week's showcases and promotional events yielded the usual dose of buzz, trends and quirky favorites. De Novo Dahl impressed as an up-to-the-minute college radio band, costumed in psychedelic prison uniforms and playing fun art pop from their indie-label double-disc "Cats & Kittens." You'd think it might be a New York or San Francisco band, but De Novo Dahl calls Nashville home. The Two Gallants proved to be another of the sort of band one hopes to discover at CMJ, something with obvious staying power. A guitar and drums two-piece that applies heavy volume to a blend of country, folk and blues in a manner reminiscent of the early work of "No Depression" genre pioneers Uncle Tupelo, they're from San Francisco, though their Americana sound suggests the South or Midwest. It's no surprise they've just signed to the highly successful Nebraska independent label Saddle Creek.
The Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade were possibly the year's biggest tickets. Montreal's The Arcade Fire wowed small audiences and generated huge buzz at last year's marathon, adding instrumentation such as accordion and violin to the usual rock lineup to produce wild performances of songs from the band's debut full-length, "Funeral." Over the past year they've landed on the cover of Canadian Newsweek, been the catalyst for countless articles on the scene in their city, have been joined on stage by David Byrne and collaborated at the Fashion Rocks television concert with David Bowie. Bowie sang two songs during the encore of their performance at this year's CMJ, held before a sold-out crowd at Central Park's Summerstage.
"This year's Arcade Fire," many said, is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Having sold an estimated 25,000 copies of their self-released debut, Philadelphia-based songwriter Alec Ounsworth overcame the unconventional logistics of recording with a Brooklyn band to create an infectious set of synthesizer-heavy pop songs. Ounsworth sings lyrics such as "you look like David Bowie" with a bit of country twang and a lot of a nasal yelp that has drawn comparisons to Byrne, and both king-making Davids have been spotted in the crowd at recent Clap Your Hands Say Yeah shows. The band played a set during the indie-influential public radio station KCRW's live coverage of CMJ, and drew throngs of label representatives and hundreds of fans with no prayer of gaining entry to their Friday night show. The next morning, it was reported that the band was making a distribution deal with Warner Music Group that will allow them to sell to a far larger audience while continuing to put out their albums themselves.
Coming to CMJ amid major buzz and chattered about because of their ties to some of the latest trivial trends was Wolf Parade. With the band's debut full-length album about to be released on Sub Pop, the label that most famously put out the first Nirvana record, theirs was the show being talked about by people in the front row at that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah radio performance.
"It would be nice if it all kind of rubs off and everything goes well," said Wolf Parade drummer Arlen Thompson, speaking on a shaky cell phone connection from the Nevada mountains a few days before their CMJ showcase. "When you do something like CMJ that's kind of what it is, the record labels are all taking out their new shiny band and showing off to everyone how good they are, so we're definitely, you can feel that. We're kind of a bit of a dog and pony show but I think it will be fun, whatever stuff happens."
Wolf Parade has benefited from a friendship with Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, another of Sub Pop's alumni to go Top 40, who produced the band's new record, "Apologies To The Queen Mary." They landed on the radar opening for Brock's band last fall, though unfamiliar audiences had a hard time keeping straight which of the current rash of "Wolf" bands – Wolfmother, Guitar Wolf, We are Wolves, Tiger Bear Wolf, Wolf Eyes (with whom Wolf Parade shares a label) or AIDS Wolf (who share their practice space) – they were seeing. The need for a supergroup called Wolf Pack, one 2005 CMJ attendee joked, is a no-brainer.
And then there's the fact Wolf Parade is from Montreal, the currently mythicized hometown of The Arcade Fire. "It's kind of weird how it kind of blew up," said Thompson, who played drums on parts of that band's debut. "It's just like anything else, it's a bunch of friends, you just kind of meet everybody after a while. Most folks hang out in the same bars and do the same stuff and live in the same neighborhoods… like 10 bands lived in a four-block radius of each other, that kind of thing."
But Thompson doesn't see Montreal, or all of Canada, for that matter, as a big enough place for bands who want to be heard. Just touring New England, he noted, can put the band in front of as many people as if they'd criss-crossed their entire country.
Back at the The Hit Factory panel, MoRisen Records president Chuck Morrison had emphasized, "That fundamental aspect of tour development will never go away."
And from a musician's standpoint, Timony is in agreement. "The promotional part of music to me is the shows, and being at a point where I feel really good about the live show," she said. "I feel that's what beings people in, I can feel when I am connecting with people." In the indie music world, the CMJ Marathon has been making these connections for decades.
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3