Q&A: What Is CMJ For In 2010?

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Surfer Blood at CMJ last year, before they were Webster Hall type of guys. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne.
Last week, we spoke with CMJ Showcase Director Matt McDonald about the upcoming music festival and Pitchfork's #Offline-led incursion upon it. Below, read the second half of our conversation, where we discuss badge pricing, whether CMJ can still break bands, and what makes the five nights that start tomorrow different from any other week of shows in NYC. Better start making your schedules now, folks--this thing is just about upon us.

As we were discussing, one probably not so subtle shot Pitchfork took at you guys last week was to describe their festival as "a lineup we'd like to see in one spot, convenient, affordable." They're alluding, among other things, to the fact that a CMJ badge in 2010 costs $495, which is a lot of money. How do you guys get to that figure?

Well, I mean, I think people tend to focus on the nighttime showcases that are happening, which certainly is a big part of what we do. But we've also got seventy panels or something, we've got a bunch of films, there is the conference aspect to it as well as the showcase aspect. We also--every show that we put on, you can pay seven dollars or ten dollars or twenty dollars to see that show at night. The vast majority of people who participate in CMJ aren't buying badges--they're going to individual shows. That gets overlooked a lot.

Right. We should also mention here that the badges don't always guarantee entry.

And that's an ongoing issue that we constantly try and address. It doesn't always work. But the fact of the matter is, there's only so much room, and it's difficult to make it either/or, where you either have to buy a badge--and you shut out everybody else who either isn't interested in getting a badge or can't afford it--or you make admission at the door available. But it's a valid concern that a lot of people have, and it's an ongoing process that we're trying to fix. Certainly, people get turned away.

The traditional perception of CMJ, going back to 1980, is as a platform for discovery. But at the same time, especially in an internet age, a lot of that work is getting done online--it's way less important to get bands and tastemakers in the same room. Is CMJ's self-image of itself still very tied up with that process of discovery, or has it evolved?

I think yeah, very much so--certainly there are a lot more avenues for discovery out there, and things happen a lot more quickly. And a lot of the bands coming into CMJ have plenty of buzz and emerge with even more. But I think if you ask somebody--take Surfer Blood, which everybody seems to want to mention as an example--certainly, they had plenty of buzz in the indie world coming into CMJ last year, but they emerged with a lot more. Now, would that have happened without the CMJ performances? It's hard to say. But I think if you talked to their people, they'd probably agree that that helped elevate them to a bigger level.

Would they be playing Webster Hall a year later if they hadn't played CMJ? Who can say. But it seems like between the press attention and you know, whatever else--without knowing all the details of what happened to them during their five nights at last year's CMJ, it's hard to say, "Oh, well, this that and the other thing happened," but certainly--we can't take all the credit and I don't think we do for making these success stories, but I think it is still a valid platform for advancing an artist's career. At whatever level they are, and however they define that. It could be, "We played a showcase and got a sync deal," or "We got a lawyer," or "We got invited to a Norwegian festival"--those are all things that happen. "We got signed to a major label"--does that happen? Not as much as it used to, certainly, and it's impossible to keep track of it all, but anecdotally, yeah, you still hear all of these things that come out as a result of the CMJ showcase experiences.

Now, you know, could that happen a week before or a week after or three months after, without them ever playing CMJ? Of course. But it's just kind of a concentration of a lot of the best up-and-coming artists in one place with a lot of the industry people in one place.

So is that more or less what you imagine being the point of the work you guys are doing over there?

On the showcase level, certainly, yeah--it's really providing a platform to help developing artists advance their career, in whatever way that can happen. On the conference-wide level, there's still very much an education aspect to it, a debate aspect, and a music industry forum aspect.

There are more rival festivals than there used to be--SXSW, Pitchfork, Coachella, etc. Have you guys had more competition for bigger acts?

You know, we're a lot different than a Bonnaroo, or a Coachella, or even a Siren Festival for that matter, which are obviously very traditional festivals. At the showcase festival, it's not so much about the headliners as it is about the smaller things. Obviously we've got some bigger names, some of whom, you know, their touring happens to coincide with CMJ, and some of whom made a concerted effort to route things through New York during that time. But we honestly don't worry too much about the, let's say, 1000-plus capacity venues--that's not our sweet spot. We're much more focused on the 50 to you know, 700-capacity rooms, and the bands that can fill those.

Who would you say CMJ is primarily for in 2010? Especially in light of a decline of college radio as a thing that makes sense independent of all these other strains of listening, streaming, and criticism that take place online. Who do you imagine your primary audience being these days--is it venues, fans, bands, A&Rs, college radio people?

I think it's all of those. And certainly college radio is a big part of it--they run parallel with a lot of the blogs and online music sites, because a lot of the same or similar people who are involved with college radio now, or have historically been involved--it's the same people. It's just a different platform. And at the end of the day, it seems like they're focusing on a lot of the same music, which is what we end up focusing on. But it's also, yeah, it's for the broader industry as well, whether that's label people, or booking agents, or artist's managers, or lawyers, or music supervisors, or casual fans.

I think you're right that Surfer Blood probably benefited a lot from CMJ last year. But you also hear these bands talk about how difficult it is to play 12 shows in five days, with the venue's equipment, and indifferent audiences, at weird times. They get a lot out of it, but at a price.

Yeah, I mean, there's only room for so many Surfer Bloods or Local Natives or Mumford & Sons or this year, who knows who it's going to be. But then there's also a band that had no profile coming into it, like oh, Sleigh Bells or something like that, who kind of came out of last year's CMJ with a profile which wasn't really there before. And I'm sure that will happen for some bands this year as well.

Care to make any predictions along those lines?

[Laughs] You know, I'm going to leave that to the press.

One last question: What makes CMJ different from any other night of super abundance in New York?

I think it's a more concentrated version of a typical week in New York. Yeah, obviously, it's New York, everybody plays here, everybody wants to play here. But I think these five nights, it really is a much more concentrated version, and there's a lot more energy--it's fairly palpable, I'd say, if you're on Ludlow Street at Thursday at 9 p.m. There really is a feeling that there is a lot more energy focused on the bands that are playing.

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