CONSIDER THE CRITIC
by Allyson Polsky McCabe
Dispatch from the CMJ Music Marathon
With five days and nights of nonstop performances, the 34-year old CMJ Music Marathon touts itself as “one of the world’s foremost platforms for discovering new music.” But with over 1,400 shows to choose from, it’s easy to succumb to fatigue, followed by ennui. Should you see Teen Body, Teen Commandments, Teen Daze, Teen Death, Teen Men, or Teen Mom? Or forgo all of the “teen” bands to catch one of the doe-eyed girls with acoustic guitars or the EDM guys with ironic facial hair?
Weeks before CMJ I found myself speed-swiping through the official event app as if on Tinder, nexting bands with poorly chosen names, self-consciously Instagram-filtered photos, and Bandcamp links that made me nostalgic for the days when you had to survive a few rites of passage before self-releasing your umpteenth EP. Once the opening date drew nearer, publicity reps blasted me with scores of emails, offering me interviews with up-and-coming bands, not to mention free wifi, food, and booze—which also flowed freely at the press reception, a lavish affair held in a glass-walled penthouse at the Hotel on Rivington.
As I enjoyed the free Maker’s Mark, a friend sent me a solicitation she received from a well-established PR firm promising—with a money-back guarantee—that she would receive heavy promotion at CMJ with a fresh press release and album reviews in several popular music blogs, all for the incredibly low price of $295. Never mind that her band has been inactive for several years, and that she had no plans to play at CMJ. The PR rep explained that one of the firm’s interns had just discovered her music through her old “BandCamp” (sic) page, which somehow qualified her as a new artist.
I tried to maintain an open mind as the festival got underway. Consequently, I saw a random assortment of bands ranging from forgettable to terrible. On the third day, I abandoned my quest to discover the rarest finds and went straight to Webster Hall to see the quirky Australian alt-rocker Courtney Barnett, who played CMJ last year as a relative unknown touring in support of her release The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and NPR all lauded Barnett’s performance. A world tour soon followed, as well as a guest stint on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
This year Barnett appeared on a bill with her current tour-mates, the folk troubadour Mikhael Paskalev and the baroque pop ensemble San Fermin. Some say genres don’t matter anymore in terms of audience enthusiasm, but those who saw this disparate lineup may beg to differ. Rather than appearing stoked to discover Paskalev, a small, disinterested audience talked over his opening set as he peppered the breaks between Paul Simon-esque tunes with sad sack musings, introducing the song “Susie” by telling the audience he wrote it for his girlfriend the day they broke up. A significantly thinned audience was also unexcited about San Fermin, the arty eight-piece ensemble that followed Barnett. There’s no doubt the band had flair—with two lead singers, a violinist, a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a drummer, a keyboardist, and a guitarist—but the pairing was not unlike following a big swig of Jack Daniel’s with a small sip of sherry.
The next night’s sold out bill suffered from a slightly different but not unrelated problem. The Kills’s was one of several shows where, even with a press pass, the only way to ensure access to the headlining act was to sit through three hours of opening bands. Slothrust, Nuns, and Moon Duo are all decent, and cohere musically, but it’s difficult to endure that much concentrated distortion and reverb over-saturation. For those willing and able, the payoff was a mesmerizing Kills show with Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince flanked by two live synchronized drummers. With no new album to promote, the band delivered satisfying back catalogue gems including “Kissy Kissy” and “Monkey 23,” which made the opening bands sound like, er, noise.
What’s the problem here? CMJ used to stand for College Media Journal, an actual newsletter devoted to tracking and reflecting what was happening with college radio airplay in the days when college radio was a powerful gatekeeper, one of the main ways fans discovered exciting new artists beyond the pop mainstream. But the same forces that have undermined the commercial radio industry, namely the Internet and streaming services, have threatened indie music and the college radio stations that once fostered it. Many stations have bitten the dust, colleges selling off their signals to outside entities.
CMJ has tried to stay alive by rebranding itself as an event organizer, sacrificing its old curatorial role for the promotion of a bloated roster of the “hottest” but not necessarily best bands. To facilitate its new mission, CMJ shows are now held at more than 80 venues spread throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, each venue hosting several bands for short—often 30-to-45-minute—back-to-back sets. Theoretically, you the critic might go to a venue to see a particular band you already know and like and happen upon a new band you’d love to plug. But at least for me, that wasn’t the case.
Imagine a radio with over a thousand stations, few programmed thoughtfully, all vying for your attention at the same time, and then you’ll have a sense of the CMJ experience from this critic’s perspective. By the end of the week I was all but tapped out, only halfheartedly deciding to head over to Baby’s All Right—the same venue Barnett played last year—to see newcomers Cayetana, a band I first discovered this summer not through a publicist, but by keeping my own ear to the ground when I produced a piece for NPR on the economics of recording outside of the major label system.
I arrived at the club just in time to catch the French emo/hardcore band Sport, who yelled and pounded their way through a set. To be fair, Sport seemed to be having a bad night—the kind of bad night that’s all too familiar to young indie bands. There were problems with the soundboard. One of the members injured his hand and couldn’t play. The room was half-empty. And when I looked up Sport on my phone, I saw a Facebook post begging for lodging with the promise, “We are nice, very clean, animal friendly, do the dishes and the toilets if we dirty some of them.”
As with earlier shows, however, the room became infused with a new energy as another band took the stage. Cayetana, second in that night’s five band lineup, played fearlessly, working the sweet spot between punk and pop—not hitting every note right but hitting all the right notes. By their third song, there was even crowd surfing, which I haven’t seen in a long time. By playing like they had nothing to prove, Cayetana kept it raw and real, and reminded me of what it was like to go to shows when shows were shows, and not just promotional showcases.
I’d like to think that Cayetana might be among those who break big this year, that the most promising bands can and still do get noticed—even in an ever-growing haystack. What else could explain how Aurora Aksnes, Happyness, Protomartyr, and Bo Ningen—none of which I’d seen—all ended up making Bob Boilen and Jon Pareles’s post-CMJ “must see” lists? I’m left simultaneously wishing I’d seen less and more this go-around, but this time next year there will be a whole new crop of “it” bands to discover. College radio may be dying, but to the detriment of indie music the hype machine roars on.
ContributorAllyson Polsky McCabe
ALLYSON POLSKY MCCABE teaches writing at Yale.