Next year take that short trip to the Big Apple for the annual CMJ Music Marathon
By Jessica Novak
Editor’s note: Music editor Jessica Novak promoted the virtues of the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival in the Oct. 12 preview, “She’ll Take Manhattan.” Here’s her firsthand report.
I think it’s natural that sometimes all of us wonder if our memory of a certain anything is a little rosier than reality.
Like a child growing out of the magic of Christmas, I wondered as the train pulled into New York City’s Penn Station on the rainy, windy Wednesday evening of Oct. 19 if the CMJ (as in College Music Journal) Music Marathon and Film Festival would be as incredible as I remembered it. Had I romanticized it? Would I feel awkward and out of place among the 19- and 20 year-old college deejays who were also attending? Would the artists be as good or the panels as interesting? Would it all be as I remembered?
It was better. At a festival like CMJ, it’s good to have a few past fests under your belt. I hadn’t been to CMJ since 2008 or to Manhattan in nearly two years, but once I hopped onto a subway, it was like I never left. Familiar streets and venues were just where I left them, bursting once again with an abundance of new music.
I mapped my days just as I did as an undergrad at Virginia’s James Madison University. I started each day with a run, this time in Central Park, then I’d take the subway down to the New York University campus to attend some panels between 11 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Then I’d hit up a wi-fi spot, update Twitter and Facebook, get ready for the night ahead and set out around the city from about 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., seeing all the bands and movies I could until my eyes and ears gave up.
Was I dead? Because I really hope heaven is just like those few days.
I jumped right in when I arrived last Wednesday. CMJ runs on a badge system and picking it up was simple as they run a tight administrative ship. Within just a few minutes, I had my badges, a bag of CD samplers and promotional flyers and my CMJ 2011 bible, a.k.a. guidebook, full of venues, showcase times, artist info, maps and more. And off I went.
I stopped at a press party crammed with young, hip professionals who were sipping rum and cokes in a flashy Manhattan bar, but quickly bounced out and headed to a gritty club for the music I was anxious to hear. The first night was underwhelming; a band named Bobby in the basement of Fat Baby, a venue on the lower East Side, filled the place up with tunes similar to The Cranberries, but not as good. They lacked consistency as they traded ambient female vocal-led songs for less interesting and more plodding material. I stuck it out until after 1 a.m. and split before the show ended Things kicked up a notch on Thursday, Oct. 20, when I caught up with Ulf Oesterle, assistant professor of the Bandier Music Industry Program at Syracuse University. We spoke about his panel that would take place on Friday, Oct. 21, and how CMJ compared to the Austin, Texas, music blast known as South By Southwest (SXSW). At last year’s CMJ, Oesterle helped organize a Syracuse showcase featuring Sarah Aument, Sophistafunk, Mouth’s Cradle and the Northbound Traveling Minstrel Jug Band. It went well, but the planning was extensive and expensive, hence no repeat this year. Still, Syracuse was present with Oesterle’s panel and about 20 students in attendance, although other Syracuse musicians and industry professionals did not make the same migration they often do for SXSW.
After meeting Oesterle, I headed downtown to the NYU campus for a panel titled “Beyond Blogfamous: How do pros discover new artists and music?” It focused on the changes in the traditional models of artist discovery, as the now-outdated methods have been replaced by social media and blog outlets that inform both music lovers and professionals about what’s up-and-coming.
The panel’s dynamic personalities included Charles Slomovitz of Shazam, Angel Laws of Concrete Loop, Bruce Warren of SomeVelvetBlog, Ben Goldberg of Bad Da Bing Records + Management and my favorite, Jenny Eliscu of Sirius XMU and Rolling Stone magazine. They discussed how blogs can help break an artist, but also how important it is for artists to see beyond the initial excitement of the buzz and carry it through to sales, touring and a successful career. In the most encouraging moment, all the panelists agreed that beyond the new forms of fast-paced social media, the best way to make it as a musician is to tour your ass off, write solid songs and kill it in live performance. Amen.
Like other panels, all the speakers were accessible following the session and they stuck around to answer every question without making anyone feel rushed. Speaking with Eliscu was especially enter taining, as her quick wit, sarcasm and dry sense of humor made every conversation interesting.
From there, my day took a couple quick turns. After picking up wi-fi at a nearby coffee shop, I learned that Syracuse’s The Scarlet Ending was showcasing at Arlene’s Grocery. I headed in that direction, but got sidetracked by another daytime showcase featuring a band named Scattered Trees and I couldn’t pull myself away. The keyboard player was squished up with her keys on a table complete with salt, pepper and sugar, while the rest of the band crowded into a tiny corner of the small bar with doors all open to let the music all out. Their light, floating sound, with microphone-less accompanying vocals, stayed grounded with driving guitar riffs and forceful drums that made them appealingly contrasting.
I finally made my way to Arlene’s Grocery just in time to miss Scarlet Ending, but stumbled onto another band, French Camp. They were much too loud, but I couldn’t resist their lively rock jams and stayed until the end of the set.
I always throw a movie into the mix of panels and showcases and was thrilled to be able to catch Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, a documentary directed by movie and TV veteran Michael Rapaport. I’ve been a huge fan of Tribe since I heard “Can I Kick It?” bumping from my brother’s car as a kid, but seeing the film and learning about the underlying victories and challenges of the group made them so much more fascinating. The question-answer session presented more dimensions to the movie, as Rapaport described the filmmaking challenges that resulted from diving into the personal lives of each member.
Thursday’s late-night activities were filled with tight-jeaned indie rock bands, one after another, some more interesting than others, but most delivering the same power chords with undistinguishable lyrics. However, that’s part of the fun of CMJ:
There’s something for everyone—you just have to be willing to dig through venue after venue, band after band, to find it.
On Friday, I finally did. I started off with Oesterle’s panel, which also featured professors from music industry programs at The New School, NYU, McNally Smith College and Drexel University. As a gradu ate of a music industry program at James Madison University, it was interesting to hear them pitch the strengths of their ever-evolving programs, which are still young in comparison to other areas of collegiate study.
Later I caught another panel, “The Good Work: Adding Social Value,” where representatives from organizations including Invisible Children and To Write Love on Her Arms spoke about the importance of music to their non-profits. This panel lacked a clear mission, as most speakers more or less boasted about their particular organization’s accomplishments, without really nailing a concrete connection to music other than when Blink 182’s drummer supports your cause, it makes for good public relations.
Fortunately, the night picked up when I accidentally stumbled upon the best band of the week. I made my way out to Brooklyn to see another set by Scattered Trees, but missed them thanks to subway congestion, so I hung out to see if something ear-catching would come along. It did in the form of powerhouse female vocalist Fallulah and her incredibly talented band from Denmark.
From the very first note Fallulah sang, the entire bar stopped and recognized something was about to go down on that stage. As they pounded into Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs-inspired tunes, full of “Ohs,” little yelps, claps and even a banjo, Fallulah shook, danced and swung her hair around, giving her booming voice a visual to match. As audience members shouted to the stage, letting Fallulah know how much better she was than Fiona Apple (they do look and sound similar), it was easy to tell this was the breakout band of my CMJ experience.
I was sad to see my way out of the city early on Saturday morning, Oct. 22 (I had to rush back to see a certain cover story band, Savoy Brown, play that night), but left energized by the experience. The liveliness of the city is inspiring in itself, but mixed with an impossibly long list of bands, films and panels to attend, it makes visiting even more invigorating. The people I saw, met and got to learn from was impressive given the short stay, proving that all it takes is a badge, a subway pass and some motivation to make the most out of a CMJ experience.
Musicians? Professionals? Students?
Professors? I’ll start asking now: Who’s coming with me next year? I’m already counting the days…