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Sound of the City

Navigating the CMJ Music Marathon in NYC

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There is but one word to sum up the annual College Music Journal Music Marathon & Film Festival: overwhelming. The five-day rockanalia is a beast of epic proportions. Even the most seasoned festival veteran could barely hope to experience but a fraction of the conference’s bounty: more than 1200 bands at more than 50 venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, and dozens of films, panel discussions and exhibitions. And that doesn’t take into account all the “unofficial” events that piggyback on CMJ’s considerable cachet. Add to that the general mania of New York City and you’ve got an experience most music fans would be lucky to emerge from alive — or at least not completely broke.

Last week, I made my maiden voyage to CMJ — actually, my first trip to a major music conference of any kind. I haven’t experienced South by Southwest in Austin or its Canadian cousin, North by Northeast in Toronto … yet. It was a wild, unpredictable, exhausting and expensive few days in New Amsterdam. As best I can, I’ll attempt to distill the experience here. Buckle up.

I arrived in New York last Tuesday afternoon and, after depositing my stuff in Brooklyn, made my way to the CMJ registrar at a church near NYU to claim my press credentials, a mammoth but indispensable guidebook and an utterly hideous, neon-splattered gift bag. The only thing said bag proved to be good for was identifying, from a distance, the meatballs you didn’t want to talk to if they were wearing the shoulder bag in public. Ahem.

Here’s the thing about CMJ: You can’t possibly get to everything you’ll want to see. And a good percentage of the shows you’ll remember most fondly will feature bands you’d never heard of. It’s important to come up with some sort of itinerary. But, as I would discover, it may be even more important to not be too rigid in sticking to it. Half the fun is getting lost and stumbling upon a band you never knew you needed in your life. I found a few.

The rough outline for my first night was to head to Pianos on Ludlow Street for rising ironic hip-hop darlings Das Racist, stopping in at as many showcases as I could along the way.

The first stop was an old favorite haunt, the Lit Lounge. As I crammed into the dive bar’s dark, crowded basement, the first band of my CMJ experience took the stage. Let me tell you, what an introduction.

The group was an Israeli psych-rock quartet called Izabo. They rocked my world — so to speak. Here’s a snippet from a description I posted the next day to my blog, Solid State, cribbed from my rather messy notes:

Narcoleptic psych-pop with a dramatic lead singer caught somewhere among the Velvet Underground, the Yardbirds and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Intricate arrangements and surprising melodic turns, bolstered by cleverly carefree backing vocals. Also, I have something written down about when a bartender asks if you’re with a band, just say “yes.” Sage advice.

Next up was a nifty little electronic-pop duo from Minneapolis, Dada Trash Collage. These guys bridge the gap between the hooky-as-hell pop I so easily fall for and the unwieldy experimental fare proffered locally by the folks from Aether Everywhere and Mars Pyramid. This stuff always interests me, but often I fail to completely connect with it. Unleashing anthemic pop goodness over a maelstrom of electronic drones, loops and noise, DTC proved a happy medium and another good find.

After dropping in on a series of so-so sets in the East Village, I decided to check in at Pianos a little early and stake out a spot for Das Racist. Just before they took the stage, I caught what would prove to be my favorite find of the fest: Virginia Beach’s We Are Trees.

The dreamy folk-pop outfit was a late addition to the bill, and wasn’t even listed in my copy of the guidebook. As such, it took me almost all week to figure out just who the hell they were. But I’m glad I did. For starters, the band stunned a packed room of snarky critics who came to see a hip-hop band. For another thing, their Grizzly-Bear-meets-Andrew-Bird aesthetic was right up this indie-folk-loving scribe’s alley.

Das Racist was underwhelming but still fun, putting the cap on a great first night and kicking off a remarkable week.

The remainder of my time at CMJ was similarly unpredictable and rewarding. Some highlights: our old pals Good Old War at the Canal Room; an Italian instrumental band, Calibro 35, at Nublu that sounded like what would happen if Ennio Morricone scored a Tarantino film; Nublu again the following night for the launch of Burlington Discover Jazz Festival artist-relations director Lisa Giordano’s new venture, New Vogue Records; sneaking into the Mercury Lounge to catch Nada Surf; a stunning, sultry Swedish band, First Aid Kit, who persuaded a room full of drunks at the Delancy to shut up so they could play unamplified; and about a dozen other bands I wish I had space to write about here. This is not to mention a slew of enlightening panel discussions and networking opportunities with rock writers from around the country.

My only issue with the CMJ experience has less to do with CMJ and more to do with, well, you. By my count, there were exactly two Vermont-based acts performing at this year’s fest: songwriter Kris Gruen and rising songstress tooth ache. (Though that tally doesn’t include the Vacant Lots, who showed up in Brooklyn for a non-CMJ gig.) Two out of 1200. So … what gives?

I have long been skeptical of the value of monster showcases such as CMJ and SXSW for virtually unknown, unsigned bands. Does the expense — travel, time, etc. — balance out the opportunity to be heard by new, possibly influential ears? After spending a week immersed in CMJ, my conclusion is this: absolutely.

Will playing CMJ guarantee that you get signed? Nope. Will it break you to thousands of new fans? Probably not, though you never know. Will it give you a snazzy bullet point for your press kit? Meh. Whatever.

But here’s what it can do. CMJ will expose you to new music you never knew existed, and, in turn, expose your music to people looking for the same. How often do local bands get to play for audiences almost exclusively composed of willing listeners eagerly looking to discover them? Sadly, not as often as they should. But at the CMJ Music Marathon, that’s exactly what you’ll find, and on an almost unfathomable scale.

See you there next year?

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