For a lot of people, the CMJ (formerly known as College Music Journal) Music and Film Festival is just another indie-rock music festival that provides Tweetable fodder for hipsters. Or it’s a bundle of oddly-named bands that bloggers review, competing to create (or dispose of) the next big thing. For many New Yorkers, the music festival doesn’t even make it onto the radar.
But for the some 12,000 people who purchased a $495 all-access badge to this year’s CMJ fest, or for the 1,200 plus bands playing for the next five days in town, it’s a momentous affair. In addition to the music that takes over 75 venues, the festival, which is in its 30th year, also offers up panels and films.
“CMJ is one of the most sprawling music festivals in the world,” says Carter Maness, who writes for The NY Press. “From noon until 4 A.M., you can run from the Upper West Side down to Wall Street over to Williamsburg and Bushwick. And as far as music, it’s about as eclectic as it gets.”
While Maness sees the geographic diversity of this year’s CMJ as a plus, some conclude that the sprawling nature of the festival is actually its downfall. Unlike Austin’s annual South By Southwest festival, which literally takes over the Texas capital each March, CMJ pass holders are on their own to make it to the festival’s far-flung and scattered participating venues.
In addition to the concerts that CMJ organizes, countless “unofficial” showcases spring up in New York City while the festival is in full swing, which require no concert pass to enter. These outposts are hosted by independent organizers, bloggers and record labels that take advantage of the festival’s buzz and the thousands of music fans who are already in town. These non-CMJ shows also invite bands who are in town to play, making it possible for groups like Surfer Blood, which blew up following the 2009 CMJ, to play 13 times in five days.
Surfer Blood (MySpace)
Matt McDonald, CMJ’s showcase director, says that kind of exposure is a win-win for the bands. “On the one hand, it gives artists one more opportunity to get seen and heard,” says McDonald. “On the other hand, these other people are obviously benefiting from all of the hard work that we put into it. But at the end of the day, we’re not too worried about it.”
Something CMJ should be worried about this year is the arrival of Pitchfork's new "Offline" music festival. For the first time, the online music magazine is organizing its own series of concerts, which runs from Thursday to Saturday, and features many of the same bands which are playing at CMJ.
Maness, of The NY Press, believes it may even force CMJ into rethinking its festival format since many music fans would rather pay $10 to see their favorite bands play in one location (the Pitchfork option), than buy a nearly $500 pass to run around to the less-localized CMJ. But he adds that Pitchfork’s offerings don’t offer the diversity that CMJ does. "It’s closing off those outside genres like folk music, country music and hip-hop,” Maness says. “Those aren’t really playing a big role in the Pitchfork festival.”
Since 1980, CMJ has provided its audiences with an eclectic assortment of emerging artists, and this year is no exception. The festival's stages have hosted Run-DMC, U2, R.E.M., Nirvana, Q-Tip, Lady Sovereign, Green Day, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, M.I.A., Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire. This year, electronic deejay Avey Tare, hip-hop group Smif N Wessun, electronic and noise rock musician Marnie Stern, psychedelic outfit Prince Rama (image from the band's MySpace page pictured at right), dream-pop band Braids, blues singer Zachary Cale, and the glam punk dub outfit Viva L'American Death Ray Music are all scheduled to perform.
“People tend to still associate us with indie-rock, but it is a lot more than that,” says CMJ’s showcase director, Matt McDonald. “There’s still a lot of electronic stuff and some metal stuff and hip-hop. Certainly, I’m always looking to do a little bit more of the genre-oriented things like the hip-hop and the metal. That’s something that we’re constantly trying to improve.”
Blogger and pop-culture enthusiast Sarah Lewitinn, who performs as DJ Ultragrrrl, says the best way to take in the festival is definitely to have a plan of action. “Make a schedule, go early to venues to make sure you get in, try to get on lists if you can, and also, if I can be so bold as to recommend, do not go out too far out in Brooklyn. It’s a pain in the butt to get back into the city if you miss a show,” Lewitinn says.
She adds that it’s also a good idea to buy a ticket to particular shows that you’re just dying to see. With the CMJ badge you technically have access to all of the performances in the festival, but you’ll be turned away at the door if that venue is already at capacity, or if they have already reached the allotted number of badge entrants.
Mike Conklin, music editor for L Magazine, adds that music fans don’t have to buy the $495 pass to enjoy the festival. Purchasing tickets to individual shows or catching bands at the aforementioned “unofficial” events are also options. “Because people play so many shows that aren’t affiliated with CMJ, you wouldn’t have to go to any official CMJ show and you’d still get a whole lot out of it,” he says.
Badge holders get access to all the shows and entry to 70 music panels, which include industry presentations, and discussions targeted towards college radio stations or towards young journalists who want to break into the music industry. This year, CMJ also has a new panel on how music and video gaming interact, which Carter Maness believes is a hot topic in the music biz today.
“One of the biggest ways to make money as a band now in the music industry is through licensing music,” he says. “The amount of exposure you would get, like getting placement on a radio station within the game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ is such a big piece of exposure because people are playing that for hours and hours.”
Still, it’s unlikely the bulk of CMJ pass holders will be attending panels starting at 10 A.M., given the festival’s late night shows. Getting together to listen to music is after all the reason most fans make the trip to New York. “CMJ’s just this really fun opportunity for people to come together and get to know each other. It’s almost like going to camp,” says blogger D.J. Lewitinn. “It’s just a really good party.”
Wondering what to go check out? Have a look at what the critics recommend below.