At CMJ, No Fast Track to Fame, but Plenty of IRLing
Salome, one of the few metal bands that performed at this year's CMJ.
For D.C. bands, the takeaway from CMJ seems to have been this: It will not pluck you from obscurity, but it can't hurt. Also: Don't believe the hype.
"The myth that you can land the perfect agent or manager at a place like that—I don’t think it pays attention to the reality that you’ve been talking to that person for seven months already,” said Jesse Elliott, whose polymathic alt-country band These United States played a handful of shows during this year's College Music Journal Music Marathon. The annual industry gathering featured over 1,000 artists, close to 100 venues, and around a dozen acts from the D.C. area.
Elliott's got a point: Most of the young bands I heard chatter about during the festival—like Florida's Surfer Blood, New York's Freelance Whales, and London's Golden Silvers and Mumford and Sons—had recording contracts, significant blog buzz, or both going in, not to mention full management teams in place. These are not bands whose success lives or dies according to an industry festival.
"Most of the bands at these festivals are already signed," wrote Todd Hyman, who runs the District-based labels Carpark and Paw Tracks and hosted CMJ showcases for both, in an e-mail. "Though this year there seemed to be a preponderance of unsigned blog bands. Seems folks were complaining about that."
Like many of the D.C. bands who played the festival, Hyman questioned CMJ's usefulness. "CMJ used to be really influential 15-20 years ago," he wrote. "College radio's influence has waned with the rise of the Internet. [Austin's South by Southwest] seems to be the main festival these days. I suppose CMJ benefits college radio music directors the most. And now bloggers." Nevertheless, Hyman's labels have hosted CMJ showcases several times since 2000, and he estimated he's attended the festival 13 times.
When you cast aside the make-you-or-break-you narrative, though, there are subtle benefits to CMJ, bands said. "Though everyone likes to fantasize about big crowds and label offers, I think realistically we just wanted to play for a few new people at a new venue and to add CMJ to our collective resume," wrote Nate Frey, whose band Last Tide played a set at the Brooklyn venue Littlefield, in an e-mail.
The Annandale, Va.-based doom-metal band Salome performed at one of CMJ's only metal showcases, which Relapse Records sponsored. The band signed to Profound Lore Records over the summer, and said it sees CMJ the way most bands do: as an opportunity for exposure. Rob Moore, the group's guitarist, said that performing under the Relapse banner meant a large turnout, and that as much as the music industry has changed in recent years, labels remain important as brands and filters. "If I were just to record something and stick it on the Internet, the chances of somebody hearing it are next to none," Moore said. "So you still need a record label or blogs or Web sites or something to guide your path." CMJ, he said, can connect bands to all those things, even if it may not deliver a recording contract.
Following exposure comes networking. "You’re basically going to meet people and hope something good comes out of it," says Patrick Kigongo, of Ra Ra Rasputin. "As long as bands realize that they’re not going to have some sort of miracle happen to them, they’ll have fun." He said his band—which CMJ initially wait-listed but later asked to a join a showcase—met other artists and a label with whom it may release something soon, not to mention a dubious show promoter who didn't carry business cards.
Elliott, of These United States, said he appreciates CMJ for its more serendipitous possibilities—like meeting a band whose music you admire, or scoring a short write-up on a New York Times blog. These United States also met up with a producer from a studio where it may record its next album, and took some time to check out the space.
Evan Brody, who helps run D.C.'s Underwater Peoples label even though he lives in New Jersey, said someone from the Mexican People Summer label came to one of his showcases, and that he even had a conversation with Ryan Schreiber, the founder of the influential review Web site Pitchfork. And he met some of the bloggers that helped Underwater Peoples become one of this year's most-talked-about petri dishes for young bands. "I think it helped put a lot of faces to a lot of people who I’ve spoken to," he said. "There was a lot of IRLing going on."
Photo courtesy of Salome's MySpace page.