It was time for the annual College Music Journal's Music Marathon (not to be confused with the recent local offshoot, the CMJ ChangeMusic Festival). For 20 years now, hordes of college radio music directors from all over the country have descended on the Big Sapple to be wined, dined, and baby-you-so-fined by publicity and label flacks. The way CMJ is discussed -- in urgent, slightly conspiratorial tones -- one comes to expect some kind of crazed bacchanalia, where men in trench coats and darkened corners promise sex and drugs in exchange for top 10 placement of the new PJ Harvey single.
Alas, it was not so. CMJ turned out to be about free yo-yos, watered-down drinks, and listening to bands from the sidewalk instead of the club.
You see, CMJ sells badges that supposedly get attendees into every performance. But what CMJ doesn't say is that by the time you get to the club, most of the shows you want will either be sold out or not accepting badges anymore (even if the club is only half full). I even overheard some CMJ employees complaining that they couldn't get into shows.
Choosing which bands to attempt to hear then becomes a complex strategic battle. Do you go early and sit through six bad groups in the hope of seeing one good one, or hopscotch from venue to venue and see a bunch of decent, lesser artists instead of the upper echelon?
For those planning to attend next year, here are a few insights I gleaned from this weekend. Shows that will sell out include bands heavily featured on festival fliers, ones on hip labels like Matador or Jetset, critics' favorites that have been around for over 15 years, any group that's been compared to Built to Spill, and bands with sexy grrls in them. You will, however, have no problem being admitted to shows with groups that have been around for 15 years that no one's ever cared about, bands with American boys in turtlenecks who sing with British accents, groups with bad pun names like Don DiLego, and the scores of artists only their mothers know about.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you've always wanted to see what Brooklyn looks like. This second echelon of bands is better in some ways, since you really get to see which trends are most prevalent across the country. There's a saying that great music is created not by innovators but by their imitators. Well, these bands are imitating the imitators -- it's like trickle-down economics for musicians. At CMJ, I saw gratuitous trumpet players, full string sections, acoustic guitarists playing to prerecorded tracks, twee punk giggling, and -- most disturbingly -- a woman who covered up what appeared to be a total lack of talent by having scantily clad dancers do semi-synchronized moves.
What the festival really needed was some outright, honest-to-goodness star power. That's why Spin hired Creeper Lagoon to play its private party in the moist environs of CBGB's basement lounge. Perhaps growing nervous that East Coast response would be "Creeper who?" (as opposed to the West Coast version, "Creeper why?"), the magazine somehow managed to interest former Mötley Crüe member Nikki Sixx in attending. And it worked! Showing that metal -- even cheesy glam metal -- is still very much beloved, rockers of all ages and genders gathered like "moths to a flame" (wait, is that Bon Jovi?).
More than the music, these festivals are all about celebrity or semi-celebrity sightings. My favorite story concerned rail-thin bluesman Chris Whitely causing a commotion with his guitar, not by playing it but by accidentally whacking a fellow plane passenger in the head.
After a few days, New York seemed to shrink considerably, to the point where it felt like San Francisco East. Turn a corner and you might run into such S.F. locals as John Vanderslice, the Cubby Creatures, Lunchbox, Noise Pop's Jordan Kurland, or even loin-clothed violinist and street fair mainstay, Thoth. For a town with a supposedly dying scene, San Francisco still seems to generate a diverse and voluminous number of bands. Maybe so many of them agreed to participate in CMJ in order to test the waters for a migration east. If so, let me remind them of one disturbing New York feature: five dollars for a draft beer.