Student Outlook: CMJ Remains a Place for Music Discovery Despite Its Fair Share of Critics

Guest post by Matthew Tinkelman (UG ’15). We encourage feedback and commentary on all Student Outlook contributions. Leave a comment below or tweet us at @NYUMusicBiz. All photos courtesy of Matthew Tinkelman

On the final night of the CMJ Music Marathon, I ventured to Brooklyn to end my sleep-deprived week with one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the past few years, Father John Misty (left, at Music Hall of Williamsburg). Already an established and critically-acclaimed musician, the man also known as J Tillman effortlessly captivated an adoring audience with his songwriting, wit, and heartfelt delivery. However impressive his set may have been, there were dozens of sets from newcomers throughout the nonstop marathon of artist showcases, panels, and music industry networking that were easily just as good and awe-inspiring. Even with all of the new talent and excitement overflowing from CMJ, the Internet seemed to be putting its focus of coverage elsewhere this week.

CMJ has garnered its fair share of critics and skeptics recently. In the midst of facing a lawsuit, quite a few popular blogs, most notably Consequence of Sound, claimed that CMJ “has lost its sense of identity,” observing its lack of being able to stand out from other similar music conferences. Others questioned why an entity like CMJ is still necessary, or to take it even further, relevant in the modern DIY music space. In addition to its group of detractors, this year’s event was undoubtedly overshadowed by another music event entirely: Arcade Fire’s return to the stage in Brooklyn. The amount of potential buzz that CMJ is normally able to generate for up-and-comers seemed almost forgotten on the blogosphere in favor of the hoopla surrounding Arcade Fire. Does CMJ still hold an important place in music?

For those who say CMJ no longer serves a purpose, I firmly disagree. CMJ acts as my annual optimal peak for music discovery. Last year’s event led to my finding San Cisco, SKATERS, Deap Vally, Sky Ferreira, and MS MR, acts who broke out in 2013, gaining some of their first and most prominent buzz and traction at CMJ showcases. While talking on the panel “Jam Packed: The Explosion of Music Festivals,” Jordan Wolowitz of Founders Entertainment, the company that puts on Governor’s Ball, stated he discovered Icona Pop at CMJ last year and was so impressed by their live show that he booked them for the festival before they scored a global pop smash with “I Don’t Care.” This year, I passed Wolowitz several times on the streets of Brooklyn running from show to show. Glassnote head and MUSB idol Daniel Glass could be seen laughing with CAA’s Jbeau Lewis (Katy Perry’s agent) while checking out bands at Bowery Ballroom. I engaged in conversation with Mumford and Sons pianist and Communion founder Ben Lovett before he headed to Rockwood to check out some bands. Clearly I’m not the only one sifting through the hundreds of showcases CMJ has to offer to find new music.

This year’s festival remained the constant source of music enlightenment and “I was there” moments that make CMJ so special, distinct, and important. Certain performances, such as Kodaline’s at Bowery Ballroom (pictured above) during the CAA Showcase, felt like the crowd was witnessing a band destined to break within the next few months. Their set-closing rendition of “All I Want” proved that the band is not only radio ready, but also ready to take on America after having conquered their native England. Bands that I had never heard of such as Panama Wedding, PAPA, and Rathborne all delivered impressive sets that turned me into an instant fan. Betty Who, HAERTS, ASTR, and Half Moon Run were ubiquitous in conversation and showcases, apparently impressing everyone who had seen them.

In Consequence of Sound’s CMJ recap article, it blasted the marathon for its lack of “buzz bands that could use this opportunity to break out.” Yet, certain CMJ artists are already picking up steam less than a week after the festivities have ended. Pitchfork gave Ethiopian R&B singer Kelela its sign of approval, labeling her as “rising” after New York Times journalist Jon Pareles and others gave her CMJ performance rave reviews. Suddenly Joanna Gruesome, Lucius, Wet, and the Preatures are now indie darlings, being picked up by dozens of blogs after leaving impressive marks in New York.

International acts made the most of their opportunities to leave their first impressions on the US market. It often makes the most sense to take a first trip to the states during CMJ, where acts can play multiple showcases in the hopes of possibly catching notice. It is a core reason why so many Australian bands attend CMJ, in addition to why CMJ has several Australian day showcases and special events. The aforementioned Australian band The Preatures seized the moment and did just that. Meanwhile, buzz-worthy Swedish pop act NONONO launched its inevitable US takeover with its several well-received first US performances throughout the marathon. Woodkid’s victorious and emotional concert at Webster Hall (right; pictured) proved that he could be a true force in the US market, after already taking over his home country of France. Although these acts were on the radar before their landing at CMJ, they now have the momentum to actually make names for themselves in America. Once the Arcade Fire New York invasion finally disappeared and CMJ closed down its 2013 event, it was quite easy to calculate the impact CMJ had had throughout the week – fans and industry people alike went home with favorite acts and the marathon had done its job.

Toward the end of his performance, Father John Misty ridiculed CMJ bands in his notoriously sarcastic humor for “whoring themselves out to brands and corporation.” In response, a crowd member blurted out, “We love brands!” The music industry has flipped itself on its head since the CMJ organization was first formed. While pretty much everything in the music business has changed, CMJ’s core values remain the same, as it continues to put emphasis on discovering new artists and helping the industry grow and prosper. Though the future of CMJ could eventually be in question, I don’t see how CMJ can ever not be relevant.