The 34th annual CMJ Music Marathon is upon us. From Tuesday, October 21 through Saturday the 25th, over 1300 acts will perform at dozens of venues around New York City. While there are some well-established acts playing the festival, like Foster the People and ex-My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, the vast majority are basically unknown indie artists early in their careers. Thus, based on odds and size alone, some CMJ acts are destined for stardom.
The festival has been an early buzz-generating platform for some of the biggest rock of the past decade, including The Killers in 2003, The Arcade Fire in 2004, and Mumford & Sons in 2009. In retrospect, it’s clear why those bands became successful, but is that always obvious when seeing one band among a thousand play a short set in a hundred-capacity venue? What makes a burgeoning CMJ band successful? How does an act stand out in a sea of potential competitors? Nerve asked individuals at all ends of the industry to find out.
The one person who is perhaps most influential in CMJ success is Matt McDonald, CMJ’s Showcase Director. McDonald’s job includes evaluating artist submissions, working with venues, talking to labels and booking agencies and publicists, and “generally putting a big puzzle together,” as he describes it. He is, essentially, the guy who decides who’s in the festival.
But he just puts it together. He doesn’t decide what incipient bands get heard by a wider audience. That’s up to the press and the college radio programmers, who the CMJ festival was created for, and who it’s still targeted at, with industry panels and an emphasis on those proverbial “left-of-the-dial” bands. Matt Paterno, as general manager of Boston University’s WTBU, 2012’s CMJ Station of the Year, was one of those influencers.
These two men can help decide who blows up and who doesn’t. All the acts are travelling to New York to vie for their attention. How do they decide who is worthwhile?
When evaluating the thousands of submissions he gets, “music is the most important thing,” McDonald says, “but we also look at press, tour history, online profile, what sort of team a band has in place; basically, we want to make sure they have enough going on to make the trip worthwhile.”
For Paterno, who had to decide what showcases to attend of the 1,400 on the bill, the list was narrowed down based on seeing performers he already followed, but he also hoped to catch something unexpected joining the bill. “The whole magic of having that many performers in NYC is discovery,” he says. “Go to see someone you like, end up hearing someone you love.” Paterno championed rapper Freddie Gibbs and soul singer Nneka after seeing their CMJ performances.
In Nneka’s case, he knew she was going to succeed based on her presence. “It was the weirdest thing,” he says. “She was ripping, with people in the audience going absolutely nuts. But then, out of nowhere, she’d smirk and just stop playing. Dead silence. The crowd would stop with her just to listen to her talk. She had an effect on people. That’s when you know you’re seeing something special.” Nneka has gone on to perform on The Late Show and record a song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Confusion, founder of the wildly popular music blog Pigeons & Planes — which covers a healthy combination of both mainstream and indie acts — relies on gut reflexes similar to Paterno’s. “I always like there to be one moment in a set that makes me smile,” he says. “That one moment like, ‘Oh shit, I’m really glad I’m here right now.'” While mainly scouting for new acts at the showcases, Confusion has high expectations for genre-defying singer-rapper D.R.A.M. this year. “Mostly because I think he’s going to have amazing energy and since most people in NYC don’t know him at all, he’s going to have to win them over,” he explains.
Bands shouldn’t go into CMJ expecting a big break, though. McDonald recalls just one time a band came into the festival unknown and came out buzzy, and that was Beach House in 2008 (Beach House was not available for comment for this story). More of what happens, he says, is that bands that already have a little buzz come out of the festival with a higher profile and more prospects for the upcoming year by impressing a European festival booker, for example.
This is exactly what happened with the band Prince Rama, who will be making their third CMJ appearance this year after performing in 2010 and 2011. When asked if Prince Rama has seen any direct effects from the festival, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Taraka Larson says, “The lovely booking agent we’re with now first saw us at CMJ and wanted to work with us right afterwards,” which is a pretty tangible benefit.
Prince Rama has no formula for success, though. “Personally I don’t think a band should try to stand out,” Larson says. “They should just be themselves and not give a fuck. That’s rare and special enough.”
Matt Paterno can’t define it either. “Maybe it’s just a time and place type of thing,” he says of CMJ success. “The right environments and the right bands makes for more memorable events.”
Confusion, on the other hand, puts a premium on presentation. “It’s more than just having good songs. You look at any artist who has fans who are really invested and you notice all the little things that go into it,” he explains. “Look at someone like Raury —he’s not just making music, he’s building a brand. When you’re a Raury fan, it’s like your joining a movement, and as much as artists and fans want to believe that ‘it’s all about the music,’ I think it’s always been about more than music.”
That being said, there are already a couple of simmering bands playing this year who already have the buzz and the presence coming in. The most prominent is Pity Sex, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based shoegaze band who appears in most guides I’ve seen to the festival, and were named one of 2013’s 40 Best New Bands by Stereogum on the strength of their album Feast of Love. But maybe some newcomer will surprise us all. The only way to know is to be there.
Some interviews conducted by Kate Hakala.