Our music editor extols the virtues of next week’s CMJ Music Marathon
By Jessica Novak
When I was a sophomore at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. (a.k.a. the middle of nowhere), I got involved with my college radio station, WXJM-FM 88.3. I was a communication studies major and a music industry minor set on being a radio personality, with an internship-turned-temporary job at New York City’s WHTZ-FM 100.3 (Z100) already in my back pocket. So I decided to start hitting the WXJM airwaves every Tuesday from 6 to 8 a.m.
Why in God’s name I chose the early shift was a mystery to most, but I couldn’t think of a better way to start my day. I loved it because it was prime commuting time for locals and students up for early classes. Best of all, that time slot was freeform: I could play any genre I wanted.
I started digging into the college radio scene, and caught local and regional groups like Future, Murphy’s Kids and more metal bands then you could imagine. I also started hearing about some New York City event known as the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival. Some of the more music-crazed James Madison upperclassmen would skip class for a few days so they could pile into two 10-passenger vans, drive more than six hours to Staten Island, then ferry across to the Big Apple, rent cheap hotel rooms and romp around Manhattan and Brooklyn to check out endless music, movies and music industry panels.
Why the hell hadn’t I heard about this before? So I jumped on the bandwagon during my junior and senior years, even offering to drive the rowdy big bus of college kids part of the way to New York City. Little did I know who I would meet, what I would see and hear and what I would gain and carry with me from a festival I had never heard of before.
CMJ stands for the College Music Journal, most easily described as the Billboard for college radio that is distributed to college stations around the country. You’ll never see Britney Spears at No. 1 on any list, but you might catch Beirut, They Might Be Giants or Bon Iver. The purpose of the CMJ Marathon when it first began in 1980 was to gather hundreds of bands ripe to be discovered by everyone from the lowly college deejay to the guy who discovered Eminem who’s speaking at a panel, all in the city that never sleeps. That mission hasn’t changed.People who attend the CMJ Marathon have several choices of attack plans, with badges available with varying degrees of access. There are educational panels throughout the day that discuss topics such as “A&R (artists and repertoire) Philosophy” and “New Waves in Radio,” along with band showcases and advance screenings of films and documentaries, some attended by actors or directors who answer questions following the previews. (I very purposely attended one with Vince Vaughn in 2007 when he was hyping Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show and good lord, that man is tall in person.)
While I haven’t been to South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas (yet), I can speak to the many benefits of the CMJ Marathon. In New York City you never know who you’re going to run into during a five-day festival where more than 900 bands come raging into town blowing up venues every other block. Add onto this the fact that your chances of being able to network, speak with and pick the brains of industry giants suddenly jump exponentially. (Though sadly, some CMJ badge-holders are clueless: In 2008 I shrieked when I noticed that George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were playing a show at B.B. King’s, only to receive blank stares and the innocent, yet unbelievably irritating question, “Who’s George Clinton?”) On the other hand, you’ve got professionals spanning every inch of the industry looking to scope out bands that are showcasing. Musicians, label reps, journalists, producers, filmmakers, professors and kids hungry to break into the music world are everywhere—and it’s just down the road from Syracuse.
When I became the Syracuse New Times music editor last April we printed a story about the annual SXSW festival. I thought it both bizarre and awesome that a solid group of Syracuse musicians and industry professionals made the long journey to the Texas fest. But why doesn’t a pack of people make the same drive to New York City? During my visits to two CMJ Marathons, I still can’t keep track of the venues I’ve been to, the people I’ve met, the films I’ve seen and the unbelievable music I’ve heard. I had a friend dance on stage with M.I.A., I got to see the Meat Puppets with about 10 other people in the room and I even hugged George Clinton. I’ve also accidentally discovered some of my now-favorite artists, such as Jay Nash, Brother Ali, The Cool Kids and New Young Pony Club, just because of the marathon’s natural structure. I know absolutely no one who combs the schedule and knows every artist listed, so inevitably attendees end up at showcases where you get to witness that magic moment when you see a group that is just on the edge of what everyone at that festival is after. I can’t think of many things better than that.
It’s with all these high hopes, expectations and past experiences in mind that I’m heading back down to the bright lights of the big city to see what else I can learn, see, hear, discover and share. I’ll be tweeting my wild sprint through the fest from venue to venue, movie to panel to band to band at NewTimesMusic on Twitter, and I will be posting to the Syracuse New Times Facebook account as well. I’ll see, among many other things, Syracuse University Assistant Professor Ulf Oesterle speak on a panel about “Music Industry: Higher Education” and get to see Portugal. The Man play, just months after writing about them (see the May 25 Idle Chatter) in advance of their Westcott Theater concert.
As a New Jersey native who grew up with both the blessings and curses of New York City nearby, I’ve grown fond of the particular mixture of circumstances Syracuse has. There’s incredible talent, a high quality of living, mild city life with plenty of outdoor charm and a location perfectly sandwiched between Central New York cities, those to the north in Canada and the one and only Manhattan just a few hours down the road.
It’s time to take advantage. Follow me as I do. And I’m hoping that next year, I’ll bring along a few more for the ride. . .
This year’s CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival takes place Oct. 18 to 22. More information about the fest, including full film, panel and show schedules, can be found at www.cmj.com/marathon. Badges can be purchased online and range in price from $49 to $649. Individual showcase tickets are also available at most venues throughout the festival. Music, panel and movie locations span bars, traditional music venues, college classrooms and movie theaters though much of the activity centers around the New York University campus, Washington Square, New York.