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The Dizzying, Confounding, and Sordid Economics of CMJ

The CMJ of today is like an old landmarked building festooned with vines and ivy: beneath the brush hides a venerable facade and distinguished architecture. It is an endless tangle of everlasting mediocrity and occasional thrills, fueled by alcohol, tinnitus, and speculation. It is a once-vibrant music economy dulled by years of overgrowth and ennui.

The CMJ of my reminiscences are filled with fond memories and nostalgic fuzziness, like an adult version of "Outdoor Ed". Staying at questionably legal parties till 3 in the morning to film a Marnie Stern documentary. Last year’s shit show loft party in Bushwick – a day that will live in infamy. The free booze that showcase presenters offer around like turkeys on Thanksgiving in the ghetto. CMJ is the pushy stockbroker your brother in law recommended who calls you with ideas that sometimes net you a profit, but who is mostly working for his own bottom line.

For 5 blustery autumn nights we roamed about the city’s musical arteries, drinking syrup and causing mayhem. Choosing our next destinations, we select our showcases by the type and availability of free booze. Once sufficiently buzzed, we load up the awesomely simple iPhone app from our boys at My Social List. Its name suggests Marxist ideals, but its benefits extend to all music fans, pauper or prosperous.

It leads us to Pianos, where a hella jangly band called Opossum delight the feet with poppy psychedelic rock and good old fashioned fun. Paul says, “Their single was dope. The rest was a little too ‘take me out to the ball game’.” The sound at Piano’s is always on point, but the crowd is an annoying mix of scenesters and nouveau hipsters who have projected an idealized malapropism onto the once edgy and “bohemian” LES. Capitalism has changed this neighborhood, and with it, the festival that used to call it its capital. The CMJ economy sputters along 

Since bicycles don’t seem as cool when you ride them in Manhattan, we cab it up to Irving Plaza for a stacked show with Killer Mike and the Genius…AKA Tha Gza. We get there in time to catch him in the middle of “Reagan,” a track about a guy that black people love to hate. I’m not exactly sure what he did to become so hated/revered, but I kinda feel bad that he’s not around to defend himself, especially against the effortless flow and overall fire that Killer Mike is spitting. He sets impossible expectations for his successor, Gza, who performs a solid set but simply can’t match the energy and honesty of Killer Mike. It was a great show made even better by being free with a press pass. In a cordoned off VIP area, we spread out, chill out, and hang out with none other than Craig G from Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. Being press gives you access to, but doesn’t make you a member of, the CMJ elite.

Press credentials only get your so far at CMJ. On a different night, I hike the arduous trail to Glasslands in Williamsburg for a Stereogum showcase featuring Dum Dum Girls, Savages, and Guards. Not that any of these bands interest me much, but I had just been turned down at the nearby, non-CMJ Converse Rubber Tracks showcase that had free booze. Outside the venue, a massive line snaked around the corner to South 3rd, and sure enough badges were no longer being accepted. I feel bad for anyone who actually paid full price for a show pass, which costs around $150, only to be denied.

Confusing and thorny might be the best words to describe the relationship between badge holders, showcase presenters, bands and the CMJ organization. Showcase makers are the music festival “private sector” of the CMJ economy, putting up funding for shows, “creating jobs” for bands willing to earn minimum wage salaries. They ultimately choose who they hire to play, but the CMJ governing body also creates “public sector” shows which bands can apply to via a nominal $70 fee on Sonicbids. If they are chosen, they are technically allowed to play only their assigned showcase, lest they take jobs from the other working, proletariat groups. Meanwhile, extensively buzzed bands like Savages and DIIV will play 5 or more shows throughout the festival, putting them in the top 1% of all artists. The well-to-do don't have to play by the same rules in today's CMJ economy.

One can imagine all sorts of festival class warfare percolating behinds the scenes. A band’s application is accepted by CMJ, and they are offered an additional set by a private showcase presenter. Should they not have a right to exploit their successes? If rules are broken and they play more than once, does this not put the presenter at odds with the organization that permitted them rights to use official CMJ designation? What of compensation, currency, and profits? The show’s producers depend on income from paying customers to reimburse their musicians and themselves, but if CMJ is essentially just “printing money” in the form of press/music/conference passes, what’s the point of even starting a showcase?

As for consumers who pay good money for passes, they must decide on how economically viable their purchases are. Sure, you might get your money’s worth by exclusively attending big shows at Bowery, Irving, or Terminal 5, but isn’t CMJ all about supporting your local, small business blog? On top of this, CMJ provides large subsidies to the biggest venues, partially guaranteeing the promoter/organizer for the cost of the show, even if they are investing in unproven musical genres. The real winners and beneficiaries of the CMJ economy are those who can lobby for badgepayer funds.

I’m sure there exists a solution to these complex, divisive issues, but if so, I have no idea since I am getting quite drunk, having a good time with my subsidized pass, paying nothing for tickets and basically freeloading off everyone else. But wait, technically I am still spending money at the bar, and doing real work now as I write this on my laptop. Even as press, I contribute to the CMJ economy.

On one particular night we start in Manhattan but soon settle in Brooklyn, jumping around to four venues with varying degrees of success. At Legion in Bushwick, a mediocre band with intolerable vocals has us running for nearby Paper Box, where our friends at Exploding in Sound are having a massive 12 band, 2 stage showcase. Among the performers are BAL favorites Mr. Dream and Pile, who play quality rock music with no gimmicks, additives, or preservatives. The size of the crowd is respectable for sure, but showcases like these never get much love on the internet. Stereogum’s showcase was heavily hyped but only because it featured conservative, reliable acts that like Guards or the comically simple Dum Dum Girls. CMJ used to be about taking risks; it was never destined to be the sponsored powerhouse of SXSW, or the giant bankroll of Coachella. Yet in today’s CMJ, success is achieved by investing in blue chip bands like The Walkmen, or bands that IPO’ed with high Pitchfork scores, like Metz.

Some say CMJ has lost its innovative edge, but who is to blame, and how should we fix it? Bloggers everywhere have offered competing theories. Some say the relationship between consumer, showcase maker, and governing board needs clarification, and that the aging financial system needs a long-due overhaul. Other say: “Can’t innovate? Imitate.” Look upon proven festival formulas patented by the likes of ACL, Lollapalooza, and APW, copy them flagrantly and package them at a cheaper price.

The economics of CMJ are neither perfect nor easily explained, but give us an opportunity to analyze the changing nature of the music business. From music blogs to musicians themselves, all compete for their voice to be heard in an increasingly crowded space that is becoming less original and more predictable. It seems all parties stands to gain from this arrangement, all except the music listening populace to whom it matters the most. Music should be a repudiation of capitalistic ideals, where it is not money nor fame, but people, ideas and talent that create compelling art.

Yet looking back, I realize that despite the moments of frustration, agony, and madness, so too were there times of carefree exuberance, satisfying music, and epic days spent with the best people. Maybe the economics of CMJ really don’t matter when the land provides such fruitful bounties to harvest, ripe for the picking, waiting to be reaped. Maybe the problem isn’t with the system itself, so much as how we play the system, how we use it to our benefit. After all, our greatest adventures are those we never plan ahead; we build them spontaneously and take tremendous pride in doing so. Let us always seek out the best in music, but let us never forget the spirit of independence that drew us here together in the first place. 


Your Guide to Free Booze at CMJ 2012

As many of you know, CMJ is one of the most chaotic and irritating festival experiences out there. Each year, over 1000 mostly mediocre bands descend upon our city from the LES to Red Hook, all hoping to catch their elusive “big break”. Almost all will fail, as the system of buzz and gossip has already picked the winners and losers prior to their arrivals. It is a system that is rigged in favor of a couple inoffensive acts who have managed to weasel themselves into a few high-trafficked premium blogs, top 10-30 lists that proffer superior taste making expertise.

As many of you also know, Big Ass Lens wants no part of such charades, instead preferring to get drunk and roam around random parties that serve free liquor. One of our most cherished traditions here at BAL is the annual guide to free booze at CMJ, which utilizes some newfangled technology called “Google Calendar” to lay out all the available free booze showcases. Discerning minds will remember how in years past this calendar has served the masses of beleaguered festival goers eager for an after work drink, pining for an end to sobriety. AKA the BAL crew, meeting up after work, looking to get tipsy.

It seems that the general languishing of the music industry has rubbed off on the free booze parties this year. We searched high and low, through endless fields of Facebook events and websites geared towards cheapskates like us, and gleaned from them an unexceptional quantity of freebies. Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of opportunities to get hella bent at this year’s CMJ, especially if you have a badge and take advantage of standard open bar offerings such as Trash Bar, or day parties and showcase from your boys at BrooklynVegan. But compared to past years, it seems we are undergoing a kind of boozy recession, where the open bars are just not as plentiful as they once were.

Regardless, check out the calendar which took several hours of dicking around at work to complete. Red events indicate hard alcohol, green for beer, and yellow for general open bar type scenarios. Enjoy.


Escape From New York 2 - Return To Randall's

The year: 2012. Manhattan is thoroughly bereft of a decent music scene, as it has been for the last decade or so. Brooklyn is better, but years of emigration from nearby East Village has caused it to become overrun with pompous replicant-like humanoids called “hipsters,” who have caused it to become somewhat smelly and uninhabitable. Between the yuppies and the freaks, there is no safe place to go to enjoy some decent tunes in an unpretentious environment. New York City’s only hope lies across the river in a strange land known as “Randall’s Island,” home of a former mental institution and now man’s only prospect for musical gratification.

We set our escape at noon for Catalpa Festival, dark clouds looming ominously above, the chance of rain between 30-40 percent, according to meteorologist Sam Champion. Hoofing it across the foot bridge is out of the question, same goes for the ferry and shuttle, as they are all mainstream solutions to an atypical problem. Taxis are overlooked - people with short memories have forgotten that the RFK bridge exits on the Island, near the derelict Icahn Stadium. Cab it is. Under the cover of clouds we slip in unnoticed, and except for the 5,000-10,000 other concertgoers in attendance, we are practically alone in our mission.

We enter in to a sea of vintage tanks and boat shoes, styles appropriated from a bygone era. The ground is still sodden from the previous day’s rainstorm, a foul cesspool of turbid mud and stuck-in sandals, footprints proceeding where shoes were lost. A wasteland, but there is much hope on this island of ours. A musical utopia, where all bands are created equal, a place where Girl Talk can pepper the field with 1-ply toilet paper and not face the legal repercussions of littering.

Many of those seeking the same as we are here to join us in carouse. In the VIP section, assholes with money to spare splurge on raised cabanas and above-ground hot tubs, truly thinking they are better than us if they stand above us. For the rest us, this island is our brave new world; a new beginning, a fresh venue to debauch, an escape from the ordinary. Sights unseen in Brooklyn and Manhattan abound. Multiple stages. Grass and trees. Faces adorned with neon paint and rhinestones. A bouncy castle that serves as our new church where we might pray to the Gods of Music.

The Gods did bless us that day with fair weather and hella cute festival costumes. So too, did the Festival Gods bless us with a solid variety of essential supplies, mainly craft beer, hard alcohol, and foodie hipster cuisines. Roberta’s, who had previously thrown the ridiculous Bushwick block party the day before, also managed to escape Brooklyn, hawking $10 personal pans along the way in a scarce food economy. Eat up, drink up; our survival depends on it.

Only when the music begins do we fully realize how fortunate we are to leave our homes and venture asunder. Cold War Kids, who had a couple songs a few years ago, kick off the main event. They are followed by Matisyahu, who has over the years perfected the uncommon blend of dreadlocks and Judaism. Then there's Matt and Kim, who are truly some of the most irritating people I have ever seen perform. Their gimmick is that they are both gay, but if that weren’t enough, they spazz about in exaggerated motions, in between generic keyboard sounds they scream out “New York let me hear some nooiiiseee!”. Girl Talk is better, if only because his formula still works the same: spray massive amount of TP into the crowd, invite the crowd onto the stage, and intensely click the trackpad on his Macbook Pro.

Perhaps it really isn’t about seeing “good music” that brings us here. Maybe it is about the experience of leaving to go somewhere special, breaking free of the adamantine shackles that hold us down in the boroughs. A day to picnic outside, drink profusely, look at all the beautiful people, take a break from city life. If you think about it, almost all of us came from one island to this one, a place reserved just for outdoor music and scarcely anything else. We are creatures of our environments, but in leaving our habitats and abandoning our comfort zones at once, we come together and form a new republic of common interest. Like they used to say in the age of exploration, "we're gellin’ like Magellan".


The last act finishes with Snoop Dogg, who is what I want to be when I grow up. Not a rapper, just a grown ass man who still smokes hella chronic all the time. Photographers jostling in the photo pit – pushing around for their “perfect shot” — are truly the worst people on the island. For as we came to enjoy the sounds and sights, they came to use the event as an opportunity for self advancement. Instead of making friends, they use and take advantage, then act like they are the world’s appellation for live music. In reality, they are mostly hacks who are incredibly jealous of one another, always ready to step on someone’s feet in order to land a shot, always blaming someone else for their own failures. They are not one of us, and I not one of them.

We head home and reflect on our escape, and eventual return, from the city proper. Sometimes, in order to best appreciate what we have, we must leave it for a while, come to miss and yearn for it, and return back stronger willed and with a greater admiration for our fortunes. On this day we did just that and more.

Let us live in and let us love our special city forever, but never shall we grow jaded and spoiled. Long live our days on Randall’s Island.  


Summer Concerts In The Park

Guided by Voices

One of the first records I listened to with any sort of regularity was Simon and Garfunkle’s Concert in Central Park, aka The O.G. Central Park show. Perhaps even more than the music itself, I’ll always remember the famous introduction by then-mayor Ed Koch, “Ladies and Gentleman, Simon and Garfunkle!” The crowd of half a million weary New Yorkers, their park neglected by years of mismanagement and misery, burst forth in a roaring applause that seemed to reinvigorate their faith in the city at large. Thanks in part to the money that was raised from this concert, the city was able to begin restoring the Park to its present grandeur. Though it was recorded several years before I was even born, it was this album that began a lifelong fascination with Central Park, New York City, and even music as a whole. 

Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Many years later, I moved into my first apartment in New York, off 88th street, an earshot away from the famous Great Lawn that had hosted Simon and Garfunkle 20 years before. While the epic, open air shows on the Great Lawn don’t happen often (DMB, Bon Jovi, Andre Bocelli, and The Black Eyed Peas have all played in this millennium), they are complimented by the annual Summerstage Festival, which takes a more egalitarian approach to its lineup. Featuring a wide variety of current and past artists, Summerstage has hosted some of our favorite bands, such as The Walkmen, The Flaming Lips, David Byrne, and most recently Guided By Voices, Diamond Rugs, and Kurt Vile.

Greg Demos and Tobin Sprout of Guided by Voices

Jonny Corndawg with John McCauley of Deer Tick

Dave "Smoota" Smith

Being in Manhattan, Summerstage draws a huge range of people from all backgrounds and generations. Brooklyn Hipsters mingle with Manhattan socialites and Staten Island guidos, old and young all sharing the experience of live music. 

Just recently, we caught Guided by Voices and Pains of Being Pure at Heart on a hot day in early July, truly sweating balls. This show was part of the fledgling CBGB Festival, which made headlines over a stabbing between former band members last Friday at Webster Hall. Complaints about heat and/or overall safety aside, both bands we saw that day sounded great and brought good energy to the stage. So much so, fisticuffs nearly broke loose between some concertgoers and security during the Guided by Voices set. Big Ass Lens did not attempt to diffuse the situation, instead instigating them, hoping for a good photo opportunity to sell to TMZ.

Summer in New York is inseparable from Summerstage. What is better than a day spent in the park, drinking a couple cold ones, jamming out to tunes. While you’re there, maybe ride the carousel, amble through the zoo, and feed the animals human food. Relax, wild out, zone out, do your thing. The camera sees, but does not judge. Sometimes, it even sees illegal activities, but it so easily bribable, you got nothing to worry about.

Always cherish the park; its verdant arbor, its people and its sounds.


On The Weekend

Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say,
Such, such were the joys,
When we all, girls & boys,
In our youth time were seen,
On the Echoing Green.

-William Blake

I awoke with lazy eyes and ringing ears, reminders of an abundant night suffused with rock and PBR. Cigarette pack empty; same goes for the wallet. My phone lays striken, drained, sapped and powerless; together we recharge and reminisce over Facebook requests, new numbers, new faces. A familiar feeling; a new day. Indeed, it was the weekend.

The workday had ended a nighttime ago, and we had made moves. A free Akron/Family show? You don’t say. To Brooklyn Bowl we go – to fried chicken dinners, questionably disinfected shoes, and deep varieties of Brooklyn Brew. I ask the bartender for his strongest potion, he fills a glass of Brookyln Blast, the delicious and high alcohol content local brew. I sip but do not gulp, for the night is young and the mood is merry, and I shall not squander it over untimely inebriation.

Sit tight bro, the music will be on soon. We take a smoke break, and outside a couple argues over vanished funds and the merits of tobacco. A steady stream of people flow into the venue, and some are pissed for not RSVPing to the free event. We are good though – my boy MyFreeConcert hooked it up with a Facebook post, heralding the free goodies that would mark my evening. You’re the best, bro.

Akron goes on; bowling shoes are switched for dancing shoes, as bodies bounce, fists pump, and possessions are dropped on the ground. The smell of chronic enters in the air, I look all around but sadly cannot locate the source. Instead, I take another sip of brew and blast out. Sobriety ends and drunkenness ensues, and from here on out, the night would be reflected by a combination of mass confusion, bursts of laughter, and highly questionable decisions. For what is a Friday, if not for these moments, these epic nights of hysterical rage?

Some time later we find ourselves at Metrosonic Studio on Roebling. A friend of mine, Owen Black, runs a space adjacent to the live room called Trumbull Studios, and this party is partly his. Shots of cheap whisky pour from a handled bottle and our night vanishes deeper into the rabbit hole. I remember a massive spliff I had rolled after work, and it is sparked. Things get spacey.


Waking up to blinding sunlight I immediately resent not buying another pack of smokes the night before. But it is Saturday in June, and it is the best of days. Birds chirp outside the window, calling me back to sleep. But alas, a busy day awaits, and a cold shower jolts the senses back to life.

Time to roll out, head back into Willy, for the ridiculously awesome Crest Fest. Crest Hardware is a store in Brooklyn that throws a yearly arts/music festival in their bin Laden-like compound on Metropolitan Ave. Walking in, a wide hallway opens into a massive courtyard where a brass band has everyone jumping and cheering. A path from the courtyard snakes into a bizarre maze of arts, crafts, barbeque and beer. Further back, a garden provides a quiet sanctuary from disco beats emanating from a nearby tent. Only in Brooklyn does one find such an immediately contradictory scene; at once chaotic, urban, majestic and pristine. Ace is the Place? Fuck that. Crest is the best.

More than Brooklyn itself, I care for the people of this borough. In a city characterized by people in a rush, Brooklyn in the one place where nobody is in a hurry. Stop in any bar, a party or show, and you’ll find welcoming faces, warm greetings, abstractions of people you only read in books. 

We met a bunch of you at a rooftop party. Taught ya’ll the basics of photography, snapped mad pics of you. Drank a variety of beer and hard alcohol beverages, ate some food, tried to speak French. You were quality people; you won us over with your good looks and pleasant hospitality, and gave us hope in the human race. We wish we didn’t have to leave you, but a free White Rabbits show at Music Hall of Willy was calling our names.

Even though I have been thrown out of there countless times, Music Hall is one of those venues that I couldn’t live without. I remember one of the first shows I ever went to in New York was at its predecessor, North Six. Remember that place? The dicey interior, bleacher seating, dirt cheap beer. Smoke mad trees inside with bands that were playing. Miss the old North Six, but glad they upped their game and made it into one of the nicest mid-sized venues in the city.

My boy Will Armstrong, who did lighting on our Miracles of Modern Science and Menomena videos, once again crushed the lights at the White Rabbits show. Really awesome, unique lighting design, perfectly timed to key musical changes, adding visual energy to an already lively performance. A great show; a great day.

Shall we never forget our youth, our days spent on the echoing green. Long live the summer, those Arcadian days of mirth. Long live the weekend.