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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. 

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