Named after the New York City running event with which it sometimes coincides, the annual CMJ Music Marathon came to a finish in the early hours of Sunday morning, following four days of panels and hundreds of performances catering to crowds of mostly young people into making new music, seeing it and selling it. Run by the College Music Journal media group best known for charting songs on non-commercial radio, this year's CMJ also celebrated the event's 25th birthday.
Speaking at a CMJ panel last week, Charles Bissell, songwriter for the Wrens, recalled working as a volunteer to gain entry to his first CMJ in the early '90s. After a false start he blames in part to working with too many lawyers, his band finally found long-deserved success last year, their story becoming instant indie rock legend. He was back at CMJ as a performer this year, headlining one of the marathon's hot ticket shows at the Lower East Side's Mercury Lounge.
Musician Mary Timony attended her first CMJ back in 1994, with her former band Helium. In the basement bar of a club blaring Hall and Oates on Thursday, she joked about being a "snotty punk" back then, with a cavalier attitude toward the event. Coming upstairs to the stage at Rothko, she greeted fans as a top-billed solo performer at this year's CMJ.
She and Bissell were joined by hundreds of musicians new to the event, at which many bands are booked based on their submissions to CMJ. They came from all over America, sleeping on couches and playing multiple shows to rooms both packed and empty. Their vans and trailers clogged the downtown streets where Manhattan's rock clubs are clustered, packed to the hilt with guitars, drums, organs, accordions and a variety of thrift-store noisemakers -- anything that might be used to create something audiences had hopefully never seen or heard before but would want to experience again.
There have been mad times for music since the new millennium. Record companies began logging year after year of shrinking sales and increased marketing costs, while going to battle against illegal downloading. Independent bands trying to make it sailed against a new wave of boy bands and manufactured pop princesses. Many who did land a contract discovered that in such a climate, it's far from a guarantee of success. "Artist development is huge," Brendon Mendoza, A&R director for the major label American Recordings, noted during a panel titled The Hit Factory, "But not so widely practiced." Meanwhile, the fans whom both sides of the contract rely upon complained of rising CD prices, concert costs and Ticketmaster fees, and reacted with anger to file-sharing lawsuits.
The celebration of CMJ's 25th anniversary isn't the only positive sign for music in 2005. U.S. CD sales went up 2.3 percent in 2004 - not a lot, but an end to a four-year decline. More people are paying for MP3s, at an average of 6.7 million downloads a week last year, and the Supreme Court sided with the industry in its case against makers of file-sharing software that facilitates illegal swapping. Musicians and fans continued to find new outlets online, through the popularity of the 28 million-member social networking community Myspace, the powerful influence of online news and review sites such as Pitchfork and the rise of MP3 blogging.
CMJ attendees not in a band themselves were there to talk about these issues, network, angle for their first job out of college, see what's cool (this year's biggest overheard "ooohs" were earned by lucky owners of the new iPod nano) and party with friends old and new. But above all CMJ is about the hunt for the next new sound to love.
Last week's showcases and promotional events yielded the usual dose of buzz, trends and quirky favorites. De Novo Dahl impressed as an up-to-the-minute college radio band, costumed in psychedelic prison uniforms and playing fun art pop from their indie-label double-disc "Cats & Kittens." You'd think it might be a New York or San Francisco band, but De Novo Dahl calls Nashville home. The Two Gallants proved to be another of the sort of band one hopes to discover at CMJ, something with obvious staying power. A guitar and drums two-piece that applies heavy volume to a blend of country, folk and blues in a manner reminiscent of the early work of "No Depression" genre pioneers Uncle Tupelo, they're from San Francisco, though their Americana sound suggests the South or Midwest. It's no surprise they've just signed to the highly successful Nebraska independent label Saddle Creek.