Dan Gidycz, MBA Class of 2014
As I mentioned elsewhere, I spent the bulk of October 15-19 ignoring all obligations personal and academic to attend the 2013 CMJ Music Marathon, which claims to be “NYC’s largest music event”, with 1,400 live performances spanning 80ish nightclubs and theaters, not to mention a pretty significant series of panel discussions and conference events. They’re mostly on the music industry and its ongoing changes, as well as info for managing and breaking unsigned bands into the industry. It’s a buffet and crash course in all the things a young band needs to know to get sucked into the swirling blades of the Cuisinart that is the music business and spit out as a smooth, marketable pop-rock paste.
The first challenge I recognized came weeks ahead of the festival itself. The sheer number of bands playing the music marathon makes the experience impossible. You read through the jumbled smear that is the schedule and jump at the names that you recognize. I spent the week leading up to the festival wishing for a curator. I breathed a momentary sigh of relief when NPR Music’s Bill Frisell linked to his schedule on Twitter, until I found out that his plan was to be in 3 different parts of the city at the same time and was just as disorganized and insane as my own. And then I realized: Absolutely no one knows how to navigate this festival.
The problem is not that there are so many amazing things you’re looking forward to – big names and favorites that grab attention – but rather that you’re faced with a long list with no recognition whatsoever. It’s page after page of meaningless words strung together in a purple background. You have to assume there are diamonds there, but there’s a lot of rough in-between. Ultimately, I ended up attending the headlining shows, which were mostly my favorite bands from 2006-2007, and a couple smaller showcases that I would mostly describe as “horrid” or “an embarrassment to the human race”. I imagine this can be at least partially attributed the fact that I’m now an old curmudgeon, and my days of being excited about being packed into a converted warehouse in Williamsburg at 2am are likely behind me for good.
The key theme of the conference was the many facets of the democratization of the music industry. All of the aspects of the ecosystem, from professional-sounding recording, to distribution, to journalism have been disaggregated and put in the hands of regular people with a little diligence and a padded closet to use as a vocal booth. In listening to panels of traditional record execs and general old white guys, I’m struck by how their attitude about this disaggregation conveys a sense of not just loss – which has certainly occurred, financially – but of robbery. They lost something to which they were entitled. It wasn’t so long ago that art was something that happened either for its own sake, or to please a patron. In neither case is art a way to line the pockets of middlemen: the 360 deal is a recent invention, and it can’t be treated as the natural order undone by Napster. There’s no sense pouting and treating your Strategic Inflection Point as an injustice. The A&R man might as well sell buggy whips.
I was also deeply confused about the decision by Champion Sportswear to be the festival’s lead sponsor. If I’d had the wherewithal to think of it ahead of time, I would have spent the week meticulously documenting their branding of the festival, lined up interviews with their representatives, and pieced together a case study on it. They put on a decent showcase and lined the wall with inscrutable portraits of women in cropped hoodies and printed tiny plastic cocktail cups with their trademark C, but I can’t imagine this brought in many incremental sweatpants sales. What could the ROI on this ridiculous sponsorship deal have possibly been? I joked about what the pitch meeting must have looked like, “Well, the number one demographic for our hoodies is indie music journalists, but we’re losing market share points to American Apparel like crazy!”
This was my first Marathon, but I got the impression from talking to CMJ veterans that this year lacked a lot of the hype and excitement of recent years. I never waited in line to get into a venue – even those that were ostensibly sold out – and don’t recall hearing about surprise performances from big names. Karibi seems to think this heralds the festival’s decline, but I suspect it’s just a cyclical down year.