Just yesterday, intrepid reporter Kate Richardson asked a very pertinent question about CMJ 2008: “Who are all these bands?” Up until very recently, I worked as a publicist for an indie PR firm, and I know a ton of small acts because of it. Some I worked, some I tried to work, some I researched, and some I know from competitors and colleagues. I also read/skimmed nearly every magazine, indie Web site, and blog out there, particularly looking at coverage of small bands. Plus, I’m in a few bands myself, and have played with a bunch of different out-of-towners. My point here is not to brag, but to state my qualifications: I’ve heard of a ton of indie bands, and a lot of them aren’t good. When I haven’t heard of an artist, I get rather suspicious of quality, to be honest, but, then again, I regard all new acts with a measure of suspicion.
Looking over the CMJ 2008 lineup, I have to second Kate.
I’ve taken a random sampling of the “S” bands and I’ve put the names of the bands that I think I’ve heard in bold below. I’m not even talking about bands whose music I’ve heard, but bands whose names I kinda, sorta recognize. I’m being very generous here.
* The Sad Little Stars * Said The Whale * Salt & Samovar * Sam Bisbee * Sam Champion * Sam Keenan * Sam Scarfo * The Sammies * Sara Watkins * Sarah Fullen & the Stanleys * Sarah Solovay * Sasha Dobson * The Satellite Nation * Sav Killz * Saves the Day * Savoir Adore * sBACH * Scars On Broadway * Scissors for Lefty * Scouting for Girls * Screen Vinyl Image * Screens * The Sea * The Seabellies * Sean Price * Sebastian Grainger & The Mountains * Second Dan * Secret Guest * The Secret Life of Sofia * See You Next Tuesday * The Selfsame * Semi Precious Weapons * Serena * Seth Kallen & The Reaction * Settle * Sgt Dunbar and the Hobo Banned * Sha Stimuli * The Shackeltons * Shad * The Shalants * Shame Club * Shannon McArdie * Shawn Jackson * Shelley Green * Shellshag * SHINING * The Shiny Brights * Shiny Toy Guns * Shiragirl * The Shivers * Shout Out Out Out Out * Show Me Action * Shugo Tokumaru * Sian Alice Group * Sic Osyrus * The Silent League * The Silent Years * The Silos * Simon Boyar * Simon Says No! * Singing DJ Jens Lekman * Sister Suvi * Sisters 3 * Skeletonbreath * Skidmore Fountain * Skillz * Skriptkeeper * Sky Cries Mary * Skyzoo * Slang Chickens * Sleeperstar * Sleepy & Boo * The Smittens * The Snake Trap * Snowman * So Many Dynamos * So Percussion * The So So Glos * SO4 DJ set * Sohodolls * Soko * Sole and Skyrider Band * Soma * Sons of Bill * Soulwax * Soundpool * Sounds Under Radio * Southside Johnny w/ the LaBamba Big Band: Songs of Tom Waits * Spanish Prisoners * Spelling and Grammar * Spirit Of The Falcon-XL * Springhouse * Squaaks * St. Laz * Stalkers * Standard of Living * Starcode * Starfucker * Starling Electric * Stars Like Fleas * Stars Of Track And Field * Stationary Set * Stepanian * Stetsasonic (w/Prince Paul) * Steve Burns and The Struggle * Still Going * Stook! * The Subjects * Suckers * Sundelles * Sunny Day Glasgow [sic] * The Sunstreak * Supa Nova Slom * Super XX Man * Surprise Guests * Susan Enan * Suzanna Choffel * Swati * Sweet Water * Sydney Wayser * Sylvie *
This ain’t exactly a scientific study, but I suspect that many of you are coming up with similar responses to that list. Now, this is not anti-CMJ by any stretch. It must be stated that I’m happy that CMJ supports smaller artists, as that’s what these showcase-y kind of festivals are really about. Furthermore, I can’t make any statements as to these bands’ quality without ever hearing them, but if you’ll allow me a modicum of conjecture, l’ll say that there’s probably a good chance that most of these bands aren’t great.
So what made them stick out? I decided to stop being an Internet snarkhound for a second and go right to the source: Matt McDonald, the guy who makes the tough decisions for the CMJ Music Marathon. McDonald is the Vice President of Artists and Events at CMJ Network, and according to his bio, “he oversees everything that CMJ does in the live music realm, including tours, talent competitions, promotional events, and CMJ Music Marathon showcases.” He listens to over 6,000 artists a year, most of them entries to the CMJ Music Marathon. The mind boggles!
The listening process goes as follows:
“We try to listen to them in clusters. It typically tends to be fairly blind reviews. We listen to a few songs from each act, one right after the other, to keep the comparison between acts pretty accurate. When you’re listening all in a row, you’re more consistent in judging bands. Typically, it’s fairly blind…that means we’re really focusing in on the songs.”
If the songs pass muster, then they move onto reviewing the band’s press and tour history. McDonald explains:
“The press and tour history do come into play. If they are a local bar band, it makes more sense for us to pick someone who has played nationally and will cause our attendees to actually show up and have some interest in the act. It’s not necessarily from Spin or Stereogum or whatever… it’s the variety that they get. If it’s a local weekly three times a year that’s good and some blog coverage, that’s good, too. A fan on MySpace will not catch my eye. As long as they are legitimate press outlets, even an enthusiastic blogger that responds to the band is okay. It indicates the band is working to get themselves out there.”
But what if the act is really great but completely unknown? “If the songs are really strong, and they don’t have much in the way of a real story because, maybe, they are brand new or from, say, Wasilla, Alaska, we tend to take a chance.”
McDonald states that they usually “just kinda know right away” when listening to artists: “this band’s great and this band’s not great.” It’s the inbetweeners that are tough, given CMJ’s limited space. Charting on the CMJ charts helps, natch. “That’s another thing that can help sway us with that middle group that I’m talking about…if they’ve done well on the charts then there is some indication that it will be of interest to the people coming to CMJ.” However, not every band that charts makes it in, and having played CMJ before is not a guarantor of acceptance either. “Plenty of bands played once and it didn’t have much effect in terms of benefiting the band,” McDonald says. “Should we give another act a shot?”
“If ultimately the question is, are we doing any favors by having them make the trip and play to an empty room, then it doesn’t help the band, it doesn’t help the club, and it doesn’t help us.” The clubs–most of whom don’t charge CMJ for their services–benefit from the guarantee of crowds that the Music Marathon often brings. For them, “the extra attendance is worth it,” says McDonald.
McDonald says that label showcases do get a bit of preference, though “we still want to make sure that the label has solid acts…. It’s rare that we’ve turned down someone like that,” but it has happened. In the end, it’s about putting together bills that make sense together and for the venue. Genre-hopping showcases usually don’t come off: “You can have a folk band with a metal band, and in theory, it’s cool, but in practice it doesn’t work.” McDonald adds, “people are just talking through the set.”
As for the day parties that have come to dominate the daytime landscapes of SXSW and CMJ, McDonald is pretty laid-back: “Again, because it’s New York, there are a lot of options for people to pursue. Typically, we kind of let it happen. Hopefully, it benefits us in the long run because more people are out checking out the events, and it gives the bands a chance to play a second or third time. As long as the band is participating in the official programming, we’re not opposed to it they are not overdoing it. If a band is playing a thousand times during the day, well, that’s a problem.”
I found McDonald to be extremely courteous, knowledgeable, and forthright–but I still know of some great bands with decent press kits, tour histories, and chart experience that didn’t make it in. If you’re a band that didn’t get into CMJ and think you should have, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below or at tipsATidolatorDOTcom.