How Does CMJ Choose Which Bands Get In? An Idolator Special Report

Oct 23rd, 2008 // 26 Comments

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.

  1. Anonymous

    Cool article, being in one of the unhighlighted bands on your list (sgt dunbar and the hobo banned) of S bands playing the festival I thought readers might be interested in our CMJ experience.

    Being to this point a completely DIY band (and as you noted mostly unknown) I think there are a few things that pushed our submission into the accepted category (beside our obviously awesome songs).The first was good blog press from MyOldKentukyBlog and Said the Gramophone as well as a smattering of other smaller blogs and some local press which we got just from being in touch with those bloggers.
    The next thing is that we play NYC fairly regularly (once a month or more) and know a few club owners and were able to promise a draw for our showcase.

    The last thing is our modest but well planned tour schedule, we have only been on the road for 2 weeks at a stretch in the last year but during that time we played Athens Pop Fest, and Mountain Jam and made it through most of the major cities on the East Coast.

    As for our showcase, we had a good crowd and had a fun show and got ourselves invited back to Pete’s Candy Store which is a great venue and the overall the trip was worthwhile (especially for the free passes). However you have to be a bit naive, I think, to believe that being an unknown DIY band going into CMJ you are going to come out something different. It is something that we can use for real leverage going forward though and we are appreciative of that. SXSW here we come. ([])

  2. Lucas Jensen

    @alexmuro: Thanks for the information, man. This is good stuff. Sorry I didn’t recognize you.

  3. the rich girls are weeping

    You’d recognize more if you were constantly inundated with “up-and-coming NYC & Brooklyn bands!11!!!!11!” press releases, as I seem to be.

    Though, I’m not technically sure that Secret Guests and Surprise Guests count. (;

  4. cassidy2099

    Sebastien Grainger, lest we forget, was the drummer/singer in Death From Above 1979. His new album is pretty amazing, even if Saddle Creek put it out.

  5. Lucas Jensen

    @cassidy2099: Yeah, and even if he was in DFA 1979? They put on one of the most execrable performances I have ever seen.

  6. TheContrarian

    You don’t know SHINING? Shugo Tokumaru is good, too.

    S’Okay – I didn’t recognize the majority of these acts, either. Interesting post.

  7. noamjamski

    There’s one other angle that isn’t mentioned here.

    That is getting in via the club. I’ll keep my story reasonably anonymous, although it wouldn’t be TOO hard to figure out if someone cared.

    Getting in is half the battle. The other half is getting in on a good bill. First year my band got into CMJ we had an awful showcase at a club no one who has been in NYC more than 5 minutes would EVER go to. The next year we hooked up with a band bigger than us who REQUESTED we be on their showcase and we got a much better show, although in one of the Knit’s smaller subterranean rooms. At this point we were playing a lot at one of the hipper, consistently sold out East side venues where I had a professional friendship with the booker. The last year we played CMJ before breaking up he pulled us onto a showcase BEFORE CMJ formally accepted us. Who knows if at that point we would have still gotten in otherwise, but yes clubs can dictate to CMJ within reason who will be showcasing there.

    We were definitely one of the “in between” bands Matt McDonald, who we dealt with back then around the turn of the century, talks about. One year we got in, but were orphaned without a showcase to hook up with and he ended up shafting us on a show. But he was classy enough to give us all free badges for making the cut anyway.

  8. jfk1624

    I’m kinda shocked you didn’t know Saves The Day? They’ve been around forever it seems…

  9. TimmyGUNZ

    I was just about to write the same thing. Saves the Day is probably one of the biggest bands playing CMJ in this list.

  10. elvissinatra

    What percentage of bands that apply to CMJ get turned down? My guess: less than 10%. I just assumed they let everybody play.

    When we started our record label, we took our two bands to CMJ and they were very cool and gave us a “mini showcase” on a weekend night with a pretty cool headliner: Drums and Tuba.

    That said, the venue was in Brooklyn (the Hook), and we got absolutely no foot traffic, and the people who showed up all stood outside and smoked outside while our bands played. We sold a couple of CDs and t-shirts (literally, like two). It was a fun trip, but totally pointless.

    Not sure if it made any difference that we purchased a $500 ad in the guidebook.

    Also, CMJ’s publicity guy has the best name in the business: Johnny Chiba.

  11. Lucas Jensen

    @jfk1624: Haha. I just missed them. I totally know Saves the Day.

    @elvissinatra: None of my bands has ever made it in (well, with me in the band at the time). Maybe I’m cursed, but we’re not totally crappy, I swear.

  12. jfk1624

    @Lucas Jensen: I kinda figured that was the case and I didn’t want to be an ass and point it out if it was a mistake, but it just didn’t seem possible and I had to ask. I also have a fair amount of…affection for them. So, you know.

  13. Anonymous

    “The Shiny Brights” are an incredible indie band. You probably haven’t heard of them because they are from australia and have flown over just for the event. get out and see them you will be impressed

  14. oneTee

    you haven’t heard of Semi Precious Weapons?!?!?!? really?!

  15. noamjamski

    @elvissinatra: Having been both an attendee and a performer at many CMJs there is virtually no foot traffic. People with badges tend to plan out their showcases meticulously, bouncing from venue to venue. The only hope you have of being an unknown and getting people to accidentally see your band is either general public who bought tix, or if you open for a band big enough that people get their early in fear of being turned away.

  16. Anonymous

    Maybe I missed it in the article, but I don’t believe Matt listens to all the bands or makes all the decisions. A few months ago I remember receiving an unsolicited email application from CMJ where they were looking for help with the reviewing process. It seemed like it could be interesting task.

    Other names to bold from the list above
    -sBACH: underwhelming side-project by Spencer Seim of Hella, released by Suicide Squeeze.
    -Skillz: ghostwriter for your favourite rappers, released the very solid ‘Million Dollar Backpack’ album a few months ago.
    -Skyzoo: another great up-and-upcoming rapper.
    -Sole and the Skyrider Band: one of the many fantastic releases on Anticon Records this year.
    -Sylvie: Canadian band who just released a pretty enjoyable new album produced by J. Robbins (Jawbreaker).

  17. Maura Johnston

    @oneTee: Um, not everyone is subject to the New York media’s tendencies toward overpromoting the mediocre self-floggers out there.

  18. Lucas Jensen

    @oneTee: Nope. Never have, but, you know, I live somewhere with successful indie bands. BURN!

  19. BlissSister

    @elvissinatra: I was one of the rejected…
    Either my music really sucks, or I am a soloist with no connections…hmm…

  20. Reidicus

    Of course, my “do not recognize” is different from yours, but a lot of the folks on the list you don’t know (and I do) aren’t necessarily the latest/greatest/hippest types who get lots of hyperventilating blog love. For example, Sasha Dobson, whom I adore, does a Brazilian-flavored take on singer/songwriter fare, with her boyfriend, Richard Julian, usually in the band or close by. (Her shows are also a good spot to catch Norah Jones blending into the crowd.) Uber hip? Probably not. But I like.

    Others in a similar vein: Sara Watkins is (er, was) the fiddle-playing member of Nickel Creek. Swati is a singer/songwriter with a distinctive guitar style, similar to Kaki King.

  21. Lucas Jensen

    @Reidicus: Yeah, I know Sara Watkins now that you mention it.

  22. cousinchris

    Thanks for posting this article. Reading the description, feel like Cousin Chris (cousinchrismusic dot com) might have made it in. Did not apply though cuz it seemed like a longshot for bands without the connections to get heard by the organizers.

  23. Anonymous

    @BlissSister: or both! :)

  24. BlissSister

    @baobinga: Ha! No, I swear, I’m good!

  25. CarsmileSteve

    please please tell me that no one in america has heard of scouting for girls*? you lucky lucky bastards…

    *they are corporate brit-emo-rock, like busted, if busted were SHIT

  26. my band didn’t get in, we’re local, i don’t get it. we play constantly, sold out big venues (like joe’s pub for example). how do they decide this thing anyway?

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