This is quite the question. First of all, “Is it worth it?” is a loaded question, because it implies that everyone shares and accepts the details of the input required and the output gained. If you expect the output to be a record deal from Mr. BIG records or a licensing deal for the next Zach Braff blockbuster, CMJ is not worth it. We try to go into these conferences/festivals with few to no expectations. For sure, CMJ is an exercise in existential doubt and hopefully eventual triumph.
For those not familiar, CMJ is the northeastern equivalent of Austin’s SXSW. Whereas Austin as a city is wide open and fairly laid-back, New York is a beast to be reckoned with any day of the year.
SXSW can feel like an ocean of bands and brands, drowning even the fairly successful bands in its never-ending blast of sound. Every bar and restaurant has some sort of PA with bands cycling on and off the stage. Every doorway has a busker with an acoustic guitar, livin’ the dream.
Lots of artists say that they prefer the vibe of CMJ to that of SXSW. You know what you’re getting into a little more. Whereas SXSW takes over Austin completely, CMJ cannot compete with the hustle and bustle of New York City. The venues (sprawling the Lower East Side of Manhattan and increasingly a lot of Williamsburg) are separated by the rest of the city, so that you see less music unless you actively search for it.
That being said, CMJ can still be demoralizing, even when you go into it with low expectations. You aren’t drowned by as many bands, but the bands that you do see getting attention just aren’t that interesting most of the time. Bob Boilen said it best:
There’s pretty good chance that on a random stroll into a club during CMJ, the group on stage is going to be some bare-bones garage rock band. And though few of these bands actually make music in the family garage as they did in the 1960s, the raw, nothing-fancy aesthetic marches on. Despite the rise of electronics, you’re more likely to walk down the street and be accidentally whacked by a guitar than a keyboard. There’s also a lot of psych rock and punk rock at CMJ, all guitar, bass and drums music with singers who often scream or talk or both. It’s a well-worn path, and with rare exception it doesn’t excite me much anymore.
You can’t help but find yourself wondering why certain bands (some from UK, some from Sweden, some from Brooklyn, some from the greater US) are even getting attention. One answer is money. The bands getting the most press, even at the college radio level, have to some extent been pre-ordained by the industry, most likely because they are easy to digest. They are easily packaged and sold. Everyone is proficient and tight, even if they are playing no-frills rock. They play their songs, they banter, but it often leaves me wanting more… Of course, there are a few exceptions (that I saw): Zula, Native America, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizards, and Springtime Carnivore were all very good at balancing their art and their performance. I connected with their music.
May Tabol’s impression has been that CMJ is comprised of 90% performers and 10% artists. I would agree, or I would at least argue that CMJ is not the ideal environment for artists. Playing in New York generally requires using the house gear, because of the lack of time and the limited parking. Like lots of other bands that we admire, Pree works hard to develop dynamic sounds, which generally requires using our own amps and gear to get right. For better or worse, we are focused on very specific details every beat of each song. CMJ is not our ideal venue. It is more ideal for three-piece rock bands that can play out of anything.
Here’s the silver lining in all of this: even the bands that you don’t connect with can make you feel good that you are who you are. They make your aesthetics stronger. This is good fuel for creative fire. Conversely, the bands that you do connect with give you a sense of camaraderie. You know that someone else cares. The connection feels special because it is rare. The same feeling happens within the band when we get the opportunity to play together in front of people. We become totally exhilarated by each other’s energy and shared aesthetics, no matter the atmosphere or how we are feeling beforehand. This empowers us to continue the good fight in the culture war against the corporate vampires that attack and cannibalize any real art that gets even an ounce of attention. This is worth it.
Photo of Pree by Alexander Storm. Pree is currently on tour. See them November 6 at Monkey House in Burlington, VT. They’ll be back in D.C. on December 4 at Black Cat with The Sealife and The Dig.