Hoping to make a name at CMJ
From punk rock in Allston basements, to dubstep in packed downtown nightclubs, to indie singer-songwriters taking every open mike in town, there’s never a shortage of new music to be heard in Boston. But even the hungriest Bostonian music fans might find themselves overwhelmed by the influx of music headed for New York City this week.
Beginning on Tuesday, the College Music Journal Music Marathon (more affectionately known as “CMJ’’) will stuff NYC’s clubs, halls, and bars with thousands of musicians, industry types, and fans, all gathering to create, consume, and network for five straight days .
“We take over south of 14th Street, and parts of northwest Brooklyn - Williamsburg, Bushwick, Fort Greene - it’s just a great buzz,’’ says CMJ founder Robert Haber.
Haber started CMJ in the early ’80s, when he was a student working at Brandeis University radio station WBRS. Haber organized the first CMJ industry conference in New York, a modest event for college radio directors. A few years later, he added live music, to entertain the attendees. Since then, the company has expanded into a media empire, maintaining college radio charts, and showcasing up-and-coming musicians from across the country and around the globe.
During the boom of alt-rock in the ’90s, before the Internet leveled the playing field, the CMJ Music Marathon offered a special opportunity for musicians looking to make it big. According to festival organizers, artists like L.L. Cool J, Marilyn Manson, Korn, and Green Day saw record sales skyrocket after playing CMJ.
Now in its 31st year, the Marathon features hundreds of acts across all genres and at all levels of bandhood; and Boston bands will make a strong showing among them. More than two dozen local acts will perform at official showcases and unofficial parties, and each has a different reason for entering the industry fray.
“I’m hoping just to get a really good show,’’ says Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills, whose band has racked up festival experience playing SXSW in Austin, Texas, and past installments of CMJ. “I don’t think any of these festivals really make or break anybody. I just think they’re fun.’’ Hallelujah the Hills will play a CMJ & Nicodemus Agency showcase next Friday at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop.
“Previously, if you weren’t signed to a major [label], and you were not enjoying their relationships with terrestrial radio, with MTV, and major magazines - the ability for you to reach an audience was almost zero,’’ Haber says. “These days, obviously, technology enables bands to reach that audience.’’
Still, Haber says, the CMJ Marathon provides opportunities for musicians to advance their careers, though he realizes the primary goals for artists at the festival have diversified.
For Cambridge hip-hop act Big Digits, there’s no serious plan for using its show as a vehicle to fame. MC Mac Swell says the group members are just hoping to play a good set, show people what they can do, and see some other music while they’re there.
“The dream of playing one show and someone reaching down from the clouds and plucking us out and then putting us on stage next to Lady Gaga the next night - I don’t personally feel like that is highly likely,’’ Mac says.
A mainstay in the local underground scene since 2003, Big Digits had applied to perform at CMJ several times in the past, but were never selected to play. This year, the duo was asked by its label, Providence-based Anchor Brain Records, to open its official CMJ showcase at Public Assembly in Brooklyn next Thursday.
“We’re just happy to be playing New York and not playing in a basement,’’ Mac says.
Boston-based rock ’n’ roll solo act Grygiel (a.k.a. Jennifer Grygiel, known for her earlier work with MEandJOANCOLLINS) says her primary goal for CMJ goes beyond promoting her music; instead, she’s focusing on spreading the message of the It Gets Better Project, a widespread Internet support campaign for LGBT youth. Grygiel is playing the Big Picture Media showcase at Sullivan Hall next Friday.
“As an out musician . . . playing things like CMJ is really just an opportunity to help the youth see that life does get better,’’ Grygiel says. “It’s kind of reinvigorating my music career.’’
While the odds of enchanted encounters with A&R reps offering generous recording contracts are even slimmer than they may have been in the ’90s, CMJ’s history of launching bands’ careers isn’t entirely a thing of the past.
Boston-based dance-rock band Gentlemen Hall got great exposure at CMJ last year, leaving the festival with a healthy amount of industry buzz. The unsigned six-piece of Berklee alumni won Billboard & Chevy’s Battle of the Bands and played the 2011 Billboard Music Awards in March. This year, they will play at Arlene’s Grocery next Friday, part of the Outlaw Roadshow.
“I would say CMJ, in a way, launched our band,’’ says Gavin McDevitt, one of two lead singers for Gentlemen Hall. “For the next six months we were just constantly being hit up by management, labels, and agencies.’’
This year, Gentlemen Hall’s members have a slightly different idea about networking at CMJ.
“I think our focus now is a little less [on the] industry side and a little more trying to make relationships with bands that we want to play and tour with,’’ McDevitt says.
Fellow Berklee graduate Julia Easterlin also credits CMJ with helping her gain exposure in the music industry. Since her first time at CMJ last year, she has played at SXSW and at Lollapalooza. She played as a solo artist at Berklee’s CMJ showcase last year and is set to play it again this year, now with her newly formed band.
“I think that playing at CMJ, at least for me last year, it got me a foot in the door with New York venues that I probably wouldn’t typically have had exposure to,’’ says Easterlin, who is signed to Berklee’s student-run record label, Heavy Rotation Records.
Ryan Spaulding, of Boston-based music blog Ryan’s Smashing Life, says it’s really up to the bands to use CMJ to their advantage. He says bands at the festival must have the drive and motivation to network with other bands and people in the music industry in order to make progress.
“I think at all levels the bands are ultimately responsible for making things happen. This is just letting them get closer to the fire,’’ Spaulding says. “CMJ will totally help, but . . . the bands have to be in the right place, and not just geographically - they have to be ready.’’
To learn more about the Boston bands making the trek to this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, visit www.boston.com/soundeffects.
Anna Marden can be reached at email@example.com.