Independent Music is Dead; Long Live Independent Music?
CMJ Music Marathon 2006
Part 1: CMJ = Covert Marketing Job?
The CMJ Music Marathon descended on New York City the same day that CBGB was
evicted from its longtime home on the Bowery. At first, I wondered whether this
coincidence was ironic or appropriate. After a while, I came to the conclusion
that it was both: yes, it did appear that one of independent music's most
important yearly events was stomping on the grave of its historical forebear.
Fair enough. But more than anything, perhaps this was a sign of changing times,
a reality check for the music world, encouragement to break from the past and
embrace the future. The clever old fascist Ezra Pound once exhorted Modernists,
weary of language after the overwrought tomes of the Romantics to "make it new."
His call to action is as relevant to contemporary independent musicians as it
was to early 20th-century writers.
Certainly, independent and underground music, whatever that means and however we
choose to define it, has changed since the heyday of CBGB. CMJ Network Inc.,
which began as the eponymous College Music Journal, has evolved over the
past quarter century into something of an empire, including two magazines (the
Billboard-esque CMJ New Music Report and the more general interest
CMJ New Music Monthly); a website updated daily with music news and
reviews; CMJ Events, which produces the Music Marathon; and the CMJ Rock
Hall Music Fest, a joint project with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
But that's not all. The company also includes something called CMJ Access,
which is described in press materials as "an integrated marketing agency
specializing in providing its clients unparalleled access to the college and
young adult demographic and emerging music world." Huh. So the same people who
compile and publish college radio's version of the Hot 100, the folks whose
monthly magazine includes music reviews and a CD of new tracks... is also a
marketing agency with a built-in audience? Can I find out more? Well, not on the
Internet: a search for the term "CMJ Access" yields only eight results, most of
which contain the same mysterious sentence that appears in the press materials.
With what very well might be a
payola scandal in its past, CMJ Network begins to look shadier and shadier –
if not quite criminal, at least unsavory.
What this means among other, perhaps more nefarious, things that are beyond the
scope of this article is that independent music is now big business. This is not
news, but it bears repeating. This year's CMJ gift bag included a bright red
Bodog Music condom, a set of indie rock trading cards from Insound (think Dirty
on Purpose's rookie card will be worth anything in 20 years?), a disembodied
doll-head, complete with fuzzy hair, from toymakers Hasbro, and a MySpace
keychain that serves as a sort of letter-opener for CD packaging. I hesitate to
even mention the perplexing inclusion of year-old Public Enemy album New
Whirl Order (uh, can I trade that in for Fear of a Black Planet? Need
I even bring up the name "Flavor Flav"?), which I only opened in order to test
It's impossible, and even perhaps disingenuous, to discuss the performances at
CMJ without acknowledging the marketing that is such a major component. For
example, when the press materials tell me that Ben Lee is part of a short list
of highlights, I'm wondering whether someone paid them to make that
recommendation. As you're reading what I've written about the music, then,
beware that I, free press pass in hand, may be nothing more than a
conduit for furthering the massive publicity machine that also ate the cost of
Part 2: Friends and Enemies of Modern
For better or for worse, for all the reasons discussed above and more, events
like CMJ and South by Southwest play a major role in defining the landscape of
contemporary independent music. In addition to the artists themselves, these
conferences are crawling with label reps and press, a.k.a. the people
responsible, directly and indirectly, for deciding what listeners know about,
like, and buy. It's no secret that bands who, like oft-cited Clap Your Hands Say
Yeah and The Arcade Fire, make a good impression at CMJ are rewarded with the
coveted "Next Big Thing" title, sharp increases in album sales, and sold-out
tours. But what generates the hype that brings journalists and A&R guys (and
gals) to these shows in the first place?
On the first night of CMJ, I intended to see The Cardigans at the Knitting
Factory's Main Space. Of course, as the band was included as a "highlight" in
the Marathon's press materials, the show was sold out. The doorman informed me
that they wouldn't start letting people with "all-access" badges in until a
significant number of audience members left. I reflected, for a moment, on what
it meant that someone could buy a $495 festival pass and then be denied
admission to any number of performances. It seemed especially unfair in light of
the fact that most venues sold tickets to the public for individual
performances, thus decreasing the amount of badge-holders allowed into any given
Hoping that reports of The Cardigans' triumphant comeback were nothing but empty
hype anyway, I descended into the depths of the Knitting Factory's Old Office in
time to catch a performance by an unsigned group called
Bathing. I won't say the dreaded three-letter word, because I think it's
lazy and pejorative, but the band does state that's it's proud to draw
(rightful) comparisons to the likes of Bright Eyes, another group that
transcends the non-genre that shall not be named. The fluent, narrative lyrics
and soft-spoken boy-girl vocal duets showed much promise.
The next band up was
a group of audacious ladies wearing things like bright green BVDs outside their
tights. Though they owe much to what I tend to think of as "second wave riot
grrrl" artists like Peaches and Le Tigre, their catchy guitar-and-synthesizer
pop, delivered with exuberance, was fun to watch.
Wednesday found me back at The Knitting Factory, for the two-floor Panache,
Blueghost, and Lovepump showcase. The first band on the bill was
who described themselves in CMJ's Festival Guide as "complex indie rock." Hmm,
descriptive. What I guess this meant was loud, screechy guitars, amplifier fuzz,
and a guy with impressive lung capacity caterwauling over some carnival
keyboards. I'll defer to my hastily-scrawled notes to sum up the experience.
Growing desperate, I thought of those mediocre local bands in small cities that
open for every major indie act that comes through. "When are all of these bands
going to stop sounding the same?" I wrote.
Made in Mexico played next. Boasting an ex-member of Arab on Radar,
their sound was like a not-entirely-unpleasant, and definitely epic, battle
between a pop hook and a tangle of no wave noise.
Having seen Richmond-based synth weirdos
a few times when I lived in Baltimore, I worried toward the more restrained
beginning of their set that they had lost the sense of chaos that had made their
shows so singular in the past. My fears were assuaged when, during the band's
signature song, "Gently Jeanrah," the drummer, having stripped down to his "Rah"
bra, a g-string, and a metallic facemask, engaged in an exaggerated, Greek
tragedy-esque tete-a-tete with keyboardist Isabellah Rubella. Cut from the same
cloth, minus the half-naked antics, fellow guitarless rockers
were up next. Theatrical vocalist Paul Weil dominated the set, showing range and
charisma amidst thick, catchy keyboards and percussion.
On Thursday, I ventured out to Bowery Ballroom with the dim hope of catching the
Sub Pop showcase. Featuring headliners The Shins and buzz bands like The
Thermals, CSS, and Oxford Collapse, the venue stopped accepting badges before 7
PM. An intrepid journalist always has a Plan B, though, and I wandered 15
blocks uptown to see Hot Chip, Gang Gang Dance, and Shy Child.
big, danceable sound fused new wave and funk, with bass so heavy the floor
shook. Though the sparse vocals were a bit lacking, they didn't really seem to
be the point.
Dance played a gorgeous set, beginning with an atmospheric, almost new
age piece and seamlessly transitioning into more upbeat, but no less
experimental, songs. The crowd was transfixed on singer Liz Bougatsos, whose
ethereal voice (not in that precious, Björk way) and quiet magnetism made their
excellent album, God's Money, come to life.
I had to leave shortly into
performance because the kitsch was choking me. Their most recent album, The
Warning, replete with competent but uncreative disco nostalgia, had only
ever been of mild interest to me. When one guy came out in a brightly-colored
Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt and over-sized glasses with fluorescent green frames, I
decided to give them two songs to convince me that they were anything but a big,
retro sex joke. They didn't.
Friday night, I turned up shamefully late to see
in Stereo. After standing in the rain on a line of sullen badge holders
for over an hour, I finally gained admission to Irving Plaza. Unfortunately, I
only got to hear the four final songs of the band's shortened set. Fortunately,
those four songs blew most of the other stuff I saw at CMJ out of the water. As
is standard for Elephant Six, the stage was packed with musicians, and the
dreamy, psychedelic pop made me feel warm and relaxed, despite how wet and cold
I was. When they ended with an extended version of the majestic "Strawberryfire,"
I decided to forgive them for signing with Elijah Wood's record label and
hawking a ring tone from their upcoming album.
Tired of the endless badge holder lines and industry vibes, I spent the last day
of CMJ at free, open-to-the-public, daytime shows. Happy to pack in with the
masses at The Annex for a lineup sponsored by the excellent
Vegan folks, I caught Tokyo Police Club and Silversun Pickups — two bands
that had performed multiple times earlier in the week.
Police Club has gotten a great deal of positive press, while
Silversun Pickups have received almost universally mediocre reviews, the
two bands have a lot in common. Neither can be mentioned without naming their
influences in the same breath. The former relies heavily on American punks like
The Ramones, as well as their derivatives; the latter harkens back to '60s
psych-rock, but veers towards adult contemporary radio. While Tokyo Police Club
put on a more energetic, enjoyable show, they're certainly nothing new. The
critical excitement that they've generated is almost depressing: is this really
the best that contemporary "indie rock" can do?
Later in the day, I found myself at another para-CMJ performance that made me
question what that term "indie rock" was supposed to encompass.
Ali Eskandarian** is the kind of artist who brings to mind the word
"troubadour." Synthesizing blues, '60s-era folk, and the music of Iran (his
family's country of origin and his one-time home), Eskandarian's performance was
both compelling and original. Easily among the best performances I saw that
week, Eskandarian was marginalized at the festival, most likely because his
target audience is not clear. Neither vapid enough to be a mainstream radio guy
nor edgy enough to be an indie hype guy, his talent seems caught between these
two worlds. He's "independent," and he's "rock," but somehow, he doesn't fit the
"indie rock" profile. So what is that, anyway, besides another marketing
For me, the entire CMJ experience kept hearkening back to those words, "make it
new." Some artists took on that challenge, including Gang Gang Dance, Eskandrian,
and even Apples in Stereo (who are always called psychedelic pop throwbacks but,
in truth, have picked up where the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys left
off and taken the style further). But the bands who generated the most buzz,
like Tokyo Police Club and Hot Chip, were not in the business of innovation. The
"indie" in "indie rock" may as well be short for "industry." It makes me sad to
be so down on something that has been so important to me for most of my life,
but it must be said. This is what happens when everything comes down to the
bottom line. No matter how much I love Pavement or Neutral Milk Hotel, I am not
interested in hearing a brand new band that sounds exactly like them. But if CMJ
remains an essential fixture of the independent music world, that's exactly what
we're all going to get — because the Marathon will always feature a Strokes
sound-alike over a more original artist; meanwhile, record execs are
(understandably) primarily concerned with glomming onto moneymakers. For our
part, the vast majority of the music press seems desperate to break the next
big, easily likable sensations. After all, our careers, such as they are, are on
the line too. With everyone bought and sold, who loses out in the end? Just the
listeners and the artists they might have loved but will never discover.
* It remains to be seen whether the man who employed this phrase as the
subtitle to what was supposed to be The Smashing Pumpkins' final
album is a friend or an enemy of modern music. Was Siamese Dream enough to earn
a place in the canon, or did Zwan discredit all that came before it?
** Full disclosure: I am acquainted with this artist's manager. For this reason,
I had planned not to write about his performance, but, in the end, felt that I
could not leave him out.