The CMJ Music Marathon kicks off in New York on Tuesday, with 1,300 bands descending on dozens of venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The dense five-day schedule festival has become an annual ritual for unknown artists hoping to gain a crucial blog post or accolade that will propel them to internet stardom, however brief.
The College Music Journal, a radio station newsletter, runs the festival, which is in its 31st year, making it older than many of the musicians. And in many ways, the festival has grown up, attracting well-oiled publicity outlets, corporate sponsors and established headlining bands.
This year, New York University, News Corporation's MySpace, BMI and Glacéau's VitaminWater are CMJ partners. Other groups such as the media company Fader have taken a more active role, sponsoring their own showcases and, in essence, picking which bands will have a prominent stage.
It's the reality of the business of music and the business of art, said Jeff Meltz, a blogger and photographer. There are still gatekeepers at work and there always will be.
Although independent music formed with an aversion to major labels and the corporate sponsorship that such associations suggested, some groups have warmed up to such relationships. Last year, Heineken sponsored a concert series with bands including the Hold Steady, Matt and Kim and Cold War Kids. For a major festival like CMJ, such sponsorships are crucial to cover the high overhead costs of marketing and securing venue spaces. And in the face of sluggish CD sales, many artists have turned to licensing and sponsorship for additional revenue sources.
Some are concerned that such a relationship cheapens the art, perhaps quashing experimentation in favor of replication of current hits. But others see the commercial presence as inevitable - and a source of much-needed cash.
I think the idea of selling out is antiquated, said Jonathan Williger, who works at the independent label Ba Da Bing. There are so few chances to make money in the music industry without dealing with some kind of corporation.
Parallel to CMJ's maturation has been the changing nature of college radio. Terrestrial radio has largely homogenized towards pop and classic rock, but college stations, particularly those that are non-commercial and completely funded by schools, remain an outlier, which obscure music selected by student DJs. But some schools have scrapped their radio stations as an unnecessary expense. Last year, Rice University sold the frequency of radio station KTRU.
Radio is in trouble, but it has been for a while, said Molly Smith, general manager of WNYU 89.1 FM, which is fully funded by New York University. I think it will always be ripe ground for nostalgia for an old medium which will continue to pull listeners in.
Small private stations such as KEXP or WFMU, on the other hand, often rely on fundraising to survive, especially because they lack the financial backing of a large corporate parent like Viacom or Clear Channel.
Their survival is much more dependent on a strong and loyal listener base, said Smith, who is also assistant label manager at Ghostly International. WNYU will play tastemaker on Thursday, when it hosts a showcase at Littlefield in Brooklyn, with a lineup that includes Frankie Rose, Widowspeak and Talk Normal.
Although CMJ was derived from college radio, many of the attendees who will drive the next week's coverage will be affiliated with online publications, rather than a radio stations. Although such outlets have reputations for being fickle, fueling breathless hype or scathing criticism, writers say that an exciting environment of discovery exists.
It's like primordial ooze, said Frank Yang, who runs the popular music blog chromewaves. Deals will get done, bands will break out.
There is no formula. It's luck, timing and talent and luck, he added, referring to bands. If you have a head of steam heading in, you can clean up. If you have nothing, you can surprise or you can fall flat. No one knows.