Reality check: CMJ Music Marathon and the art of discovering music

I was not sure how much I truly enjoyed the  CMJ Music Marathon experience this year. Should I only retain the best, or be honest with myself ? It was not my first CMJ festival, meaning that I was expecting to have a good time catching  good music. I can’t exactly pinpoint exactly why this time was not the blast the year before was, for several reasons can undermine a music festival experience, starting with your mood and energy, the weather (even if not outdoor! ), the attendees and … the music, of course.

In it’s 34th year of running, the CMJ Music Marathon is one of the world’s most important platforms for the discovery of music. For 5 days, 1300 artist are spread into showcases held in 80 venues of the city. Phew. If you’ve never heard of it, it is partly because the direction is very industry-oriented. Live performances has always been the best way to discover new music, but in this day and age of the digital world, we might have lost the habit of checking out music for the sake of it, and not for the buzz.

‘’It’s like a big SXSW, but more organized’’, tells me an attendee, herself a professional musician but only in New York to support friends. The band itself, the Spanish Brooklyn-based band Gold Lake, is a total love a first hear for me, out of their wrapping post-rock sound, soft energy and glowing stage presence. Foremost, SXSW has fronted its load of critics this year regarding several issues, from musician exhaustion to logistics and relevance.

Another thing is that with such a heavy schedule, few options are available to enjoy the concerts. First, you opt for the headliners (The Kills, Cold War Kids, Bombay Bicycle Club, First Aid Kit, to name a few) and hope to catch some openers. Another move would be to chose a location and stick around for the afternoon or night in to catch all the showcases happening there. Showcases are usually a collection of 30 to 45 minutes sets, featuring 3 or more bands performing, often semi-sound checked and in a noisy environment. The inconsistency of the various band genre in each different set can also be problematic, as proved a folk duo, a country-punk band and chamber-pop ensemble playing altogether one night in Brooklyn. Else, if you’re adventurous (guilty), you can try hopping different showcases during the night. But, in a city like New York, you are more likely to get lost (and bust your data plan), to fight public transit or traffic, or as a result, to get lazy either by running into someone, having too many drinks, being hungry or any other good reason. However, if you do make it to the coveted gig on time, pray for the worst not to have happened: an unannounced change of schedule is certainly the worst, just like I missed Gem Club and almost cried over it.

When in doubt (or despair) you can choose safety and go for bands you already know and have a wonderful time. For instance, instead of jumping right into a frantic live person, Blue Hawaii pleasantly toned-it down before fuelling their wild energy, Tom Vek electro-garage and alluring aesthetic as cerebral that is it catchy; magic-folk Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit have the strong power to hypnotize thousand with vocal harmonies. Also, if I would have missed favorite locals The High Dials, The Muscadettes, Lydia Ainsworth and The Posterz, I will gladly remember that I will see familiar faces in a familiar places sooner than later. (Watch out, M for Montreal).

“You need to believe in it”, tells me a musician from Athens, Georgia smoking a cigarette in front of the Knitting Factory, shiny eyes and huge smile. Although signed to Columbia records, he tells me that this tour is his last change for fun before settling down. And yes, this it it.. I believe. In music. In people. Music finds its way, always. But maybe not in festivals.

Or maybe I just don’t know how to festival anymore.

About Christelle Saint-Julien

Professional writer and translator based in Montreal, Christelle compiles projects on project such as brainchild Naked Underground Montreal, literary collective Le Shindig, music, arts and sharing her passion for local culture.