Fighting the Cynicism: An Honest Attempt to Find Great Unknown Bands at CMJ 2015

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New York City breeds cynics. It also breeds critics. Both will be on full display at this year’s CMJ Music Marathon.

CMJ Music Marathon is a venerable event, showcasing hundreds of bands every fall at various downtown (which these days includes North Brooklyn) clubs and venues. The annual event is put on by what was once known as College Music Journal, an entity that caters to the erstwhile industry of 20-year-old radio program directors and DJs, who pour into New York from around the country to swarm the streets, looking for swag and new sounds. “Industry people” (publicists, A&Rs, booking agents) prowl dark dives and clubs, looking for the next new thing. And the hoard of journalists, critics, and bloggers rushes from set to set, desperate to generate enough content to meet their monthly quotas.

But after years of watching the content cycle prop up, chew up, and spit out buzz bands faster than you can say, “Where are Black Kids these days?” it’s easy to approach the endeavor with skepticism. Who will be anointed the “next big thing” by the indie-industrial complex? Which mid-level artist looking to bolster their bookings will be paraded around town by their publicist, and interviewed by every blog desperate to fill the gaping content maw? And which comfortable veteran will slum it, playing old songs to captive rooms of journalists and DJs who already know every word? Who cares?

It’s all very exhausting, and accounts for why the event is often approached with resigned sense of obligation. If you’re only seeking out the “bands you need to see at CMJ,” then you’re only seeking out bands we already know about. Discovery is supposed to be the point of all this, so what happened? Has the rush you get when seeing a no-name band blow you away in the back of a seedy bar been relegated to the realm of fantasy? It very well may be, but we’re not going to take it lying down.

Sure, we’ll be seeking out some of the more inspired bills with bands we already know, like Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records showcase tonight at Baby’s All Right, or the stellar lineup at the NME’s jam at Santos Party House. And if you think we’re going to miss Ric Leichtung’s Ad Hoc Car Wash, which boasts a lineup of quite possibly all the best bands in town for CMJ (but isn’t officially a part of CMJ), you’re tripping. But for the most part, we’ve got a different goal in mind for this week: to find as many great unknown bands as we can, and shine a little light on them.

CMJ differs from its closest equivalent, Austin, Texas’ South By Southwest, in that New York City is several times bigger than the event it’s hosting. It can absorb the thousands of attendees into its streets, and if you weren’t already aware of it, it would be quite easy to work or live downtown and not even know it’s going on. But in one Manhattan neighborhood, at least, it changes the town for the better, borrowing the Lower East Side from the “Woooo!” girls and sentient collared shirts and turning it into a playground for music fans, at least for a week.

We’ll likely see some terrible sets, and maybe even find a gem or two that we’ll later find out has already been ordained as the highly bloggable buzz band du jour. But what you can be sure we won’t be doing is amplifying the noise in the echo chamber. And maybe we’ll even find our new favorite band.