Student Outlook: CMJ Remains a Place for Music Discovery Despite Its Fair Share of Critics

Guest post by Matthew Tinkelman (UG ’15). We encourage feedback and commentary on all Student Outlook contributions. Leave a comment below or tweet us at @NYUMusicBiz. All photos courtesy of Matthew Tinkelman

On the final night of the CMJ Music Marathon, I ventured to Brooklyn to end my sleep-deprived week with one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the past few years, Father John Misty (left, at Music Hall of Williamsburg). Already an established and critically-acclaimed musician, the man also known as J Tillman effortlessly captivated an adoring audience with his songwriting, wit, and heartfelt delivery. However impressive his set may have been, there were dozens of sets from newcomers throughout the nonstop marathon of artist showcases, panels, and music industry networking that were easily just as good and awe-inspiring. Even with all of the new talent and excitement overflowing from CMJ, the Internet seemed to be putting its focus of coverage elsewhere this week.

CMJ has garnered its fair share of critics and skeptics recently. In the midst of facing a lawsuit, quite a few popular blogs, most notably Consequence of Sound, claimed that CMJ “has lost its sense of identity,” observing its lack of being able to stand out from other similar music conferences. Others questioned why an entity like CMJ is still necessary, or to take it even further, relevant in the modern DIY music space. In addition to its group of detractors, this year’s event was undoubtedly overshadowed by another music event entirely: Arcade Fire’s return to the stage in Brooklyn. The amount of potential buzz that CMJ is normally able to generate for up-and-comers seemed almost forgotten on the blogosphere in favor of the hoopla surrounding Arcade Fire. Does CMJ still hold an important place in music?

For those who say CMJ no longer serves a purpose, I firmly disagree. CMJ acts as my annual optimal peak for music discovery. Last year’s event led to my finding San Cisco, SKATERS, Deap Vally, Sky Ferreira, and MS MR, acts who broke out in 2013, gaining some of their first and most prominent buzz and traction at CMJ showcases. While talking on the panel “Jam Packed: The Explosion of Music Festivals,” Jordan Wolowitz of Founders Entertainment, the company that puts on Governor’s Ball, stated he discovered Icona Pop at CMJ last year and was so impressed by their live show that he booked them for the festival before they scored a global pop smash with “I Don’t Care.” This year, I passed Wolowitz several times on the streets of Brooklyn running from show to show. Glassnote head and MUSB idol Daniel Glass could be seen laughing with CAA’s Jbeau Lewis (Katy Perry’s agent) while checking out bands at Bowery Ballroom. I engaged in conversation with Mumford and Sons pianist and Communion founder Ben Lovett before he headed to Rockwood to check out some bands. Clearly I’m not the only one sifting through the hundreds of showcases CMJ has to offer to find new music.

This year’s festival remained the constant source of music enlightenment and “I was there” moments that make CMJ so special, distinct, and important. Certain performances, such as Kodaline’s at Bowery Ballroom (pictured above) during the CAA Showcase, felt like the crowd was witnessing a band destined to break within the next few months. Their set-closing rendition of “All I Want” proved that the band is not only radio ready, but also ready to take on America after having conquered their native England. Bands that I had never heard of such as Panama Wedding, PAPA, and Rathborne all delivered impressive sets that turned me into an instant fan. Betty Who, HAERTS, ASTR, and Half Moon Run were ubiquitous in conversation and showcases, apparently impressing everyone who had seen them.

In Consequence of Sound’s CMJ recap article, it blasted the marathon for its lack of “buzz bands that could use this opportunity to break out.” Yet, certain CMJ artists are already picking up steam less than a week after the festivities have ended. Pitchfork gave Ethiopian R&B singer Kelela its sign of approval, labeling her as “rising” after New York Times journalist Jon Pareles and others gave her CMJ performance rave reviews. Suddenly Joanna Gruesome, Lucius, Wet, and the Preatures are now indie darlings, being picked up by dozens of blogs after leaving impressive marks in New York.

International acts made the most of their opportunities to leave their first impressions on the US market. It often makes the most sense to take a first trip to the states during CMJ, where acts can play multiple showcases in the hopes of possibly catching notice. It is a core reason why so many Australian bands attend CMJ, in addition to why CMJ has several Australian day showcases and special events. The aforementioned Australian band The Preatures seized the moment and did just that. Meanwhile, buzz-worthy Swedish pop act NONONO launched its inevitable US takeover with its several well-received first US performances throughout the marathon. Woodkid’s victorious and emotional concert at Webster Hall (right; pictured) proved that he could be a true force in the US market, after already taking over his home country of France. Although these acts were on the radar before their landing at CMJ, they now have the momentum to actually make names for themselves in America. Once the Arcade Fire New York invasion finally disappeared and CMJ closed down its 2013 event, it was quite easy to calculate the impact CMJ had had throughout the week – fans and industry people alike went home with favorite acts and the marathon had done its job.

Toward the end of his performance, Father John Misty ridiculed CMJ bands in his notoriously sarcastic humor for “whoring themselves out to brands and corporation.” In response, a crowd member blurted out, “We love brands!” The music industry has flipped itself on its head since the CMJ organization was first formed. While pretty much everything in the music business has changed, CMJ’s core values remain the same, as it continues to put emphasis on discovering new artists and helping the industry grow and prosper. Though the future of CMJ could eventually be in question, I don’t see how CMJ can ever not be relevant.

Catching Up With Music Journalist Kathy Iandoli (G ’08)

Graduate alum Kathy Iandoli makes her living as a music journalist, writing freelance for outlets such as Billboard, VICE and Rolling Stone. She is also media editor of HipHopDX, a top hip-hop media outlet. VeloCity caught up with Kathy to learn about the everyday life of a music journalist.

When did you begin writing about music, and how hard was it to break into the world of hip-hop journalism and get your work noticed?

I started writing probably about 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I started to honestly call myself a “writer.” It strangely wasn’t as difficult to break into the music journalism world as I had decided it was so long ago. Keep in mind, ten years ago we didn’t have blogs and music sites on a wide scale, so print was still king. All it took though was to really submerse myself into the scene, meet the right people and then casually mention that I like to write. I’m making it sound way easier than it was, but really it was the decision to actively pursue it that was the hardest thing to do. For me at least.

As a freelancer, how do you decide what to write about? Is it your decision, or assigned by an outlet?

The beauty of being a freelancer is that if you want to write about something, anything, you have carte blanche to do that. When you’re tethered to one particular publication, you’re fighting for the same real estate as your colleagues. So if you happen to be a Beyoncé fan – and your coworker is a bigger Beyoncé fan (or perhaps in a higher editorial position) – and an interview opportunity with Beyoncé pops up, then pardon my French, but you’re a**ed out. As a freelancer you can take your ideas to the many places you write for and whoever bites gets it. Of course you run into the red tape of dealing with staffers at publications (who may also love Beyoncé) so you don’t always get what you want. In addition, yes outlets come to freelancers as well with ideas that come about on their storyboard and require writers. Some they give to you tailor made if they know you’re an expert in a particular field. Other opps they give you when no one else on the team wants them (*throws confetti*).

How do you balance freelance work with your job as an editor? What helps you get through a stressful day on the job (coffee, music, excessive amounts of Pinkberry)?

Two words, my friend: Whole Foods. Seriously though, for the last five years I’ve worked out of a home office so my schedule is as wonky as Miley Cyrus’ behavior. I’ve given myself a pretty rigorous schedule of waking up early to go to the gym, checking my task list (I definitely need one daily), writing/editing, going on location or to record labels for business/interviews, doing phone interviews, and then crying while listening to Ellie Goulding. The latter only happens like twice a week, I promise. But yeah, tea keeps me high-powered. I also read somewhere that taking a week off from writing every month to read/research is the best way to keep it all going. I’ve been wanting to do that, but then I realized it I didn’t write every week I’d have to move to the NYU library like that one student did a few years ago.

What is your favorite part of your job as a journalist?

The fact that I can be a fan of something and then tell everyone why I’m such a fan of it. And then get paid to do it.

Is there one story you’ve written that you’re most proud of in your career thus far?

I’ve had milestone interviews that I’ve been super proud of, but rattling off artist and celebrity names is lame. I did a piece recently for VICE where I discussed hip-hop in Syria and how it’s used as a political tool, but also a means of rebellion. I spoke with a few artists and learned about the real situation out there. It was really intense.

Several students in the program have started their own music blogs – can you recommend one way for them to increase traffic?

Create a healthy balance of solid work and SEO friendly items. You don’t have to post One Direction’s music all day or “Cat Doing Salsa Dance” videos, but creating content that centers around something the internet is currently obsessed with will usually get you some traffic wins. Also, never underestimate the power of social networking. Tweet your interview subjects, get them to retweet, post your work on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram (take a picture and direct people to your site). Hit the Facebook Fan pages and Reddit. These are all things that fuel your promotional vehicle well beyond the 500 word piece you wrote.

Is there anything you learned during your time in the Graduate Music Business program that you apply to your work every day?

Everything Dr. Moore ever taught me I apply to not only my career, but my everyday life. That woman should be a life coach (I hope you’re reading this, Dr. Moore!) It’s true, because NYU professors bring real life experiences, so you’re able to learn so much more than what a textbook could teach you. Outside of the academic side of the program, I was working full-time when I was a grad student, so that period of my life I always refer back to when I claim that I “don’t have enough time” to do everything.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do with your free time?

What’s this “free time” that you speak of?

Do you have any secret career aspirations (crime scene analyst, politician, Beyoncé)?

Considering I used Beyoncé as a previous example, I think I’ve let the cat out of the bag that I am in fact Beyoncé already. Outside of my usual job as King Bey, I’ve always wanted to be a DJ. I used to work at Fat Beats and would deejay in the worst way possible. I even owned turntables. It was so sad. Oh, and I want to own a café and/or bookstore if they’re still around next year.

What is your guilty pleasure song/genre/artist?

There are no such things as guilty pleasures, only guilty people. So I will say that Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” is a modern classic that I may or may not shout from the top of my lungs whenever I hear it. “Call Me Maybe” still gets some spins too. I’m a little delayed in the kitschy pop world, because it takes me 6-8 months of self-loathing before I can fully accept that I like a song.

Follow Kathy on Twitter, and check out two pieces Kathy wrote about NYU for Rolling Stone featuring Questlove and Steven Van Zandt.