CMJ Music Marathon: amNewYork’s guide to the massive music festival

It’s right there in the name. Amid the highs of watching stars emerge, the venerable CMJ Music Marathon also boasts its share of grim miles spent sifting through hundreds of bands in search of the next big thing. It’s a numbers game for the thousands of music fans and industry insiders who descend upon the city to roam its clubs for days on end, but the spirit of the joyful slog is a hopeful one.

Once a crucial date on the calendar for the nation’s noncommercial radio programmers and college tastemakers, CMJ has soldiered on into the modern age, but where does it fit into the fractured musical landscape of 2014? amNewYork music writers Hal Bienstock and Charles Devilbiss discuss the particulars.


Does CMJ still matter?


Hal Bienstock: Yes, but not in the way that it used to. That’s not a knock on CMJ. There’s simply a lot more competition now. CMJ can still provide an opportunity for young bands to be seen, but so can SXSW, Coachella, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Northside Festival, etc., not to mention YouTube and countless streaming services.

Charles Devilbiss: CMJ earned its stripes in the days when R.E.M. was cutting edge and “college radio” was more than a SiriusXM channel, but it’s hard to grow up and stay hip. Now that the specter of selling out is a thing of the past for young acts, I think CMJ can enjoy longevity as an arena where the previously conflicting worlds of music scenes and TV sync licenses coexist.


What’s the future of festivals like this?


HB: The old model, which CMJ still largely uses, is to give people a ton of new music to sample in hopes they’ll come across their new favorite band. I’m not sure that works as well today when people do most of their sampling online.

Today’s model seems to focus on using a megastar as a hook, then encouraging people to stick around and see the up-and-comers too. Come for Outkast, stay for Chance the Rapper. These days, SXSW gets a lot of its buzz from acts like Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen, while still maintaining its reputation for music discovery. It’ll be interesting to see if CMJ moves in that direction eventually.

CD: The music fans of an earlier age would see today’s CMJ as mythical — more music than could possibly be comprehended, let alone heard in person. That appeal of more, more, more has lost some of its luster, for the reason you note — how valuable are five brief days of CMJ when the Hype Machine is churning away online around the clock?

I think the individual character of a festival matters more than ever. Where the Northside Festival has a DIY feel that encompasses lots of forms of media, not just music, I feel like CMJ is doubling down on the music industry stamp of approval and its reputation as an incubator of cool for the masses.


Are there any potential breakout candidates?


HB:Gerard Way has been successful as lead singer of the emo band My Chemical Romance. His debut solo album, “Hesitant Alien” — full of Britpop hooks — could make him bigger. Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s funny, literate songs could also grab people.

CD:For a festival where even the boldest names (like a reunited Slowdive) would elicit blank stares from the majority of mainstream music fans, it’s hard to predict a breakout.

That said, I think the U.K. act Bombay Bicycle Club has the sort of sleek, electronic affect and pop smarts that served the Postal Service so well.

If you go. CMJ Music Maraton runs Tuesday through Saturday. For a full schedule and information, go to cmj.com/marathon.