Music festival picking up steam

MENTION A TRIP to New York for CMJ and the string of responses seems more based on how an individual makes money rather than personal taste. Indie musicians list the six or seven shows they will play over the course of four days; publicists pounce with offers of event invites and set times for really obscure bands; and the locals shudder at the thought of badge-wielding invaders to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Major label execs generally react, “that thing still exists?”

Yes, and it’s doing quite well: Within the next two years it will expand to a full week and include 1,400 musical acts.

All of that pleases Robert Haber, the founder of CMJ and its music marathon, now in its 28th year. Beginning today and running through the wee hours of Sunday, the neighborhoods below NYU’s Greenwich Village campus and parts of Brooklyn will be taken over by more than 1,000 bands and the 100,000 people who flock to the city to see them perform and listen to panelists speak. More fan oriented than the music world’s other major fest, SXSW in Austin every March, CMJ is geared toward a rung or two below “next big thing” syndrome, although last year the hottest ticket was a show by M.I.A., whose career has exploded in 2008.

“It’s not to anybody’s advantage to have an industry-only event,” Haber said. “We’re doing our very best to be a little unpredictable. Our emphasis is not just on the breaking acts but on legends wanting to connect with younger crowds. That’s the fun part.”

This year’s fest boasts appearances by the elder statesman of funk George Clinton, bluegrass star Del McCoury, indie rock vet Julian Hatfield, hip-hop progenitors Stetasonic and They Might Be Giants playing “Flood” in its entirety Saturday night.

Coheed and Cambria are the event’s centerpiece, performing a different album each of the four nights at Terminal 5. Buzz acts include the Swedes Lykke LI and Tobias Froberg, Deerhoof, the Dears and Duke Spirit. And there are a handful of acts somewhere in between, Broken Social Scene and Minus the Bear among them.

International growth continues as bands from more than 20 countries make it to New York along with government delegations from New Zealand and a few European countries. The marathon also has its first partnership with Broadway in a special “Spring Awakening” event; the film festival continues with the New York premiere of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

HABER AND I agree that all involved in CMJ capitalize on the nature of discovery. He believes the core of any night are the shows listed “between No. 14 and 72″ on someone’s recommendations, where the club is not packed wall to wall; most nights he drops in where he knows absolutely nothing about the bands performing.

That works well. Last year I stumbled upon Deer Tick, a ragged country blues-rooted band with a bit of Kurt Cobain soul from a Providence, R.I., fronted by John McCauley. Like most acts they booked as many gigs as possible, selling CDs to pay for food and gas to return home. Since last year’s fest, their debut has been picked up by Partisan Records for re-release next month and they have been touring with the Felice Brothers and AA Bondy.

Ultimately, that’s the goal of CMJ — every musician has to hope the audience includes someone who can move them along on the food chain through distribution, management or another angle.

As an observer it almost does not make sense to try to cram in the bigger names, especially at a time when so many indie rock bands are increasing the sophistication in their music and increasingly employing nuance in their work. When the beacons of indie rock, last year’s Panda Bear album and this year’s Fleet Foxes releases, reveal an empathy and employment of touches from pop and punk of the 1960s and ’70s, there’s a sense that others will follow suit. Those are among the records that make this arena so vital and has me shopping for other acts that might offer an attention to detail in a sound as well as the songs themselves.

Froberg and the Annuals are among those types of acts, but a level or two below them on the notoriety scale are the Morning Benders, Ane Brun, Middle Distance Runner, Radio Luxemborg and Scouting for Girls. It all reinforces Haber’s notion that it’s “a fun time to be in the music business. There’s confusion, enthusiasm, anarchy.”

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