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CMJ Music Marathon adapts to the times

NYC-based event focuses on social media, changing access

In an age in which people communicate largely through social networks, and bands can make a financial go of things without the backing of a major label, is an event like the annual College Music Journal Music Marathon — which kicks off its 31st season Oct. 19 — still a pivotal event on the industry calendar?

The answer, it would seem, is a qualified yes.

Robert Haber, who established the convention with Joanne Abbott Green (also his partner in the CMJ weekly trade mag), notes that “years ago, events like these were about the only things that could put a bona fide stamp of approval on a new band. But things have certainly changed, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”

To that end, the Music Marathon has changed its focus a good deal — not so much in the nighttime slate of performances but in the selection of panels. That portion of the program, centered for the last three years at NYU, has evolved dramatically: Radio-focused presentations, which once made up about half of the panels, now account for a mere 10% or so. Retail-driven discussions are all but gone.

“We try to be granular in how we present things these days, from the use of social media on down,” Haber says. “Where the discussions used to be about how to work with the gatekeepers, they’re now about the democratization of access — and that makes me optimistic going forward.”

Haber grants that he and his colleagues have tempered that optimism somewhat, keeping a watchful eye on economic factors — one reason the price of a festival badge has remained steady at $495 for the past three years. Organizers also have doubled down on efforts to make the fest more accessible via two-for-one discount programs and the distribution of several hundred free passes for students — a factor in pushing attendance noticeably past last year’s level, Haber says.

The multiplicity of new acts descending on the 80 or so venues taking part in this year’s marathon also offers reason for optimism, with an unusually promising fusion of the provocative and the potentially commercial.

Robb Nansel, owner of Omaha, Neb.-based Saddle Creek Records, which has issued music by such acclaimed acts as Bright Eyes and Cursive, cites an old-fashioned motive for his own attendance. “I feel like there’s still a lot to be said for being able to go and hear a band, then sit down and talk immediately,” he says, noting that signings like Tokyo Police Club and Two Gallants came about as the result of such confabs.

That give-and-take can be a positive for labels and bands. But for the venues acting as hosts for the 1,200 or so acts playing this year’s marathon, the event can be seen more as a necessary evil than a boon.

“From a booker’s perspective, it can be a lot of work for a payoff that’s not all that great,” says Heather Dunsmoor, talent booker for the Brooklyn venues Union Hall and the Bell House, both of which are participating in the official CMJ festivities. “Other than a few label-specific showcases, most of the shows end up being very similar to the shows we book seven nights a week — except that those require about a hundredth as much coordination.”

That said, Dunsmoor adds, “If I were still coming in from out of town for CMJ, I know I’d still be enthusiastic about the potential of seeing this variety of bands. I think that will always be the main appeal of any (event) like this.”

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