Indie rock, a generally insular world that resonates with people who prefer to learn about music through personal recommendations, at venues ill-equipped to present shows and via MP3-filled websites, is no more defined or filled with clamor for a particular act than it was on Tuesday when the CMJ Music Marathon opened its 27th edition. Acts on the verge of attracting a large audience — it is no longer solely about garnering the interest of a label big enough to provide national or global distribution — came and did their jobs: M.I.A., the Black Kids, Band of Horses and St. Vincent were among the major names that earned a big thumbs up from the reviewers and bloggers; the challenge now is monetizing buzz.
A sprawling festival set up in the tiny clubs and spaces below Houston and east of First Avenue, CMJ and its attendant parties attracted audiences that nearly always seemed split down the middle between the overly fanatical and shockingly indifferent. The overwhelming nature of the fest — 1,000 bands playing official showcases in about 60 venues — means most people will be lucky to see 20 or 30; geography and transportation make it tough to get to more than three clubs per night and there’s always the danger of an act being a no-show. (The cancellations of P.J. Olsson, a CBS Records signing, and a Friday show by Brit import Air Traffic, signed to EMI’s Astralwerks, were major disappointments).
It leaves the door open for random discoveries: The absence of Air Traffic, for example, meant being exposed to Mink, a melodically powerful pop-punk band with the star power of Aerosmith and David Bowie; an early arrival at a party brought Deer Tick, a Providence, R.I., band fronted by 21-year-old John McCauley, onto my radar. McCauley takes his vocal and lyrical cues from Townes Van Zant, Neil Young and John Prine; using stand-up bass, electric guitar and drums, Deer Tick not only has a command of a folksy, back-porch sound, but can stretch to give their set some necessary dynamics.
Mink and Deer Trick share a lot with many of the bands selected to play at CMJ. Time after time, bands performed with authority; it might not be a sound all listeners will enjoy, but in most cases it was being executed well. That reached across the board, from the dance-rap acts who have found a non-rap audience in this indie rock world to the folkies and the lo-fi rock bands. The Blakes, a Seattle band that records for Light in the Attic, a label more known for its reissues, have a sharp and welcoming sound that touches on the Velvet Underground; Tel Aviv’s RockFour evokes the spirits of adventurous late ’60s rockers doused with modern pop-rock twists.
But there doesn’t appear to be an act capable of escaping the comparison formula, i.e., a bit of column A blended with some of Column B and accented with Column C. Even a rave for the Black Kids on the New York Times website praised the act’s ability to blend together the Cure with punk and dance music. Nearly every performer using an acoustic guitar and nasally voice earns a comparison to Neil Young; since there appears to be a void between commercial rock and the indie world, many are trying to supply the bridge by adding a strong backbeat to an underground esthetic. Of the bands heard working in that realm, their appeal seemed absurdly limited.
CMJ is ultimately indicative of what we’re seeing in music in general: No bona fide stars and a search for a new paradigm. Unsigned acts gave away their music freely; those with a label deal — of any sort — had their merchandise tables set up and CDs were being sold in $5 to $10 range, a dip in price that’s a reminder these acts are more likely to make more money licensing tracks than selling individual discs. As panel after panel discussed — and plenty of these bands realize — it’s tough to make a living in the rock music business today. CMJ drove home the point there’s no wagon to hitch a trailer to here; it’s all trail blazing.