CMJ vs. #Offline Fest: Or What We Learned This Weekend About Music and Branding

10/25/2010 2:11 PM |

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Ok, having slept for like, a full day, let’s dust ourselves off and talk about Pitchfork’s #Offline Festival, what it suggests for the future of CMJ, Pitchfork, and for novelty purposes, the state of live music in 2010.

For starters, was it a success?
Um, Kanye West showed up, and it was the talk of the entire weekend, so, yeah, absolutely.

But for a wider view: the Pitchfork brand is as much about curation as criticism, right? Can we agree on that? With their number grades and their prestigious tags to sort the notable new bands from the really notable new bands, they are constantly portraying themselves as the underground’s most reliable filter. So it’s a safe bet that pretty much anyone they asked to play, factoring in the bounds of insane production or travel costs, played. And of course this is wildly subjective, but the bands weren’t all great. A lot of them were, true. Would you have had a better ratio of really good bands if you’d hopped from room to room for different CMJ showcases? Possibly, but man, everything would have to break just right. On a strict numbers-based analysis, staying in this room all damn weekend was actually a really safe bet, for quality and consistency.

So, is #Offline a better Festival than CMJ?
No, not really. That might seem contradictory given what I’ve just said, but there’s a certain character to CMJ week in New York that #Offline doesn’t capture. It involves constant motion and accidental discoveries, and striking out, and having your night saved by one certain set. We mostly all agree that CMJ has become a little pointless, given the Internet landscape, as a breaker of new bands. But, even with that acknowledged, didn’t everybody seem pretty excited that it was CMJ week? There’s a pervasive buzz that you can’t just replace with one event. So, while one central location is a good theory for a festival in the abstract, that’s also not the point.

As for cost-effectiveness, it’s not even a contest. You could see as many good bands in three days for 40 bucks (including TicketFly fees) as you could cabbing it all week for the multiple hundreds that a badge costs. So, point Pitchfork on that one. You could almost erase that differential on bowling, beer, and food, but there’s no gun to your head.

But, let’s talk about the Brooklyn Bowl as a venue for underground music for a second. It’s kind of shitty. I feel weird saying that because the place is a perfectly enjoyable hipster Chuck E. Cheese wonderland of fun. But c’mon, and let’s be really real for a second: Brooklyn Bowl obviously makes a shitload of money on their expensive bowling operation, and tasty, but super super price-gouged food. They were not fucking that up this weekend for the sake of music. It was even actively detrimental to the music at times, with bowling crashes overshadowing softer sets, making bands feel awkward onstage, and just generally creating an atmosphere where music was a separate, but not overly important thing. There were giant bouncers making the lanes feel like a VIP area all weekend, too. So, if you weren’t about to shell out to their cash cow, you weren’t getting the better view the raised surface provided. People who didn’t even know that Pitchfork existed, and just paid $10 bucks as a “cover” to bowl ended up getting what seemed like preferential treatment, and don’t we think that’s at least a little shitty for an event ostensibly celebrating music? I mean, you don’t feel that way at Bruar Falls, you know?

And let’s also talk for a second about how explicit a branding exercise for Pitchfork, and Pitchfork.TV specifically, this was. There were constant ads for Pitchfork.tv on loop over the venues many, many flatscreens. No sound, so you could pretend to ignore them, but it’s weird to watch looped clips of music videos all day, when other music is playing. Distracting, really. Might as well have been an animated Nokia banner. Seating space on the floor, which is usually provided, and for a venue that size, kind of necessary, was cleared out so that raised cameras could catch the whole event to later be recycled back into content for Pitchfork.tv. As much as putting on a great show, this was the point.

So, why does this exist?
If you’ll allow a quick theory, both just on what I observed, and things I’ve talked about with people who know, there’s blood in the water right now. CMJ is in bad shape financially, and unless it changes drastically, there’s a real feeling that in a few years it might not exist. By planting a flag now, and making as big of a splash as possible, Pitchfork is positioning themselves to take further advantage of that possible collapse, without appearing quite so mercenary as if they did it after the fact. In three years, if there was no CMJ, there’d still be an #Offline Festival. And it would be an even bigger deal. Maybe the biggest deal in New York City live music every year.

Ugh, enough inside baseball, what did #Offline tell us about music?
After 30 or so mostly new bands, I’d say the biggest question in underground music right now is, now that songs are so easily created at home on a computer, how the hell do you perform it? Maybe not every bedroom savant should be performing their music live, but it’s really tough to get the support of a label and make a bit of a living off of your critically acclaimed whatever if you aren’t willing to hit the road. So, we have a wave of people primarily interacting on stage with a laptop and a little bit of gear. The duh answer is, you still have to PERFORM. As the indie world is increasingly flooded with electronic/dance music, the artists making that music need to realize that the genre doesn’t demand crowd reaction. Indie kids will sit and stare at rave music just as sure as they would a rock or indie pop band. So, it takes personality at a minimum. It might seem retrograde, in this brave technological world, but live instrumentation is always going to be more compelling than canned music, even if that instrumentation is just augmenting something canned. Matthew Dear went hugely maximal, and it was terrific, a real professional gig. Diamond Rings let full tracks play out while he riffed and vamped on guitar and the audience loved him for it. People still want to see music being made in front of them, or at least the illusion of it.

One last thing, and this one is for the guitar bands. Being a little glamorous is not a crime. I love Pavement the most, but if you aren’t as naturally magnetic as those guys, maybe you shouldn’t just play your show in the clothes you wore that day. It’s visual as much as it is aural, you know.