There seems to be an increasingly lesser need for labels and agents to bring out their big guns in terms of star power. As such, there aren't many Jack Whites or Jesus and Mary Chains scheduled to play within the next five days, unlike this spring at SXSW. Tonight and tomorrow's sold-out Fiona Apple shows at Terminal 5 aren't part of the festival. Neither are New Order's shows at Roseland Ballroom or Divine Fits at Webster Hall later this week. The buzz surrounding Trash Talk and King Krule may have been amplified after they made the CMJ rounds last year, but they've by no means been catapulted into the larger consciousness over the last 12 months. That would be weird, actually.
Whether we point fingers at the warped speed of hype-and-dismiss, the growing spotlight on SXSW, the groupthink tenacity of music press determined to cover the same handful of bands, or a myriad of other reasons as to why this is, it still doesn't mean we should count this year out. If there's anything that the music industry has taught us over the last decade, it's that funny things can happen. That's the only reasonable explanation as to why the Black Keys are a huge deal. (And if nothing else, seeing the next Real Estate in the basement of Santos Party House doesn't seem completely improbable.)
Before we delve into the chaos, let's take a look at a few of CMJ's iconic moments from just a few short years ago: a happy reminder of the what could happen in the next five days.
CMJ's winningest moment of last decade took place on a very cramped stage at LES apartment-sized box Mercury Lounge. A large portion of Arcade Fire's breakout moment could be chalked up to timing, of course, thanks to a sizable amount of chatter surrounding the release of Funeral just a month prior. Predating the wholly Internet-fueled mode of buzz (Fluxblog, widely regarded as the first MP3 blog, was just 2-years-old at the point), I remember there being actual word-of-mouth chatter rippling throughout the crowds: wherever you went, people were either talking about having gotten in or having not gotten into the Arcade Fire show. Times music scribe Kelefa Sanneh documented the band's time in New York for a much larger audience than those who wore badges around their necks. The chatter got louder.
The band would be back in town that November playing a hard-to-come-by ticket at Bowery Ballroom. Then came Webster Hall the following year. Then Irving Plaza, Radio City, Rumsey Playfield, five nights at Judson Memorial Church and Randall's Island. Then Madison Square Garden. Twice.
By mid-decade, traditional models of hype-slinging were waning but hadn't yet crossed over to total Internet domination. In those days, Sub Pop joined forces with SPIN magazine for a showcase at Bowery Ballroom. Topping a bill of inoffensive white-guy rock from the likes of Chad VanGaalen, Holopaw, Fruit Bats and Rogue Wave in 2005 was Wolf Parade, a band riding a small wave of notoriety from their association with fellow Canadians Arcade Fire (being friends with Isaac Brock didn't hurt) and a Pianos gig in which only three of the four members showed and saw its two frontmen wrecked with a virus (Dan) and nerves (Spencer). Now they had to prove themselves... and if all went well, generate some hype for their forthcoming Sub Pop debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Done and done. You could argue it was one of the last CMJ shows to launch a career without the the aid of heavy-handed blog buzz leading up to it.
The vaguely stripper-themed bar the color of red hot candy was mobbed with those hoping to get a glimpse of proclaimed rock 'n' roll saviors, the Black Kids. Mike D from the Beastie Boys was allegedly there. Yeasayer were their lead-in. In 2007, this is what four songs released for free via MySpace and a newly christened "Best New Music" on Pitchfork got you.
None of this panned out well for the band in question, of course. According to Ben Sisario's review of the show for the Times, frontman Reggie Youngblood teased the crowd, “I know you guys don’t know this song. But I want you to pay attention to where it falls apart — and then blog about it.” Hindsight is always 20/20.
It may not have been one of CMJ's proudest moments from the last decade, but it served as one of its most important—a cautionary tale of talking up the merit of fifteen minutes worth of music. In the crux of full-blown Internet hype, we needed that. Five years later, maybe we could use a refresher?
On the flip side of the Black Kids mishap, M.I.A. and MGMT played promising sets to eager press that year, as did a group of boyish Columbia students, who were slowly but surely plotting their way to the cover of SPIN magazine and Tommy Hilfiger commercials. We like to think this bit of praise in a certain biweekly culture guide (we're never letting it go) just few months prior set them up for CMJ success, and the above 1:30pm slot at Cake Shop—what Times writer Jon Pareles called "a concise afternoon set of snappy little pop songs"—sealed the deal.
Five years ago, a slightly bearded Justin Vernon played two shows at CMJ under his Bon Iver moniker: BrooklynVegan's official showcase at Bowery Ballroom and then a BV-sanctioned day party at LES staple Pianos. Somewhat typical of intricately scheduled festivals, there was a last-minute stage switch to move the band's afternoon set in the upstairs room to the main stage that evening, causing a long wait and general confusion for those out to see if the band was worthy of the 8.1 review Pitchfork had just granted For Emma, Forever Ago.
"The show was worth the wait," Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the Times. The CMJ appearances jump-started Vernon on his current path, helping him to gain traction at SXSW the following spring and launch him into the wider consciousness. And, finally: "We also learned it's pronounced 'bone ee-vare.'"
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter at @heylaurenbeck.