It’s time for the annual CMJ Music Marathon, and if you can’t see ‘em, at least you can listen to ‘em. We tapped some of our college radio colleagues to tell us what’s a must-see at this year’s CMJ.
Some music festivals are like self-contained campuses: they go for scenic beauty (Sasquatch’s Columbia River Gorge), elbow room (Coachella’s baking desert), or a sense of a temporary separate civilization (Bonnaroo’s 700 acres of community art projects and activity tents). The CMJ Music Marathon, the annual indie-rock festival hosted by the longtime college radio trade publication, is taking place in New York City this week. It’s an urban sprawl that encompasses 60 of the city’s venues, from Alphabet Lounge to Webster Hall, and forces music fanatics to ping-pong back and forth across the East River. Indie royalty (three Bowery Ballroom nights of Animal Collective‘s Deakin and Panda Bear) will share audiences with the young and insurgent (you can attend a midnight show by infectiously leftist punks Downtown Boys in the downtown basement of Santos Party House, then walk upstairs 15 minutes later to see the even more frenetic Perfect Pussy).
Since we all can’t afford a ticket to the Big Apple, we wanted to get a handle on what the landscape looks like, so we talked to a few music directors at some of the country’s most prominent student-run stations. We wanted to know what they were looking forward to at this year’s event and what is on their minds — and in their ears. (Their playlists get weighed heavily by CMJ’s arsenal of stats and trackers.)
At UC Berkeley’s venerable KALX, music director Chandler Le Francis cited dense psych-rockers Heaters and Coke Weed along with raucous/tender/raucous singer Mitski, poly-rhythmic Oxford indie-poppers Glass Animals, and the Downtown Boys as definite must see/must listen. In that spirit, KVRX Austin, Tex., Matt Page recommends Spray Paint, The Gotobeds, glitchy murder balladeer Gel Set, and shoegaze fans and onetime Smashing Pumpkins tour mates Ringo DeathStarr. A relative newcomer to the field, Le Francis is dutifully prepared for a week of networking and professional study at CMJ, particularly the different ways stations around the country handle their libraries in the digital age. But his main MO has simpler motives: “I just want to check out a lot of bands I don’t know,” he says.
At Nashville’s WRVU, run by students of Vanderbilt University, music directors Nick Kline, Brett Tregoning, and Travis Villatoro diplomatically suggest that college DJs and audiences alike listen to a lot more hip-hop than you might think from CMJ’s lineup. They understand why there’s isn’t more representation in the lineup, citing the lack of traditional promotion enjoyed by mixtape-posting indie hip-hop artists, the difficulty (and, arguably, sabotage) involved in finding clean versions of tracks that violate station language policies, and college radio’s historical role as indie-rock bastion. “We at WRVU do not claim to be the vanguard for hip-hop’s inclusion in college radio — a look at our charts can show as much,” Kline, Tregoning and Villatoro said via email. “We’re trying to get better.”
In shifting their format, WRVU’s directors are responding not to some sense of duty, but to the tastes of their community — whether you construe that community as Vanderbilt University, Nashville, or the U.S. (The station’s annual Album of the Year contest crowned Run The Jewels 2 over every other indie record of 2014; the directors point out that Pitchfork, once no less an indie-rock bastion than WRVU and still largely dominated by the tastes of indie-rock fans, gave its own top honors to a hip-hop album 3 out of 5 times this decade.) And CMJ itself isn’t void of flow. A guide posted on CMJ’s website cites Dr. Bone, Ogden Payne, and Weekend Money among the festival’s hip-hop lineup, although WRVU’s contention that there’s “at least an under representation” is hard to deny.
So here’s our advice to those of you going to NYC for CMJ, and those who aren’t: Put together a list of bands you love, add a longer one of bands you think you might learn to love, and don’t stop tuning to the left side of the dial to find out what’s happening next.