There’s a reason it’s called a CMJ Music Marathon: catching some of the more than 1,200 bands playing over the five-day stretch is a test of endurance. It means mapping out an ambitious personal schedule followed by a mad scramble to get to all those shows; dealing with guest lists, long lines, sleep deprivation and entire days’ meals made up of late-night pizza slices. All while hoping that it’s all worth it just to catch a glimpse of musical greatness.
Sometimes that greatness takes the shape of a more veteran, returning act whose kick-ass set serves to reinforce its indie-level stardom. (At this year’s fest Dum Dum Girls — who are promoting Only in Dreams, their September-released sophomore effort for Sub Pop — and Wild Flag — who, though technically a new group, have members that have been making CMJ appearances since before many of this year’s attendees were born — were the Marathon’s most celebrated victory laps.) But generally speaking, the whole point of the festival is to uncover some unproven band and catch them in a tiny room before they become stadium-sellouts. Or at least that has been the blueprint since Arcade Fire blew the doors off of the Mercury Lounge at a 2004 showcase.
So when we look back at CMJ 2011, what will be the Arcade Fire-like success stories? In order to answer that you have to define “CMJ success.” We can recall the Killers playing a poorly attended dinnertime set at Don Hills in 2003, and then running into the band hours later in line in front of tiny Lower East Side club Pianos as they discussed impending record deals with label reps. Now many of the buzz bands come to New York with an indie deal already signed and a record to promote. But if major-label record deals are your symbols of success, then A$AP Rocky would be your pick for this year’s clear winner. (Keep in mind, however, that the buzzy rapper’s deal with RCA was technically signed right before CMJ on the strength of his recent mixtape.)
Another mark of success is living up to — or at least not disappointing — the pre-festival hype machine, which can blaze so bright that it’s burned bands in the past. (See: Black Kids, the neophytes with the over-praised demos who turned off fans with their sloppy 2007 festival appearances.) This year, the acts that we encouraged you to go see — King Krule and Purity Ring in particular — lived up to their promise, earning glowing notices not only from the press, but also from the tweeting masses. (@tiny_owl called King Krule “a 12-year-old Elvis Costello,” though he’s actually a baby-faced 17.) Other CMJ champs whose performances are being touted — or perhaps more importantly, not lamented — in the blogosphere include hip-hop producer araabMUZIK (“Percentage of people in the front row losing their shit: 100%”), gospel-rock revivalists Alabama Shakes (“If CMJ works right, that showcase should bring Alabama Shakes a shot at a national audience.”), intense psych-gloomsters EMA (“This was clearly the best set I’ve seen so far at CMJ 2011.”), lo-fi rappers Main Attrakionz (“They have a smile and smoothness that could warm any baby mother’s heart.”) and the already-big-in-Australia Gotye (“… a really great knack for matching up catchy tunes with the right off-kilter instrumentation.”).
Perhaps the biggest triumph of the festival, then, was Trash Talk. The Sacramento punk quartet is three albums into their career, but they can still shock a festival audience with a sweaty, aggressive, climbing-the-walls basement performance in the wee hours of the morning. The group played five shows in New York last week, where The New York Times said the band’s set at the Cake Shop was “a declaration of aggression”—and it felt like excitement organically grew greater with each passing gig, culminating in back-to-back Saturday shows at Santos Party House and the New Museum.
All in all, for a festival that has prized indie rock over other genres in the past, CMJ 2011’s biggest successes were hip-hop and punk stars, some of whom (A$AP Rocky) are bound to break to mainstream audiences before next year’s fest and others (Trash Talk) who should, but won’t. So, while we didn’t get a new Arcade Fire this year, we may just have found our new Lil’ Wayne or Fucked Up, which isn’t bad at all.