Industry conferences: Ubiquitous enough to earn a theme on public radio's This American Life, they generate a love/hate dynamic—I'm on vacation! No, I'm working!—but for the passionate and shamelessly geeky college radio scene, College Media Journal's annual Music Marathon, now in its 25th year, is embraced with gusto. On September 14–17, young overachievers with their sights on the ever-leaner music industry converged in New York City's Lincoln Center to rock out with their peers, nurse their hangovers at panel discussions, and surreptitiously slip résumés into the handbags of industry leaders.
Anyone can purchase a CMJ badge for $445, but students sent by their schools dominate the fest.
But as my editor said when I reeled off my itinerary: "Good fucking luck." CMJ badges supposedly guarantee entry to most shows. The public can still buy tickets, though, and clubs are oversold, with badge-holders waiting to enter as others leave. Being next in line can mean nothing, as I learned when the Bowery Ballroom's bouncer started choosing girls at random for entry to rapper Beans' show. Luckily, we were near Piano's, where Grizzly Bear soothed our nerves and restored my faith in rock with their warm psych trance.
Which brings me to CMJ's other fatal flaw—though some clubs are concentrated on the Lower East Side, the showcases are spread throughout the boroughs. The badge situation—my visiting friend bought a scalped Regina Spektor ticket while I had no chance of getting into Irving Plaza—and the distance between venues conspired to make my trip a mixture of missed opportunities and happy accidents.
After striking out on Thursday's LES shows, we trekked to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to find the Juan Maclean playing a packed Northsix, in contrast to their recent Seattle gig. Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars represented the Northwest well, while other labels seemed to bring everyone but their best performers. At the risk of sounding cranky, the fest's hodgepodge of emo, been there/done that, and mashed-up bills (for instance, the dream-pop of Joy Zipper before cock rockers the Vacation) didn't inspire longevity in the lines, although free hot dogs were an incentive on one occasion.
The Hold Steady put on a fantastic Friday afternoon performance at Lincoln Center, one of a series for CMJ attendees. As for panels, former Creem writer Jaan Uhelszki, Spin Editor in Chief Sia Michel, and others dispensed advice on how to kick ass as a woman in music, and Patti Smith demonstrated it at a Bob Dylan retrospective hosted by old white men, as she spat on the stage while singing "Like a Rolling Stone." By Saturday, I opted out of scrambling and stayed put in Tribeca's Knitting Factory with the Julius Airwave, a '60s-ish pop band from my Florida hometown. Hanging out with Jacksonville friends revived my belief that the best surprises are removed from CMJ, like a free tour of SoHo street art and soulful N.Y.C. group Kudu's show at a signless bar at 3 a.m. Then again, David Bowie played the Central Park Summerstage with the Arcade Fire during "Wake Up"—or so I heard.