CMJ Music Marathon, which has been running for 34 years now, is one of the world’s most important platforms for the discovery of new music. Throughout one vital week every October, CMJ features over 1 400 live performances in more than 80 of New York City’s greatest nightclubs and theaters. Luckily for us, Elaby Mackenzie is currently based in New York and was able to review the monumental occasion.
CMJ Music Marathon is crazy before it even starts. With over 1400 live performers playing in more than 80 venues spread out across both Manhattan and Brooklyn, it is no laughing game. The trick? Dive straight in, head first, and don’t come out for air until the week is well and truly over (your body might take a while to forgive you, but it is definitely worth it). Understandably, to the more seasoned music industry veterans, CMJ is a bit of a living nightmare and thought to be an increasingly drained music tradition that readily bustles in every October, whether they want it to or not. But, to me, and to many others I had the pleasure of meeting, it still remains a musical oasis.
With endless ‘buzz band’ lists doing circulations online in the weeks leading up to the event (Arcade Fire were one of these in 2004), there’s more than enough time to get hyped up about the various talents on offer and to finalise a rough schedule (note: rough!). Trying to fit in each and every one of these bands is quite a feat and by no means humanly possible, but there’s ample opportunity over the five days to catch a fair few of them as well as discover the myriad other acts doing the rounds.
CMJ experiences differ greatly from person to person. Firstly, there is the ticket question: to buy a CMJ badge or not to buy a CMJ badge? Some people go the whole way and buy the exhaustingly expensive CMJ pass ($500 Full Badge, $315 Student badge), which gets you into every official CMJ showcase as well as the 100 informative conference events and talks/workshops. Others choose not to buy the badge and instead attend the numerous free showcases that pop up around the city, often boasting the most diverse and exciting lineups. Essentially, buying a CMJ pass is not obligatory and most probably not worth it unless you plan on conquering a lot of what the official CMJ has to offer.
Secondly, there is the scheduling question. For someone who suffers from immense FOMO, with the added pressure of being from South Africa where no musical event of this scope even comes close to match it, scheduling could not have been more of a nightmare. For others (the more seasoned CMJ bunch), it’s a fun week of hanging out with buddies and seeing some great music. If you select the right showcases and know where you’re going, you’re bound to have a good time and see some incredible live performances.
And then CMJ happens and all that hard scheduling goes out the window. You have your drink, your crumpled up schedule, and you’re witnessing the burgeoning success story that is Mitski, breaking the hearts of every member of the packed Silent Barn and it could not be more perfect.
Below I have outlined some of the more exciting acts that passed through New York during CMJ. Spanning a variety of styles and genres, each was thrilling in their own way.
To start, The Stadiums & Shrines x Portals showcase gets a special mention as being the most brilliant night of CMJ. With a vibrant hum of the friendly DIY hospitality whirring throughout the Lutheran Church of the Messiah in Greenpoint, paired with a dynamic and exciting lineup, it definitely stood out amongst even the most star-studded of CMJ events. Outlined below are the acts who performed:
$3.33‘s Celia Hollander sat behind an electric piano and struck the whole church silent with her staggering compositions. It was possibly the most calming, stunning and rejuvenating 20 minutes or so of CMJ, followed closely by Polish-born Jakub Alexander’s ambient music set under the moniker Heathered Pearls. I had been hoping to catch him live for a long time, and it was well worth the wait. His lightly textured ambient loops danced around the Church, creating a truly otherworldly atmosphere.
Nicholas Nicholas’s set is always great just because it means getting to hear the striking falsetto of Chris Masullo in action. Yet it’s the unusual and delicate compositions of electronic and guitar pop working together that make them such an exciting band.
To think that the hyper buzzed disco-era/vaporwave king Saint Pepsi played in the same venue on the same night as all this is quite surreal, but he did, and it was magical. The floor shook beneath the crazed dancing that took place during his incredible set, as he turned out the classics such as ‘Fiona Coyne’ and ‘We Belong Together‘. I didn’t know it was possible to cry while dancing until I saw this guy live. R.L. Kelly was up next with her charming and jangly brand of lo-fi pop which brought a huddled crowd right to the alter, as did the beautiful downtempo pop jams of Berlin-based Yohuna. The energy was electric right throughout the night, deftly maintained by the keen workings of a DJ set by San Francisco’s Kites Sail High.
Other acts that shone throughout CMJ included the Leeds-based quartet, Adult Jazz, who were a name on most people’s lips over the week. Their multi-instrumental abilities have allowed them to form an incredibly deft and complex prog-rock sound, pulled together by perfect melodies, and their live show is really very good indeed. But out of all the bands I saw, London-based act MONEY have the most potential to floor any sized crowd in any arena around the world. Bracing and heartfelt, they certainly knocked out a few souls in the small confines of the Pianos showroom with their performance. Another British act that was the talk of CMJ was the lanky Oscar Scheller, who performs under the simple name Oscar. His janglyindie pop got even the most earnest of attendees swaying.
Yet what was one of the more exciting shows of CMJ was the South African showcase at Hotel Chantelle, where both Beatenberg and Christian Tiger School played incredibly solid sets to a sizable crowd. In fact, their respective performances were definite highpoints of CMJ, with Beatenberg’s material sounding slick and catchy, and Christian Tiger School’s new material sounding notably progressive and exciting. It would be safe to say that both acts fitted into the highly competitive and saturated New York music scene with ease and their international potential is not to be sneezed at.
Other exciting acts I managed (or intended to) see were:
Overall, CMJ was one of the best events I have ever been to. Each and every showcase and act was unique and exciting, not to mention the buzz surrounding all of the venues around New York that week. Standing in a packed venue at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon watching live music with a bunch of fellow music enthusiasts is an incredibly surreal feeling and definitely a moment that summarises the heart and soul of CMJ.