Actually, Arcade Fire Could’ve Saved CMJ This Year

I'm looking for the clause that says you need to avoid "indie" festivals once you've won a Grammy.

I’m looking for the clause that says you need to avoid “indie” festivals once you’ve won a Grammy.

So last weekend, during the CMJ Music Marathon, Arcade Fire played a couple of “secret” shows down the street from my house. I wasn’t there, because I didn’t have a ticket, it wasn’t a show I could get into with my performer’s badge, and I didn’t feel like it. But by most accounts, the concerts were… let’s say “sub-ideal” for the average audience member, and right now, a lot of people are mad at Arcade Fire.

Increasingly, people are upset about Arcade Fire not because of how the shows went down, but because of what it meant to stage them at the same time as CMJ, one of the two biggest independent music festivals of any given year in the U.S. They’re upset because of preconceived ideas about CMJ that are probably overly romanticized, outdated and impractical. I’ll explain in a second.

First, quickly, here’s what definitely happened: Arcade Fire played on Friday and Saturday night in a warehouse in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park. They were billed as The Reflektors, but ticket-buyers understood this was really Arcade Fire referencing their upcoming album, Reflektor. Naturally, scalpers got their hands of a lot of those tickets, inflating the $45 face value to… well, use your imagination. Attendees were encouraged to dress in formalwear. From here, I’ll defer to the livid, sputtering account of a friend of mine who was there on Friday (and a Bushwick Daily report backs this up, too): Former LCD Soundsystem mastermind and Reflektor producer James Murphy mumbled an introduction, and three musicians in bobble-heads came out on stage and started playing a piece of music that didn’t seem to go anywhere. After a while, the real Arcade Fire emerged on a second stage at the opposite end of the warehouse, and the crowd surged from one side of the space to the other. The warehouse was, I was told, already unbearably hot, and attendees were stripping off layers of clothes (remember the dress code), which they had to just carry around for the duration. Arcade Fire played songs from their new album (which, keep in mind, no one had heard yet), then one older song, and that was it. My friend said that he felt like the band had pranked its own audience. Arcade Fire co-leader Win Butler has said since then that the whole event was intended in the spirit of harmless fun, but a lot of people didn’t think it was funny at all. In any case, as a publicity ploy, it obviously worked.

So that’s why people were mad at first. Do with that what you will.

From here, the conversation gets knottier. In the past couple days, I’ve heard a fair amount of chatter about how Arcade Fire’s weird warehouse extravaganza was a selfish media stunt, and how it overshadowed CMJ itself. The purpose of CMJ, folks have said, is to showcase rising bands, and to help those bands capitalize on buzz and level up in the music industry. It’s no place, they say, for a scene-stealing appearance by a band that broke through in 2004, plays Madison Square Garden, has won a Grammy, comes over the PA when you’re pumping gas at a service station off I-95, all that jazz. In fact, friends and acquaintances of mine have been passing around, via social media, one particularly tone-deaf and childish piece that claims Arcade Fire ruined CMJ this year (which I really don’t want to link to, because it doesn’t deserve the hits, but nnnnnnnnnnnngggguuhhhhere), because CMJ is for newer bands looking for their breaks, and Arcade Fire already had their CMJ Moment in 2004, when they were young and hungry and had a hot debut album that was burning up the nascent blogosphere. In 2013, they should’ve stayed away from CMJ entirely and ceded the stage to this year’s buzzbands.

That sounds like a fair argument, until you realize it’s based on a false dichotomy and a fistful of sour grapes, and that it doesn’t actually make any sense, logically and business-wise. This isn’t an either/or proposition: that ether you’re with the Young Guns, or you’re with The Establishment, and these forces necessarily oppose each other. There’s no logic to that argument. Of course you can have it both ways: You can showcase rising bands that people are currently trying to decide whether they should be excited about, and you can have some bands that people know they’re excited about. There’s no reason why Arcade Fire shouldn’t have played during CMJ weekend this year. In fact, they should have played. The shows shouldn’t have been shunted off to the geographical fringe of the festival, mounted under some half-baked cover of “secrecy.” Arcade Fire should have headlined CMJ.

But wait. CMJ doesn’t have headliners! It’s five days of events of varying size and degrees of publicity. All acts are, at least in theory, at roughly equivalent positions to break through to the Next Level. You go to CMJ to discover new music, not to confirm what you already know. If you have big-name headliners, you wreck the whole spirit of CMJ, or something. Right?

No, not right at all. That attitude — and that business model — is much more 1993 than 2013. In 1993, if you were a music biz type or a journo or just a fan, CMJ could present you with the opportunity to finally see every band from Podunk, Northbraska that you’d been reading about for months, but that never toured close to where you lived. But in 2013, you can just go to YouTube and see essentially every band that has ever played in public in the last several years. Attending CMJ today is kind of a matter of running down a checklist: Did you see Bodega Beers, Tracklighting, Loudy McLoud & the Loud Brothers? Yeah, yeah. Were they reasonably as professional-sounding live as they were on the record? Yeah, yeah.”

Fun fact about CMJ: It’s often not a very pleasant experience if you enjoy things like, say, seeing bands, or listening to music. I’ve kicked around CMJ, in different capacities, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, and I’ve never really had a great time. And I’m not a crank when it comes to music: I’ve played in bands for half of my life, and most of my social life is a factor of going to see bands, an activity I love. When you go to CMJ, you should expect buzzbands playing in clubs that are much too small for the audiences that try to get through the doors, where people who have gotten inside may or may not be more interested in schmoozing and talking about bands they’ve already seen than in paying attention to the band currently onstage. There’s no shortage of showcases that seem to rope together five random “local bands” from cities all over the U.S. and let them loose on an audience consisting of three friends of the musicians and the bartender. I am uncertain who is served by either of those two varieties of shows, both of which occur in abundance. Then there are the logistical challenges of navigating the festival. The print guide this year wasn’t particularly intuitive: It listed the bands in alphabetical order, which is okay if you know who you want to see, but not good at all if you want to know who you can see while you’re free. The website had a chronological breakdown of shows, but it was full of redundancies and sort of vague listings.

Pardon my French, Ma, but CMJ is a shitshow. In a way, it kind of has to be, because of its sheer scope. You can’t dump hundreds of bands and events on the already-cluttered Lower East Side and expect any kind of tidiness. But for a lot of attendees and performers, the rewards you get from dealing with the mess are scant and scattered. And y’know what? That’s not Arcade Fire’s fault. CMJ in 2013 is a weird, disorienting, not-very-much-fun gauntlet that you’re somehow supposed to run if you play a certain role in the biz. There are few Easter eggs, and no Big Reveal of the Thing You’ve Been Waiting For. I’m unsure what the incentive is anymore to plunk down however much CMJ charges for a pass. If anyone’s “ruined” CMJ, CMJ has ruined CMJ. And considering the financial and legal problems CMJ has been having lately, it just doesn’t seem like a good idea for the organization to just keep doing whatever it’s been doing. The festival’s business model is, frankly, stupid.

This year, I played at both CMJ and the Northside Festival. Northside is basically like a mini-CMJ, three solid days of bands playing in every club and hole-in-the-wall around — except it’s concentrated geographically around Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the showcases tend to be assembled by local promoters, and it’s really meant to serve local NYC bands (which, in this case, mostly means bands from Brooklyn and Queens). But Northside also has a lot of firmly established, national-level bands playing, too, and not just breakout local acts. I saw a lot of aging punks on their way to Greg Ginn’s iteration of Black Flag, I really wanted to see Why? but couldn’t swing it, and The Walkmen were the big headliner. They played in McCarren Park, and it was awesome. I saw them with a bunch of friends and acquaintances from other bands. We’d all been hanging out at the performers’ lounge that afternoon, where the festival had supplied musicians with endless food and whiskey. (Another thing about CMJ this year: The performers’ lounge was in a three-level penthouse in a LES hotel. Hospitality consisted of free coffee and wifi. Now, I have those things at home. I think morale among musicians might’ve been much higher if CMJ had set up the performers’ lounge in a warehouse somewhere, taken the money they’d saved from not renting a swank penthouse, and at least invested in a few 30-racks of PBR and some bagels. I don’t want to sound like an ingrate, but performers perform better when they’re comfortable, and they pass along the energy to the audience.) I can tell you two things about that Walkmen show. One, there are few experiences quite like seeing and hearing Hamilton Leithauser wail on those high notes at a hometown gig, even or especially a decade and change since The Walkmen were just another Promising Local Band kicking around the New York rock scene. Two, among the crew I was rolling with that day, I don’t think any of us thought The Walkmen were hurting our bands’ draw, nor stealing attention from the much-smaller-time bands playing in the clubs around Williamsburg that day. Their show was integrated into the schedule, situated early in the evening, leaving nighttime free for every local band to have a potentially great show. It made a lot of sense.

Arcade Fire is about to release their fourth full-length album. As it’s been with their last two albums, its release is surrounded by a multimedia promotional juggernaut. I can think of few more appropriate bands to have headlined CMJ this year, if CMJ had headliners. They should have played not in spite of the fact that they had a big break-out moment at CMJ in 2004, but because of it. What a statement that would’ve been: Look, kids. This is where you can go from here. Maybe. Almost certainly not. Don’t plan on it. Stay in school. I mean, in the U.S., roughly one band per 10 years comes out of the underground and becomes a significant cultural force. But Arcade Fire right now is in a similar place as, say, R.E.M. in 1989. This is something to see. Because 10 years ago, they were where you are, playing in little clubs and slinging self-released CDs. They came from your world, and isn’t it cool that what they’ve accomplished is even possible?

In other words, c’mon, CMJ. Pull in some headliners, and put them in a context that flatters the festival and the showcases that compose it. South by Southwest does it, and people still pay attention to “bands on the verge” during South by. Northside does it, and Northside has only been around for, what, six years? It wouldn’t hurt to give CMJ at least the illusion of structure, or to fire up musicians from dinky bands who might get to see a band they love for free with their artist’s pass. But whatever you do, something has to give. The entertainment industry is no longer the gatekeeper of all mediated content. The thrill of discovery no longer defines an event like CMJ. And if it turns out you’re just missing, I don’t know, several hundred thousand dollars, you might want to do something to pull yourself out of that hole.

After all, if CMJ doesn’t make moves to adapt, people are gonna start saying it’s ruined, or something.


About Brian

"About you," it says? This whole THING is about me.
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