louder than words
cmj gets a music lesson from a band with no ties - not even to language
it took sigur ros, an experimental band from iceland that sings songs with no titles in a made-up language, to shake up the cmj music marathon and bring the focus back to the power of music.
though this year's cmj marathon was its biggest ever, turmoil and uncertainty in the music business and the execution-style murder of run-d.m.c.'s legendary dj jam master jay hung on the four days of festivities like a winter coat, dampening enthusiasm and slowing reactions. memories of last year's planned event, originally scheduled to begin on sept. 12, also weighed people down.
instead of the usual gathering of artists and businessmen to attempt predictions of music's future, this year's 10,000 conference attendees had trouble looking beyond the industry's murky present of falling sales, million-dollar losses and growing discontent among artists and fans with the current system.
"the music industry is broken," said michael bracy, director of government relations for the future of music coalition, one of several artists' rights representatives who faced off with recording industry association of america president cary sherman friday afternoon. even sherman acknowledged the industry's problems, adding that record labels are in a uniquely bad position due to the rise of downloading music on the internet since its revenue comes mostly from sales, unlike tv and movie companies which also get paid for broadcast rights. "the business models are really not working," sherman said. "and we're getting screwed out of our copyrights."
talk about the music business' problems filtered into nearly every music discussion, with some experts saying that things are so tough for new and upcoming bands these days that most have a better chance being discovered on a car commercial than on radio or mtv. "the business really has made the music worse," said l. londell mcmillan, an entertainment law attorney who represents artists including prince and chaka khan, as well as the newly formed artists empowerment coalition.
all that talk made the sigur ros appearance even more spectacular. in pure business terms, the icelandic octet wouldn't stand a chance. its songs, especially those from its latest album "()" are too avant-garde for radio, often stretching to seven or eight minutes of gorgeous electronic melodies and "hopelandic" lyrics that can only be deciphered by singer jon thor birgisson.
yet sigur ros, best known as the inspiration for radiohead's "kid a" album, drew the biggest crowd out of the 1,000 or so bands in the cmj marathon, filling the beacon theatre to capacity. the band drew a wild, 10-minute ovation after its 90-minute set, which, at one point, had birgisson playing his guitar with a violin bow, georg holm playing his bass with a drumstick and the three-piece violin section plucking their instruments with their fingers. the audience was so taken by the band that it called the members back for three roaring curtain calls, even though there was no encore.
the performance was a needed example that music still had the power to surprise and uplift, regardless of the turmoil that surrounds it. that's a theme that cmj network chief executive and event organizer robert haber wants his conference to retain.
"this year, we went back to our own formula of reserving 25 to 30 percent of the slots for unsigned bands, because we never want to lose that angle," haber said. "that's the only way you can keep the element of surprise, the only way you will find that diamond in the rough - maybe really rough."
in many ways, haber is also surprised by the event's success, coming on the heels of last year's postponement due to the terrorist attacks on the world trade center. "this year, it was like we had to start over," haber said, adding that he felt extra pressure because he knew that many new york clubs were counting on cmj to deliver its annual boost to the scene. "we had to reconnect with everyone again."
haber said this year's conference reflects the reconnection of the music industry to new york city, as well as the area's growing underground rock scene that has found its way to the mainstream with the success of the strokes. local buzz bands such as the yeah yeah yeahs, moldy peaches and the walkmen showed visitors what all the fuss was about, while two long island acts, the smiths-meets-new-order stateliness of my favorite and the trio of beastie girls known as northern state, hope to follow the lead of the strokes and interpol by focusing on retro-oriented styles.
"will people look back five years from now and say new york was the next seattle? who knows?" haber said. "the facts are that there are a lot of great bands from here and there's a lot of great music going on, especially in this new brooklyn scene."
newcomers such as lynbrook singer-songwriter jason liebman eagerly see cmj as a way to turn some influential heads. "there's such an element of prestige of just being selected," said liebman, who recently released his debut "the driest of all seasons" himself. "it can help take us to the next level."
even established artists, from the chemical brothers to the smiths' johnny marr to joseph arthur, looked to cmj to energize their fans or introduce some new material.
tori amos, however, rushed past the promotion of her new "scarlet's walk" cd to address the conference's college-age attendees. "i knew i had to pass the torch, but how do i do that?" she said, explaining her decision to attend. "forget about my music - it will do what it does. but you should know in the land of the free, things are very edited. a generation can rise, but you must decide what you're going to rise about. you should know know that the world is waiting to see what you will do."
such unpredictability - both sigur ros good and the shockingly bad news of jam master jay's death, delivered to a cmj crowd by big daddy kane wednesday night at hammerstein ballroom - will be the legacy of cmj 2002.