NEW YORK The CMJ Music Marathon crept quietly into town last week, drawing a substantially lower-than-usual turnout at its panel discussions, lectures, workshops and musical showcases.
Many of the four-day conference's concerts had to be canceled after the gathering was postponed in the wake of September's terrorist attacks. The event that for years has been one of the most anticipated events in the college-radio community received considerably less fanfare this time around.
Rescheduled for October 10-13, this year's Marathon was a virtual shadow of what was originally planned, but ask CMJ founder and CEO Robert Haber and he'll tell you it may have been the brightest showing in the event's 21-year history.
"Initially [after September 11], the last thing anybody could have dreamt about was throwing a party," Haber said. "As we realized that there was no way of putting an event on even if we wanted to and obviously we did not we had to set our sights to completely redoing the event. It really became a mission here, to put on the very best event we could ... for reasons of New York, for reasons of our industry."
In 1978, Haber founded the College Music Journal, a college-radio trade magazine featuring articles and record reviews as well as charts and station playlists. Three years later, CMJ hosted its first Music Marathon, which was attended by 100 people and featured no showcases. Eventually, the CMJ Network staged Marathon showcases for such then-unknown artists as R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Marilyn Manson and Jane's Addiction, and in 1993 it spawned the consumer magazine New Music Monthly.
The decision to postpone this year's Marathon a month from its original dates of September 13-16, rather than wait longer or call it off completely, was supported by Haber's staff nearly 10 to 1, he said. Employees weren't the only ones who wanted to see the event to fruition. The venues, especially those located downtown, were anxious for the influx of music fans, having been sparsely attended, or in some cases forced to remain closed, immediately following the tragedy.
But the Marathon that was promised in September simply couldn't be duplicated a month later. The roster of performers once highlighted by Coldplay, Kelis, the Strokes, Ben Folds and Oysterhead dwindled to something that packed a considerably softer punch. Haber said that almost the entire lineup had to be revamped with last-minute substitutions, since many artists that had scheduled their CMJ shows as part of a tour couldn't break prior commitments to return to New York a month later. And some just didn't want to.
So the pieced-together lineup, which still boasted more than 700 bands, was bolstered by Manhattan mainstays like DJ Spooky, Girls Against Boys and Firewater, who signed on wanting to give something back to an event from which they once benefited. Some artists, like the X-Ecutioners and Laptop, returned for the Marathon's take-two, while others replaced those who didn't.
"The music was a little more localized, but it was a strong event even if we didn't have to reschedule," Haber said. "It really stood on its own. The depth of the talent was amazing. It blew me away that we could put together an event in two and a half weeks that just about stood up to an event that took six months to put on."
Indeed, a Marathon lineup featuring Richie Hawtin, Detroit Grand Pubas, Jonathan Richman, Cannibal Ox, Mooney Suzuki, Q-Burns Abstract Message, Murder City Devils and Orbital, among others, doesn't seem so out of the ordinary when not compared with what was originally scheduled.
Opening night hosted a hip-hop showcase that covered all bases of the genre, featuring old-schoolers the Rock Steady Crew, beat-box maestro Rahzel of the Roots, turntablists the X-Ecutioners, and underground Latinos the Beatnuts. Liverpool, England's Clinic, decked out in their trademark surgical scrubs for their Marathon debut, delighted a packed Bowery Ballroom with lo-fi garage rock. Fischerspooner's electro-pop cabaret mesmerized a hip crowd punctuated by local celebrities David Byrne, Chloë Sevigny and designers Anna Sui and Patricia Field, many of whom were still reeling from potty-mouthed Peaches' lewd rhymes over beat-driven rhythms. And Interpol's dark atmospheres followed the Walkmen's retrofitted indie-rock at Brownies, a club known for hosting its share of must-see CMJ showcases.
Still, the Marathon had its pratfalls. A few panelists dropped out, including guest speaker Dave Navarro, who hit the road with Jane's Addiction on October 2. Fifty percent of the 8,000 pre-registered patrons never showed up after shelling out $350-$445 ($200 less for students) for an admission badge. The walk-up registration, which carries an even higher price tag, was even worse. Haber guessed that shortcoming to be around 80 percent. Although the actual figures on how much money was lost weren't available at press time, the low turnout was obvious; conference traffic in the hotel was as sparse as Haber had seen in 15 years.
Though no-shows won't get their money back, CMJ has offered them a credit for future events or any of the company's other services and products.
"There's no doubt we suffered economic damage due to the attack," Haber admitted. "I don't know the exact number yet, but it was certainly significant. I don't think there's anybody who has events in New York that could have possibly gotten through this period without having suffered."
Haber hopes to offset any financial loss with help from governmental relief organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Economic Development Commission. But if CMJ's applications aren't approved, the losses could take a toll throughout the company, which recently avoided extinction by buying itself out of an unsuccessful deal with Rare Medium Group Inc. in late April.
"If there's no [governmental] relief, there will be appropriate belt-tightening measures," Haber said, referring to employee layoffs and cutbacks. "None of the products [New Music Monthly and New Music Report] are in danger. As much as we were expecting the event to be a big revenue producer, it was not as if we put all our eggs in one basket."