NEW YORK The annual CMJ Music Marathon began Wednesday with hip-hop veterans the Jungle Brothers, African musician Femi Kuti and pop-rockers Beulah, Sparklehorse, Guided by Voices and Cheap Trick performing in clubs around town while, in hotel hallways, lesser-known bands passed out flyers.
The CMJ Music Marathon MusicFest and FilmFest is one of the two most prominent national convention-style music festivals. South by Southwest, held in March in Austin, Texas, is the other.
"I think what sets us apart [from other festivals] is that we're the biggest and that CMJ takes place in the entertainment capital of the world," Michelle Thomas, the festival's 29-year-old associate producer, said. Roughly 9,000 participants were expected in New York this week to hear about 1,000 bands, ranging from platinum rockers the Foo Fighters to unsigned acts seeking their big break.
Thomas was speaking at a crowded New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan, where attendees and bands were picking up laminated badges and goodie bags stuffed with promotional CDs, flyers for shows and various plugs for bands and websites. It was a wild scene of registration, mingling, exhibits, performances, big hair and rock 'n' roll charm.
Showcase manager Robin Longman, 31, her walkie-talkie screeching, said the festival has held true to the mandate of its namesake magazine by presenting showcases that appeal to college-radio programmers.
But she said this year's highlights were the rare, small-venue appearances by a couple of major artists this weekend.
"I think it's quite something that [country legend] Willie Nelson (RealAudio excerpt of his song "Home Motel") is playing a 400-capacity venue," Longman said. "And Femi Kuti [son of the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti] is making his debut here."
Kuti was a clear audience favorite at the festival's kickoff party Wednesday night at the Roxy, where participants partied into the early hours of Thursday (Sept. 16). They danced to the turntable scratching of Cut Chemist, the hip-hop of old-school rappers Jurassic 5 and the Jungle Brothers
(RealAudio excerpt of their song "True Blue") and the African rhythms of Kuti.
Kuti offered 70 minutes of relentless African beats, complemented by a four-piece horn section and three backup singers/dancers in purple dresses and orange headwraps. He was a ball of energy, playing furious sax solos and dripping sweat as he performed choreographed dance moves.
The festival's first night also featured a Cheap Trick/Guided by Voices double bill and a show featuring guitar bands Sparklehorse, Wheat and Beulah.
Among the other major attractions in the four-day festival, which runs through Saturday, are shows by trip-hopper Tricky, techno duo the Chemical Brothers and the Foo Fighters, whose Friday night gig at the Bowery Ballroom was announced this week. It will be the Foo Fighters' second advertised show since adding touring guitarist Chris Shiflett to replace Franz Stahl; the new Foo Fighters lineup debuted in a secret show Sept. 3 in Los Angeles, at which they performed under the pseudonym Stacked Actors.
Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction (RealAudio excerpt of their song "So What") are among the bands who have shown up in New York clubs at earlier editions of the 19-year-old festival.
Gil Baron, guitarist for Los Angeles hard-rock band Hyphen, was among the dozens of people promoting their bands in a Hilton hotel hallway.
Baron, 28, said the task was an exercise in creativity. While others were handing out cards, flyers and advertising markers, Baron handed out orange earplugs in tiny plastic bags.
"The biggest deal is getting people to attend the show," Baron said. Hyphen were scheduled to play the tiny Nightingale Bar a breeding ground in the early '90s for Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors and Baron said he hoped the gig could help them find management or a record deal.
Baron was not alone in the hunt for exposure, contacts and the holy grail here a record contract. The festival has become a village of sorts over the years, where labels, bands, manufacturers and software companies come in search of wider audiences.
One weary-looking rocker, who would say only that he was from a "band you've never heard of from St. Louis," dragged a sticker-laden suitcase and a pillow behind him as he tried to figure out directions to the club his band would be playing at that night.
Jeff Price, the co-owner and general manager of spinART, a New York label, helped man a booth for EMusic.com, an online label. Last year, spinART offered EMusic the right to download full-length albums from artists such as ex-Pixie Frank Black.
Price said he sees online distribution becoming the industry norm in as little as two years.
"It's cool watching it all come together," Price said. "It's like when you learn a new word, you see it everywhere."
MP3.com, the MP3 clearinghouse and sponsor of the ongoing Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos tour, also has a display booth.