CMJ Music Marathon: Backstage with Eric Davidson

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Today kicks off 2014’s CMJ Music Marathon, the five-day music festival that celebrates exciting up and coming artists. Since the festival itself is all about showcasing the “undiscovered” artist, it can be sometimes difficult navigating your way through a large lineup of singers and bands who you may have never heard of. The good news is that CMJ knows their stuff, and so all of the artists have been vetted. And secondly, part of the fun is stumbling upon something new.


Eric Davidson, Managing Editor at CMJ. Photo credit: Shannon Van Esley

With that said, it still helps to know a little background about what you’re getting into. To help get you the inside scoop, we caught up with Eric Davidson, Managing Editor at CMJ. Read up and get the 411 on this year’s Marathon:

How did the concept of the CMJ Music Marathon come together? CMJ came into existence in a dorm room, circa 1979, as a trade publication for college radio stations. The festival itself started in 1982 as an extension of the magazine’s aim, which was and still is to highlight the newest music being played on college and independent radio throughout the land. CMJ Music Marathon has grown larger every year, survived a few competitors, and stuck to its new music guns.

How does the CMJ Music Marathon differ from other music festivals? As the American music festival scene has grown huge in recent years, it’s mostly sprung from the longtime European festival model: Multiple stages, runs over a weekend, some food vendors, and increased reliance on bigger and bigger acts to sell tickets—and that’s fine and fun. But CMJ has always been focused on exposing new acts and helping them get to play during a big event in New York City. For a preponderance of the acts at CMJ, it’s the first time they’ve played NYC. Clubs from all over the lower half of Manhattan and some northern neighborhoods of Brooklyn are involved. CMJ Music Marathon also offers numerous panels, discussions, legal conferences, and films that are interconnected with the whole process of getting new bands to get their music out there.

You’ll obviously be a busy man during the Marathon. Do you plan on making time to attend some of the shows? Which ones? Yeah, it’s always kind of ironic. We work hard all year to prepare for the fest, and then we still do have to work during the days to post live reports and news from the festival. But of course we all bust out at night and try to catch as much noise as we can cram into our ears. Keeping in mind that I’m a garage / punk / trash rock kinda guy, some bands I hope to see are: White Reaper, Lee Bains & the Glory Fires, PINS, Tweens, Wytches, Twin Peaks, Penicillin Baby, Nox Boys, Doug Gillard, Boytoy, Burning Palms, White Fence, Courtney Barnett, OBN IIIs, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard to name just a few.

Are there any featured artists you are particularly excited about this year? Think I covered that in the last question, but White Reaper is really new, only one EP out so far. They are young guys from Kentucky who I don’t think have played here before, so that’s one. And it’s worth reiterating that, after her breakout bar shows at CMJ last year, it seems Australia’s Courtney Barnett is only going to end up playing bigger and bigger joints, so try to catch her. Charming, intriguing folk-pop with amazing lyrics and a band that can rock out when need be.

What 3 new bands or artists should we listen to right now? Eek, that’s hard to pin down, but here goes:

Twin Peaks—super catchy garage pop goof-offs from Chicago
Tweens—choppy guitar pop from Cincinnati
Juan Waters—former Beets frontman, now alternately charming, heartbreaking, and funny folk-pop troubadour.

What are some of the venues hosting concerts this year during the Marathon? Oh mein gott, there are 80+ venues working with CMJ! But some personal faves are: Cake Shop, Baby’s All Right, Left Field, and Acheron.

How many bands/artists total are performing this year? Gulp! More than 1,300!

What about the New York music scene has changed the most over the course of your career in the industry? Well, given higher rents in Manhattan, some cool clubs and band hangout dive bars have closed, while larger, more profitable venues have sprung up there. Hence the “scene”—band practice spaces, small DIY venues, and hoods where broke musicians live—has mostly shifted to parts of Brooklyn and Queens. We could get into the au courant rants about how New York is too expensive, blah blah blah, but we’re all a little tired of that, aren’t we? As far as I rememeber (and I first came to visit NYC from Ohio in 1988), New York was never “cheap,” musicians tended to cram together into small apartments and practice spaces, and as usual — as is the same everywhere — it’s hard to be a working musician. I don’t have exact numbers for you, but I’d guess there are just as many music venues throughout the five boroughs today as there were “back in the day;” a number of great record stores have opened up (in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn especially); and I seem to meet or hear of a new musician every other week who just moved here to try to form a band. So yes, there are more chain stores, condos, etc. all over NYC, and it seems like there’s no room for the artist. But really, what’s new?

For those with badges—do you have any tips or recommendations for navigating the CMJ Music Marathon? Well, of course, we’ve got the great CMJ Music Marathon app, featuring info/links to clubs, bands, showcases, maps, etc. to help you figure out what you want to do. But further, try to find day showcases where you might catch the bands you want to see with slightly smaller crowds than the late night gigs (many of the bands play multiple shows while in town). Finally, there’s no way you’re going to see every band you want and visit every NYC landmark while you’re in town, so be willing to stumble onto things, walk into the club next to the club you’re at, and be open to surprises!

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