Why Has CMJ Floundered When SXSW Has Flourished?

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Why Has CMJ Floundered When SXSW Has Flourished?

Every fall for the last three-and-a-half decades, the College Music Journal (just CMJ, to industry types) throws its annual new-music bash, booking literally hundreds of indie-rock torchbearers and upstarts in venues dotting downtown Manhattan, and in later years, portions of Brooklyn. Placing a general focus on college rock, which tends to draw a bounty of student DJs, people who once were student DJs, industry workers, musicians and music lovers, CMJ likewise encourages open discussion among its attendees, organizing daily panels on music journalism, publicity, management, A&R, label relations, booking, technology—the list goes on. On top of that, badge holders can attend open-bar day parties and showcases, and even film screenings.

The event itself has a cousin in Austin’s South by Southwest festival, which also began in the ‘80s as a grassroots music celebration. Unlike CMJ, SXSW has ballooned into not just a week, but an almost month-long parade of music, film, and technology showcases. But while SXSW has boomed over its 30 years, CMJ has noticeably shriveled. Though it hasn’t been confirmed by CMJ officials, it’s looking more and more likely that 2016 will be the first time since its inception in 1981 that the CMJ festival does not take place.

Not that they’ve admitted defeat: As more and more publications point out the lack of 2016 programming (Pitchfork, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan, Noisey), CMJ has maintained that it does indeed have something planned, with CEO Adam Klein telling Pitchfork in August, “CMJ will absolutely happen this year.” That doesn’t appear to have come to pass, unless Klein was referring to last month’s Mondo.NYC “music, technology and innovation” festival, organized by CMJ founders Bobby Haber and Joanne Abbot Green. CMJ’s Twitter, meanwhile, hasn’t been updated since late June, and its message to fans is, shall we say, pretty ominous.

But do we even need CMJ anymore? As Stereogum points out in their excellent long read around CMJ’s protracted public crumble, SXSW covers a lot of the ground CMJ once did: bands on bands on bands, a never-ending array of networking opportunities, panels (this year’s had President Barack Obama as keynote speaker), day drinking, plus two additional segments devoted to film and technology. Oh, and barbecue. Lots of barbecue.

But if these two festivals were once so similar, why has one flourished while the other has floundered?

Well, for one thing, CMJ hasn’t always been just a festival. CMJ New Music Monthly was a music magazine featuring interviews, reviews, and features and ran from 1993 to 2009, with its festival operating as an extension. College radio stations would report their charts weekly, which CMJ would compile to show which acts were soaking up airwaves. But as Stereogum also notes, CMJ has been in dire financial straits as far back as 1997, when they were operating at a deficit of $2.2 million—numbers that only increased. A torrent of negative business tidings followed, with CMJ being sold in 1999, bought back two years later, then accused of fraudulent dealings and failure to pay its editorial contributors, among many other issues (like the 2008 recession and the rise of new media, which put plenty of print magazines out of business). Most recently, in 2014, Klein bought the ailing company with promises to set it right. (Note: Klein did not answer Paste’s request for comment.) Last year’s festival appeared to go off without a hitch. And this year? Radio, er, silence.

What’s more, CMJ is famously set in New York City, an expensive place that’s packed with a seemingly limitless number of venues, varying in size, audience capacity, and location, and all offer bills of bands to see on literally any given Tuesday. (Just look at OhMyRockness for proof.) So why bother dealing with CMJ’s college-age crowds and too-short sets when the same band will probably return to New York at some point that very same year and play a longer one? So there’s your first problem: Planning a massive music festival in a city where every night could pass for a festival.

Austin, though also a reputable music hub, is markedly smaller. Anything you want to see at SXSW will probably be within a mile radius, while CMJ can sometimes require bothersome subway rides to other boroughs (and anyone who lives in New York can tell you that most of your time is eaten up by commuting).

Bill-wise, CMJ has always featured too many bands to name, but as the years progressed, its headliners looked less and less impactful. 2002 was the year of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Iron & Wine; 2004 hosted Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio; 2008 had Lady Gaga; and even 2011 featured Kendrick Lamar. Last year had a solid enough lineup, with Børns, Perfect Pussy, Titus Andronicus, Neon Indian, Car Seat Headrest, Frankie Cosmos, Kero Kero Bonito, Motion City Soundtrack, Protomartyr, Tobias Jesso Jr., Diet Cig, etc. But I ask you: When can’t you see Car Seat, Perfect Pussy, or Frankie Cosmos in New York City?

SXSW, on the other hand, has only grown in size and scale, sometimes to the chagrin of those who remember its original new-music mission. Last year’s headliners included a lot of the above familiar faces, but also rock overlords like Iggy Pop and Josh Homme, plus Ryan Adams and Jenny Lewis, Drake, Kacey Musgraves and the Avett Brothers. It stands to reason that there’s just more money to pay big-name artists thanks to all of SXSW’s corporate sponsorship. Regardless of your feelings toward big money fueling the music industry, it can’t be denied that brands do feed Austin’s largest music fest in the 2010s, funneling cash in from companies like Bud Light, McDonalds, and Esurance. CMJ has had partners and sponsors too, of course, but many are websites and print outlets (Time Out New York, BandsInTown, the Village Voice). It’s very likely that each festival’s cash flow looks quite different.

Now, I’m not trying to argue that corporate sponsorship is an inherently good or bad thing or that CMJ is getting what it deserves by pouring resources into keeping a now-online magazine serving a dying industry like college radio afloat. But it’s important to recognize the circumstances surrounding the festivals’ history and what that means for each other’s trajectory.

Or you could just boil it down to this: Think of what it must cost for an ailing former print magazine to put on an annual, sprawling festival in downtown New York and parts of Brooklyn. Now, think about the cost to do the same thing—minus the magazine and shady business dealings—in Austin, Texas, a smaller, more remote city where the average one bedroom rents at about $1200—less than half of what it would cost in New York. So really, is it any wonder that CMJ—like so many other creatives struggling to stay put in New York City—is on its way out?