Manetta's Diner, Trenton, New Jersey, Wednesday, October 18, 1:00 p.m.
My family doesn't quite understand what I do for a living. "So, what's this conference that you're going to in New York?" my grandmother asks me over lunch.
"It's called the CMJ Music Marathon," I say between forkfuls of chicken parm, wondering yet again why Greek restaurants insist on spiking their tomato sauce with cinnamon. Realizing I've explained nothing, I offer her my coleslaw and add, "A bunch of bands play all over the city for four days and I get to go see them."
Aunt Nancy asks, "What bands will be there?"
This is the sort of unanswerable quiz that always awaits me when I run into my kinfolk in Jersey. I mentally scan the Marathon's list of some 816 performers, and can't produce a single name that might make sense in this conversation. Death Cab for Cutie? The Dismemberment Plan? The Brian Jonestown Massacre? "Uh, probably no one you would have heard of," I say.
"New bands?" my aunt asks.
Well, not really "new," I want to explain--just bands that fly under the scope of the mass-media radar, who cultivate a semipopular status that, for whatever subcultural reasons, purposely evades everyday folk like the Harrises. So, do I have time to recount the past 20 years of American indie rock before the check comes? Instead, I lie: "Yeah, mostly new bands."
"And you go see them and then write about them, and tell people if they're any good," my grandmother decides.
"Something like that." That's the easiest explanation, after all, even if it leads to the hardly accurate impression that I'm some kind of media kingmaker present to bestow accolades upon worthy unknowns. Anyway, isn't it pretty to think so?
Hilton New York, New York City, Thursday, October 19, 12:00 p.m.
So, why are we here? I ask myself. That's not some grand existential quandary, just a sigh of distracted boredom. I'm waiting in the first of the weekend's many lines, this one to register for the conference. For two decades now, the College Music Journal (or CMJ), a trade mag that largely acts as the Billboard of college radio, has thrown this annual sprawling bash. Over the course of four days a mixture of obscure, heavily buzzed, and firmly established bands perform in more than 60 venues, while 80 or so seminars and panel discussions ranging from "How to Drive Traffic to Your Website" to "Latin Alternative Gets Out of the Cradle" take place during the day. And a seemingly infinite number of dupes like me show up.
We've come from all across America. Music directors from Nebraska. Emo songpoets from Oregon. Would-be label moguls from Cincinnati. You can spot CMJ attendees in a hardly homogeneous Manhattan mass of flesh by their inept sideburns and the Kill Rock Stars button on their lapels. You recognize them on the subway by their pink Hello Kitty backpacks and white go-go boots. They peer through nonprescription horn-rimmed glasses at vintage vinyl across the aisle from you at Bleeker Bob's. And right now, several hundred of them stand between me and my registration materials. Big fish in our respective small ponds, we've all swum upstream to find ourselves small fish about to get unceremoniously flushed down the biggest toilet in the United States.
Said piece of monumental plumbing isn't New York City itself, where at least two people will help me lug my ridiculously overpacked suitcase up the steps from the subway. (On a train to Jersey, by contrast, some kids watch me struggle to lift it into the overhead rack before commenting, "Dude, that bag is way too heavy for you.") Nope, my metaphorical toilet is this independent-business seminar, which trains folks who like electric guitars how to make a living by extending the hype through whatever radio, print, or electronic media are at their disposal. Having matured out of the gawkiness of physical adolescence, the CMJ crowd are now in a no-less-classifiable professional adolescence, a larval stage where they've molted into something more than the simple fans they began as, without yet blossoming into the full-fledged music bizzers they may someday become.
Exhibit A: the Midwestern program director ahead of me, who hands out cards from an unlimited stack and pesters everyone within earshot about his station's "new direction." CMJ is for him--for dealmakers, for canny extroverts out to make connections. For the rest of us, its forced chumminess can be intimidating.
Trying to get into the spirit of things, the until-now-silent woman next to me asks, "Where are you here from?"
"City Pages. It's a weekly in Minneapolis. You?"
She's the music director at a college station in Ohio.
"I went to school in Ohio. Kenyon," I say.
After a pause, she gamely tries again, "What bands are you here to see?"
I mention the Northern California band Grandaddy.
"You probably won't be able to get in," she mentions.
Discouraged by our feint at conversation, we listen to the hustler ahead of us. The need to remain in line limits his ability to work the room as completely as he surely would like to, but he racks up the contacts nonetheless. His station, we learn, programs a variety of cutting-edge formats, including "subversive rock." Again I wonder, Why are we here? This may not be an existential quandary, but there is a Sartre-like mood at work: I am starting to feel something very much like nausea.