Festival report: CMJ 2009

I looked over the official schedule of artists before heading off to NYC and thought to myself, "Jeez, there really isn't anything I'm interested in seeing." A few familiar names, but hardly anyone with true draw. That is, outside of the Swedish Music Showcase, the one live music event I was already obliged to attend. No worries though, it's not as if an extended weekend in NYC is ever a hardship -- there's always more than enough to keep me busy.

Day 1

Thursday effectively began for me at 6am when my plane touched down on my flight from Seattle, WA. After a not-so-quick trip uptown to visit with my family who were kind enough to put both myself and my wife up for a few days, I was back on train, heading downtown to NYU for the Swedish Music Seminar. I was ignorant of the event's full history, but this series of seminars has existed annually since 2001, though 2009 marks the first time they were included as part of the "official" CMJ program. It was also the first time they would take place over the course of two days, at a much more leisurely (and welcome) pace. I had attended before a couple years ago and enjoyed it a lot, made a ton of fantastic connections and was glad to be back, especially since this time out I was coming as a panelist, not just a wide-eyed blogger, moreso a hardened cynic with an axe to grind. Still, my mission is never to rain on everyone's parade, so I mostly contented myself with passive observation and note-taking.

Panel I - State of the Digital World

Not a lot of surprises here; much of the content was taken up with familiarizing the attendees with the benefits of Spotify and its effect on the populace (such as filesharing use going way down as more users take to streaming/progressive downloads). Not that it's completely faultless -- Spotify has already been successfully cracked, so its advantages against (advanced) users who would prefer to own/retain their files are rendered moot. Naturally, labels are upset that the application model is not 100% safe against piracy, but most smart folks understand that some income is better than none, so you work with what you can. Established artists bitch about the meager revenues Spotify pays while their income from CD sales dwindle into nothingness; it's not so hard to figure out which path is in their best interest. Everyone should be aware by now that the good days are gone forever, but some folks are still struggling mightily to hold on to what little they can and this fruitless battle is a consistently recurring theme of this modern age. An important question: would artists be motivated to create without the promise of a big payday? My answer: most certainly, if they are true artists. Financial rewards mean nothing when you are driven to create.

Another prominent topic centered around the importance of "discovery", the methods with which we are introduced to new music. Be it media (digital or print), word of mouth or via automated systems (see Pandora, Last.fm or any other similar recommendation engine), it remains a crucial component of the industry for both the business and fans. Whether or not the algorithm methods will ever supplant the power of personal recommendation remains to be seen, but so far it appears that the latter is winning. As sometime IAT contributor Nancy Baym suggested recently¹, trusting the algorithm can lead to an artistic cul-de-sac, an endless self-reinforcing ghetto. Personal taste is never so cut and dry; we desire nuance and surprise.

Panel II - The Power of Women in the Industry

Women remain a minority in the music industry, but it's not as bad as it used to be. Almost all of the women on today's panel have been working a long time to overcome adversity and prejudice and are now masters of their own destiny, successfully running their own businesses. Nowadays, they say, it's not so much a matter of fighting sexism, it's more about being good role models for change. The lesson: speak out, start it up and don't wait for someone to give you permission. To paraphrase panelist Sofia Talvik, "No one else will work as hard for you as you." That's good advice for anyone, male or female.

Panel III - Media in Today's Music World

The point of view I attempted to impose on the audience in my panel: most modern music magazines deserve to fail. 90% of all music should be destroyed. The industry must be burned to the ground so it can be built again. And also: content is king. I don't believe I was as eloquent as intended, but that's the gist. Our world is becoming more and more niche oriented every day, so to be all things to all people, to be the diamond-selling (or event platinum) superstar is nigh-impossible. Revel in the cult, the obscure; don't look back, forge a new path -- ubiquity is the exception to the rule. And I really am serious about hastening the death of music -- Sweden still reigns supreme when it comes to overall musical quality (percentage good versus total output), but the more the barrier to entry is lowered, the more we have to suffer through endless mediocrity. Honestly, I'd much rather hear something I immediately hate than waste endless hours mulling through albums that inspire mere shrugs, as I do now. Fellow panelist Matthew Schnipper was wise in turning Fader Magazine away from regular record reviews; it's a soul-sucking exercise, possibly deadly when your enterprise is dependent on advertiser dollars. Still, I remember zines like "Grimoire of Exalted Deeds", where 90% of the reviews were absolutely venomous -- I didn't always agree with them, but I knew that when they actually liked something, there was something to it. I am drawn to strong editorial voices, strong emotions. I believe that things will eventually work themselves out, but the sides are being drawn.

Panel IV - CMJ 09 Super Panel: Idol Views from Two Music Nation Leaders - USA and Sweden

I'll own up to watching a few seasons of AI in my time, but c'mon- it's more about the spectacle of human drama than the music. Pass!

Swedish Music Showcase @ Norwood

I was far from my best by the time the bands started playing, but I tried to hold on as long as I could. Jaw Lesson (nee Hajen) confirmed what I already suspected: fantastic voice but lacking the material to match. If nurtured correctly, she will be great someday. Next was Francis whose blues-punk was far more extroverted, but still somewhat lacking. I am reluctant to completely write them off, but would consider their US prospects to be dismal -- they are a decent band, but far from world-class. Sofia Talvik, on the other hand, is totally hopeless. She's an absolutely brilliant self-marketer, but her music is boring and forgettable. Then we have Moonbabies, the one band I really wanted to see most, who eluded me. After fulfilling my obligation of two (short) DJ sets and a 16hr day on 3hrs sleep, plus factor in an exhausted wife and a 45+ min journey to bed, I decided to call it a night. My most sincere apologies! As for Adam Tensta who was set to perform even later, you are good at what you do and I respect that, but I'm not into it. Swedish hip-hop is at its best when it's in Swedish or when it's not trying to be like other hip-hop. Rep for the home team and the fans will follow.

Tracks played:

The Goner - Haven
David Åhlén - Spirit fall
Rickard Jäverling - The wedding ring
Erik Enocksson - Non strigis
Brothers of End - Why
Johan Heltne - Din alkoholism är ingen alkoholism
Detektivbyrån - Laka-koffa
[ingenting] - Medan vi sov
Bröderna Lindgren - Annan sort
Penny Century - Just because
Mattias Alkberg - Jag bara tänkte, liksom, att
Samuraj Cities - 2 close 2 yr hrt
Broder Daniel - Underground

Day 2

Panel I - Industry and Business Radar

Having missed the introductions, I stumbled into a panel that was dominated by a couple folks extolling all of the big deals they've made for their established artists/bands/brands. Seriously, who the fuck cares if Dr. Dre made a bundle by lending his name to a line of headphones? How is that at all relevant to a room of people interested in importing (or exporting) Swedish music? I have zero interest in hearing the bullshit of a few schmoozers talking about how successful they are at selling corporations their manufactured version of cool and extending their tenuous longevity in the business. At best, that's the domain of already-made-it; at worse, it's music for people who don't care about music. For all the talk of finding new markets and new audiences, they sure seemed clueless about the one they were in front of. Thankfully, Patrik Larsson of Headlock Management managed to get a few words in about the importance of artist development, building leverage and the importance of sometimes saying no. Likewise, Elliot Aronow of RCRDLBL pointed out that most people in the world simply don't care -- you have to figure out ways to make them care.

Panel II - What's Currently Hot (or Not?) in the Music Industry

Sadly, no one seemed interested in making bold, broad statements on the subject matter, but a few folks name-dropped their personal faves. No consensus though, hardly worth repeating. Patrik Larsson did however reiterate the value of artistic development, a hot topic for anyone on the business side of things. Where there was once a tried and true path is now a vast, uncharted ocean. Possibilities are endless, but how many of them are worth pursuing? Most folks agree that communication is key though -- find your fans, keep them close, make them feel special. And then sell them expensive crap they didn't know they needed so that they feel even more special. Or something like that, I might've nodded off.

Panel III - Melodifestivalen

Melodifestivalen and Eurovision have their allure, but they cannot compete with the sights and sounds of NYC. Pass!

¹ this post alludes to what I'm talking about, but I believe that Nancy has elaborated elsewhere (if I remember correctly)