Though the CMJ Music Marathon is celebrating its 30th festival this week, organizers have no plans to look back.
The focus - as it has been for decades - is straight ahead.
"It's a confusing time in the music industry," says Robert Haber, CMJ Network founder and chief executive. "It's anarchy out there. Things are not any less severe in the industry than a year ago. People are looking at the MOGs, the Spotifys and hoping that something will be the savior.
"I'm not going to say that if you pay your badge fee, we'll give you the answer," Haber continues. "Nobody has any answers right now. But we have a lot of people getting together to talk about it and share ideas. There is strength in numbers."
Well, CMJ certainly has the numbers this year. There are 1,200 bands lined up to play 1,500 shows at 80 venues between Tuesday and early Sunday morning. Registration for the festival is up 10 percent so far over last year, meaning far more than 100,000 musicians, industry execs and music fans will check out a CMJ or CMJ-related showcase. And the festival will have its biggest event ever Wednesday, when the French indie-pop sensation Phoenix headlines Madison Square Garden. "There are so many highlights," says Haber, who founded the CMJ Network on Long Island and still lives in Old Westbury. "It's our best year in many years."
In a way, this year's CMJ lineup takes much of its power from previous successes. It's not just the returning wave of '90s indie rockers - including Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, Yo La Tengo, Nada Surf and Helmet - but even the Broadway musical that's part of the festival, the Tony-winning "American Idiot," has ties to the indie-rock scene that CMJ has helped cultivate over the years.
Haber says that by bringing together artists and executives who have had some success - discussing the industry's future in panels such as "Your Brand Is Your Future" and "From Crowd Surfing to Crowd Funding" - bands and businessmen may find strategies that could work for them.
After all, the current model clearly isn't working, with album sales down 13 percent so far this year compared to last year's already-dismal numbers, according to Nielsen SoundScan. To make matters worse, this year's digital track sales, which had been growing by leaps and bounds for years and were thought to help replace some of the lost revenue, are up only about 1 percent over last year.
"Being a great musician obviously isn't enough to pay the rent anymore," Haber says. "There's not too many people being signed to major label deals these days, and even if they are, not many are succeeding. How in a D.I.Y. sense do you possibly do your craft without working three other jobs to put food on the table?"
This year's festival will try to answer that question with some new additions. CMJ Play hopes to bring together musicians and the video game industry, showing how the "Rock Band" franchise can help musicians on all levels and how to license music to video game manufacturers. The "Studio Time" program will focus on music production, showing musicians how to record and mix their songs. The CMJ Film Festival also is expanding, adding a number of international films in hopes of creating opportunities between the movie and music industries.
"Music will always be 90 percent of CMJ, but we also want to bring in film, theater, comedy and gaming," Haber says. "We're trying to broaden our palette of offerings to reflect the changes in the industry."
For decades, CMJ was a platform for labels to help establish the Next Big Thing - artists ranging from R.E.M. to Ryan Adams can point to a CMJ appearance that helped build their careers. As usual, there is a promising crop of new artists - the new-new-wavers The Drums, indie-popsters Surfer Blood, and Franklin Square's own Mike Del Rio - looking to make their mark. But these days, the real quest at CMJ will be for something, anything, that works.
"We're trying to offer interesting ways to look at the problem and at possible solutions," Haber says. "We can't guarantee that the answer will come from here. But you never know."
WHAT The 30th CMJ Music Marathon
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday-Saturday at 80 venues across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Hoboken, N.J.
INFO $149-$495; cmj2010.com