An Artist’s Guide to CMJ, in Retrospect

It having been my third year at CMJ, and a native-New Yorker, you’d think I’d have the hustle and bustle of the City’s biggest music festival down to second nature. Take off from the day job for the week, pick up my pass, get a second memory card for the DSLR, and make my schedule. Last year, I was relatively able to adjust to the non-stop, overnight schedule. However, working closely with two bands in from Europe during the conference allowed me to be privy to the struggles of a different sort of CMJ attendee, the artist.

For artists performing during CMJ, and specifically those traveling to do so, the festival can be a huge hole in your pocket. Unexpected costs and even last minute gear rentals can be problematic. Not only is financial trouble a possibility- but with one show on your roster and no guarantee the room will be receptive or your target market, the festival can easily be a blank shot.

This article is about how to make the best of CMJ, and make the most of it for your career.

The author, with Lizard King Records and the ME band. CMJ 2014

The author, with Lizard King Records and the ME band. CMJ 2014

Pay It Forward

For travelers anticipating things like hotel costs, taxi cabs, and the like- New York City will almost definitely be more than you can expect. The city that never sleeps also pays a ton of money to eat, so be sure your budget for meals and transportation is appropriate. At CMJ 2014, Greece’s rising indie/jam band Baby Guru saved by booking accommodations via Air B&B. Berlin’s Aussie rock transplants, ME, avoided Manhattan’s inflated hotel costs by booking at a hotel in Long Island City. Think outside the box when traveling to CMJ. Research your options- don’t just book based on the borders of Manhattan Island.

Get Where You’re Going

For bands traveling with a lot of equipment, the subway is not the easiest way to get around. Uber and regular taxi services can run you a small fortune. Consider car rentals for the dates of your performances. This may mean applying for an international driver’s license, but can save you money and stress in figuring out transportation for your entire group. If you do need to run round via car services, have your taxi driver give you a quote before you get into the vehicle. Agree on a price before you get in the car. That Irish brogue sounds wonderful to all your new friends at the bar, but reflects a quick cashout for taxi drivers who know you’re a tourist. Above all- do not wing it! NYC is not a “wing it” city. CMJ attracts thousands every year. Don’t anticipate being able to “figure it all out” when you arrive, or you’ll wind up in line with the rest of the pack looking to manage their assets last minute.


Gear Up (and check what you can)

Customs can be a scary thing for bands coming to CMJ on a visa. Most important thing? Don’t be scared. Check as much gear with your baggage as you can. No customs representative will turn you away because your keyboard was suspicious (unless for some odd reason, it is). Renting gear from a local shop like SIR or Guitar Center is not a terrible idea- but if you’re a musician’s musician, your instrument is an extension of yourself. Perform with what makes you comfortable. If you are planning on renting gear because of logistics issues, plan ahead. Get multiple quotes from various gear rental places in New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. Manhattan is not the only area you can get to!

Do It. DIY.

If your band is not supported by a PR agency or a record label, you’ll need to promote your band on your own. Printing small business cards or postcards with free music downloads can be an effective way to spread the word about your band, performance times, and give journalists and fans a way to contact you.
Use your time wisely. Hang out in the CMJ artist lounge. It exists for a reason! Make friends with other bands, especially those you will be performing with.
Hunt down members of the press and introduce yourself. Hint: they’ll probably be in the artist lounge, interviewing artists. Make the most of the opportunities at hand: make friends and use word of mouth, merchandising, and your existing connections to fill rooms at your shows.

Don’t Settle

CMJ is infamous for being a tastemaker in the industry. That’s not because they select a small number of incredible acts. There’s a lot of fluff out there, and CMJ can absolutely make or break a band, by its juxtaposition with said, “fluff.”

CMJ will not necessarily give you more than one performance slot. That can mean you’ll be traveling thousands of miles, sometimes across continents and oceans, for what could be an empty room in a dive bar. As soon as you are confirmed by CMJ for your performance(s), get on the computer, and start shooting emails. Get in touch with venues, promoters, managers, and other bands you may have connections to. Some artists represented by media companies and labels also need other performances, which means they’d need more performers. Some venues will be looking for more artists for late night showcases. The ME band were able to book themselves three additional shows along with their initial CMJ slot that were more successful than the one they had been booked for by the marathon.

Have fun!

Does this need further explanation? Enjoy yourself. You’re in New York City, baby! Don’t stress about the unseen press member that may or may not be in the crowd. Chances are if you’re reading this, it’s because you’re a conscientious musician interested in your band’s success. That’s already a step in the right direction. No member of the press doesn’t love a band that’s talented and can have fun on stage. Enjoy New York, enjoy the music, and enjoy yourself.

Rachel Margaritis