The 31st CMJ Music Marathon is just days from descending upon New York City for its annual orgy of contract inking, palm-greasing and premature blogjaculations. There are more than 1,200 artists making the rounds this year and the internet is busy trying to make sense of the chaos — understandably we're not exempt and we pick our Top 30 here. However, if past CMJs have been any indication, by the time the last free drink is guzzled, you're only going to remember one or two names. Like Arcade Fire in 2004, Black Kids in 2007, or Surfer Blood and Sleigh Bells in 2009, the takeaway from this mess is no more than one or two bands can successfully pilot the hype machine into being "the success story of CMJ." How does the perfect storm of buzz coagulate for these bands, and who will reign victorious in 2011? We asked a panel of 15 industry experts — journalists, bloggers, publicists, label heads and assorted nerds — to uncover exactly how this happened in years past. Then we asked them to help handicap this year's race, hoping to figure out though hard quantitative data, who we'll be talking about come weekend's end. We're guessing it's not going to be Peanut Butter Lovesicle. Here it is, the inevitable oral history of modern buzz.
Daniel Gill, Forcefield PR: A secret meeting takes place in a back alley in Williamsburg each September amongst the indie Illuminati and a decision is made. There is no going back on this decision!
Martin Hall, former Arcade Fire publicist: No one in the mainstream media really had much of an idea of who Arcade Fire were at the time... despite my best efforts. But the band had built quite a passionate following, especially amongst those lucky enough to catch them live. Funeral was released just a week or so before CMJ that year, and Pitchfork had posted an amazing review.And maybe that review helped convince Kelefa Sanneh's editors at the New York Times to allow him to follow the band around during CMJ and document their "debut to the world" or some such. It was that Times story that really let the genie out of the bottle on a national scale.
We ended up having our showcase at Mercury Lounge, and so many people were commenting on how that was a brilliant move because not everyone who wanted to could get in to the show. The Mercury Lounge holds what, 200-250 people? But they were probably three times that number claiming to have seen that show. Having the show at Mercury Lounge was not some brilliant stroke of marketing. When we were booking the showcase back during the summer, none of the bigger venues would take us.
Steve Ciabattoni, former editor-in-chief, CMJ New Music Monthly: I feel like [Arcade Fire in 2004] was the last great thing that college radio could take credit for as far as launching a band-because this was pre YouTube, Facebook or Twitter... Sadly, few "college radio" bands actually know how to put on a show, but Arcade Fire was thrilling and theatrical and they really didn't sound like much else, and holy crap there's like 10 of them onstage and two of them are like seven feet tall and one is wearing a freaking helmet.
Nils Bernstein, publicist, Matador Records: Black Kids [in 2007] struck me as Pitchfork-driven. Just a couple weeks before CMJ they gave a 8.4 "Best New Music" to some demos on their MySpace. That timing couldn't have been better for their CMJ shows.
Dave, editor, Brooklyn Vegan: I was definitely excited at the time to see them live and to have landed them on a BV day party. Then the Pitchfork "Best New Music" review hit right before CMJ and that solidified the Black Kids as the band to see that year. All of the shows they played were packed including ours at R Bar which Mike D from the Beastie Boys even came to. I think it was more packed for Black Kids than it was for Yeasayer who I had on right before them.
Lisa Hresko, editor, CMJ New Music Report: I personally was not at that show but I do remember hearing that Black Kids' CMJ show wasn't particularly successful. Something about an equipment malfunction and them handling it in a very unprofessional manner. But such is the case with band who have little performance experience and who just happen to get thrown on stage after making a cool and popular home recording, no?
Matthew Schnipper, editor-in-chief, FADER: Just before CMJ, Surfer Blood released a well-reviewed record and then they set up a million shows. And that dude has giant, weird hair, so every blog post about CMJ mentioned them and posted a photo of him. I was surprised when I found out he wasn't the singer.
Hresko:Surfer Blood was buzzier after CMJ than before it.
Bernstein: CMJ can be great for bands with albums coming out in January or February, just as SXSW is great for bands with late spring or summer albums... CMJ happened just after advances for [Surfer Blood's] album started circulating. A brash, commercial, Weezery album on a label that launched Grizzly Bear, who were at that moment having huge success with Veckatimest. [It] seemed like an easy bet.
Christine Morales, Motormouth Media, Surfer Blood publicist:They had early write-ups from Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan and Spin. We announced their album right before CMJ and people were taking notice but we had no idea it was going to be as big as it was. It was just the right combo of the music being super-catchy, the band being young, and playing a ton of shows that week.
Lio Kanine, co-founder, Kanine Records: The band played 13 shows in a week to get as many people out to see them as they could... And, well, it worked. I really think if a young new band plays a ton at festivals it helps more than coming around and doing one to three great shows. I remember one show they did at, no joke, 11 a.m. at Market Hotel in Bushwick. It was the manager, label, band and Pitchfork guys there only at the show. It was insanely early for a Saturday morning. People forget that events like CMJ, SXSW are really for the industry over the fans. They are industry showcases not normals shows. When you see Ryan [Schreiber] of Pitchfork standing in the front of the stage alone, tweeting, and buying a T-shirt from the band afterwards, you know something good is gonna happen from that.
Amrit Singh, editor, Stereogum.com: Surfer Blood's story is perhaps the most easily replicable for bands: Play as many fucking times as possible. It was all you could do not to just run into them playing some day-party on Ludlow. [Bands] go the pasta-on-the-wall route and hope at least one noodle sticks. Surfer Blood is a band with plenty of noodles.
Jenny Eliscu, Rolling Stone contributing editor: Surfer Blood never did reach the buzz heights for which they seemed poised. Ultimately, 'cause they're a pretty boring band, I think.
Matt McDonald, CMJ Music Marathon booker: Sleigh Bells seemingly came out of nowhere but I believe they had good connections and all the cool people knew about them and managed to find themselves at their show.
Singh: Sleigh Bells' route to my radar for CMJ is probably the least easily reproduced: Derek Miller lived down the hall from me, with his now-manager Will Hubbard. They were neighbors for quite a while, and Derek slipped the first Sleigh Bells demo to my mom in the laundry room when she was over looking after my dogs. My mom, my dogs, and I all agreed that they were a "Band To Watch." By the time I got to a show to write about them, at a day party at Santos Party House, M.I.A. and her husband and Spike Jonze was there, too.
Eliscu: [It] seemed to stem the fact that M.I.A. was a fan.
Hresko: That break-out show at the Market Hotel wasn't even a an official show.
Bernstein: Sleigh Bells is the one where it seemed like the real hype began as a result of the CMJ shows; a lot of CMJ recaps pegged Alexis as a star.
Matthew Perpetua, Fluxblog: Things lined up nicely for them 'cause just as those songs were getting around, there was was footage of them looking really badass at the CMJ show. Those other bands don't really have an "image."
Gill: I think what all three of those bands really had working for them the most was timing. Going into CMJ, they were all very new and still seemed very fresh at the time they first played CMJ. The importance of that can't be overstated in the climate we're in where a song or video can seem old and outdated in a matter of hours... minutes even.
Judy Miller, publicist, Motormouth Media: The media have a tendency to groupthink. When a young band is hot the number of pre-show guest list requests you get from key editors and bloggers goes up exponentially.
Kanine: I remember the first year Chairlift played they were bummed as hardly anyone came to see them. But the next year they got a ton of buzz from getting an iPod commercial [and] everyone was dying to see them. The press people all seem to like to talk about the same 10 bands instead of championing new bands on their own. Unfortunately 90% of the press just works that way.
So who is going to be the 2011 CMJ success story?
McDonald: If you make me pick one, I'd say the smart money is on Gotye. It's a bit of a strange case because he's already huge in Australia, but there hasn't been the same kind of advance buzz in the States that greeted, say, Wolfmother. He keeps coming up in conversation with other festival people I talk to.
Bernstein: "Buzz band" going into CMJ and "success story" are sometimes two different things, but if forced to curse one band with the tag, I'd say Purity Ring.
Miller: Purity Ring seem to be on the move right now.
Gill: I would have to say Purity Ring is set up to be the winners of CMJ this year... They are killer live.
Schnipper: Maybe Araabmuzik, maybe King Krule. Both artists have a few shows and are tentatively being embraced by a larger audience. If it happens to either of them, it's deserved.
Eliscu: I just wanna see King Krule at the True Panther showcase.
Maura Johnston, Village Voice music editor: Today I got a press release about Caveman playing 10 shows during CMJ, so they'll be covered a lot and "break out" by brute force, I think. There's also a fair amount of buzz about Wise Blood, who have the same management as Odd Future, who have a bit of a hold on the press.
Dave: The first sign that a band might be "the band of CMJ" is that that they're playing all the bigger parties. If you're forcing me to choose, I'll go with Trash Talk. In fact, I think they already won.