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CMJ Would Have Happened This Week. Where’d It Go?

Something feels off about this month in New York, and it isn’t just the election anxiety. For the first time since 9/11 forced the CMJ Music Marathon to move from September to October, we aren’t bracing ourselves for its annual onslaught.

The multi-day independent music festival, college radio summit, and industry conference that has convened here since 1981, when CMJ founders Bobby Haber and Joanne Abbot Green introduced it as the College Radio Brainstorm, may finally be dead. It certainly isn’t happening in October—and, by almost all accounts, none of the groundwork has been laid for it to happen at any other time in the near future, either. The only person who seems to disagree with this assessment is Adam Klein, the CEO of CMJ’s current parent company Abaculi Media, who insisted to Billboard last month an event wasn’t off the table for 2016.

Maybe Klein will manage to get another festival together someday, but CMJ’s demise seems inevitable regardless. Like the company’s two defunct print publications—CMJ New Music Report, which compiled college radio charts and playlists, and CMJ New Music Monthly, an indie music magazine packaged with a mix CD—the marathon has become obsolete. Mainlining live music used to be the most convenient way for the press and industry to get acquainted with up-and-coming acts. In the early aughts, when I was in college, missing CMJ (as I always did) made you feel hopelessly out of touch. But in 2016, why drag yourself out to clubs for a punishing five-night stretch when you could hear the same artists on Bandcamp?

Although CMJ’s financial troubles date back to the mid-‘90s, the internet has been chipping away at its business model ever since Napster, Pitchfork and MP3 blogs came to prominence around the turn of the millennium. In the past few years, a raft of open, legal platforms have made it even easier for bands to get their songs heard without impressing gatekeepers, which is great for fans as well as artists. But CMJ was one of just a few major yearly events that critics and A&R types used, in tandem with the internet, to find new talent. Its survival was a testament to the continued relevance of the live experience—an acknowledgment that a band’s power to move an audience is as important as its recorded material.

The internet has been the single biggest force in music discovery since today’s college radio music directors were toddlers, but CMJ’s apparent demise brings us one step closer to a bleak landscape where it’s the only force. It was just twelve years ago that the marathon so famously launched the Arcade Fire juggernaut with a breathlessly reported-on Mercury Lounge set. Now, it’s unfathomable that a single performance in front of a tiny crowd could make a band’s career. Maybe it’s just because I recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger and was reminded that music industry visionary Danny Fields signed the Stooges on the strength of a similarly small show, but that shift in the culture feels like a major loss.

It’s not one that New York’s music community is noticeably mourning, though—and that isn’t so surprising. CMJ was an event that most attendees (at least the ones who weren’t starry-eyed college DJs exploring the city on their university’s dime) loved to hate. The first time I covered it, in 2006, I found out why: The showcase sets were short, the badges didn’t guarantee entry, and most of the venues were small enough that you could waste a whole night camping out in line to watch four 22-year-olds play five songs. If SXSW is spring break for the New York-based music industry and press, CMJ felt like homework. I can’t tell you how many one a.m. headliners I sat through, nodding off after multiple late nights out and already panicking that I’d be a zombie at work the next day.

Those nerve-racking nights didn’t stop me from thinking enough of CMJ to intern with its editorial team for a few weeks in 2008, though it was obvious to me by the time I quit that the marathon and the magazines were in decline. By 2013, the company had been slapped with a lawsuit following a failed merger, in a case that is still pending. The next year, under Klein’s new leadership, it parted ways with Haber and Green.

But even as CMJ seemed to be unraveling, the marathon continued to attract electrifying new live acts. I caught Cloud Nothings in 2010, for instance, and Sky Ferreira in 2012—both because some other, long-forgotten show was full. CMJ could be frustrating as hell, but its obstacles had a way of diverting your attention away from mediocre buzz bands in favor of lower-key shows that turned out to be surprisingly great.

I’ve never had quite the same serendipitous experience at any other New York music event. We may have a more enjoyable small-venue festival in Northside, which returned for an eighth year in June, but its outdoor shows with bigger headliners and focus on local acts make it more of a community-wide celebration than an opportunity to find your new favorite band. Haber and Green resurfaced last month with Mondo.NYC, which sounded like a more tech-focused CMJ, but its shortage of high-profile musical acts prevented it from filling the marathon’s niche. So now that we’ve reached the time of year for tipsily rambling through the city, hoping our badges will lead us to some revelatory performance or other, CMJ’s absence is palpable.

Like most people who lived through it more than once, I hated CMJ at least as much as I loved it. But now that it’s gone, I’m starting to worry it was irreplaceable.

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Incredible Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2016

From Deadpool to Ghostbusters’ Jillian Holtzmann, thousands of fans came in costume to this year’s New York Comic Con. Here’s some of the most outstanding cosplay we spotted at the convention. 

Photos by C.S. Muncy for the Village Voice

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Still Beating: A Bronx Festival Celebrates Centuries-Old Puerto Rican Rhythms

Every two years since launching at Hostos College in 2000, the BomPlenazo festival has come to the South Bronx to celebrate Puerto Rico’s traditions of bomba and plena music. Through concerts, dance, film, and master workshops, New Yorkers experience firsthand how the twin art forms can create and empower communities. This year’s edition (October 6–9) adopts a theme of “Between Generations,” setting longtime masters alongside younger players for a dialogue that spans decades.

“I see my generation of performers as a bridge between the elder practitioners in their seventies and the millennial kids,” says 48-year-old Héctor “Tito” Matos, a plenero (plena musician) of the San Juan–based group Viento de Agua. “Our elders didn’t do teaching workshops or street corner encounters — it wasn’t their way. But my generation [wanted] to democratize the way people interacted with our music.”

Matos, who performs in a Saturday-afternoon showcase, is one of many artists attempting to re-establish bomba and plena performance as a collective public activity within the Puerto Rican diaspora. Bomba began this way in the seventeenth century, among enslaved Africans, as a communal way to shake off the psychological devastation of slavery and oppression. Plena, an offshoot that emerged in the early twentieth century, became a political tool of working-class rebellion, as well as a way to cope with life’s daily frustrations.

As folk arts, both have been influenced by pop music over the decades. There were upscale, big-band versions in the 1930s that subtly gentrified music initially created as a form of resistance. In the ’50s and ’60s, influenced by American civil rights protests and rising activism within the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Rafael Cortijo and other luminaries reversed this trend by performing more traditional-sounding songs that specifically identified their protagonists as black. But by the 1970s, the commercial dominance of Afro-Cuban styles like mambo and rhumba pushed plena and bomba to the background, where they were assigned token appearances on salsa albums. Recognizing the possibility that these styles might be lost entirely, the government designated specific families of “folklore preservationists” to continue the tradition. Today, few bomberos and pleneros specialize; instead, they learn to master both genres, to better strengthen them.

One of these dual practition- ers is Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez, who in 1983 founded Los Pleneros de la 21, a Spanish Harlem–based nonprofit that teaches bomba and plena to local Puerto Ricans and has a performance group that tours the U.S. He and his youngest daughter, Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera, will perform together in the BomPlenazo Artists Collective on Saturday night, the anchoring event of the festival. Gutiérrez-Rivera was named the artistic coordinator for BomPlenazo this year and remembers how, in 2003, her father’s plena “La Isla Nena” became a rallying anthem for a grassroots campaign to expel the U.S. naval base from Vieques; years of military occupation on the island, off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, had brought environmental and economic damage. “Plenas have traditionally been the voice of disenfranchised communities who don’t have access to broader media outlets,” she says. “So when all of these students were protesting at the height of the Vieques controversy, it was expected that plena songs would come around to capture what was going on.”

While plena serves as the voice of the common people, bomba is a healing form of self-expression that often uses no words at all. The music and its accompanying dance are inextricable: There are sixteen traditional rhythms in bomba, each associated with a signature basic step; the best bomba dancers know all of these by heart. “The dynamics of the dance are very interesting,” explains Oxil Febles, a lifelong practitioner who will teach a bomba class at BomPlenazo on Friday evening. “There is an understanding that what I do with my body will be reflected in the music. There is a protocol.”

In other words, rhythms can evoke, trigger, or release a mood: Whenever a dancer leaves the common circle to “speak” to the drums, they improvise gestures to convey fleeting emotions. The main drummer in the group listens intently, anticipating and mirroring the dancer’s movements in a rhythmic echo. It’s this intimate rapport between dancer and drummer that makes a bomba performance so riveting, drawing the audience into the conversation. “There is an energy being built among all the people involved in the bombazo, whether they are singing, playing, or dancing,” says Febles. “It’s like a unifying psychic energy is released.”

That experience of catharsis comes from bomba’s roots in slavery and hard labor, but contemporary practitioners see plenty of parallels today. Matos points out that many of Puerto Rico’s hip-hop and reggaetón artists are from blue-collar communities, the same kinds of places in which bomba and plena thrive. Some of them, including stars like Tego Calderón and Ivy Queen, reference bomba and plena rhythms in their chart-topping singles. “Younger people are coming into this tradition now with a beautiful energy,” Matos says.

That leaves longtime practitioners hopeful about the future of bomba and plena, which flourish only when new generations can connect to the genres’ deeper, universal meaning. “[The] purpose of this music is to build a positive, empowering communal energy,” says Febles. “That hasn’t changed in five hundred years.”

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The Faces of the First-Ever Meadows Music and Arts Festival

The Meadows Music and Arts Festival kicked off its first-ever year at Citi Field — Flushing Meadows Corona Park over the first weekend in October. Here are just a few of the folks we met over the weekend.
Photos by Laura June Kirsch for the Village Voice

 

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A French Music Festival Is Coming to Central Park

Twenty-five years ago, Brittany native Jérôme Tréhorel got tired of watching his friends move to New York or Paris in search of excitement. Hoping to convince them that their history-rich homeland in rural northwest France was not a boring place, he threw a party for 500 people featuring some local bands. He didn’t expect it to evolve into the biggest music festival in France.

That first village fête spawned Vieilles Charrues (“The Old Ploughs,” a nod to the surrounding pastures), an annual four-day concert that last year drew a crowd of 278,000 to Kérampuilh, a concert field in the picturesque village of Carhaix. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Vieilles Charrues is coming to Central Park for a one-day spin-off on October 1. The New York lineup is dedicated to la musique française: Co-headliner Matthieu Chedid, who performs funky chansons as -M-, is one of France’s biggest pop stars. Joining him in top billing is the electro producer Tristan Casara, better known by his stage name, the Avener, whose hypnotic house remixes of country and bluegrass songs frequently land on European top-ten charts. (Notably, this version doesn’t include the international stars, such as Bob Dylan and Lana Del Rey, who have headlined the French concerts.)

“The idea is not to bring the biggest French festival to one of the world’s most famous hubs,” says Tréhorel. “This crazy adventure, as I call it, is a cultural exchange.”

Seeded into this musical exchange is the desire to shine a light on not only French, but Breton, culture. Aside from Brittany’s most famous export, the crêpe, the region’s unique identity is arguably less well-known to Americans. Brittany became part of France in 1532 but remained an autonomous region within the country until 1789, so it has retained much from its Celtic and Gallic roots. “A Breton is a French person with Irish spirit,” explains Laurent Corbel, the president of BZH New York, a nonprofit promoting Breton culture in the city. “We have rich traditions in music, folklore, faith,” says Corbel, “and throwing great parties late into the night.”

His organization, which is presenting the festival, connects Bretons living in New York with one another and their heritage; sometimes it brings Bretons here, as it did last year when it invited Tréhorel for a visit. “I became impressed by the depth and reach of the Breton network in the city,” Tréhorel says. In Bryant Park, he played the French ball game pétanque (reminiscent of bocce) with a group of septuagenarian expats. “One of them wore a Vieilles Charrues hat!” he remembers. “I was touched by the pride [they] have for the festival.”

Still, says Corbel, “a lot of us Bretons in New York had never actually been to Vieilles Charrues.” When Tréhorel set eyes on Rumsey Playfield, with its bandshell overlooking a grassy knoll, he saw “a paradise, a small Kérampuilh. It was obvious to me that since those Breton cousins in New York City will not be able to come and celebrate the 25th edition in Brittany, Vieilles Charrues should come to them.”

For the New York show, Tréhorel made sure to include artists who celebrate the decades-long resurgence of Breton identity. When France undertook centralization efforts in the nineteenth century, the government mandated that French be the only language taught in classrooms; now only 250,000 native speakers of the region’s Celtic language
remain, few enough for UNESCO to deem it “severely endangered.” But since the 1980s, when France passed a decentralization law that allowed the fostering of regional cultures, efforts to revive the language for newer generations have bloomed, and so has Breton pride.

Openers Krismenn & Alem, who are known for pairing Breton lyrics with world-championship-winning beatboxing, are among the younger beneficiaries of this resurgence. They are key to Tréhorel’s mission “to present a new view of Brittany, a modern view, showing that it’s not just folklore.” So is the Celtic Social Club, a revivalist group inspired by the Buena Vista and New Orleans social clubs that fuses rock, reggae, and punk with old melodies from Brittany and other Celtic nations. “This Celtic identity is central to our concept,” says the group’s Scottish-born, Brittany-based singer, Jimme O’Neill, who particularly enjoys seeing crowds perform traditional Breton dances to their music. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. People dance arm in arm in huge lines that spiral round and get bigger as more folks join in — kids, grandparents, whole families.”

Back in Brittany, what started as a mission to liven up Tréhorel’s hometown has helped spark a wave of arts events: There are now a dozen annual festivals in the region, and Vieilles Charrues employs some 2,200 people every summer in Carhaix. Christian Troadec, who helped start the festival, is now the town’s mayor and a French presidential hopeful. And, in the neighboring town of Gourin, there’s a replica of the Statue of Liberty — that iconic export from France to New York.

 


Vieilles Charrues takes place at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park on October 1.

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Kind of a Big Dill: Scenes From Lower East Side Pickle Day

Hundreds came out to a closed-off stretch of Orchard Street on Sunday afternoon to celebrate their love of pickles at this year’s annual Lower East Side Pickle Day. From an animated dancing pickle posing with attendees to a home pickling contest (featuring everything from sweet pickles to pickled mango and watermelon) judged by the founders of Ice and Vice, New York’s very own Food Baby, and more — a fine, briny time was had by all who think that pickles are just about the best food ever.

 
Photos by Chona Kasinger for the Village Voice

 

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Here’s a Look Inside This Year’s ‘Secret’ Diner en Blanc Party

Fashion standards may decree that one never wear white after Labor Day, but more than 5,000 New Yorkers ignored that memo yesterday as they descended upon Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park for the sixth annual Diner en Blanc. The guests — who were informed of the event’s secret location just one hour before it was scheduled to begin — arrived with fanciful costumes. Decked out in head-to-toe white, often with fanciful accessories, they also brought picnic tables and elaborate illuminated place settings. Sitting down to their meals as the sun set, the champagne flowed freely and dancing into the night quickly followed.

Photos by B.A. Van Sise for the Village Voice

 

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The Faces of the West Indian Day Parade

The annual West Indian Day Parade brought out thousands of revelers along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn on September 5, 2016.

 
Photos by B.A. Van Sise for the Village Voice

 

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We Built a Zoo: Designing an EDM Dreamland

Whizzing through Randalls Island Park on the back of a golf cart, I see skeletons of scaffolding rising from grassy fields like stalagmites from a cave floor. Right now these half-built metal towers resemble what a construction worker on LSD might build, but they’ll soon become the fantastical, animal-shape stages of Electric Zoo, the enormous festival that will host 90,000 electronic dance music (EDM) fans over the weekend.

“We’re just checking out the tents we are decorating and wow, I thought they would be like four times bigger!” designer Patty Gutarra says, with somewhat sarcastic cheer. “I was like, wait, where’s the rest of the tent? This is like a pocket tent, I can fit it in my back pocket!”

Gutarra is one of many people responsible for transforming the park into a surreal fantasia, an effort the festival has undertaken every year since its founding in 2009. The most impressive part of this massive production is the stages; this year’s designs include a giant black and white striped octopus (made of a custom inflatable), an enormous bear head, and, for the main stage, a massive, kaleidoscopic cobra, reared up and poised to strike.

The rise of EDM over the past ten years or so, thanks to artists like Avicii and Skrillex, has presented a new paradigm for festival production: The music, with its protracted crescendos and overwhelming drops, calls for grandiosity, and with only one or two people in the spotlight most of the time, the design emphasis is on enhancing the performance rather than ensuring the stage’s utility as a platform. “In EDM there’s an expectation, maybe more so than with a lot of other forms of music, that the experience is going to be a visual [one], too,” says Electric Zoo creative director Jeff Wright. “The whole festival site is an attempt by us to create another world for you to enter, to make you feel a sense of awe.”

The inflatable octopus is returning for a repeat performance this year.
The inflatable octopus is returning for a repeat performance this year.

For Electric Zoo, the process of creating that visual element begins every fall in the Netherlands, where Wright and the designers brainstorm ridiculous-looking potential stages from the wildest corners of their imagination. Those initial ideas are then evaluated by the full production team for feasibility and cost. About nine months out from the festival, these plans are finalized, and a few months later, production of preassembled and customized pieces gets under way; the fabrication happens in Europe, overseen by in-house teams for SFX, the company that owns Electric Zoo. Setup on the island begins two weeks before the festival, in August. After three days of use, the sets come down and the process starts again for next year.

Back in the festival’s early days, the setup wasn’t so elaborate. “The [earlier] designs were based on video [screens], on trusses,” says production director Rutger Jansen. “The stages that we used were stages you can rent. They were [for] rock ’n’ roll, where bands need to be dry.” Back then, the production team just placed LED backdrops behind the performers, to add some visual interest to what were basically large boxes.

Then, in 2013, two attendees died when they overheated after taking MDMA. The last day of the festival was canceled. As if that weren’t enough, SFX’s stock crashed after its IPO; the company eventually declared bankruptcy. Electric Zoo needed a rebrand if it was going to continue.

It brought on Dutch entertainment company ID&T, producers of the long-running Tomorrowland festival in Belgium, which last year brought 300,000 guests to a temporary EDM city decked out at every turn with whimsical installations. The influence on Electric Zoo is clear: Though the festival had long used animal motifs on marketing materials, it wasn’t until this revamp that wildlife-inspired sculptural stages rose on Randalls Island. The inflatable octopus debuted in 2015; the main stage was staggeringly large and shaped, out of blinding LED strips, like a screeching hawk.

The stages alone are not, apparently, enough: In photos from that 2015 edition, the already staggering main stage is obscured by explosions of confetti, streamers, and fireworks. But, insists production manager Jeff King, “bigger is not always better,” which is a bit ironic considering the 75-foot cobra head being constructed just to our left. The maximalist tendency isn’t cheap, either; the producers estimate an average material and labor cost between “a few hundred thousand dollars” for the smaller stages and a million for the main one – “Something like the cost of a nice apartment in New York,” as Wright puts it.

When Electric Zoo began in 2009, attendees would travel from around the world for the event. Now there are EDM festivals with similar lineups in almost every major city in the U.S. But the production team seems unfazed by the shrinking market. “I come from Europe,” Jansen says. “I’ve been doing EDM for twenty years. Everyone’s always said the bubble is bursting. It’s not.” Plus, the process of making these sets happen is always magical, says Wright. “When you show up onsite and the physical objects that were just drawings on everyone’s computer screens for months are there, and you see the real scale — that never stops being exciting.”

If a million-dollar stage is perpetually obscured by confetti, does it really exist?
If a million-dollar stage is perpetually obscured by confetti, does it really exist?

 

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The Faces of Full Moon Music Festival

The sixth Full Moon Music Festival brought thousands of stylish music lovers to Governors Island over the weekend. Twelve artists — including SBTRKT, Santigold, Pusha T, Lolawolf, and more — performed throughout the two-day festival, timed to fall over August’s full moon.

Photos and GIFs by Laura June Kirsch for the Village Voice