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Alternative to What?

Cold Cold Hearts
Cold Comfort: Erin Smith of the Cold Cold Hearts goes distortion crazy at the Cooler. The D.C. band appeared at the Kill Rock Stars show during CMJ.

Photo by Todd S. Inoue

At the college-radio music convention in New York, alternative rock is just another word for the mainstream hard sell

By Todd S. Inoue

THE EXHIBIT area at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York rivals the biggest Silicon Valley high-tech recruitment fair. The horseshoe-shaped corridor inside Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall jangles with the sounds of commerce. Bowls full of candy and earplugs entice passersby. The Dutch Rock Music Foundation and Moon Ska Records trade compilation CDs for business cards.

Major sponsor Casio shows off its latest line of Gen-X watches. Consolidated, whose song "Dog and Pony Show" ridicules the music industry, mans a booth at the top of the stairs, proving that even the most stridently political bands will shell out top dollar to shill.

Avery Fisher Hall is the first stop for all comers to the CMJ Music Marathon, the Comdex of college radio (held Sept. 3-6 this year). CMJ stands for College Music Journal, the magazine that reports what's blowing up and what's bubbling under on college-radio stations across America. Its Music Marathon dates back to 1980, making it by far the longest-running and holiest of the new-music conferences--the nucleus from which SXSW, NXNW and the Macintosh Music Conference were formed.

During the day, seminars dispense wisdom ("Face Value: The Importance of Packaging"), and by night, record labels big and small trot out their young turks and old workhorses in every club in Manhattan.

Colleges send their station managers and program directors to network with label reps. Journalists discover what sticks and what sinks. The Music Marathon purports to be a barometer of what alternative rock will do in the coming year. From looking at the indier-than-thou attendees milling around the exhibit area, I betting they're right--for better and for worse.


Label Wars

THE SCENE at the registration desk was like a DMV for the music community. Radio reps, bands, managers and reporters all waited in orderly lines to get their laminated ID badges, which promised entry into all the clubs and seminars. Attendees snapped up bags bulging with enough promotional material to line every bird cage on the eastern seaboard. Astute college-radio reps sat in small circles, separating the wheat from the chaff.

The week's agenda was staggering: 60 venues, more than 1,000 bands. For the in-demand shows, a limit was placed on badge holders, which made jumping from club to club futile.

"Three years ago, you could hop around town and get in anywhere," said Sky Greenawalt, general manager of Santa Clara University's radio station, KSCU. "It used to be you could go to three to four venues a night. Now it's like you can get into one or two venues if you get there early. It's becoming less accessible. The people who get in are the ones with the inside track."

There's also a feeling that the CMJ Music Marathon is growing increasingly stratified, now that alternative music is the mainstream. The major labels dominated CMJ: Epic, A&M, Elektra, Virgin, Sony, Interscope, Mercury and Universal wooed attendees with acts like Superdrag, G. Love and Special Sauce, Cornershop and Mike Watt. Meanwhile, prominent independent labels sent subs instead of the starting line.

"There were shows that you could tell big labels were trying to be like small labels," said Greenawalt. "But then again, the Sub Pop showcase was awful and Matador's was awful too."

flyer Epitaph's End Run

Epitaph Records, home of Rancid, didn't participate in CMJ, but it did just happen to book its Summer Nationals, a three-day feast of its bands, the first week in September. Tickets were five dollars, shows were all ages and badges were not allowed. Over three days, fans got to see Bouncing Souls, Voodoo Glow Skulls, the Slackers, SNFU, Gas Huffer, Dwarves, Pennywise, the Joykiller, Union 13, NOFX, Pulley, Red Aunts, the Gadjits and more.

"We have no beef with CMJ," explained Epitaph publicist Jeff Abarta. "It actually was a coincidence, and when we found out that it was concurrent, we decided to proceed anyway. The whole purpose of the Summer Nationals was for the kids, not for industry, which is why no badges were let in. We actually really like CMJ, and they've shown us a lot of support over the past seven years or so, reviewing records and such."

I challenged Abarta's conciliatory attitude. I didn't believe for a minute that it was all coincidental.

"There may be have been a little bit of 'scheming' or 'jolly delight' once they realized it was at the same time," he admitted. "But I really don't think it was originally planned to be at the same time."

Despite the breakaway antics of Epitaph, according to Lookout! Records owner and Pee Chees frontman Christopher Appelgren, CMJ is still important because of the face-to-face interaction.

"A lot of people think it's a place for bands to get signed," said Appelgren. "I think it's a place to play for radio people and people who are your peers--other people in bands or labels. I felt like we made connections. We met people in radio stations and magazines who are into our band and who were excited to meet us."

Moby's Gripe

The convention purports to celebrate the contribution and quirkiness of college radio, but when two of the three keynote speakers are Sepultura guitarist Max Cavalera and Marilyn Manson, the trails once boldly blazed start to look like well-trod ruts.

The third and most congenial keynoter was Moby, the monkish, born-again techno pioneer. Moby spoke about something in short supply at the convention: courage, which he defined as someone doing something they know is the right thing to do when it would be easier not to do it.

"The last 40 years are filled with courageous music and people, but they're also filled with people who are fearful and spineless," Moby said. "The world is filled with music execs who didn't stand up for music and musicians they believed in because they feared the disapproval of their co-workers. The music world is filled with journalists, DJs and programmers who compromise their own beliefs and opinions to not look foolish in front of their peers. The world is full of fearful musicians, who never push themselves or try anything new or dynamic for fear of bad reviews or negative actions. We let fear and cowardice win out over courage and strength. A life lived in fear is a big piece of shit."

Marilyn Manson Kissing Up to Marilyn Manson

Balancing Moby was Marilyn Manson, whose influence on college radio is on a par with that of Guns 'N' Roses. The pop star mumbled through a two-minute intro, concluding that we're all "monkeys," before taking questions. More outrageously, the audience bought into Manson's shock-tart shtick.

An older DJ, prefacing her question with a long tale of how nice he was to her during an interview, told Manson of her fears about bringing her 10-year-old son to his show. Manson suggested that she should go with the kid, so if there's something that scares or confuses him, they can discuss it together.

"My parents took me to my first Kiss concert, and my dad even dressed up like Kiss," Manson noted helpfully, if a bit implausibly. "And I've turned out all right."

The rest of the audience, which probably knew better, shrugged off Manson's appearance. "It doesn't make me feel any less valid, less independent or less personal about the art or music that we create," said Appelgren about Manson's appearance.

"I feel like it's an incentive to strive for originality," he continued, "something new, and maintain something exciting and different so you can beat them out and maintain a personal edge. I'm not worried the underground is being squandered by the 'mass media' and the 'culture industry.' Things on a human level have huge expanses to explore. And there are always new things bubbling under that are exciting."

Like electronica, which caused the biggest buzz at CMJ. An opening-night show starring Aphex Twin, Crystal Method, Death in Vegas, Daft Punk, Sneaker Pimps and Fluke attracted a gang of celebrities (Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan among them) and MTV coverage. The evening, sponsored by Casio G-Shock watches, exemplified a side of the industry that Moby must have railed against during his exile from the scene, documented in his album Animal Rights.

DJ Food
Todd S. Inoue

Food for Thought: DJ Food waxes philosophical at the Wetlands.

Hunting for Hip-Hop

BESIDES HUNTING for meaning and collecting cheap trinkets, I had plenty of music to check out. My first mission was to see Cornershop, the critically acclaimed band that mixes Eastern and hip-hop influences. Signs advertising "Free Cornershop T-shirts" led to an iron-on press machine. You provided the shirt, they provided the decal. A bad omen.

Cornershop did little to impress the industry-heavy crowd. The first five songs went awry with half-hearted vocals and distracted glances. Guitarist and vocalist Tjinder Singh kept an eye on the sound tech, as if performing for her sole enjoyment. The show tightened up around "Funky Days Are Back Again" and fully redeemed itself with a kinetic "Jullander Shere."

Opening was the Bay Area's own Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. Dan's track record is lengthy. He produced the lauded Dr. Octagon project and bits of the new Cornershop LP, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, and lent his studio skills to DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... album.

Nakamura, however, neither represented nor presented his rep. He DJed, poorly at that. When he botched the mix (prophetically, during Main Source's "Fakin' the Funk"), Nakamura slammed his headphones to the floor and stomped off.

Hip-hop, overall, was underrepresented at the convention. The Jungle Brothers, Goodie Mob, Diamond D. and Cypress Hill protégés Psycho Realm performed at S.O.B.'s on opening night. DJs Cut Chemist, the Headrillaz, Red Alert and even the Dutch hip-hop posse Urban Dance Squad ("Deeper Shade of Soul," remember?) could be heard at other clubs.

Saving the scene was a benefit show for departed jazz man Zachary Breaux, hosted by legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers ("Everybody Loves the Sunshine"). On one stage: Ayers, jazz flutist Bobbie Humphrey, Guru (of Gang Starr), Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston and George Benson. The style council traded riffs with Guru chanting over the din--100 percent organic hip-hop flava.


Two Eyes Is Better Than One Club

A trip to an uptown club called Two Eyes gave me more insight into what's going on in NYC hip-hop. Walking to a spot on the floor through a tangle of heat-prostrated bodies moving in unison to every track Sean "Puffy" Combs ever touched, I felt as if I were in a hip-hop movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Over at the bar, Bobby Brown (minus Whitney, surprise) held court with a bunch of friends. It's 3am--do you know where your husband is?

DJ Goldfinger mixed up Notorious B.I.G., Puffy, Missy and Li'l Kim as if he were on the Bad Boy Records payroll (fact: he is on the Bad Boy payroll--Goldfinger is recording the Bad Boy mix tape). When the needle hit the guitar line for "It's All About the Benjamins"--he hit pay dirt. A cornfield of hands sprouted, followed by roars of appreciation. "Whatcha gonna do?" he backspun on the opening line, "You wanna be ballers, shot-callers, brawlers. Whatcha gonna do?"

I gained newfound respect for Puffy after experiencing firsthand the emotional response his records get in New York. Every car with an open window was blasting Puffy in some form.

advert Best Western

THE BOOMING sound systems and underground record-store shelves anticipated industry heat better than CMJ's turkey thermometer. In stores like Kim's and Bleecker Bob's, primitive garage stuff was extremely hot. Cheap lo-fi recordings on Planet Pimp and Super Teem!, such as Jason and the Cedrics, 5-6-7-8's and even Palo Alto's Donnas and San Jose's Retardos, claimed prominent shelf space.

Other West Coast artists were also featured at CMJ. The Orange Peels, dubbed "hookless" by the Village Voice that week, managed to perform their jolly-time pop at two Minty Fresh record label showcases. The Hi-Fives and the Mr. T. Experience excited sold-out crowds at the Lookout! showcase. The Mr. T. Experience packed tons of kids inside Coney Island High School. At one point, Joel made a point to call Lookout! the "best label in the world."

"I must say, that was a good job of sucking up, Joel," mused Frank.

Sucking up? Nobody could be accused of sucking up too much. This is CMJ, after all.

Sucking up wasn't on teenage folkie Ben Lee's set list. The Australian singer/songwriter impressed many borderline fans at an acoustic show at Threadwaxing Space that also featured Mac McCaughan (Superchunk), Rebecca Gates (Spinanes), Mark Eitzel and Juliana Hatfield. Angered by the lack of attention and the constant noise of industry scumbags networking, Lee stood on a chair in the middle of the dance floor and crooned a short set while slowly rotating, a spirited performance and a subtle middle finger to networkers.

flyer Pee Chees Keen

It wasn't until the last night that things began clicking. Forced to choose among Joey Ramone, Tanya Donnelly with Juliana Hatfield and Hooverphonic, I opted for the Kill Rock Stars night at the Cooler, a converted meat locker in the Bowery. Air conditioning poured out of industrial-sized hoses zigging around the club.

On the docket were Rock a Teens, Miranda July, the Pee Chees, Comet Gain, Unwound and Cold Cold Hearts. Much of the anger that was so eloquently displayed on Cold Cold Hearts' self-titled debut album was diffused. Allison Wolfe danced like a 13-year-old Spice Girls fan, delivering scrappy renditions of "VxPx" and "Sorry Your Band Sucks." In the crowd, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch nodded his agreement.

Anticipation for the Pee Chees show was thick. Earlier that night, Pee Chees bassist Rop Vasquez passed by me and whispered, "We're gonna blow this shit up." And blow it up they did. The Oakland band exploded in 10 different directions. Carlos Cañedo was jumping, then kneeling before his amplifier. "Do you know what 100 pounds of love sounds like?" Cañedo asked before approximating the sound of a cement truck and a semi meeting head-on at the Brooklyn Bridge.

The night wasn't over. The Ninjatune show at the Wetlands changed my mind about electronic music. On stage were DJ Food, Kid Koala and Coldcut. Visuals of the soon-to-be familiar Ninjatune logo were mixed with cartoons and old movies. The action began at 2am with Kid Koala of Montreal on the turntables. His set, by West Coast DJ standards, was impressive. Though his juggling wasn't up to par, Koala stitched together tasty beats and scratched in Star Wars samples, kiddie records and incidental music from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

DJ Food's mix moved toward ambient sound collages, pairing Yellow Magic Orchestra records with hip-hop beats. In the background, Coldcut fiddled with the visuals. The brew piqued everyone's fancy, and like all good music, hit everyone's DIY central nervous system. Ninjatune has inspired many a potential sound collagist to put out their own mix tape on a crappy four-track.

The True Spirit of Rock & Roll

AFTER FIVE DAYS ingesting the sounds and pushing away the fliers, I'm convinced the future of music will be determined in places far from the bright lights and stages of New York City. Despite publicists' protestations, the most hyped shows might be the first ones to miss, and the most authentic representations of alternative music aren't even on the agenda sheet--they're in dank clubs, in the parks after dark, rolling on mixtape spools, touched by turntablists in weed-smoked darkness.

On my first taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, the cab driver stopped in the middle of the fast lane, in morning rush-hour traffic, to retrieve an errant hub cap. As a chorus of car horns blasted, the driver grunted, "Shut up," stepped out of the car, picked up his prize, banged off the built-up dirt and tossed it onto the passenger seat.

His actions prophesied and exemplified Moby's definition of courage. It was the most profound, eye-opening rock & roll statement I experienced that week, and I didn't need a laminated card to catch the action.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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