A Cautionary Tale for Magazine Events Coordinators

CMJ Music Marathon
A few years ago, I wrote about the CMJ New Music Monthly’s annual music marathon as being one of a handful New York-based magazine events (Res’ Resfest, Tokion’s Creativity Now conference and the New Yorker’s eponymous festival) that are truly influential, tastemaking and taking place within a few weeks of each other. And, with the exception of the New Yorker, events that threaten to outshine their print products. (For CMJ this is certainly the case; take an informal poll of attendees at any CMJ Music Marathon showcase this week and you’ll be hard-pressed to find people who know CMJ even has a magazine, let alone subscribe to it).

Now a scandal and confusion involving the band selection process could threaten that platform for CMJ, too. Here’s the backstory, serving as a cautionary tale for any magazine publisher who thinks their event is tarnish-proof.

The CMJ Music Marathon, now in its 28th year, programs four days (October 16-20) of hundreds of band showcases throughout New York, drawing 90,000 badge-toting festival goers and requiring prospective bands and record labels to pay a nonrefundable $45 fee to apply. CMJ—along with Austin’s South By Southwest, the biggest music festival in the world—used an online submission site called Sonicbids to handle the applications.
A few weeks ago, an apparent bug in the application software caused an e-mail to be sent out to bands to inform them they were on “Stand-by” status. A few minutes later, an e-mail from CMJ showcase coordinator Robyn Baskin, sent to 675 bands—with their e-mail addresses listed, rather than BCC-ed—informed the same bands of their rejection:

It is with regret that we inform you we are unable to find a slot for you to perform at CMJ Music Marathon 2007. Please realize that you made it through a number of rounds in the selection process and the music that you are making caught our attention for one reason or another. Unfortunately, the sheer number of applicants in relation to the number of clubs in NY makes it impossible for us to give every deserving band a slot at the festival, and while it may not be much consolation, we did try our best to accommodate as many acts as possible, including yours."

Because indie rock bands are good at math, one did a quick synopsis:

Apart from the fact that we are now open to a bunch of spam, it has also brought to my attention that sonic bids has collected the $45 fee from at least 670 bands ($30,450) knowing full well that you could never accommodate all of the bands.

If that band had been on the winning side, of course, the $30,450 collected for rejections while unseemly, would’ve been tolerable. But a rep from a label called Shiny Little Records wrote the following:

"Check your SonicBids account and see how many plays you received. Ours, attached, shows that there were NO plays of any of our music by anyone (CMJ was the only ap we submitted). $45 should at the very least mean that they get an intern to click play on your song once. How sloppy. Yes, I think a refund, apology, and full explanation are in order."

Then the floodgates opened. “Soon it became apparent that there were a large number of bands who hadn’t had their music even listened to,” one blogger wrote. The response was so furious that CMJ staffers, like artists and events VP Matt McDonald, were forced to respond:

We very much appreciate the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that each artist puts into his/her music, and the CMJ Music Marathon wouldn’t have lasted for 27 years if that appreciation were not in clear focus for everyone involved in the event. As head of the staff who reviews the music and selects the artists for the marathon, I can tell you firsthand that we do in fact listen to at least two songs from every single artist who applies. For the ease of listening, the showcase department downloads mp3s from Sonicbids EPKs and drops them into our iTunes player. Sonicbids has recently changed their system to track streamed plays, however it does not currently track these mp3 downloads, making it appear that we did not listen when in fact we did. We can report back which specific songs were reviewed. Our review process is extremely thorough and difficult and with or without payment for submissions, I cannot even fathom the injustice of ignoring any submissions. I can reassure you that each and every artist was given the same respect and critique.

Creating and Retaining Your Sales “A Team”
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