CMJ Sure Seems To Be Over. So How Come Nobody Is Talking About It?
The CMJ Music Marathon has been around longer than many of its participants have been alive. Like infinite waves of incoming NYU freshmen, the marathon arrives in New York City every fall, without fail, bringing with it money to burn, widely disparate degrees of actual “talent,” and heightened levels of media attention. CMJ is “music’s fashion week,” says The Guardian. It’s “an event that even the jaded music lover can appreciate,” says Esquire. It’s “one of the music industry’s most important festivals,” says Forbes.
CMJ isn’t really a “festival,” though — it bears no resemblance to modern-day archetypes like Lollapalooza and Coachella. Its self-ascribed “marathon” designation is probably more apt, if also inadequate. Not unlike SXSW, CMJ is a hybrid event, spanning the better part of a full week and containing elements of a convention, a summit, a networking forum, and an industry showcase. It includes (or has included) panels, film premieres, laminated badges on branded lariats, day parties offering free booze, and promotional booths manned by garrulous spokespeople pushing all manner of product. It’s also a wide-ranging, community-organizing concert series that gathers tastemakers, taste-testers, and a dizzying number of flavors-of-the-week and random leftovers, all hoping to be added to somebody’s regular menu.
And it’s an institution, if for no other reason than its stubborn — and surprising — longevity. Last year, the marathon celebrated its 35th birthday. That’s three and a half decades of these events, starting in 1981. (By way of context, CBGB shut its doors after only 33 years in business.) The CMJ 2015 lineup was vast, running five days during which 80 or so NYC venues hosted some 1,200 acts, including 213 international bands from 34 countries outside the US, according to The New York Times. The highlights spanned genres and demographics, and they were not fucking around: Panda Bear played. Kamasi Washington played. Mitski was there. Kero Kero Bonito, too. Dilly Dally did a bunch of shows, and actually went semi-viral with a Drake cover. Kodak Black was scheduled to play, but he got arrested on his the way to club. That showcase was still bananas: Saba played, and motherfucking André 3000 was in the house. Skrillex did a surprise DJ set for 150 people. Frankie Cosmos played and they were stoked.
Cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj cmj c m j CMJ
— frankie cosmos (@frankiecosmos) October 18, 2015
Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves was something of an unofficial ambassador for the marathon in 2015. She booked some shows, her band played some shows, she spoke on some panels, and she wrote a three-part diary of her experience for the Village Voice. She also did a video interview with The Guardian, discussing her involvement in CMJ 2015 and her longstanding fondness for the annual event.
“A couple years ago, CMJ was how people found out about our band,” she said. “I never expected we’d see another CMJ. But here we are, and today, this lineup is insane.”
Graves never explicitly said why she’d never expected to see another CMJ following her band’s 2013 coming-out coronation, but it presumably had something to do with the financial problems faced by the marathon’s organizers around that time. As The Observer wrote in its CMJ 2015 wrap-up:
Like much of the music industry, CMJ was on the verge of bankruptcy two years ago, the college radio stations under its umbrella faced with the potential of losing their main artery to the industry. That’s why Adam Klein, founder and CEO of Abaculi Media, bought the struggling company last year with plans to turn it around.
Wielding a doctorate in strategy and change management from Harvard, Klein’s modus operandi with CMJ was the same as his missions at Hasbro, MTV, Ask Jeeves, EMI Records, and eMusic. He runs companies for two to three years and ushers in a heavy structural transformation, putting a new team in place to go with it. But when Abaculi bought CMJ, Klein changed the music and live concert promotion businesses, too.
Abaculi reportedly acquired CMJ about halfway through 2014 — meaning plans for that fall’s festival were already underway when Klein’s company took the wheel — but based on the response, that transition went off without a hitch. While critics in attendance made no apparent mention of any “heavy structural transformation,” reviews of Klein’s inaugural marathon were largely positive:
“Stellar,” said NPR.
“A return to form,” said Free Williamsburg.
“New signs of life for CMJ,” said Billboard.
Last year was the first in which Abaculi was running the marathon from day one, and as per usual, it was covered extensively by media outlets at every level: from The New York Times to the Santa Monica NPR affiliate KCRW, from American Songwriter to Australian Rolling Stone. And much like 2014, just about everyone was offering positive assessments and prognoses:
“In the age where music discovery and consumption happens online, CMJ seems quaint — but the new band showcase still serves a purpose, and it’s a lot of fun,” said The Guardian.
“It’s just like indie music used to be: You have to work harder to get to the good stuff, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding,” said Paste.
“CMJ is simply a must for anybody in the industry,” said Forbes.
As for the changes suggested by Klein? There were maybe a few things here and there — hey look, an app! — but on the whole, CMJ remained true to its established identity, with a few little tweaks producing a satisfying result:
“As Roger Daltrey once howled, meet the new CMJ, same as the old CMJ,” said Free Williamsburg. “And while that may sound cynical (and lyrically a little off), the simple fact is CMJ didn’t need a full organ transplant as much as a shot of Botox here and a nip/tuck there. In the end, that’s exactly what it got.”
Things appeared to be firmly back on track. And the future — for all its inherent uncertainties — looked promising:
“This year’s marathon marks the halfway point for Klein’s two-year turnaround strategy,” said Billboard. “Who’s ready for CMJ Marathon 2016?”
Ah, now see, that right there? That last question? That’s a good question.
We love all our dedicated fans. Please bear with us. 🕦— CMJ (@CMJ) June 29, 2016
As of today — 8/29/2016 — that’s the most recent tweet from CMJ’s authorized Twitter account. There’s an identical update on CMJ’s Facebook, posted the same day, exactly two full months ago. Prior to that momentary burst of activity, both of CMJ’s official social channels had been dead for nearly another two full months. The most recent post on CMJ’s website is dated 6/1/2016.
The nebulous apology offered by CMJ at the end of June could apply to any of these things; every aspect of the entire organization had basically fallen into a black hole sometime during the month of May. But it seems most likely the plea was directed in particular at “dedicated fans” of the marathon: far and away the most substantial component of CMJ’s operation, and the one around which some people might actually have to plan their lives.
By that point, though, most people had probably long since given up on CMJ and made other plans. The first public whispers that the 2016 festival might be scotched came long before CMJ went radio silent — back in April, in fact — courtesy of a Brooklyn Vegan story titled “Is CMJ Happening This Year?” As BV pointed out in that post:
CMJ’s website still has all the 2015 info, artist submissions never started, we haven’t heard about any shows or bands playing, rumors are spreading, and CMJ is remaining quiet (as they probably look for money).
It’s important to point out that BV has something of a vested interest here: The site has been presenting numerous CMJ events every year for a decade. If BV doesn’t know, then nobody knows. And BV doesn’t know. Whatever’s going on behind the scenes, the stage itself is silent, empty, and dark … except for that solitary blip on the heart-rate monitor back in June:
“Please bear with us.”
Last year, CMJ made its initial lineup announcement on 9/9, so from a distance, it might not seem unusual that we haven’t heard anything yet about a 2016 marathon. It could still happen! Any day now!
But by all accounts, it won’t. This comes from informal and on-background conversations with numerous people who would know: booking agents, local concert promoters, longtime CMJ partners. I’d ask people at CMJ directly, but there’s literally no contact information on their website at the moment, and none of the employees listed on their masthead appear to have Twitter accounts. So I’m just gonna tell you straight: It won’t happen. It can’t happen, logistically speaking. It would be pretty difficult to organize a decent baby shower in a month and a half, so you can forget about a music festival comprising 1,200 acts from 35 countries at 80 venues IN NEW YORK FUCKING CITY.
As Meredith Graves said in that video interview last year: After her band’s star-turning 2013 marathon, she believed we’d never see another CMJ. She seemed pretty happy to have been proven wrong.
But here we are.
“Who’s ready for CMJ Marathon 2016?” Not CMJ, that’s for damn sure.
I don’t want to bore you with a history lesson — and anyway, I couldn’t possibly hope to capture the entire history of CMJ in anything less than a book — but to understand how we got to this point, it’s crucial that we establish a little timeline of the major business-related developments in CMJ’s progression.
Anyhow, the marathon was launched, in nascent form, in 1981, when Long Island’s Bobby Haber and his partner, Joanne Abbot Green (the two got married in 1988), kicked off the inaugural College Radio Brainstorm: a Manhattan-based college-radio conference that would soon be rebranded the CMJ Music Marathon. The annual event slowly grew from a modest 100-person assembly into the sprawling festival we know today and have already discussed at some length in this very space, i.e., “music’s fashion week.”
But, wait, back up a sec. That’s not where the story starts.
These days, the name CMJ is probably most recognizably affiliated with the music festival, but it’s important to point out that the marathon is in fact only one aspect of CMJ’s overall operation, and not really its flagship product. CMJ came into this world as a magazine. That’s where it started, and for a long time, that’s why it mattered.
Here is where the story starts:
In 1978, Haber produced the first issue of College Media Journal: 32 xeroxed pages, stapled together, tabulating campus radio playlists and compiling actual charts in the style of Billboard. Over time, the publication evolved: Its name was changed to CMJ New Music Report. Instead of College Media Journal, the initials “CMJ” now stood for College Music Journal. Over the course of the ’80s, the magazine grew from a DIY rag to a trade glossy published on a weekly basis.
If you’ve never worked in the music business, there’s a decent chance you’ve never actually seen an issue of the CMJ New Music Report in real life, because it wasn’t sold on stands, subscriptions were outrageously expensive, and the content was targeted at label personnel, program directors, PR types, distribution managers, etc. It was mostly charts and new-artist profiles, and it existed to help industry types keep up with what the “kids” were listening to — by exposing them to Archers Of Loaf or Gastr Del Sol or whatever was getting spun a lot by the music snobs who deejayed at US college radio stations at the time.
The charts published in CMJ New Music Report led to the company establishing the CMJ College Radio Network, an organization via which participating stations could submit their playlists for tabulation, and through which members could communicate. At its peak, the network boasted nearly 800 member stations. That may not seem like a big number, but at the time, it was a huge resource — not only for its members, who were able to share their rarified and refined tastes with the world, but to labels, advertisers, and gatekeepers. In the ’90s, college radio stations had a broad reach and a significant cultural cachet, and having access to 800 of those stations meant access to a wide audience base, not to mention a powerful demographic data-mining tool. This was especially meaningful in an era before services like Facebook, Spotify, and Google started collecting granular analytics on billions of individual people. Make no mistake: The CMJ College Radio Network and the charts it produced every week were very valuable. (That sentence also works if you change the placement of my emphasis, btw: “The CMJ College Radio Network and the charts it produced every week were very valuable.”)
In 1993, CMJ launched a second magazine title: CMJ New Music Monthly, which was made available to layfolk for a reasonable price and sold on newsstands everywhere. New Music Monthly came packaged with a CD that collected tracks from 20 or so new albums, many of which were featured in the magazine’s reviews section. That reviews section was pretty great, by the way, at least for the first few years. Actually, those CDs were pretty great, too, especially in the pre-MP3 world. If you’re “of a certain age,” you probably have fond memories of CMJ New Music Monthly, and if you have fond memories of CMJ New Music Monthly, you probably own a decent number of albums introduced to you by one of those CDs.
Those were the good years, the golden years, the years when you’d be pretty stoked on the idea of getting a free CD packed with a grab bag of new songs by a bunch of random alternative rock bands with regrettable, interchangeable names.
Those years were fun and all, but they couldn’t last, and they didn’t.
At the end of 1997, CMJ was operating at a deficit of $2.2 million, according to an audit conducted by Rubin & Katz LLP. At the end of 1998, it was $2.8 million. And at the end of September 1999, it was $2.9 million.
In November 1999, Haber and Green sold their controlling interest in CMJ to a venture funding firm called Rare Medium Group, Inc. for $1 million in cash and $3.9 million in stock options. CMJ was summarily merged with an existing Rare Medium product called ChangeMusic — the new property was named the ChangeMusic Network — with Haber and Green now minority shareholders, and Haber appointed CEO of the subsidiary network.
Rare Medium’s ambitions were massive — or, if not their ambitions, then their appetites, at least. They were snapping up properties like it was Black Friday, and they were in a crowded Target with a fat wallet and fast-emptying shelves. Globallink Communications, Live Universe, Hype!, Inc., Fire Engine Red, iFace, ePrize, FS3 … Buy, buy, buy!
But Black Friday hadn’t come yet. Black Friday was still down the road a ways.
(We’ll get there, I promise. Let’s just let them have their moment, OK?)
“CMJ is one of the most trusted and credible sources for up-to-the-minute information on new music, new artists and emerging trends in the music industry,” said ChangeMusic President Seth Tapper in a statement. “Together we are strategically positioned to win in the online music marketplace.”
“The ChangeMusic Network will uniquely combine human intelligence, industry expertise, and cutting-edge technology to rescue consumers from the avalanche of music on the Web,” said Haber. “Together with ChangeMusic.com’s reach, we will lead the way for millions of consumers to discover the best new music and the stars of tomorrow.”
CMJ moved out of their modest quarters in Great Neck, Long Island to a swanky space in Midtown Manhattan. They launched CMJ-branded events in cities across the country: in Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta. The existing team was given raises across the board, and they also aggressively staffed up, rapidly expanding to nearly 100 employees.
This, too, couldn’t last. And … it didn’t. The new events flopped. The first round of layoffs came in November 2000 — only a year after the initial acquisition. CMJ let go of 19 people in its events and editorial departments. The shrinking staff was forced to move from its autonomous offices into those already occupied by Rare Medium.
“Industry conventions are not huge cash cows,” said one source to Hits Daily Double. “The CMJ conventions have never been tremendously profitable.”
“If you’re not an indispensable source for the industry, you’re worthless,” said another source. “The management [at Rare Medium] doesn’t understand the business enough to give them a shot at turning the company around.”
The next round of layoffs came three months later, in February 2001. CMJ axed another 20 employees, according to the Village Voice, and started trimming editorial content in New Music Monthly “putting the specialty music columns ‘on hold.'”
“This is a pretty sane reaction to the market,” one anonymous CMJ editor told the Voice. “We staffed up quick in the irrational exuberance of last year, and now we’re paring down appropriately.”
That’s something of an understatement. When Rare Medium acquired CMJ, its stock was at 27.75. By March 2000, it peaked at 44. But at the end of that year, it had sunk to 1.9.
Still, Haber called Rare Medium “the best thing that ever happened” to CMJ. The anonymous editor quoted above shared some of Haber’s positive outlook. “Maybe this is foolish optimism on my part,” said the editor, “but I have some belief that the company is going to continue on to do some cool things.”
One of the employees let go in the February 2001 bloodletting was then-29-year-old staffer Kelso Jacks, who’d been with CMJ for more than three years by that point. Her reaction to the cuts were decidedly not optimistic. “I was like, ‘fuck seniority and fuck loyalty!’ she told the Voice. “I even blamed my parents for always having the same job for 40 years, like if they hadn’t, I might have moved on when there were opportunities.”
By April 2001, after 16 months as ChangeMusic Network, it was all over. Rare Medium began shutting down and shedding its subsidiaries, in preparation for its own dissolution.
Rather than let their 23-year-old company die along with its three-year-old new ownership group, Haber and Green bought back their controlling interest in CMJ Network and started again.
“Prior to the merger, CMJ was already an industry-standard brand and a growing consumer product suite,” said Haber in a statement. “Over the past year and a half we’ve improved our products, redesigned CMJ.com and increased our client base — we’re better prepared for today’s changing music industry realities and well positioned for the seismic impact that the Internet continues to have on the production, distribution and consumption of recorded music.”
You wouldn’t necessarily have noticed any of this activity from the outside — I mean, you’re the type of person who’s inclined to read a column like this, so maybe you would have, but most people wouldn’t have noticed. Most people aren’t aware of any particular brand’s corporate parents. Most people don’t really care about that shit, and frankly, most companies prefer it that way. But if you paid close attention, you would have seen things like this, buried in the new releases section of the May/June 2001 issue of New Music Monthly:
That’s legitimately pretty funny. But it’s not accurate. Remember, CMJ was operating at a deficit of $2.9 million when the company was acquired by Rare Medium. The magazine titles were netting $4 million per year, and the marathon was good for another $1 million, but the costs required to produce those things were nonetheless greater than their revenue.
CMJ was already in trouble when Rare Medium came along. Was CMJ ever not in trouble?
Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, real trouble was on the horizon.
The 2001 marathon was set to begin only five months after the the Rare Medium collapse: on 9/13. Swag bags had been packed, badges had been laminated, ads had been placed.
And on 9/11, tragedy struck.
There was obviously no way the marathon could proceed as planned. Much of Manhattan island south of 14th Street was closed off, and the majority of CMJ’s venues were inacessible. Air travel to and from New York City was effectively impossible. And anyway, nobody was especially interested in a Drive-Thru Records showcase or a “day-long symposium with panel discussions focusing on issues facing the college music community today.” The entire world was in a state of shock and New York City was a war zone.
The 2001 marathon would have to be cancelled.
Instead, they just postponed it.
The marathon was rescheduled to run from 10/10 – 10/13. “It’s almost 100 percent different than the event we would have had a few weeks ago,” Haber told The New York Times. His team scrambled, and in two and a half weeks, put together a passable version of the marathon.
Not, however, passable enough to be profitable.
As Robert Christgau wrote:
Only 150 preregistrations canceled, but many were no-shows — attendance from overseas was very sparse, and West Coast bizzers have developed an aversion to airplanes. Even worse, walkup business, normally 4,000 young hedonists from all over the country, was down to zilch — local zilch. In September acts like Coldplay, Ben Folds, and the Strokes were in place to goose badge purchases; all had to be elsewhere October 10 through 13, leaving booker Chris White with a foreshortened schedule heavy on New York acts.
A few panelists dropped out, including guest speaker Dave Navarro, who hit the road with Jane’s Addiction on October 2. Fifty percent of the 8,000 pre-registered patrons never showed up after shelling out $350-$445 ($200 less for students) for an admission badge. The walk-up registration, which carries an even higher price tag, was even worse. Haber guessed that shortcoming to be around 80 percent. Although the actual figures on how much money was lost weren’t available at press time, the low turnout was obvious; conference traffic in the hotel was as sparse as Haber had seen in 15 years.
Still, Haber expressed confidence and resolve. “Initially, the last thing anybody could have dreamt about was throwing a party,” he told MTV. “As we realized that there was no way of putting an event on even if we wanted to — and obviously we did not — we had to set our sights to completely redoing the event. It really became a mission here, to put on the very best event we could … for reasons of New York, for reasons of our industry.”
At the time, Haber’s explanation sounded not only reasonable but respectable: patriotic, even heroic. If it contained any truth, though, it was only a small percentage of the whole truth.
CMJ was in pretty bad shape before their experience with Rare Medium, and in absolutely dire financial straits afterward. Cancelling the marathon would have meant issuing refunds to countless festival sponsors, and failing to collect from countless others. Plowing ahead meant a much-needed shot of cash. But it wasn’t just the sponsorship dollars. The national tragedy offered up additional revenue opportunities.
Again, via MTV:
Haber hopes to offset any financial loss with help from governmental relief organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Economic Development Commission. But if CMJ’s applications aren’t approved, the losses could take a toll throughout the company, which recently avoided extinction by buying itself out of an unsuccessful deal with Rare Medium Group Inc. in late April.
“If there’s no [governmental] relief, there will be appropriate belt-tightening measures,” Haber said, referring to employee layoffs and cutbacks. “None of the products [New Music Monthly and New Music Report] are in danger.”
He was saying, of course, that the magazines were safe, so there was no reason for subscribers or advertisers to worry. If CMJ’s applications for disaster relief failed to be approved, it would just mean more layoffs.
Presumably the disaster relief was not approved. Because more layoffs followed.
“I know they almost went down the tubes financially,” WFMU General Manager Ken Freedman said in 2003. “They’ve had terrible, terrible financial problems.”
That quote comes from a story documenting the second paralyzing post-millennial injury suffered by CMJ, when a number of college-radio representatives accused CMJ of fraudulent behavior, claiming the organization had manipulated its charts to falsely prop up its own “pay-to-play” samplers and cater to a major-label advertising base whose interests seemed to have a significant influence on CMJ’s editorial coverage.
The East Bay Express did a deep investigation into the issue, and it is a wild fucking story — going beyond the initial claims of shady behavior, and getting into a host of other issues: freelance writers reporting to have never been paid for work they did for CMJ and having been forced to “resort to threatening them with lawyers”; radio programmers reacting furiously to being treated dismissively by representatives of CMJ; industry insiders questioning the organization’s practices and the accuracy of its charts; rumors of severe financial distress. The story is far too unwieldy and insane to encapsulate here, but this quote is as good a takeaway as any:
The [pay-to-play] fiasco has the underground industry abuzz. For those who already had reasons to distrust CMJ, this seemed a calculated plan to promote the company’s own compilations, leaving many to wonder whether CMJ can still be trusted and, equally troubling for the company, whether it is still relevant.
Haber, though, brushed off concerns regarding CMJ’s supposed money problems: “Since I’ve been 19, there’s been suggestions of CMJ being in trouble,” he told the East Bay Express. “Actually, CMJ is in the best financial situation we’ve been in for three years.”
That was probably true, if for no other reason than the fact that the Rare Medium acquisition presumably absolved CMJ of its debt, so that when Haber and Green bought back the network, they did so with something of a clean slate. It was a new company. It didn’t last long, though.
The pay-to-play scandal was probably unrelated to the further misfortunes that would befall CMJ — the last decade hasn’t been kind to magazines anywhere, regardless of ethical standards — but in any case, the marathon was still floundering by 2004. Michelle Mutter, who then held the title of Producer, Events Division, at CMJ Network Inc., said they were still reeling from their post-9/11 losses: “That was a huge setback… We have been getting back on track the past couple years, and trying to get to a point where we’ve made up for what happened.”
In 2005, CMJ launched a Cleveland-based festival in conjunction with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but after 2006, that had been shut down, largely because CMJ wasn’t exactly doing much of anything, whereas everyone in Cleveland was forced to do much more, without much in the way of assistance.
“The resources it took for us to produce it were larger than we could bear,” said Todd Mesek, the Rock Hall’s vice president of marketing and communications, in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “On top of their day jobs here, [Rock Hall staffers] weren’t getting paid extra.”
Local venues were forced to work double-time, too. “A small group of people had to struggle to pull it together,” said Cindy Barber, co-owner of Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom And Tavern. “We couldn’t get big-name bands, because we didn’t have the money to pay them. The only extra stuff we got was some improved marketing.”
That’s how the New York City marathon runs, too, of course: Venues, bookers, media, partners, and artists do most of the legwork, while CMJ provides a central entity around which the event orbits; that entity is in charge of “organizing” the lineup as well as signing up sponsors and collecting the majority of the sponsorship dollars. It’s not necessarily a bad arrangement, and when it works, it’s because everyone is working together. But it never works for everyone.
In 2007, there was another scandal, this one related to the marathon’s paid-application process, wherein a number of artists claimed to have submitted materials and fees to CMJ, only to receive mass-mailed rejection letters from the organization coupled with strong evidence that nobody at CMJ had ever listened to their music at all.
Meanwhile, both New Music Report and New Music Monthly withered over the course of the aughts. The monthly mag was unceremoniously put out of its misery, while the print edition of New Music Report was discontinued in favor of a PDF file delivered via email. The demise of the magazines was covered by the now-defunct music blog The End Of Irony:
This may not seem like news to the few people who still subscribe to CMJ New Music Monthly, but it looks like the magazine has finally gone away. Think about how long it’s been before you’ve even seen a CMJ magazine (whether it be on the newsstands or in the mailbox of a subscriber). The music rag has effectively been dead since 2008 (and on life support long before that).
And then … another merger. In October 2009, Haber revealed that CMJ had moved into the offices of Metropolitan Talent, a management and concert-promotion company run by industry veteran John Scher, with an eye on an acquisition that would be beneficial to both parties. At least, it seemed like it would be beneficial to both parties. Scher and Haber did a joint interview with The New York Times, and both men appeared to be pretty optimistic, although Haber noted that no contracts had yet been signed.
“We’re shackin’ up but not officially married yet.”
Of course they never got married. And still, somehow, they’ve spent the last few years going through a fucking brutal divorce.
In May 2013, Scher filed a lawsuit against Haber and CMJ. Per The New York Times:
[T]he deal, which valued CMJ at $2.4 million, was never completed. According to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Scher in May, relations between the companies broke down.
In his suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Mr. Scher says that CMJ has failed to repay nearly $600,000 in loans that Metropolitan made in 2009 and 2010 to help keep the festival afloat. With interest, that debt is now nearly $800,000, the suit says. It also seeks $99,000 in other fees as well as repayment of legal expenses.
The suit further contends that CMJ fraudulently transferred its assets to another corporation to shield them from Metropolitan.
It’s impossible to say with certainty how exactly the shell corporation suggested by Scher might have worked — especially because CMJ representatives have claimed the suit against them is “without merit” — but in any case, CMJ’s corporate structure had indeed been rearranged, and starting in 2012, after more than three decades with Haber and Green in charge, the organization had a new CEO and president, Alexis d’Amecourt, and a new co-CEO, Keith Garde.
The week during which the 2013 marathon kicked off, d’Amecourt was doing PR, spouting random nonsense about the state of the company and his new position therein. Garde, meanwhile, had previously been affiliated with CMJ in 2008, when his company, Paid Inc., was engaged by CMJ to handle web development and launch an exclusive merchandise line. Without explanation, Haber and Green had been dropped a few spots on the masthead, now both titled “Senior Executive Vice President.”
Incidentally, it’s hard to find that particular masthead anywhere anymore, but it’s still here on the site Just Answer, in response to a query from a user who was “looking for the name of the company that purchased CMJ in the past couple years, as well as the head of accounting for any bills that CMJ is required to pay.”
Here’s some more information on the suit and the shell game, via Billboard:
The papers [filed by Metropolitan] allege that CMJ Network Inc., along with Robert and Joanne Haber, sold CMJ Network to a new corporation called CMJ Holdings, a deal which did not include the original loans. The new owners allegedly refused to acknowledge Metropolitan’s claim to the money lent.
Speaking to Billboard.biz, Mr. Scher outlined a meeting he had roughly a month after being refused by Mr. Haber to meet with potential investors he had found. “My partner and I went and had a meeting with Keith and three other people. They looked us in the eye and they said ‘We’ve taken over CMJ, and we’d like to work together.’ We said “Well there’s a little thing about $600,000 or $700,000 you owe us.’ He said ‘Well you’re not gonna get it. You’ve got a claim against old CMJ.'”
As Roger Daltrey once howled …
The d’Amecourt/Garde regime was in place for only one marathon — 2013’s controversy-riddled event — and after that, there really was a new boss. You know him already: Adam Klein, founder and CEO of Abaculi Media. Well, we talked about him already. You don’t know him.
You might know some of the places he used to work in high-level executive roles — eMusic, VideoEgg, Ask Jeeves — although none of those companies are exactly thriving since Klein’s departure. You certainly don’t know Abaculi Media, because there’s almost nothing to know. Search “Abaculi Media,” and you’ll find its website among the top results, but you might be resistant to click on the link when Google’s preview offers only this:
FYI, the site’s not hacked; it’s just a dead, linkless homepage offering the following promise:
Stay tuned for exciting new developments coming soon.
Search a little further and you’ll find a single review of the company on the Yelp-for-jobs site Glassdoor. It’s submitted anonymously by an alleged “former employee,” of course, and therefore to be taken with a degree of skepticism, but it’s not a positive review. Here’s the bulk of it:
There’s honestly not one pro.
This is a fake company. It literally does nothing and it’s completely meaningless.
Advice to Management
The owner will try to tell you this company is an events/tech company and it isn’t. It hasn’t done one thing in 3 years. It’s literally only the parent company of CMJ by default because it’s the same owner.
Search further still, and you’ll find legal documents, filed last August, stating that Abaculi has now been added to the list of defendants in Scher’s case against Haber and CMJ Holdings.
Keep going even deeper, and you’ll find more legal documents regarding another lawsuit launched against Klein and Abaculi, this one by Remote Facilities Consulting Services, Inc., a company contracted by Abaculi in 2014 to assist in the online broadcast of the XXII Central American and Caribbean Games. In that case, the plaintiff alleges that Klein failed to make good on his end of the parties’ initial agreement, and is seeking “a minimum amount of $620,000.00, the amount of the contract plus extra costs” along with additional damages and fees.
That paperwork was filed on 4/8/16. Three weeks before CMJ.com stopped posting news stories on a regular basis. Three weeks before Brooklyn Vegan wrote “Is CMJ happening This Year?” For what it’s worth, even though we didn’t know last year’s CMJ lineup till September, the marathon’s dates were announced in April — on 4/15/15 — exactly one year, minus one week, prior to the most recent lawsuit’s filing. It’s a notable coincidence, if nothing else.
The blog Paint Is My Bitch obsessively covers the college-radio charts (bless you, kind sir) and if you want to track CMJ’s demise since April, you need look no further than that site’s archives. It’s all worth reading — it doesn’t offer behind-the-scenes dirt, but instead, the educated observations of one Douglas Blake, who works for Pirate! Promotion And Management — and this post, from 5/25, seems genuinely panicked. Here’s an excerpt:
[For] the 2nd time in 3 weeks yet another person from CMJ has quit. There was a legitimate concern this week that there might not be charts. There is continued concern from myself and I know some others share my same view. There are a lot of stories about why people have left and why people are staying and I continue to try and figure out the facts … I have heard stories of people not getting paid, people being laid off in the winter, companies closing and reopening under a new name. Its not a friendly place, people get taken advantage of.
That squares with this Glassdoor review from December 2015, via an anonymous “former employee” who allegedly worked at CMJ under Klein:
Festival team is amazing. It is incredible what the 7-9 people on festival staff accomplish each year. Everyone is smart, hard working and supportive. It is a very welcoming and fun environment to work in most of the time.
The new CEO is completely inept. Shady business practices, lies, and he is MIA 95% of the time. The pay rate is below market to begin with and he has repeatedly failed to pay salaries on time with people going over 6 months without pay. Staff is provided with little to no (believable) explanation. Much of the staff is also placed in the extremely uncomfortable position of dealing with vendors who have not received payment as well. The festival staff is amazing, it is such an unfortunate waste of talent.
Advice to Management
Hire an accountant. Although, there really does not seem to be much hope for change as long as the current CEO is in charge.
Klein’s legal battle with Remote Facilities Consulting Services is ongoing; the most recent motion was filed two weeks ago. You can keep up with the proceedings via Pacer, or you can take it from me: It’s a mess. Here’s an excerpt from the minutes on 8/15/2016:
Counsel discuss the settlement agreement in question, the plaintiff claims the defendant Klein, and Abuculi breached the agreement, the first payment has not been made, the beach house is not on the market. Defendant claim they have concerns regarding plaintiff adhering to the agreement by communicating and disparaging which has been prohibited. Plaintiff disagrees and states the defendant has breached the agreement and requests the court enter judgment pursuant to the agreement.
Scher’s case against CMJ is also ongoing. Per Billboard: “[T]hough Haber, Green, and CMJ Holdings Corp. tried to get the case dismissed in 2014, a judge ultimately decided the case could proceed to a jury trial, which will be held later this year or early next.”
Perhaps the future of CMJ is entirely unrelated to either of those lawsuits. But right now, those lawsuits at least offer a hint of what might be going on at CMJ. And that’s a whole lot more than CMJ is offering.
Considering CMJ’s substantial brand equity, it almost seems a little odd that a well-heeled corporate entity hasn’t stepped in with an offer. Right? Just take the whole mess off Klein’s hands and take a shot on rebranding the thing. Or don’t! At the very least — even if it just rots on the shelf — you keep it out of the hands of your closest competitors, no?
To be 100% crystal fucking clear, the “you” to whom I’m referring right there is Live Nation and/or AEG, either/both of whom might see some potential in a New York City-based version of SXSW that comes complete with enthusiastic media partners, unopposed city approval, global industry recognition, a compelling narrative and a documentary-worthy history, a network of participating venues, a built-in audience, a decent-sized social following, etc. I imagine they’d be especially interested right now, considering how they’re currently fighting tooth and nail to offer the least-worst festival on Randall’s Island. You could get the complete property for a song! (Not including my finder’s fee!) The whole operation was valued at $2.4 million back in 2009, but it hasn’t exactly appreciated since then. So give Klein, I dunno, $2 mil, he can settle the suits in which he’s embroiled and still probably walk away with a few hundred thou in his pocket.
To also be 100% fucking crystal clear, I am in no way recommending that my own company and/or anyone else in the world make such an offer. Even without the legal hassles and the company’s steady public erosion, it seems to me that CMJ is a bad bet. The entire organization seems uniquely positioned for failure. It’s not like anyone could relaunch the magazine, and you could spend a billion dollars rebooting the website and still fall to your death trying to find a foothold. College radio, meanwhile, has been in decline for years — universities have been killing campus radio for profit, selling off their frequencies for substantial sums and moving their radio stations online, where they are effectively washed into oblivion.
So without the publication or the college radio network, you’re left with the marathon. But who needs CMJ when you’ve got SXSW, which offers almost the same exact experience, except that it is superior in every single way? Moreover, New York City’s club culture has grown far beyond the East Village — the neighborhood around which “live music” had been largely contained during CMJ’s heyday — into dozens of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, making the idea of an NYC-based marathon especially unattractive (not that it was ever all that great in the first place).
Crazier still, there are now two competing marathons right here in New York City. There’s the relatively young Northside Festival (which had the good sense to limit its scope to Brooklyn), and the brand spanking new Mondo.NYC, whose inaugural event will kick off this September and which is structurally almost identical to CMJ, and with good reason: It’s run by CMJ founders Bobby Haber and Joanne Abbot Green! Also, Mondo.NYC is such a perfectly “Weird ’90s” name that I half-wonder if Haber and Green stole it from some Columbia-signed buzz band featured on a circa-’96 CMJ compilation CD. I should point out that the Mondo.NYC lineup is not filled with recognizable names — and I don’t mean, like, your mom has never heard of these bands; I mean that the managing editor of Stereogum has never heard of any of these bands! (I’m exaggerating. I know Downtown Boys. And, um, Numenorean, who are a really good atmospheric black metal band from Calgary. And maybe a handful of other smaller acts. But you catch my drift.)
In 2009, the writer Zach Baron authored a piece for the Village Voice titled “Why Does CMJ Exist, Exactly?” As you might guess based on that title, he kinda skewers the thing, but here’s the answer he provides to his titular query:
Call it a trick question: CMJ may well be for no one in particular at this point, give or take a few Europeans who come over, happy to have a decent amount of otherwise far-away things grouped in one place. (Ditto otherwise non-nightlife prone A&R types, who can knock a bunch of look-sees out at once.) It’s an event that persists out of inertia.
Seven years later, “inert” sums up the state of CMJ even better than it did back then. I dunno about “persists,” though. I think we can axe the “why” from his question, too, for that matter. So today, it looks like this:
“Does CMJ Exist, Exactly?”
Call it a trick question. On one hand, you can’t answer it at all, because you just don’t know! Nobody knows! But on the other hand, I mean, let’s be real here: You know.
CMJ has been around forever, it’s true. But right now, today, in 2016? It’s gone.