CMJ: A College Music Joke?

Two weeks ago, local college radio station WVAU from American University won Best Student-Run, Internet-Only station (not to be confused with WAMU, our area’s NPR member station). To win, they submitted a video explaining why they deserved the nod. And clearly, it worked!

As I tweeted a congrats to the station and shared the news with some non-college radio friends, I was shocked by the responses:

#3: What does CMJ even stand for?
#2: They give out college radio awards at CMJ??

And, topping the list, my personal favorite:

#1: What does CMJ have to do with college radio???

Let’s set some things straight. CMJ stands for College Music Journal. CMJ (the organization), was developed to track what college radio stations are playing. I can’t speak to how it was done in the past (a recurring motif in college radio circles), but these days, a station pays roundabout $300 per year to “subscribe” to CMJ. After subscribing, you can report your station’s playlists to CMJ. A weekly playlist is your station’s 30 most popular albums. The subscription comes with one free badge (read: ticket) to CMJ (the festival). The rest of your DJs have to pay their own way ($365 per badge). I have a theory that CMJ reports are how Rolling Stone determines the “Top 10 College Radio Albums” in the back of each issue, but it’s probably just some intern’s bullshit assignment.

Anyway, The CMJ playlists cycle back to the publicists and distribution companies who give the college radio stations all their music anyway. So, the station gets a free Alt-J CD from the band’s promotion company. The Music Director shares it with the DJs, who play it a lot. Then, the Music Director reports that her station played a lot of Alt-J. But at the same time, that record is also in the hands of big name tastemakers like NPR and Pitchfork and before you know it, Alt-J is the newest just-left-of-the-dial hip band.

Last year, when I was a senior in college and music director of my own college radio station, I went to CMJ with some fellow DJs. We wandered the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, hopping around from one showcase to the next. Well, me and my other over-21 buddy did. The underage kids in our group weren’t allowed into most shows, despite the fact that they had paid for a badge (for more on the underage college perspective, read this from my college radio alma mater). Reminder: most kids in college are not of drinking age. I saw and fell in love with Lizzo, the dopest female MC on the scene, laughed along with my beloved Father John Misty and was blown away by Kid Karate.

But I had to skip classes to do it. This year’s fest was Tuesday-Saturday, the same last year. Most college classes afford one or two free absences per semester. If you want to go to CMJ, you better save up those missed days, pull two all-nighters to get ahead on your work, and beg your professor to let you take midterms early.

CMJ is also apparently a nightmare for bands and artists. Many will play three showcases a day for next to no money (for more from the artist perspective of CMJ, read this). But my focus here is on the students who are the blood and guts of what CMJ is supposed to be. The spirit of college radio is an underground and frenzied camaraderie. Frustrated by mainstream radio, college students took to their dorms, roofs and basements, to tinker with homemade radios.

But CMJ the festival (and the organization, I would go so far to say) isn’t in tandem with that. Massive media outlets cover it and host parties; PR agents and distribution companies drunkenly mingle in their exclusive industry circles, creating an elite bubble that maybe a go-getter DJ can break into with an outstanding fake ID who knows how to name drop. Oh, and don’t forget the whole thing is sponsored by Champion. Or Alt-J. Whatever.

I’m not denying that CMJ is a ton of fun for students. A few days in New York to see some great up-and-coming artists is a nice deal. But when did a college radio festival stop being about college radio? The awards, in which our friends at WVAU participated, go wildly unnoticed by everyone except other college radio kids. They go home, where their university will probably also ignore their recognition, and on Monday Brooklyn Vegan publishes a roundup of the best not-from-New-York bands of the festival. And the cycle continues.


About Tori Kerr

GW grad. Music, DC, lit, babbling. Podcast: tweets: @kerrazytrain
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