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CMJ awards on wall at Radio K. Photo: J. Waits

What is the Future of CMJ?

This week Stereogum’s Managing Editor Michael Nelson penned an in-depth piece called CMJ Sure Seems to be Over. So How Come Nobody is Talking About It? In the article, he outlines the history of college radio stalwart CMJ (it dates back to 1978, when it began as a college radio chart report called College Media Journal) and its flagship music event, The CMJ Music Marathon (which has roots going back to 1981) and speculates about the future of the organization. More specifically, he argues that all signs point to CMJ not holding its annual Music Marathon this year.

In response to that, Pitchfork reports that CMJ CEO Adam Klein has stated “CMJ will absolutely happen this year,” adding that he told Pitchfork this week that, “We are very much alive and will be kicking!” Klein also released a statement that said, in part, “A little patience and a whole lot less wild and unsubstantiated speculation is what we need right now. CMJ will continue as an innovative force and a strong presence going forward. We’ll share more about our 2016 and 2017 program soon.”

It’s hard to know what to believe, but as I wrote back in June, there have been indications since early this year that changes were afoot at CMJ. The three CMJ staffers who I’d met at its College Day on Tour event last November had all left the company by June. Related to that, I’d noticed that CMJ was not carrying through with various plans that had been in the works, including additional regional College Day on Tour events (the first took place in Portland, Oregon and I had been told that a second one would occur in Chicago this spring) and additional episodes of the CMJ-themed radio show (three episodes were produced). CMJ’s public website has been stagnant since June and its last social media posts on Twitter and Facebook were on June 29. The CMJ Music Marathon page only contains information about the 2015 festival and requests for musician applications for a future event (which typically takes place in October) have not been posted.

For college radio stations, many of whom pay a subscription fee in order to have their top spins and playlists posted in CMJ’s propriety charts, this news comes at a tricky time at the start of the school year. Some stations plan budgets in order to accommodate trips to the New York City-based CMJ Music Marathon and I personally have great memories from the event, spanning many decades. There are always college radio-focused panels and in recent years an entire day was devoted to discussion of college radio. Beyond that, it’s a fun opportunity to get introduced to new music, with performances happening onsite during the conference and at venues all over New York.

College radio stations also rely on CMJ as a charting service and I was one of many who participated in the age-old Music Director ritual of tallying playlists in order to compile and send my “tops lists” to CMJ by their weekly deadline. By submitting charts to CMJ, many stations gain added exposure for their stations. Suddenly they are on a list that record labels, promoters and musicians can see and that often means that music will start flowing into a radio station’s mail tubs.

So right now, some stations feel like they are in a holding pattern. Despite whatever challenges are going on at CMJ, the organization has continued to collect playlists from stations and continues to publish its weekly music charts, including this week. Communication has dwindled, however, and the lack of news on the Music Marathon is likely making some stations nervous about renewing their CMJ subscriptions. Radio promoter Douglas Blake, co-owner of Pirate! Promotions has been following the situation at CMJ quite closely and wrote on his blog, “I think patience is pretty thin at college radio at this point. Every week I get emails from stations asking if they should renew their subscription because they are not sure they get anything from CMJ.”

In the meantime, a few possible CMJ competitors are popping up in both the chart space and the conference/music festival space. The original founders of CMJ are debuting their Mondo NYC event in New York City in a few weeks. There will be several days of daytime panels (“Music, Technology and Media Summit”) as well as performances at eleven different venues. There’s even a panel with an emphasis on college radio and some sessions devoted to metal music; all of this certainly sparks comparisons to CMJ Music Marathons of the past.

Additionally, some newer charting services are starting to promote themselves to radio stations; while existing playlist/charting tools like Spinitron may be picking up new users. WZBT Music Director Brittany Russell told me that uncertainty with CMJ led her college radio station at Gettysburg College to switch to Spinitron. She explained, “We had been throwing the idea around that we were going to go to the marathon in October and watching the page to see what dates would be, but then there was nothing. And there kept BEING nothing.” With the station’s CMJ subscription up for renewal, Russell said WZBT ended up letting it lapse. She also pointed out that the timing is tough for college radio stations, saying, “It also felt like an extra stress that could have/should have been addressed months ago when they first went quiet, because my classes literally just started on Monday and I’m sure other stations are dealing with startups as well.”

It remains to be seen what will happen with CMJ, but I’m hopeful that with the added media pressure this week, some sort of official statement on future events will be forthcoming. Like many others, I don’t see the challenges at CMJ as a portent of doom for college radio; but it still saddens me that CMJ is no longer the full-fledged college media organization that it once was. I was thrilled when they had the resources to write about college radio, to hold college radio events and to take on new projects that helped to connect the college radio community and that’s why the sudden slow down of activity earlier this year was disheartening.

In his tweet storm following the publication of the Stereogum article, former CMJ staffer David DeKeyser wrote, “I guess I’m bummed to see that all be killed off cause being a part of it, when the company was healthy, was so empowering and exciting. My whole thing was trying to be an advocate for the community, give it more meaning and structure and reason for skeptics to believe in it. And now I’m sort of pissed to see those skeptics, esp ones who never tried to be a part of it, act like this is a good thing.”

Like the rest of you, I’ll be curious to see what happens next.

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