By Roy Robertson
At the end of October, Denton's Pageantry traveled to New York City for the annual CMJ Music Marathon. We invited singer and guitarist Roy Robertson to reflect on the band's experience there -- their first time attending the convention -- and its potential value to Texas musicians.
We applied to CMJ earlier this year through their online submission form but hadn't really planned on getting in. We thought we might have a chance since we'd done SXSW back in March but we still weren't sure how much clout that would bring to our application. We went ahead and had almost finished booking a West Coast tour for the end of October when the invitation came to play in August. Doing the festival meant we'd have to reschedule our tour and fly up north instead of tour; it was so close to the festival's start date that finding enough shows there and back would be tricky.
Even still, there wasn't much discussion on whether to do it. We all thought it would be good for the band to get the festival under our belt and it seemed like a good excuse to go to New York City and play a bunch of Frankenstein bills for people who had never heard of us before.
You see, CMJ is a huge music festival. More than 1,400 bands play in over 80 venues during the weeklong fest. Bands like Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, the National, TV on the Radio -- they all played there at some point before they'd broken big. Unlike Coachella or Austin City Limits, CMJ is more like SXSW in that, for lack of a better phrase, it's an industry festival with a couple of huge artists playing big stages but most of the lineup consists of smaller, independent acts.
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That latter category of smaller acts is definitely where Pageantry fits in. We've been a band for about two-and-a-half years and usually tell people it's like dream pop but with odd stuff mixed in. Ramon Muzquiz plays drums, Pablo Burrull plays bass and I sing and play guitar. From the onset we knew we wanted to get out of Denton and tour as much as we could. In the beginning that meant weekend trips to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and the like. but in the past year we've done multiple tours of the Midwest, Southwest and West coast and had our first official SXSW showcase earlier this year. We've had a few releases so far, including the EP Friends of the Year.
Things didn't start off the smoothest, at least not for me. We landed at LaGuardia on Monday night and I had already broken my sunglasses and forgot the only guitar I had brought from Texas on the sidewalk at the airport before we had even gotten on the bus to the city. But thn we crossed a bridge on our way to where we were staying and got our first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. The Empire State Building was glowing in the distance alongside the thousands of other high-rises; we were in New York City.
Day one we got our artist badges and went to a couple industry panels being held at NYU by Washington Square that were advertised as an opportunity to meet and learn from people in the "industry." Some of the speakers were definitely people we wanted to meet: Managers, record labels, publicists, etc. But there was also the vice-something of ReverbNation and I wanted to ask him if he knew of any band that actually uses the site. (Fun fact: Pageantry is currently No. 8 on the local charts.)
There was an interesting mixture of people in the audience and I kept trying to distance myself from some of them, especially the guy in front of me who kept introducing himself to everyone with his name and the amount of plays/likes his music has on YouTube. Jesus. Predictably the panelists got the fuck out of the post-panel "networking room" as soon as they could to escape the crowd of admirers trying to impress them. I made a few attempts to "network" myself, but the vibe of the room and pretense of making important connections was too much to handle. Plus, I kept hearing a voice in my head saying, "Free stuff... at... the artist lounge."
The artist lounge was great. CMJ had rented out the top three floors of a swanky hotel in the East Village with walls of windows overlooking the city and modern black furniture placed around the large square rooms. There was tons of free stuff that most people (especially musicians) would actually want: Backpacks, hoodies, shirts, espresso drinks, coconut waters, hats. One day when I was going to the lounge I saw Danny Brown in the elevator on the way up. I told him I liked his tunes, to which he replied, "Cool, thanks man." (That's almost networking, right?)
We ended up with four official showcases spread throughout the week and our first was Wednesday night in the East Village. The showcase was presented by the Denver-based management/label group Holy Underground who run an awesome festival in Denver that we played earlier this year. The crowd was great and the room felt good to play in, plus we knew a couple of the bands playing that night and got to visit with them. Technically speaking we're an easy band to please; as long as there's a reverb button on the console and stage lights that can be dimmed we're in good shape.
The rest of the shows were cool. Some of the venues were completely over the fest before it had begun and the bouncers at all the venues were thoroughly unimpressed with our CMJ badges. The actual CMJ staff members were always incredibly helpful and prompt throughout the fest, as were most of the individual promoters. Combining the experiences we had on and off stage it was an incredible trip.
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We've had bigger and better shows in Texas and on tour, but to do it in New York just feels different. I hate to feed the clichés of "The City," but there really is a tangible energy to the place. Riding the subways, walking down the streets Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen talk about in their songs, falling asleep to the sounds of sirens and the subtle, ever-present smell of garbage just gives this "New York City Feeling." I don't know how else to explain it and I'm probably not doing it justice.
We had a great time at CMJ. I don't know if I'd suggest it to every band, though not through any fault of the festival. It just depends on what you're trying to do with your band and how you and your bandmates want to make that happen. We're touring and working on a new album so getting in touch with record labels and managers is something that's important to us and CMJ really gave us the chance to meet folks we would have never met in Denton or in Texas for that matter.
We're growing up as a band in an era in which music festivals aren't set up to give up-and-coming artists a platform to showcase their music to the masses. The small bands that get discovered at CMJ or SXSW are probably big fish in small ponds and their big break might be something close to inevitable. It's not really something to complain about, though. The majority of these big fish have put in a lot of time playing and touring throughout the years. Out of the 1,400-plus bands performing the festival not even a small fraction of them will get signed because a label saw their showcase, but that's not really a big deal or something that needs to be changed. Achieving success playing your own music is fucking difficult and takes a lot of time and energy to make it sustainable.
We didn't go to New York to get signed or to have a manager take over and make our dreams come true. We went because it's just another step in this long, weird road trip leading to some evolving, incoherent goal of "success." I don't know what the success we're looking for is, but it's the journey, right? At the end of the day the joy of being in a band or making music in general comes from creating something out of nothing, arranging noise in evocative ways and having fun doing it. Hopefully we'll be playing CMJ again next year. If not, there's always that West Coast tour to think about.