CMJ 2012

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The College Music Journal (CMJ) festival has been roaring strong for over 20 years, and though it has broken a few bands into the big time, it has also inspired thousands to enter the music industry, with its endless supply of upstart bands and networking opportunities. The influx of earnest artists, eager twenty-somethings, and learned panelists is what makes CMJ a refreshing respite from this journalist's typically hermetic existence. And as this year's conference was held literally on my doorstep of New York University, I had easy access to panels, panels, and more panels. But first, I dove headlong into the weeklong proliferation of bands appearing throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, making discoveries at every turn and subway stop.

Producers discuss songwriting secrets.

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There are numerous tip-sheets offering advice on the next big thing—or next small thing, in the current economic environment. But once you get past the PR hype and ballyhoo, a handful of artists rose to the surface, or simply shocked from the get-go.

With their weird n' wonderful sci-fi cover of World War I smash hit "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" giving advance warning of their musical predilections, Ireland's Little Green Cars performed at Union Square Ballroom in a showcase organized by KEXP. Valuing soaring harmonies and hooks, warbling lead vocals, and (sometimes) grunge worthy guitars, Little Green Cars evoked none other than a shipwrecked Teenage Fanclub. Dealing in melancholic melodies and strummed guitars, the five-piece created hushed moments even when blasting their amps to 11. Their exceedingly lovely "The John Wayne" offered beatific solitude. Gorgeous.

Icona Pop's Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt are this year's candy girls of the moment, their joyous, retro dance pop evoking a freaky amalgam of Bananarama banging heads with the Chemical Brothers. Mouthy and magnificent, the shout-out twins DJed their own massive party beats, which will soon greet US audiences on the Atlantic affiliate of UK dance label, Big Beat. Having already scored a Top Ten Swedish hit with "I Love It," Icona Pop's glossy punk dance should light up party dens and adverts in no time.

On the electronic tip, late-night parties exposed attendees to samples and squirms, but laptops, drum machines, and pads are pretty much stock gear on any bandstand these days. With countless acts appearing at CMJ, it's like choosing from a Christmas stocking full of goodies—there's just too much to see and hear. Duologue used violin, guitars, and laptops in tomes that recalled '80s pop reveries. Braids spun reverb laden guitars and found sounds with gerbil worthy mumbles, bird sounds, and clattering percussion. Jerome LOL shoved oceanic bass lines through bleeping soundscapes. Holy Other recast electronic requiems as unholy dirges. Maria Minerva looped plaintive sounds under mumbled vocals and strange lyrics. Com Truise thumped over robust "Up With People" beats, the audio equivalent of nervous Pez dispensers dancing a jig.

At Cake Shop, ZZZ’s, who call themselves an "all-girls post punk/experimental trio," offered sludgy, ruggedly melodic nuggets of punked-out slo-mo grindmeal, which turned from double time to half time in a shot, as in the guitar soundtrack glory of "Cut it Out," which combined Stewart Copeland-ish worthy drum accents with whirling storm clouds of majestic guitar sprawl. Mysterious and dark, ZZZs experimented with guitar sounds and groove styles, from the stark guitar slashes and dub-to-reggae atmospherics of "Dystopia" to "Suicide," a disjointed, rhythmically staggered song with death spiraling guitars and vocals shouted, then whispered, then girl-group chanted. Like watching an Ingmar Bergman film an air raid shelter, ZZZ's created a hypnotic, irresistible din of sound that was equally romantic and surreal.

But what about the panels?

So many panels, and quite a few with a production angle, though they were sparsely attended compared to the more obvious "keys to the kingdom" styled talks. I missed but imagine the possibilities of "The Two Most Important Elements of Digital Recording: Microphone and Preamp," or "Thinking Inside the Box," "Career Counseling Meetings: Music Production," and "Creating Music for Video Games." Thursday's "The All-In-One Modern-Day Producer" was described as "Many successful music producers play the combined role of musician, producer, A&R, mixer and even artist. Who are these superproducers and what powers them? What is their workflow and what are they using for gear?" I set out to find out.

"Super-producers" on hand for the panel were "The Producer Machine," Paul Adams (Magus Entertainment), Kato Khandwala (Blondie, Breaking Benjamin), Dan Romer (Ingrid Michaelson, Jenny Owen Youngs), and Gregory Shanahan (Bestfriends). The common denominator among the panel was the belief that actual brick and mortar recording studios are no longer necessary, though a few of the producers in attendance got their start in such places. "You don't need anything but a computer anymore," Shanahan remarked. "YouTube is a great asset in demystifying plug-ins. And generally moving and twisting knobs to see what you get." "All you need is a guitar and an amp and reverbs," Dan Romer concurred. "No big studios needed."

The CMJ mastering panel.

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What does the producer actually do? "I am hired to make your music communicate emotionally," stated The Producer Machine. "I figure out how to tell the story and sell the story to the world. It's like having a script, then I figure out the emotion and blow that sh*t up!" "You can tell a lot about an artist by how they end a vocal phrase," Romer instructed. "That shows their level of confidence and their feelings towards the world." And mixing? "It's like sonic chess," The Producer Machine explained. "Think about mixing in different spaces in the room. It's highs to lows, front, back, left and right."

Also on Thursday, "Today’s Top Music Creators" gathered together three songwriters collectively responsible for Top 40 hits from such vaunted artists as Take That, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson, Backstreet Boys, and Train. With this level of commercial songwriting firepower in the room, I half expected some heavy duty security and dark sunglasses, but Phil Cialdella (Wonderlous Music), Billy Mann (Kelly Rowland, Jessica Simpson,) John Shanks (2005 Grammy for Producer of the Year; Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson), and Gregg Wattenberg (Daughtry, Train, Backstreet Boys) couldn't have been more inconspicuous, nevermind that they could probably buy NYU's Kimmel Center from their royalties alone.

This panel's schedule blurb: "Technology combined with fewer major label releases leaves today’s hit-makers in [need of outlets]. Still, when it comes to songwriting and production, basic instincts and gut-based individual decisions are the key to creating a lasting masterpiece. Hear today’s top creators discuss the inner-workings of making music and money in today’s market."

These songwriters certainly didn't lack confidence. When they weren't trumpeting their idea of the perfect lyric—Wattenberg citing One Direction's "You're Beautiful" as a "great lyric"—they were roundly patting each other on the back for providing a crash couch during those times when their careers weren't so plush. What's their secret?

"You have to have your craft down," Gregg Wattenberg explained. "There is so much distraction today, from YouTube to your iPod. But great lyrics rise above that distraction and clutter. 'You're Beautiful' is a great lyric. So know if you're not a great lyricist. If you're not, then find a collaborator who can help you rewrite songs. "And you have to have a great song," Wattenberg continued. "Or at least 80% of a great song. I listen to great songs while I write songs. I know when a song I am writing will be a hit, I just don't know if it will be top five or top fifteen. And a lot of things have to happen for a song to be a hit. Radio programmers often don't care, but the label can bully them. "

"Go where the love is," Billy Shanks explained, referring to Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway," which he penned for the album of the same name. "There was no company support from the label. Then Disney got behind it and it went to Number One. Often you can dissect the path of a hit song." Billy Mann offered the panel's golden nugget of songwriting wisdom and the ambition required to make it in the music business: "Don't be afraid of those guys who are afraid of losing their helicopter to the Hamptons."

One of the best panels was Friday's "Now More Than Ever: The Importance of the Mastering Engineer." A meat-and-potatoes panel, which opened to questions almost immediately, it covered important themes such as brickwall compression, equipment, plug-in frequency analyzers and the use of stems in mastering, as well as when to hire a professional. Here to answer the question of whether to hire them or not: Adam Ayan (Foo Fighters, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood), Jay Franco (Coldplay, Erykah Badu, The Beastie Boys), Drew Lavyne (Kings of Leon, Taylor Swift, the White Stripes), and Andy VanDette (Masterdisk).

"You want to help create an emotional response to the music," Lavyne said in describing his role. "How can I offer a fuller impact? Listening is most important, not twiddling knobs. How can I offer an actual improvement to the music? Small moves can make a glacial impact."

"Do no harm," said Franco. "Making mixes good is about listening to vocals, the snare and kick relationship, and listening for naturalness. Over processing never sounds musical. My job is to make the music as musical and loud as possible."

"How do you balance the technical versus the creative?" asked one attendee. "Tools are tools, I don't hunt for new gear," Drew said. "It's about listening and feeling and whether you apply something or stay out of the way. But I trust my ears more than any machine."

"Can you offer some practical tips?" asked another, to which the group replied: Be aware of managing artist's expectations, be technically prepared, always leave headroom for the mastering engineer—don't overcook the mix (6dB is recommended), and a mix should only be brickwall-limited once.

Hundreds of panelists and probably thousands of bands appeared at this year's CMJ, and already brains are buzzing, guitars are being strummed, and dollar signs are lighting up in someone's eyes. And most importantly, the hard work of making music is under way, once again.