Has CMJ Become the Monster That Ate College Radio? 

Thousands of underground radio stations like KALX rely on indie chartmaker CMJ to publish playlists accurately. So imagine their surprise when it began falsely stacking college charts with its own pay-to-play releases.

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To many people affiliated with college radio, the problem was yet another example of CMJ, once an indie cheerleader, bowing to commercial interests. It is a widely held view among small labels, DJs, and record promoters that CMJ gives preferential treatment in its reviews section to labels and artists that advertise in its magazines.

CMJ execs deny these charges, but the perceptions are more than just sour grapes. The entire cover of CMJ for the week of February 10, for instance, was all but an ad for Virgin Megastores, and the Certain Damage comps, despite the punk-sounding name, are stacked with a who's who of bands from major labels -- Arista, Capitol, Columbia, MCA, Virgin, Warner Bros. -- the list goes on. CMJ's perceived courtship of the majors also coincides with widespread industry rumors that the company is on shaky financial ground.

If college radio stations feel CMJ is selling them out, it hasn't helped matters that programmers regularly gripe about the company's "arrogant" attitude: When they call to complain about screwups in their listings, program directors say, they often receive a "deal with it" response from CMJ management. In the us-versus-them world of the underground, CMJ is looking to many like a very big Them.

Why then, do indie radio stations that feel this way continue to play the game? For the moment, at least, CMJ enjoys a monopoly on the college radio market. It's the only official place for stations to share their playlists with the music industry. Stations, especially smaller ones, depend on CMJ's charts to demonstrate to labels that they are playing the music they've been sent -- many rely on those promotional records to survive. It's also helpful for little-known bands to be able to say they've charted in CMJ, and there's nothing college DJs relish more than being able to document that they were the first to expose a new artist who later hit it big.

But the Certain Damage 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.

CMJ, or the College Media Journal as it was first known, was started in 1978 by Robert Haber, a seventeen-year-old resident of Long Island, New York. As Haber, known to most as "Bobby," tells it, the journal began in his parents' basement. "I was music director at Brandeis, WBRS," he says over the phone from his New York office. "We found that we had a lot of listeners and just couldn't understand why there wasn't a publication that was out there tracking not only one little college radio station, but all the stations across the country."

So he started one, not realizing at first the enormity of the task he'd undertaken. "At that point there was no MTV, and album radio was really becoming the format. ... But in Boston there were some twenty to thirty stations. I realized that they in themselves created a powerful force. One thing led to another, and we began to talk to stations across the country, and that's how we got to where we are today."

Haber's magazine helped usher in what people refer to as the "golden age of college radio." The 1980s was an era in which college stations became respected as the industry's oracles -- the discoverers of the next big thing in pop-music trends and cutting-edge artists -- especially following the success of superstars like REM and U2, which were first embraced by these small stations. Major labels began to view college radio as their farm-team system, culminating in the "alternative" explosion of the early '90s, when bands like Jane's Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, of course, Nirvana sprang from the underground and went very profitably mainstream.

Mirroring the DIY ethic of punk, college radio defined itself by its independence and anticommercialism, fostering an us-versus-them mentality that exists to this day. The culture grew out of DJs reveling in the promotion of unknown gems, funneling out interesting foreign music, and building a solid foundation for seminal indie bands such as New Order, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo.

Growing in reputation alongside its noncommercial compadres, CMJ quickly became synonymous with independent radio, offering an alternative to other radio-charting entities such as Billboard and the now-defunct Gavin. If a band began appearing on numerous CMJ playlists, other stations took notice.

"It was a connection to the industry," says WFMU general manager Ken Freedman, who has been involved in college radio since 1977 and was on hand for the '80s explosion. "It was important for us, because we have relationships with hundreds of record labels. It was really important to record labels that we report to CMJ; our peer stations reported to CMJ and we would look at what they were playing and they would look at what we were playing."

In 1981, CMJ launched its annual Music Marathon, a convention that was originally comprised of discussion panels, and by '83 incorporated live music. It has since become a major music event, with thousands of musicians and labels converging each year from all over the world to take part. Along with South by Southwest, the Music Marathon is among the largest alternative music festivals in the country.

Somewhere along the line, CMJ became quite profitable. "It wasn't until the Seattle explosion," Haber says. "When Nevermind was released on Geffen, the business was such that, as radio [formats] got tighter and tighter and tighter, it really didn't have anywhere else to go than college radio, and not just for rock. Anything that couldn't get stuck somewhere else ultimately landed in CMJ's world."


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