The CMJ/Sonicbids "scandal" explained

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The indie rock corner of the Internet has been abuzz the past few days about an alleged scandal regarding the selection process for the CMJ Music Marathon, an annual weeklong music festival and conference thrown by college radio-focused music mag CMJ in New York City.

Ghost Media explained the initial uproar earlier this week, as hundreds of bands began to think CMJ had pocketed their $45 registration fee and rejected their application without even listening to their music. As more information has come out, I've been inclined to believe the situation is not so scandalous and CMJ was not in the wrong, but let's go over it in detail to make sure we have the whole story.

About 670 bands got an e-mail from Sonicbids on Monday telling them they were on "Standby" status for the festival then received another message from CMJ's Robyn Baskin an hour later notifying them that the first message had been a mistake and the bands were actually rejected. When Baskin sent the bulk e-mail rejection letter, she accidentally used the CC function instead of the BCC function, revealing the recipients of the message and opening the rejected bands up to spam from the other rejected bands.

The mistake also allowed the bands to communicate with each other as if they were in on an e-mail listserv, and the resulting conversation revealed some potentially incriminating information: Sonicbids software allows bands to see how often their songs have been played, and many of the rejected bands had 0 plays registered on their accounts. CMJ had seemingly rejected the bands without listening to them.

Understandably, this irked many musicians, including locally rooted acts such as Terribly Empty Pockets, whose Sarah BB e-mailed me this week to express concern. "I know several of us Columbus-type bands were forced to use Sonicbids' 'service' and did it in good faith that someone at last would review our submission," she said.

Justin Hemminger, Columbus-based guitarist for Treysuno, posted on the donewaiting message board that his band had been on standby for about a month when he got CMJ's rejection notice. "Our EPK doesn't show any plays either. That doesn't mean they didn't go to our MySpace or Virb account and listen there."

CMJ sprang quickly to self-defense. Matt McDonald, Vice President of Artists and Events, released this statement:

"We very much appreciate the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that each artist puts into his/her music, and the CMJ Music Marathon wouldn’t have lasted for 27 years if that appreciation were not in clear focus for everyone involved in the event. As head of the staff who reviews the music and selects the artists for the marathon, I can tell you firsthand that we do in fact listen to at least two songs from every single artist who applies. For the ease of listening, the showcase department downloads mp3s from Sonicbids EPKs and drops them into our iTunes player. Sonicbids has recently changed their system to track streamed plays, however it does not currently track these mp3 downloads, making it appear that we did not listen when in fact we did. We can report back which specific songs were reviewed. Our review process is extremely thorough and difficult and with or without payment for submissions, I cannot even fathom the injustice of ignoring any submissions. I can reassure you that each and every artist was given the same respect and critique. We are truly thankful for every artist’s interest in this year's CMJ Music Marathon and wish them continued success in their future."

Seems reasonable, but if it's true, they might want to think about cutting ties with Sonicbids, whose founder and CEO Panos Panay confirmed the software glitch in his response.

"The issue arose from the fact that the current version of the Sonicbids EPK “hits tracker” tells you if an MP3 was streamed, but it does not indicate if it was downloaded (yeah, makes no sense to me either, but we are fixing that)," Panay said. "We are working as we speak on making the EPK hits tracker a lot more accurate."

There's no way to tell whether CMJ really did listen to the songs. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm willing to take their word for it. As for the bands that will never know for sure if they got screwed, they can at least take solace in the fact that an invite is no ticket to stardom. Take it from multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang, who has played CMJ as part of a label showcase and through the application process.

"It's not only that you won't get picked up at CMJ... it's that no one will come to see you at all... except your friends who don't want to go see any headlining bands at the conference," Kang chimed in at donewaiting. "Seriously, CMJ sucks if you're doing it on your own."