Lower Dens, Cotton Jones, Josh Dibb on why they're playing CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival

Since Tuesday, New York City has been crawling with struggling musicians — even more so than usual.

By now, there are more of them around than koi at Central Park. They might even outnumber Japanese tourists.

Officially, hundreds of bands have flown in from all over the world to play the annual CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival. Unofficially, they’re coming for the same reason sex columnist Ashley Alexandra Dupre left the ‘burbs: To make a splash.

The music marathon, in session through Sunday, is a showcase for rising bands to introduce themselves to record producers, labels and new audiences. And for the fans, groupies, and observers coming to New York just for CMJ — some 120,000, according to organizers — it’s a chance to see about 1,200 performances in the span of five days.

Jana Hunter who’s playing a whopping 11 shows with her band, Baltimore’s Lower Dens, summed it up as a giant, adult band camp.

“The whole industry descends on [New York] for a few days to geek out about music in a really intense and obnoxious way,” she said. (Above, Lower Dens performed at The Ottobar Tuesday).

The dream is that by going there, your upstart band will get signed to a major label after one blistering performance somewhere on the Lower East Side. But Maryland musicians see the marathon as a means to other ends.

“Whatever our goals are, they don’t end in dollar signs,” Hunter said. 

While some of these bands had to trek thousands of miles to get there — one group named Circle Pit came all the way from Australia — for the Maryland groups it's nothing more than a Bolt Bus ride away.

“New York isn’t too far,” said Michael Nau of the Cumberland band Cotton Jones. “We’re making it into a day trip.”

Besides Lower Dens and Cotton Jones, other performers from this area are rapper Rye Rye, Silver Spring multi-instrumentalist Zo!, 20-year-old hard-rock vets Clutch, and Josh Dibbs.

Now in its 30th year, CMJ has become the East Coast’s South by South West — a manic, relentless marathon with little space to do anything but listen to new music.

“It’s hard for me,” said Dibb, who will play under his solo stage name, Deakin. “It’s a little too much information. There’s only so much music I can take before I stop listening.”

Organizers say 500 bands from at least 30 countries will play 75 New York venues over the five days. With performances starting as early as noon and ending as late as 2 a.m., there are inevitably points during the day when you’ll miss not just one band but five others.

During one hourlong block Friday, 20 bands will start playing somewhere around New York.

Outside of those performing at official marathon showcases, there are hundreds more that are crashing the party, playing at underground gigs in dingy basements, Brooklyn warehouses and subway stations hoping to get someone’s — anyone’s — attention.

Observers will just to have to go from one venue to another to watch their favorite bands. But for performers, it’s twice as nutty. “It’s a little more hectic than playing Cumberland, of course,” Nau said.

He and the other three members of Cotton Jones will be traveling in their van, but Nau said they still have to navigate the city’s traffic and make sure their van doesn’t get towed.

And they’re playing just one show. Lower Dens is making 11 appearances. Hunter compared it to a diner waitress working a triple shift. This is the first CMJ appearance for the two-year-old band, who will play some showcases put on by ’zines, night parties and Offline, the mini-festival organized by Pitchfork Media.

The kicker: They’re not getting paid for any of them. But Hunter said the upside is too tantalizing. The four-piece band, which is signed to indie label Gnomonsong, want to show off its only album, the scorching “Twin-Hand Movement.”

"We’re still building our audience, our career, and we wanted to take an opportunity to play our music in front of as many people as possible,” she said. “We took almost every show that was offered to us.”

Members of Cotton Jones, who have played CMJ three times before, also see the performance as a way to reach new listeners, not new representation. “Some people come here to make something of their careers, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a show looking for a deal,” Nau said. “It’s a normal show amid the frenzy. It’s good for our record.”

If you go: Cotton Jones will perform a free show Friday at the Knitting Factory, 361 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Zo! will perform Saturday at B.B. King Blues Club, 237 W. 42nd St., New York. Doors open at 7 p.m.; Tickets are $25.

Lower Dens will perform a free show Friday at midnight at Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen St., New York. On Saturday, it performs at Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St., New York. Tickets for the showcase, which will also feature Florida indie darlings Surfer Blood, are $18; doors open at 4:30 p.m.

For more information, including a full roster of live shows, go to cmj2010.com.

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