The Continuing Saga of CMJ, the College Music Journal

1st CMJ without an artist cover (2/02). Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

For the past month, CMJ, the trade magazine that has tabulated and published weekly college radio charts since the late 70s, has experienced troubles unlike any in its history.  Started by Bobby Haber from WBRS at Brandeis (after failed attempts to land a record job), CMJ was at first xeroxed, stapled and mailed as a legal-sized newsletter on a bi-weekly schedule, and became a glossy weekly in the 90s.  CMJ instituted an online and spin-based reporting system in the early 00s.

As the electronic reporting system was introduced, there were a few scandalous moments while the system worked its bugs out, including the “unverified” incident (where CMJ inserted its own sampler where a computer didn’t recognize an artist), and for a time, CMJ was merged with a technology company that almost killed it.  But these were minor incidents compared to what happened at the end of December, when CMJ’s site was hacked.   The attack occurred at a key point in the year, as CMJ was promoting its annual top ten lists which include reader and celebrity contributions.

Who would have mounted such a malicious attack on CMJ? As previously mentioned here, the folks who care most about college radio are the people in it. While the institution and authority that CMJ represents is against the holistic, amorphous and unpredictable nature of the medium and scene, it is all we have.  Unfortunately, a few technology-based competitors founded in the past ten years point up its weaknesses.  Dusted Magazine offers an excellent review-based alternative/supplement, and the Americana Music Association‘s very existence is due to CMJ’s neglect of that genre, but the bottom line is the business of college radio metrics is a sketchy one.

The significance of the spins is not something that can really be measured in conventional terms. I may be biased, but it seems that last week’s label layoffs hit the development part of the business more than the mass/mainstream marketers (folks from Universal’s Lost Highway and Verve are now on the street with vigor).  Is it CMJ’s fault?  In my opinion, CMJ should be MySpace, Pitchfork or any number of businesses that have “eaten its lunch” in the past ten years.

While focusing on making charts that account for infinitesimal spins as a business model, other sites (like Pitchfork) developed massive audiences by wisely focusing instead on measuring the aesthetic ebbs and flows of college radio, the real meat of the matter.

Over the past ten years, CMJ has been able to maintain itself mostly through its annual Music Marathon, the one conference fully dedicated to college radio music (as opposed to the IBS Convention which deals with broadcast/big picture issues in addition to programming).  Ironically, the convention has thrived recently due to the influence of technology via the blog community and social media (except they are not restricted by time – one week in the Fall – or space – New York City).

This week, CMJ’s editors announced that the “magazine” had restored itself and had managed to produce current college radio charts (Animal Collective is #1).  May Bobby Haber’s dream of quantifying the unquantifiable live on!

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