when I first met Noah Kardos-Fein more than a year ago, he was a DJ at WVKR, an independent college radio station that broadcasts out of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was visibly excited by his plan to book Dr. Dog to play a show at the college. It was a scheme I met with some indifference, but his enthusiasm was infectious: it was immediately apparent that, more than most other kids I’d met that year, he truly cared about music. More importantly, he wanted to get others to care as much he did. Dr. Dog never did play Vassar, but now Kardos-Fein is the station’s music director, and, according to a senior WVKR staffer, doing more for the station than any MD in the past four years.

Kardos-Fein, along with a couple other members of the WVKR executive board, came to this year’s College Music Journal Music Marathon with a purpose: to see a lot of awesome bands for free, sure, but to meet the myriad promoters and label staffers he’s interacted with at the station. He talks to these people every week, updating them on the status of their bands at the station, dutifully sending them the top thirty artists and top five adds of the week, and asking them if they’ve got any new bands that he may be interested in. Due to the frequency of their interactions—if he’s not talking to a handful of people on the phone weekly, then he’s responding to anywhere between twenty and fifty emails, including those from Spectre, the Syndicate, AAM, Fanatic, Pirate, and Terrorbird promotion companies, and Flameshovel, Merge, Suicide Squeeze, and Matador/Beggars Group labels—he’s developed personal relationships with many of them. Kardos-Fein already has it made with AAM—he was an unpaid intern there last summer, and, as he put it, “I had to pay to work, which proved how much I enjoyed it”—but he doesn’t have to work hard to win the affection of other promoters.

“The reason I have such good relationships with [promoters] on the phone or online is because I’d say something like ��I bought this CD,’ or ��I just bought this awesome boombox,’ instead of straight business,” he said. “Once when I did that, Doug [Blake] from Pirate sent me a clip of a song about a ghetto blaster. Stupid stuff like that helps develop somewhat personal relationships with promoters, and then it’s a lot easier to talk to them on the phone. You’re more familiar with each other.” He paused. “Well, as familiar as a college kid and someone who talks to two hundred other college students can be.”

I was skeptical, so Kardos-Fein showed me an email correspondence with Jennifer de la Vega of Fanatic Promotion. There was very little business to be found. One conversation was based on him bitching about a Kant paper. In another typical exchange, he recommended her a few under-the-radar bands, and, as music fans might do, they talked at length about them.

Over the course of CMJ, I spent a lot of time with Kardos-Fein, watching as promoters invited him to their shows to see their artists and, as Hannah Carlen of Spectre put it, “…meeting, having drinks, seeing shows, dancing, and staying out too late.”

“Ideally, we become real friends instead of make-believe-on-the-phone friends.”

“One thing I learned at CMJ was that we have a certain reputation, and individual stations do mean something to promoters,” Kardos-Fein said. “We have a fairly good webcast, we’re [capable of] broadcasting to Pennsylvania, we’re student run, and we’re independent....Promoters were happy when I came out to their showcases and introduced myself to them.”

When Kardos-Fein told me this, I called bullshit. I assumed he just wanted to use his connections to get into cool parties.

But over the course of the week, I discovered that, by going to all of these parties and meeting his contacts, Kardos-Fein was—for all intents and purposes—doing his job. On Friday night, Kardos-Fein was celebrating the end of the week at a Fanatic after-party at Bar 13. As he headed out, saying goodbye to a number of his promotions contacts and friends he’d made over the course of the week, he quickly introduced himself to the head of a major promotion company—seemingly the only person Kardos-Fein hadn’t met during CMJ.

“When I introduced myself, this guy said, ��Oh, WVKR. I used to live in Poughkeepsie,’” Kardos-Fein said. “��I think you guys are one of the best in the country.’”

The free booze and music, by comparison, was an added bonus.

Such enthusiasm may have even prevented WVKR from being blacklisted by promoters. When Kardos-Fein interned at AAM, one promoter told him that, due to the unresponsiveness of the last MD, he would have dropped WVKR from the mailing list if he didn’t know Kardos-Fein was about to take over.

Shortly before CMJ, I showed him an email I got from one label group, imploring college music directors to meet the label at Fontana’s that Friday.
College Radio Programmer: are you going to be in town over the cmj weekend
PR Person: i may be now that your coming
PR Person: who you coming to visit
College Radio Programmer: haha good stuff
College Radio Programmer: umm no one really. wanna see some good bands.
PR Person: then we can have a few drinks
PR Person: lol
College Radio Programmer: yes yes ;-)
PR Person: your not old enough to drink
College Radio Programmer: shhh…
PR Person: ok
College Radio Programmer: that's not what my id says
College Radio Programmer: lol
PR Person: ok
College Radio Programmer: i probably shouldn't be telling you that huh
PR Person: we may need to drink at Fontana’s so we don't get busted
Kardos-Fein laughed. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “I mean, that is what happens.”

At a Pirate Promotion party on Wednesday afternoon, he met a number of promoters, including his longtime correspondents Blake and de la Vega. When Kardos-Fein went off to find drink tickets, a promoter stopped him. “Oh no, I’ll buy you the drinks,” she said. “We’re paid to do things like this.”

But developing relationships with these promoters, as Kardos-Fein pointed out, is entirely symbiotic.

“Meeting people and making contacts has been great because we are able to reach many more people and get our music out to them,” said Ryan Rafferty of Flameshovel, a Chicago-based label currently working on the new Bound Stems record. “It’s like that Monty Python sketch where the guy's like ��wink wink, nudge nudge.’ I want people to like me and the label…that’s the first step in getting people to listen to your music. Nobody’s going to give your music a chance if you’re some asshole shoving it down the station’s throat and making them play it.”

“You become friends and you say, ��oh hey, you should check out this record we've got out. I really love [it] and I think you'd like it a lot, too,’” Rafferty continued. “And if they like it, that’s awesome: we will get them into shows, or set up promo events [through the station] to support the band, like CD or ticket giveaways.”

Moments after de la Vega, for example, met Kardos-Fein and his girlfriend, Kara Lenkeit of WMWC, she started talking to Lenkeit about the problems she’s having at her station. “She asks me where I’m from, and took down my email address, my name, and WMWC, and said she’d help me out,” Lenkeit later told me. Kardos-Fein, beaming, interrupts. “This is why CMJ is good,” he says. “Kara’s station is having a lot of bureaucratic issues, and Jenn volunteered to help her out, without Kara saying anything, really, and said she’d send her lots of information about getting her station back on the air.” When I talked to de la Vega, a former college radio MD, about spending time at CMJ, her enthusiasm for college radio was apparent. “I feel like, sometimes, I’m living vicariously through music directors!” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, Stylus cohort Akiva Gottlieb and I found ourselves at a Merge Records party at Hi-Fi with free Brooklyn Lager. There weren’t any bands, and I hesitate to call it a party—we took advantage of the free beer and conducted interviews with a boothful of Fanatic people, who seemed to be the only people there when the party officially started. But perhaps that was the point: the only thing to do there was to schmooze. Merge eventually brought out music directors and promotion types in droves, and we ended up interviewing WMUH Music Director Jared Miller because we found him in the Fanatic booth and assumed he was part of their crew. To an extent, he was.

“By establishing a better relationship with [MDs at CMJ], it’s more likely you’ll be on the phone with them more often,” Dan Yocom from Fanatic said, “and things might do better.” To Yocom’s credit, every promoter I met at CMJ was usually in the middle of talking to another music director, often about the great shows they’d seen so far or the awesome free beer. They really do want to meet these people they’ve had such extensive professional relationships with. When I asked him if these things included getting your artists played more often, he didn’t deny it. “It helps,” he said, squirming in the booth.

Miller, ever the responsible music director, enthused about the music. “I’m discovering there’s a lot of bands I should give a second listen to,” he said, “but I’m also seeing a few that didn’t live up to what I thought the CD was.” He took a moment. “And then I get to meet the people that I talk to the phone on every week.” People like de la Vega and Yocom. “That’s really huge.”

I’d heard these same claims all week, but I never really understood their gravity until Friday night. After a show at Mercury Lounge, I got a call from Kardos-Fein: Fanatic invited him to their after-party at Bar 13, and he said I should come along. An hour later, I made my way over to the bar, but one of my friends couldn’t get in. We called Kardos-Fein, and he bounded outside with Yocom.

“Don’t worry about it,” Yocom told the bouncers. “They’re with me.”

One looked particularly skeptical, but Yocom persisted. As we made our way in, Kardos-Fein flashed me a look of incredulity. “Dude.”

The party was sparsely attended, but it hardly mattered: Kardos-Fein, Lenkeit, WVKR Promotions Director Mead Dixon and I danced with de la Vega and her friends all night, throwing back drinks and celebrating all the great shows we’d seen that week. I felt like I’d compromised my stance as an objective journalist—I was suddenly in cahoots with this promotion company—but when I realized I couldn’t extend that notion to Kardos-Fein, I relented. After an intense week together, these people weren’t just his business contacts; they became his friends. He would go back to WVKR and play their bands, certainly, but that’s because he likes the acts on their roster. And now that he’s friends with them, he’ll get to hear even more music that they know he’ll love—what more could a fan ask for?

I sat at a fountain outside Lincoln Center with Kardos-Fein, Lenkeit, and Dixon on Thursday morning. We were waiting to eat muffins with the Fanatic crew. And while, at the time, I complained about the bitter cold, I later realized that this meet-up was a fine example of Kardos-Fein’s CMJ savvy.

Before CMJ, he arranged to meet de la Vega here, as well as Jess Caragliano of Terrorbird, trading phone numbers through a network of mass e-mails. And here they were. Kardos-Fein brandished his badge when Caragliano arrived—Noah? Jess?—and within moments, she’d met all of us and begged us to check out a Kill Rock Stars/5RC showcase at Mo Pitkins that afternoon. It turned out Caragliano’s gushing wasn’t hyperbole: the free finger food and beer was a treat, but Marnie Stern, the artist we’d come to see was stunning, finger-tapping and shredding over a Deerhoofian recording, all the while singing coy love songs. We were smitten. Caragliano introduced Kardos-Fein and Dixon to Stern’s booking agent from Free Agency, and now Stern and labelmate BARR are likely going to play Vassar in February.

A week later, I’m talking to Kardos-Fein in the station and he’s playing “Juicy Ass” by Home. It’s fun and innocuous enough, a bluesy lilt, and the lyrics are vile without being too harmful. He really wanted to see them at the Jagjaguwar showcase last Friday, but, almost apologetically, he lamented the common CMJ predicament: he was probably at another show. He pumped his fists along to the chorus.

“That’s another point of CMJ,” he says. “At that KRS/5RC party, we saw bands we were interested in booking.” Had he not followed a tenuous string of connections, WVKR wouldn’t be booking Stern. What’s more, he’s developed relationships with KRS/5RC and Free Agency booking, and strengthened his bond with the promoters at Fanatic and Terrorbird. “If their bands are playing a college through their radio station,” he continues, “it’s a good thing for everybody.”

Though I’d been told otherwise, I thought it would be a noble endeavor to stop by a CMJ-sponsored college breakfast at Barnes and Noble on Thursday morning. With any luck, I thought, I would meet other MDs as purposeful as Kardos-Fein. But as I picked at my stale bagel, staring in sleepy disbelief at the Lucky Stiffs, doing their very best to rock a roomful of college students at 9:00 AM, I knew it wouldn’t happen. I asked a few kids why they were at CMJ. One girl said she was really excited to see Rooney. Two DJs from a Boston-area college had no idea.

I started to feel the same way. Gottlieb and I weren’t liveblogging the marathon, so when our article would run two weeks post facto, there was no need to talk about any band’s set. We wanted to see The Knife more than any act at CMJ, but unlike what Kardos-Fein was experiencing, our enthusiasm was insignificant.

On Wednesday evening, along with every important music blogger, we made our way to Webster Hall, and by the next morning, every aspect of The Knife’s multimedia sensory assault had been clinically dissected, with photos to boot. The next morning, as were sitting at Gottlieb’s place, his girlfriend showed us a haiku comparing the projection of a disembodied head to James Murphy. I slumped back on his couch and absently fingered my showcase guide, struggling to figure out why we’d gone, or why this show was even part of CMJ.

But as I went with Kardos-Fein to more meet-ups, it occurred to me that people at CMJ recognize the ephemerality. Save a strict contingent of overzealous bloggers, nobody came here to “discover” bands anymore. After all, why spend time looking for bands here when you can do it on the internet?

“It's probably not ever going to be the way it was, when people would go to CMJ showcases in order to see new or unsigned acts,” said Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog. “CMJ [has] become the time when people can come together and sample the live shows of artists they may have heard online.”

At the Rapture show on Tuesday night, we met two kids from WVLP, which broadcasts out of Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. Naturally, they couldn’t have been more excited to be at CMJ; the school bought them badges, train tickets, and a week in a hotel room. But when we asked them whom they were most excited to see, we didn’t hear established bands like The Shins or the Rapture. “Definitely Bound Stems!” they enthused. “And Chin Up Chin Up.”

Ten years ago, there’s no way these Midwest college kids would have even heard of these bands, much less come across the country to see them. Now, apparently, these were some of the marquee acts at CMJ.

While Kardos-Fein was at the Pirate party on Wednesday afternoon, Gottlieb and I saw Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS), arguably the most publicized band at CMJ, kill it at a Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Pianos. Singer Lovefoxxx fronted like she’d never heard of the afternoon, crowd-surfing, improvising an armpit-sniffing dance, and lapsing into Missy’s “Work It” halfway through a song. At the Bowery the next evening, her unrelenting stage presence, aided by an oversized Rhythm Nation 1814 t-shirt, even managed to overcome the venue’s deleterious acoustics.

CSS played five shows at CMJ and, initially, I wanted to see all of them, and write this piece entirely about one band’s quest to exploit ephemeral hype. CSS won’t be packing houses at next year’s CMJ, but for one week, they were the group that people just wouldn’t shut up about. And though they hardly need more hype, their CMJ ubiquity will probably do more for their year-long coming-out party than the countless copies of their debut album that Sub Pop sent to journalists.

I’m back in the music office with Kardos-Fein, watching him sort the countless CDs that piled up in his absence. I ask him if he had any regrets about CMJ. “At the end, I wish I had made more of an effort to meet the people that I talked to regularly,” he says. But he knows this is only one CMJ. He has time. He’ll work at WVKR for a while after this, and after he graduates, the station will undoubtedly continue to succeed.

Maybe we’ll see CSS next year.

Akiva Gottlieb contributed to this report.

By: Sam Bloch
Published on: 2006-11-13
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