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New CMJ Owner on Plans for Brand’s Comeback, ‘Virtual Music Marathon’ & More

Billboard logo Billboard 4/6/2020 Dan Rys

For Amazing Radio founder Paul Campbell, taking control of CMJ — as he was able to do late last year, in a deal that was announced Monday (April 6) — was nearly a decade in the making.

In 2013, ownership over the longstanding college-radio publication, chart publisher and music conference host was in a state of turmoil, beset by financial difficulties, outstanding loans and debt and a back-channel shifting of corporate assets that resulted in lawsuits between owners, past owners and investors alike, a situation that would extend for years. Ownership was looking for an out and Campbell says he had a deal in place — only to walk away after he “noticed that everybody was suing everybody else.”

Instead, the company passed to Adam Klein, whom Campbell had initially brought on board at Amazing to do consultancy work regarding the purchase, only for further lawsuits and issues to eventually bring the 35-year-old organization and its annual indie-centric Music Marathon to a screeching halt by 2016. When Billboard reported on CMJ’s legal issues in an in-depth investigation in September 2016, some legal matters were still ongoing, including one separate issue involving Boston-based Remote Facilities Consulting Service, to which Klein and his Abaculi Holdings owed some $425,000.

It was in the course of those legal proceedings that Campbell met the Sandorse family, which runs Remote Facilities, and another chance for Amazing came to pass. Now, Amazing has a controlling interest in the CMJ brand, while the Sandorse family maintains a stake, and Campbell intends to leverage his independent-artist-first British digital radio brand into one that can help revitalize the once-venerable CMJ and return it to its position as one of the key tentpoles in the American music-business calendar once again.

“Amazing exists to try and help new and emerging artists; it’s our raison d’etre, and we’ve been doing it for 12 years now,” Campbell tells Billboard. “And so is CMJ. It was this alignment I thought that existed between the historic achievements of CMJ over many many years and what we were trying to do. The marriage of radio and the historic activities of CMJ seemed to be a perfect fit.”

So that’s the back story. But what does Campbell and Amazing Radio actually plan to do now that they have acquired CMJ?

On a macro scale, it involves bringing the old brand back together, but with a different leadership structure. That has meant re-hiring Diane Perini as executive producer of the CMJ Music Marathon, which they hope to stage once again in its old October time period, as well as re-instituting CMJ’s editorial and looking into reproducing its old college radio charts in a way that reflects the current music industry. But in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic, those plans have become secondary to helping artists, as many new up-and-comers have seen their livelihoods stripped by a sudden loss of touring and other revenue during the global shutdowns.

“It’s funny — I’ve noticed some people who have written about this story already today saying, ‘They must be crazy launching live events in a coronavirus shutdown,'” Campbell says. “Well, we may be crazy, but we’re not stupid, and that’s not what we’re planning.”

Billboard: So what are your plans now?

Paul Campbell: We see all of it through the lens and prism of Amazing Radio, which is where we start. So in a couple weeks time, we’ll launch an upload service so that musicians can upload tracks to AmazingRadio.us. That will give them a chance at airplay on Amazing Radio on both sides of the Atlantic and also consideration for involvement at CMJ. But we’re not stupid, and we have noticed that there’s not an awful lot of gigs going on in the world at the moment because of the shutdown.

So the intention is we will host a “virtual CMJ Music Marathon,” which will take place some time in the summer — as soon as we can organize it — and we’re working out precisely what that will mean and how often we’ll do it. It may be a series of virtual concerts featuring artists under the banner of CMJ Music Marathon with everything cross-promoted and broadcast on Amazing Radio, or it may be an actual virtual Marathon over a weekend. And that depends partly on the response we get now in terms of what seems feasible and what artists want. And then, if and when life has returned to normal and we can all go to gigs again — which, please God, will have happened before October — then we’ll launch a quote-unquote “real Music Marathon,” in October, in New York.

But the reason why we announced this launch earlier than we intended is to find another way for hard-pressed musicians to find an audience and make some money. So that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this early. And the dovetailing of Amazing Radio and CMJ Music Marathon, we hope, will be the thing that will give people additional promotion alongside everything else that they’re doing right now. Now, we of course understand that people will carry on doing their own live online concerts, and that’s great, and we’ll try to cross-promote them where possible. But what we also wanted to do was to try and bring an overarching brand — or, in this case, two brands — to give more attention to that so that musicians can get to a bigger audience in that way.

And part of what we have planned for the virtual Marathon will include mechanisms where fans watching the shows can donate money to their favorite bands in a variety of different ways using different payment systems, and 100% of all that donation money will go straight to the artists. So it’s about giving them promotion and generating cash for artists, right now. And we have all the systems to do that now and the necessary infrastructure to make that happen.

Are there plans to relaunch the website, magazine and charts as well?

Yes, all of the above. The only thing we’re not going to do is we’re probably not going to have the daytime industry panels at the Music Marathon. We probably will have daytime events, but we think they’ll all be focused for and about independent artists. So rather than being a talking shop for people in suits, it’ll be much more about what’s helpful for artists. But CMJ.com is live right now; we’ve been talking to writers about getting involved again; we’re interested in the idea of sampler discs like CMJ used to do. We’re very interested in college radio, which complements Amazing Radio superbly well, of course. And we’ve also had some conversations about finding ways to do charts again, ways that would fit for how the industry is now, five years since CMJ stopped operating.

There’s very little that CMJ used to do that we don’t like, and we respect pretty much all of it. We just want to find ways to breathe a different kind of life in it, make it much more digital and make it much more than, something happens in the fall and then meanwhile here’s a little bit else. Because towards the end, it was really about the college radio charts and the Marathon, and not much else. Which is a shame given the heritage and the publications and the writing that went on. We’re as interested in trying to help writers who want to write about music as we are to help the artists that they’ll be writing about.

Towards the end, there were a lot of other issues involving employees not getting paid and others who were basically screwed over by CMJ. What plans do you have in terms of rebuilding public trust in the brand, and for other industry partners who were burned by the previous ownership?

We’re very sensitive to that. When I started Amazing in 2007, from the very beginning the aim was to create an ethical brand which tries to help musicians and operates in their interests and on their behalf. And you clearly can’t be an ethical brand if you’re going around trying to screw people. Now, legally, we don’t have any liability for any of those debts. Morally, we do want to try and help. So there are a number of things that we’re going to try to do — which we can’t really talk about just yet, because we want to talk about them once we’ve done them — which will redress the balance.

What we’re interested in doing is trying to reinvent it, to bring back what was good about it, in order to try and make a difference, especially now. But there are ideas that we’ve been discussing internally about ways to look after people. It’s one of those things where nothing succeeds like success: the more we’re able to bring the brand back, get attention for it, bring in revenue, the more promotion and benefits we’ll be able to offer to musicians.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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