Two weekends ago, New York celebrated the madness that is the CMJ Music Marathon, an enormous music festival whose scores of official and unofficial showcases mean hundreds of shows going on all over one of the biggest cities in the world. And, coincidentally, there I was! In the city! Dressed in my estimation of a good, all-black New York outfit (in hindsight, a bit more similar to my witch-themed Halloween costume than I might have hoped), achingly underage and pathologically jittery in the face of clipboards containing guest lists, I was ready to kill it. As someone who attends concerts on a pretty regular basis, I was sure the whole affair would be a big neighborhood of live music and I’d be trick-or-treating from venue to venue late into the night.
But this was New York, and sometimes nightlife ain’t a breeze. I realized this after being turned away from a chi-chi rooftop party in Brooklyn, and then a show inside a bookstore (a bookstore!), and then, embarrassingly, the picnic tables at a farmers market. In a dramatic turn shockingly reminiscent of fruitless freshman year nights spent party-prowling, I found myself walking down Kent Avenue in Williamsburg in search of absolutely anything to do.
Until I noticed a door.
Super suavely, I overshot the distance to get there, squinting over my shoulder surreptitiously to gauge if the flat, brown thing in the doorman’s hand was one of those hallowed guest list clipboards or just a clipboard of the regular sort. It didn’t seem to matter to him; the door was wide open and his cigarette proved more enthralling than doing his job. I slipped on in. Twenty-somethings dressed reassuringly similar to me were dancing vigorously between an elevated bar and a DJ spinning beneath a billowing white canopy that looked like a lumpy cloud. I recognized this place; I had somehow unwittingly made my way into Glasslands Gallery, and this was the CMJ Yours Truly showcase. That DJ was Araabmusik. I had — through no fault or merit of my own — arrived.
The show was fantastic and the dancing lasted until four in the morning (just kidding, parents!) and the whole time, the only words I could manage were, “How did I find myself here?”
This is more than a mildly alarming question that might signal cause for panic. Some of the most sublime musical experiences are those that we simply stumble into. The Russian critic Victor Shlovsky describes art’s necessity as stemming from its capability to yank its audience from the unconscious slog through ordinary life, to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known … to make objects unfamiliar.” While music itself falls into a category beyond the ordinary, music that takes a listener completely by surprise, sneaking up from behind or hiding in a trap door in the floor, is perhaps the most jolting and most satisfying.
Literally stumbling in the night’s high heels through an unknown door isn’t the only way that discovering entire worlds of music happens. It’s why people spend hours and hours in the dusty basement barrels of record shops, looking for the odd gem. It’s why people keep going to heart-meltingly earnest local band shows and open mic nights. It’s why people who care about music seek it out wherever it hides, not just on Top 40 radio or established indie music blogs.
Long before I read these blogs or kept up with releases from labels, I was religiously devoted to Purevolume, a Soundcloud-type website for bands (mostly, now that I revisit, with tags of “Rock / Emo / Pop Punk,” but what did I know) to post singles for download. I would stay up way past bedtime on the family PC, clicking the random band page button until I landed somewhere I liked. I trained myself to love the thrill of chance. The trust I had in paying attention without guaranteed reward allowed me, a couple years later, to stumble onto Of Montreal — and, in turn, my beloved Elephant 6 Collective — in the ambient music playing over advertisements before the previews at a movie theater. I’ve been exposed to the strangest and greatest music discovered in grocery stores, in scrawled lyrics inside secondhand books, in dumpsters.
Discovery isn’t dead. We might have expanded westward and (creepily) Google Street View-ed every nook and cranny of my childhood street, but tiny victories of exploration lurk where we least expect. It takes a certain faith that pursuing an inkling that something stumbled upon will turn out to be worthwhile, and a lot of the time it isn’t. Sometimes you stumble through doors in the Meatpacking district, and sometimes you find yourself in an actual butchery. But those euphoric moments when chance presents us with something wonderful are worth the extra work in seeking. This is where true personal connection to music develops.
Switch off the hype machine and go explore. You never know what dance parties lie in the warm glow emanating from that door down the street.