NEW YORK (AFP) - More than 1,300 musicians descended on New York for the annual CMJ Music Marathon, which provides a stage to emerging artists vying for greater recognition in the industry, and some of the biggest audiences turned out for two artistes from Taiwan - songstress A-Lin and rapper Dwagie.
While the number of music festivals has soared in recent years, 33-year-old CMJ - originally named for the College Music Journal - is credited with helping discover artistes who quickly became big including Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire and, much earlier, REM.
Numerous countries - including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand - seized on CMJ to send emerging artists to New York.
In contrast, Taiwan sent stars with already established credentials for a packed show at the Highline Ballroom on Friday headlined by A-Lin, who has been nominated three times for best female singer in Mandarin at the island's Golden Melody Awards.
The show also featured the US debut of Dwagie, a Taiwanese rapper known for his social consciousness. He parted the stage with a shoutout to the Dalai Lama, showing a snippet from the spiritual leader on the screen.
Ed Yen, the executive producer of the Taiwan showcase, said the push was looking not necessarily at winning US fans but at persuading Western artists to look to Taiwan when seeking collaboration in Asia.
Other standouts from CMJ which ran over five days through Saturday at clubs across New York, included Ireland's September Girls. With a hazy guitar reverb, dominating bass-lines and a touch of psychedelia in the keyboards, the Dublin-based September Girls conjure up a landscape of overcast skies but framed through pop melodies.
All but one member of the five-woman band takes turns on vocals, with songs on the debut album, Cursing the Sea, revolving as often as not around relationship dysfunction.
"How long must I be lost at sea? Take these pills and swallow me," runs the pop-catchy chorus of Ships, set to a shoegazing guitar that could have come from The Jesus and Mary Chain.
"We all kind of have pop sensibilities but are more interested in the darker side of it," Caoimhe Derwin - whose keyboards would find a home in either 1960s pop or 1980s Goth - said after one of September Girls' seven shows at CMJ.
Guitarist Jessie Ward, who unlike her Irish bandmates is a transplant from California, said the sound had a "dirtiness and the darkness (that) is part of the Irishness."
"We write pop songs, but we think a straightforward pop song is a bit boring," Ward said.
Texas-based Pompeii bears a strong resemblance to Icelandic post-rock icons Sigur Ros, except it crafts its sound into concise rock tunes with vocals.
Loom, the first album from the Austin-based band in six years, starts gently with melancholic piano chords before sweeping strings foreshadow a bigger sound to come. The title song gradually climaxes into the ferocity of frontman Dean Stafford's guitar.
"I was 19 when the band started in '04 and now I'm 30, so basically we've reached the point where the band went through this necessary puberty," Stafford said after a CMJ show.
"We had to take this time to figure out - how do we want to change the sound? Because we felt we were a little melodramatic in the early days," he said.
For Loom, the band's third album, Pompeii tapped the Tosca String Quartet, which had its start as a popular tango orchestra in Austin; guitarist/keyboardist Erik Johnson brought in analog synthesizers.
Stafford voiced hope that Pompeii would work on soundtracks, saying: "We're a very cinematic band by nature."
Pompeii had a taste of cinematic drama as it filmed a video to be released for the song Blueprint, in which the band went to a ranch and blew up an old Honda Accord.
The rhythm section for another group, Ballet School, could have come straight from the 1980s, with a synth bass line that Whitney Houston would have danced to, but the Berlin-based band is defined by the soaring voice and presence of singer Rosie Blair.
Blair, who has had no formal vocal instruction, empowers each song with her vast-ranged voice in a delivery that bears similarities to Siouxie Sioux, even though Blair prefers to wear white instead of black.
But the synth sound is deceptive, with guitarist Michel Jun Collet giving a rock kick. The dichotomy is all the more striking on stage, with the Belfast-bred Blair prancing around the stage as the Brazilian-French Collet keeps cool, Slash-style in a black overcoat and top-hat.
The band played first but enjoyed the warmest reception at a CMJ showcase by the Bella Union label, run by Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins fame. As the band spoke, one stranger even approached Blair and said that Ballet School made him enjoy music again.
Blair, a self-described "provincial kid from Ireland", said she came of age "when authenticity was at a certain apex" with artists such as Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994 when she was 10.
"What I found was this huge conflict between wanting to be successful and also wanting to maintain some integrity," she said.
"On stage, the tension is tangible between those two things," she said. "But that conflict, I think, is what makes great artists really great."