We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Middle Distance Runner performs at the CMJ Music Marathon in 2008.

Every CMJ has its success story—the unknown act who, thanks to buzz and grit and talent and luck , tickles the right trigger of the wayfaring label rep or taste-maker who, for whatever reason, has decided to see it. But most of the thousand-plus little-known bands and artists who descend on New York City each fall for the College Music Journal Music Marathon don’t walk away with freshly inked contracts or top-tier management. Their game is more incremental: A write-up here, a handshake there. So whether they’re dampening expectations or they mean it, it’s probably unsurprising that most of the D.C. bands performing during this year’s CMJ say their primary goal is just to “have fun.”

“These things are kind of a madhouse, and there’s a lot of talk of ‘there’s gonna be a lot of industry people,'” says Matt Dowling, whose band Deleted Scenes has two CMJ gigs and a meeting with a marketing firm. “I don’t mean to be a cynic, but we’ve been playing for long enough and pined over certain goals to realize that the bottom line is to have fun. If the industry happens to like it, then great.”

John Thornley, of U.S. Royalty, is equally cautious: “I don’t think we’re going to go there and get a record, and I mean, it may happen. The goal is just to go there and play a show and get a lot of people.” But he also sees less tangible benefits. “If you meet a band at a party, and you like their music and they like yours, it’s that much more easy to work with them.”

At least a dozen bands and artists from the District will play gigs during this year’s CMJ, which starts tomorrow night and runs through Saturday, and includes about 75 different venues across New York City (there are also panel discussions and a film festival). Some acts already have recording contracts, others don’t, and all of them—once you get past their shared enthusiasm for merriment—have different goals.

For Middle Distance Runner, which already has a record label, management, and a promotions firm, CMJ is all about exposure. “To get our name out there in people’s minds more, it makes it easier to do our job,” says Stephen Kilroy, the group’s frontman. His band has played at CMJ during each of the last three years. “Our manager would have an easier time dealing with other bands’ managers if we’re more well-known and well-thought-of. So we’re going to go up there and try not to embarrass ourselves.”

Rapper Tabi Bonney said he doesn’t really know what the festival is, but that he’s happy to perform there all the same. “This is my first time ever going to CMJ,” he says. “I’d kinda heard about it, but my booking agency just set it up for me.”

CMJ Network, which publishes a college-radio top-30 list and a magazine, started the festival in 1980 as a way to expose underground artists to the recording industry. These days, well-known independent acts—like Hercules & Love Affair and Saul Williams—headline many of the bills. The bands encompass dozens of genres, and nearly as many nationalities. And while the industry presence (major labels and indies, managers, agents, PR firms, and lawyers) is substantial, for unsigned bands the rewards seem diminished, partially because of the ailing record industry, increasingly because of the down economy—this even as interest in independent music has ballooned in recent years and CMJ has grown. The 2009 festival had 10 percent more applicants than the previous year, Robert Haber, the founder and chief executive of CMJ Network, told Newsday this week.

The role of college radio seems particularly anachronistic. “Ten years ago or even longer, college radio had a bigger impact,” says Mike Mori, an agent in New York who represents fairly successful acts like Noisettes, Ra Ra Riot, Dalek and The Antlers. “It’s still a factor. It’s a piece of the puzzle but it’s a lot less important.”

But, Mori says, “any of these festivals”—like South by Southwest in Austin—”are great for music because they give small bands an outlet.”

That’s how Evan Brody sees it. Along with three other musicians with whom he attended George Washington University, Brody runs D.C.’s Underwater Peoples Records.Most of the bands that have released music through the DIY label are based in New Jersey, and several of them—like Real Estate, Ducktails, and Air Waves—have become blogosphere favorites in recent months.

So, Brody says, the label set down some goals for the three showcases (one official, two un-) that it’s hosting during CMJ: “No. 1 is have a good time. No. 2 is chill really hard. No. 3 is meet new people. I love meeting new people. And No. 4 is just making sure that everything is going smoothly.”

John Davis, who has performed at CMJ several times with Q & Not U and Georgie James, says young bands shouldn’t worry too much about the industry aspect of the festival. “You just need to make sure that something about what you’re doing is good (even if it’s form over function) and people will come to you,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That’s not to say that reaching out to people is bad or pointless—it definitely isn’t.  But I feel that you don’t want to spend too much time on that stuff when working on your music is always what really gets you someplace.”

As for Davis’ new band, Title Tracks, he wrote, “our schedule is drive up, play, get back in the car, drive home. Literally. We’ll be home later that night.”

Photo courtesy of Middle Distance Runner’s MySpace page.