More Band for the Buck 

Local acts rock out all over town at the Cleveland Music Festival.

Dan Bliss is talking on his cell phone, pacing in front of Heaven and Earth, the Flats nightclub that he owns with partner John Michalak. In the midst of organizing the Cleveland Music Festival, a local band extravaganza he hopes will turn into an annual event, Bliss is trying to schedule 150 bands that will play at 10 venues between February 16 and 18. But at the moment, he's not worried about himself -- he's on his phone calling the owners of the club next to Heaven and Earth to tell them that their alarm system is going off.

But after we walk across the street to Dick's Last Resort, we've barely sat down, and he's on the phone again, making calls to check on advertising for the CMF. Even the waitress at Dick's notices and makes a comment about how "rude" he is for talking on his phone when she's trying to take our order. Bliss, who's equally a businessman and music fan, admits that the CMF, which he's been planning since summer, wasn't an easy sell -- at least initially.

"We've had some doubters saying, 'How can you put together a festival in three to four months?'" he says. "It depends on the venue, but in the beginning, they were complacent-to-willing. I didn't have to talk them into it, but they wanted to know more about it when I first approached them. As time's gone on, we've not only earned their support, but we've gotten them more and more excited about it."

According to Bliss, he and Michalak considered doing a music festival last summer, when it appeared that Undercurrents, an annual spring festival featuring unsigned acts, was no longer taking place. Undercurrents eventually did happen in the fall, but Bliss and Michalak's plans were already under way. By December, they had posted applications on a website and were preparing for the mid-February festival. Bliss and Michalak, co-owners of Peabody's (which closed to become Heaven and Earth, but is supposed to reopen in the next couple of months), drew upon the same talent pool they used when booking acts at Peabody's and initially lured local bands such as Mushroomhead and Rosavelt for the CMF.

"We invited a number of bands we knew were good quality bands," Bliss says. "It damages the integrity of the festival if it's just bands we know. That's not fair. You have to open it up to bands that haven't played Peabody's before, or maybe formed after Peabody's closed. We want to give those bands the opportunity as well. I think Peabody's was always the leader, the anchor in Cleveland for local bands."

The bands who weren't invited paid a $20 application fee and, upon being accepted to the festival, were given tickets to sell as well, with all the proceeds being returned to Bliss and Michalak. Bliss says his expenses -- he's paying for A&R representatives and talent buyers to fly in from Chicago and Los Angeles -- need to be offset somehow. It might not be unusual that bands don't get paid for playing a showcase event, but it's unconventional to make them sell tickets.

"To be honest, this is one of the few times I've run across this," says Michael Marxen of Akron's Three Miles Out. "Most clubs that we play, we either get the door or we get a flat fee. It's a little different, but I think with the number of venues and the magnitude of the show -- from what I understand, [Bliss] has got a lot of people coming in -- he's got to cover his expenses somehow."

The two panel discussions slated to take place at the Rock Hall after a noon showcase on Saturday, February 17, will be on the topics "Growing Your Band at the Club Level" and "Getting Your Band to the Next Level." Belkin Productions talent buyer Dan Kemer, Mushroomhead's Steve Felton, House of Blues talent buyer Michael Yerke, and former Kid Rock manager Steve Hutton will be among the speakers on the "Growing" panel. For the other panel, speakers include the William Morris Agency's Ron Opaleski, Warner Bros. Records A&R rep Jeff Blue, Epic Records A&R rep Peter Cohen, Maverick Records A&R rep Robert "Berko" Webber, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Program Director David Spero.

"I think it's great -- it sounds like there will be a lot of bands involved," says Yerke, who will be flying in on the morning of the 17th and leaving the morning of the 18th. "There might be some bands that are building a following in Ohio that I might not know about. Like we just booked [Columbus's] O.A.R., and they did phenomenal. I want to see if there's any other bands out there that are building a really, really strong following."

One obstacle facing the CMF is that moving from venue to venue will be difficult, because participating clubs are spread throughout the city, and unlike cities such as Austin or New York that host annual music festivals, it's not possible to walk from one place to the next, and it's expensive to travel by cab in Cleveland. Bliss doesn't see the distance between clubs as something that will impede attendance.

"We really hope -- and we believe that this is going to happen -- that the best possible problem we can have is overcapacity of the venues," Bliss says. "We want bands playing in front of big crowds and having fun shows. Frankly, bands enjoy playing in front of big crowds -- nothing's worse than playing in front of an empty room. That's called band practice."

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