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Rust Belt Rock: Local Music Industry Vets Weigh in on the State of the Cleveland Music Scene 

Things look pretty promising around the local music scene if you ask local club owners and promoters. (Of course they'd say that given their interests, but it's true, trust us!) Here's what they had to say when we quizzed them on favorite acts, shows, promising artists and how the hell they ended up in the biz.

Cindy Barber - Beachland Ballroom and Tavern/ Cleveland Rocks Past Present and Future

How did you start in the business and why?

I was part of the music business scene in the '70s working at local branches of record labels MCA, WEA, ABC, which was a substantial network that included salesmen, promotion reps for each label, order fillers etc. Those warehouses and the extended record stores they served employed a huge number of musicians and music lovers in the region. As a young girl, it was a great job with lots of perks, promo copies of new releases and prime concert tickets.

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

Local music was part of almost everyone's life back then with dances and shows, singles being cut in local studios, radio and promoters helping to hook bands with national labels. [Plain Dealer writer] Jane Scott was writing about every sneeze. Now that is sort of coming back, there are more quality studios helping record local artists and there is starting to be a network of businesses growing up to support those efforts.

What are your two most memorable local shows?

Well that's a tough one... For Beachland shows, it has to be the time the Black Keys sold out our ballroom on New Year's Eve in 2003 with This Moment in Black History opening. More recently, the tavern show that was just pure energy was the 2011 All Dinosaurs soldout CD release show with Hot Cha Cha; our ceiling was beat up and the entire stage was encircled when All Dinos ripped through their set.

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

Finding an audience. It's been hard to be an original band and build a following here. People who are in the scene support each other, but we need more music lovers in general to just come out and explore. I do think though that Clevelanders are getting better at coming out for local-only shows. Just like we are starting to support local retail and local food, local music is getting more and more support. Even publications like Scene and the PD are giving more space to local music stories.

What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

Gotta Groove vinyl pressing plant has become our not so secret weapon! Vince Slusarz's vision launched in mid-2009 and is now running three shifts, pressing vinyl for big name artists but also helping local bands with a crowd-funding platform to raise money for their projects. And giving multiple musicians a living wage running the machines! There are so many band success stories, but I admire what Mr. Gnome has been able to do and remain in Cleveland. They have a 30-plus date tour booked from the end of  October through mid-December when they end up in our ballroom at the Beachland where hundreds of Clevelanders will welcome this husband and wife team of Nicole Barille and Sam Meister home.

What is missing from the local music scene?

An infrastructure to help talented bands cover the business part of music. We need a publishing house, booking agency, entertainment lawyers that don't charge an arm and a leg, record labels with investment capital. I am trying to explore and identify this deficit through the nonprofit Cleveland Rocks Past Present and Future and am currently looking for funding to help launch an incubator program.

The most exciting local act right now is...?

Hands down Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites! They are just a rapidly moving explosion and Beachland partner Mark Leddy is trying to help them navigate as they all hang on to their day jobs. Others I'm watching and encouraging are Modern Electric who seems poised to take the next step and follow in the footsteps of The Lighthouse and the Whaler, Mr. Gnome and Cloud Nothings, to do more national touring. They have determination, organization and a tight stage show. I'm really liking the new Filmstrip record. Leah Lou and the Two Left Shoes is ready to take off. And Herzog is a songwriting force. And Bim Thomas' punked out project Obnox is getting lots of attention right now.

What local act had the most potential but never made it or died off?

Have to say the Generators. This band had it all: songs, a huge loyal audience, local radio support, affiliation with nationally released film Light of Day. Management issues and band differences doomed them.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

Put all the pieces in place. Great songs and singing then need a confident stage show, grassroots marketing savvy and, above all, support. Someone has to do the business part, but just like life you also need someone who believes in you.

Sean Kilbane - Happy Dog Co-Owner

How did you start in the business and why?

I worked in the brokerage industry for many years and had always found myself going to see local music as often as possible. That career had run its course, and I wanted a change that could satisfy a need for facilitating creativity, particularly local music and running a small business.  In 2008, an opportunity presented itself to take over the Happy Dog, so I contacted a couple of friends to join in and take the leap. 

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

I think there are great local musicians and bands today just as there were 10 or 20 years ago.  It's difficult in rock 'n' roll to create something totally new or come up with something that hasn't been done, so maybe today you hear more bands reverting back to different sounds from decades past and putting their own stamp on a particular style of music.  Also, technology has allowed for major shifts in how a band creates, records, and distributes their music — the obvious advances that were not even remotely possible years ago. 

What are your two most memorable local shows?

That's a difficult one, but I do remember the first time in the early '90s that I saw the Revelers at one of the bars in the Phantasy complex, maybe the Symposium, and I thought they were great. I would open the Scene and Free Times every week to find when and where they'd be playing next and go catch them. Not to be outdone, Chris Allen's Rosavelt, the first time I saw them in Cleveland at the old Grog Shop not too long after they had formed, was an incredible show. More recently, the Happy Dog had a show back in mid-April with Herzog, Little Bighorn and Dead Sweaters.  That was one of the best local line-ups we have had or may ever and the bands did not disappoint. 

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

It's a real challenge to motivate bands to keep doing what they are doing. There is so much rejection and so many obstacles for these folks involved in creating music and making it a focus of their lives. I think most have to keep things in perspective and realize that the odds are against them, but that is all right. They can still dream big and have a lot of fun along the way. No need to just give up. I think that it takes a lot of support from venues and recording studios and other outlets such as Scene and the Plain Dealer to really push bands to keep making music. We tried from the outset to set up a model that will generate as much money as possible for the bands playing.  Bands can be a strange collection of characters trying to make music for various reasons, and most of the time, they splinter or break up.  If you can give them an avenue to present their music, an atmosphere where they are treated well and are having fun, then they will want to continue doing what they do and writing more and growing.  To an extent, the same thing can be said for recording. Guys like Brian Straw at 78th Street Studios or Jason Tarulli at Studio Time in Akron aren't getting rich recording bands. They are fostering the growth of the bands and the creation of records to be released on some scale, hopefully to be recognized and released on a greater scale. Publications taking an interest in the local scene and writing stories and reviews does so much to get the word out about new acts or up-and-coming bands. It gives them exposure and a sense of satisfaction and credibility, as they try to have their music heard. All of these things combined give a band a chance to do more and a have a little more optimism about where they are hoping to take it. 

What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

One real success for most all Cleveland music venues has been the recent change in the rate of admissions tax. A coalition of music venues, including Peabody's, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Now That's Class, Brothers Lounge and others worked diligently with City Council to lower the rate and find some relief from the 8-percent across-the-board admission tax that had been in place for years.  Studies were done and statistics gathered.  Comparisons from other cities were brought in and economic data was compiled to make a case for the reduction.  Councilman Jay Westbrook spearheaded the effort, along with the other venues mentioned above, who were being led by Sean Watterson, my business partner at the Happy Dog. Council President Martin Sweeney introduced the legislation, with strong support from the likes of Councilmen Zone, Cimperman and Keane, and the new admissions tax law became effective last year, with venues under 150-person occupancy paying zero percent, and venues of 151- to 750- person occupancy paying 4 percent. In our case, we give the total proceeds of the cover charge, less the admissions tax, to the bands. More money for the musicians. 

A second success that has been very rewarding to be an integral part of is the emergence of classical music in our venue and the neighborhood, and the resulting interest in our city, from other cities, and from around the world.  From a one-offclassical concert with a few Cleveland Orchestra members a few years ago, spurring on a monthly classical night with CIM students, Classical Revolution, culminating in a week-long Cleveland Orchestra residency in Gordon Square, the collaboration between world-renowned musicians and a local neighborhood venue has been extremely gratifying. 

What is missing from the local music scene?

Not too much comes to mind.  It's a pretty diverse scene and there are more venues now than there were five years ago and a good amount of DIY spaces and houses too.  Maybe just a slight aversion to risk still persists.  So bands either break up, give up or don't try and tour or even make a move, if it seems doable or necessary, for fear of failure.  The ones that do take those chances are to be commended for giving it a shot.  Others who don't may never find out what could have been.  Don't get me wrong, it's a long shot for the vast majority, but so what? That being the case, most of these bands have absolutely nothing to lose.  Go have some fun, live and grow along the way. 

The most exciting local act right now is...?

There are so many really good bands out there now. Very talented and all different sounds. A real matter of taste and I'm biased as many members of these bands work at the HD, so: Herzog, Shale Satans, Goldmines, Shitbox Jimmy, Little Bighorn. Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites from Akron are really on a roll too. 

The local act that had the most potential but never made it or died off?

The Mice.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

Real simple stuff, I suppose.  Bands seem to sound really tight when they practice regularly, imagine that.  Don't expect anything to be handed to you.  Keep an open mind about your music and other bands' music and pull for each other.  If your music is good and deserves to be heard, there will be people who will do everything they can to help you succeed. 

Justin Markert - Cellar Door Records Owner

How did you start in the business and why?

We actually started off as a coffee shop/music venue in Madison, Ohio 10 years ago. Me and my buddy Rick Fike saw an empty storefront and the things just took shape and we did it. We were in bands, and we wanted to create a place where we could book quality line-ups, local bands and out-of-towners, and put them in front of a decent crowd. We ended up selling the coffee shop but kept at the promotions/record label end of things, and it really started taking off around 2012 when we added Allie Markert and Nikki Delamotte into the mix and launched cellardoorcle.com

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

I think the crowds are getting bigger. This probably has a lot to do with the power of social media but it seems like more people are paying attention. With avenues like Facebook and sites like Bandcamp, a band can get their name out there easier. Also, there seems to be less posturing, at least in the circles we run in. Less attitudes. It's much more of a community now.

What are your two most memorable local shows?

The first would probably be the Cellar Door Rendezvous music festival we did over two days in both rooms at the Beachland. It was awesome as one of the organizers, but also to see so many of my favorite bands on one stage. The second is probably Megachurch, All Dinosaurs and GoldMINES at the Happy Dog in September of last year. Megachurch blows my mind every time I see them.

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

There are so many great shows, events, festivals, you name it, happening in Cleveland every weekend, so it's hard to not spread the local music fan community too thin on any given night. And what's the answer to that? Making that community larger. Getting not just the attention of hipsters and scenesters, but to get the eyes and ears of the young professionals, sports fans, West Sixth-ers etc. to see what's happening, because the truth is everyone has pretty diverse taste in music, the key is to get them to realize that there's so many good things happening right here.

What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

 Brite Winter. Emily [Hornack] and Tom [Fox] have made huge strides with this festival in the last couple years. Invading Ohio City with local music is definitely good for the community as a whole.

The Modern Electric. I've know these guys since they were teenagers, and even back then they had something special going on onstage. They've managed to build a rabid fan base and pack rooms over and over again even though they haven't had a new album in four years. When their new one comes out, I'm sure they'll be making even bigger waves.

What is missing from the local music scene?

Mellow rock. I'm not kidding. We've got plenty of indie-folk going on, plenty of cutesy indie-pop, but where are the Regina Spektors? The Jeff Buckleys? Where are the National and Bon Iver of Cleveland? 

The most exciting local act right now is...?

Well of course, my first answer is Cellar Door artists So Long, Albatross, The Commonwealth, and Ohio Sky. But outside of our immediate circle: Seafair and Likenesses. A lot of bands are good, there are great musicians all over town, but every once in a while there's a band that is more than technical ability and good songwriting, bands that can also move you emotionally. Seafair and Likenesses both possess that power. Oh, and Signals Midwest are always great!

The local act that had the most potential but never made it or died off?

Joshua Jesty. It's not that he never made it. He plays out and is writing all the time. But when you listen to his songs, you don't understand how this guy isn't playing stadiums, or at least cashing huge licensing checks. And he writes like a song a week, these big melodies just keep coming, he's a hook factory.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

If you're trying to book bands, or be a promoter, or a record label, be transparent. You're not the "Vice President of Operations and Artist Development in the Ska and R&B sector of Collinwood." That's bullshit. You're just a guy or girl that wants to get the word out about good music. A business card doesn't make you a CEO. If you're genuine in what you're doing, fans and artists will trust you. 

If you're a band, don't play every week. They'll be less likely to come to your show if they know there's always next week. Build anticipation. And be nice: No one likes a bad attitude.

Vince Slusarz - Owner, Gotta Groove Records

How did you start in the business and why?

I had the opportunity and the means to start a business from the ground up in 2009, something I always wanted to do.  Music has been a love of mine since I was a child. And, I am very bullish about the need to have a vibrant manufacturing presence in the city. The resurgence in vinyl records allowed me to bring these two passions together. I felt it was important to locate the business in the city, and to be a small part of helping establish the city's reputation as a favorable location for musicians and listeners. 

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

For years we were known as a city of adventurous listeners who could, and did, break acts nationally. But those days of radio breaking music are long gone, here and elsewhere. What remains, however, is the independence of the local acts making music. Virtually every genre and sub genre is represented and can be heard in the various city venues most nights of the week.

What are your two most memorable local shows?

This is too tough, I have seen so many great shows that I would leave out some epic ones by only mentioning two.  However, to date myself, the World Series of Rock with Jesse Colin Young, Santana, the Band and CSN&Y with around 100,000 people and the  free clinic drug overdose tent made a huge impression on that then teenager. Besides the above, any show at the Beachland is always memorable, for any number of reasons.  And can't miss the Ohio City Singers annual holiday show at the Happy Dog

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

Getting people from the suburbs, especially older farts like me, to come into the city for shows. It's disappointing that the age bracket with the most disposable income has either forgotten about how music was once an important part of their lives or they are just afraid to come downtown.  

 What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

Jakprints has become nationally known for the print services they supply to the music community, and Alternative Press is one of the few rock print publications still standing.

A coalescence of the various segments of the scene (artists, venues, promoters, labels and music-related businesses along with the city government) into a group focused on promoting Cleveland as a music city worth being mentioned with Nashville, Austin and the like.

The most exciting local act right now is...?

Again, too many to mention, but among the few we have had the privilege of pressing: Megachurch, All Dinosaurs, Filmstrip, and Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lights.  

The local act that had the most potential but never made it or died off?

Not sure about this one, maybe Rocket From the Tombs?  Per Chris Smith [GGR employee and Terminal Lovers guitarist]: Spike In Vein.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

First, define for yourself what is "making it". If it's just about fame and money, the odds are against you no matter your talent.

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