"Painful" is probably the best word to describe the transition that has occurred in the Cleveland dance music scene over the past two years. The inevitable downturn in the illicit underground rave circuit of the early '90s led to a more legalized party scene, with DIY promoters staging city-permitted events in nontraditional venues, drawing hundreds -- and occasionally thousands -- of ravers weekend after weekend.
But in the past couple of years, those sanctioned raves have become far less frequent, and as the ranks of would-be party organizers thinned, the remaining promoters -- like Brian Conti, head of Sphere Productions -- have shifted toward booking their events at Cleveland's nightclubs and concert halls.
Unfortunately, dance enthusiasts aren't coming out for club shows. Past Sphere events Be Square (1998) and Tonka (1999) drew estimated crowds of 2,500 and 3,000 people, respectively, while more recent Sphere parties, like 2000's Tonka II and last year's NYE2002 (both held at the Agora), were attended by only 1,300 and 900 people.
Though the decline in attendance hits promoters the hardest, it has a palpable effect on the mood of the events as well. When British drum 'n' bass DJ Grooverider played for a meager crowd of 400 at the Funky Buddha in December, the half-full club just couldn't generate the energy to inspire a party. Most of the die-hard fans who turned up for the gig simply stood around the edges of the club, watching the DJ and waiting for something -- anything -- to liven up the event.
The night stood in amazing contrast to Junglodium, a February 2000 Sphere party at which one of Grooverider's British junglist brethren, DJ Krust, played for a fist-pumping crowd of over 1,500 ravers, who barely stopped to breathe during his two-hour set.
Conti is hoping that his latest production, this weekend's Spring Dance Music Festival, will help resuscitate Cleveland's dance scene. It certainly has the potential: The first night is scheduled as a sort of Undercurrents of Cleveland DJs, with events held at multiple clubs. But where festivals like Undercurrents faced the drawback of having their participating clubs scattered throughout the city, SDMF's clubs -- Wish, Spy, That Groovee Little Nightclub, and the Sanctuary Diner -- are all just short walks from one another in the Warehouse District, the heart of Cleveland's nightclub community.
"It seems like Cleveland's nightclubs are always in such competition down there," Conti says, outlining his plan to unify the scene from a table at Starbucks in Cleveland Heights. "For me, it was a challenge just to see if I could get them all to work together -- and now they're all involved in one event. Each one's turnout affects the other clubs."
Unfortunately, the strength that this unified front offers might be overshadowed by the perplexing lineup of DJs. Headliners include Florida-based funky breaks DJ Baby Anne, San Francisco house jock Robbie Hardkiss, and California's Sandra Collins -- one of the country's top trance DJs. (Collins headlines the Saturday showcase, at Metropolis in the Flats.) But aside from those three out-of-towners, the lineup consists entirely of local and regional DJs -- about 40 in all. There's no doubting the quality of the area talent, but why Conti opted for so many locals is another story.
"If you take a look at the lineup, all of the local DJs that are playing -- Dan Curtin, Sleepy C, Mike Filly, Ian Mariano -- have their roots in Cleveland and have really done a lot for the city to set the standard of what's going on now," Conti says. "That is the focus: Cleveland, and what Cleveland has to offer."
Still, the fact that Cleveland offers these DJs most weeks of the year would appear to tarnish SDMF's luster.
"It's always better to have nationally and internationally known guests," admits Curtin, a veteran Cleveland DJ who will be spinning at Spy on Friday. "This is crucial, and promoters and owners in Cleveland never get this point -- hence the low club turnout in almost every venue."
"Having all locals can be a double-edged sword," argues Greg Malcolm, half of the experimental electronic duo Twine, which will be performing Friday at the Sanctuary Diner, as part of the Headroom Digital showcase. "You lack a big name with overt drawing power, but then you gain by having the friends of friends of the local DJs coming out . . . [it provides] word of mouth."
If SDMF's local focus leaves some of Cleveland's dance music diehards craving more out-of-towners, it also keeps production costs -- and ticket prices -- low. Conti hopes this will make the festival more accessible to newcomers to the scene.
"You pay $10 [Friday], and you get to see different styles of music and a wide array of talent -- that's the idea," Conti says. "Normally, if you were to go to Funky Buddha and see one of those headliners play, it would be $15. It's only 15 bucks for both nights of our festival. It's a steal!"
Conti has coupled his reasonable prices with a more mainstream advertising campaign than most dance events usually get, including radio spots and newspaper ads. But will it work?
"The results are impossible to predict," Curtin says. "But we can hope that it will give more people -- and new people just coming into the scene -- access to good music and perhaps inspiration to go to record stores like Bent Crayon and Grand Poo Bas to seek out what they heard the night before."
Doug Burkhart has two good reasons to believe in Conti's vision: He's one of the local DJs performing at the festival, and he owns the Grand Poo Bas record shop. "Being in its first year, SDMF won't change the state of the scene," he says, "[but] I'm participating in SDMF because I believe in what it could become.
"People tend to forget that Cleveland has always had a very strong dance music scene, and right now we are going through a transitional period. The scene has grown immensely, and with that [growth] it has become divided. As a record store owner, it has always been a long-term goal of mine to unify the local scene, and I think SDMF is a good starting point."
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