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The Most Powerful People in Cleveland Music 

A salute to those who keep the hometown rock rolling.

Ice-T named an album after it. Iron Maiden was a slave to it. And everybody from Raekwon to Rainbow has written songs about it. Power is what rock and roll is all about.

It's in this spirit that Scene takes a look at the most powerful people in Cleveland music. In an industry as fad-driven as the music business, power is measured largely in foresight: the ability to set trends, rather than follow them, and plow a steady course in a shaky field. Longevity is also crucial. Few industries have higher turnover than the music biz, and to be able to last -- and leave a lasting impression -- leads to authority.

In rating this authority, we chose to focus on those currently wielding the most influence, which means that many who have been important over the years -- such as Henry LoConti, Chris Andrews, and Derek Hess -- have been excluded. Of course, this list is arbitrary and somewhat capricious. You know, just like power itself.

1. The Belkin Brain Trust
Clear Channel Entertainment, Cleveland

Trying to grasp the true influence of Belkin Productions on Cleveland music over the past 35 years is like attempting to separate two intertwined strands of DNA: They're necessarily linked to form a greater whole.

Beginning in 1966, when brothers Michael and Jules Belkin gave the Four Freshmen a $2,000 guarantee to play the Cleveland Music Hall, Belkin Productions has been luring the acts that established Cleveland as a city of musical import. By helping to break artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Bruce Springsteen, Belkin made this city an early epicenter of rock and roll. This, in turn, buoyed venues like the Agora, Music Hall, and, in later years, the Odeon, where local and national acts have since thrived.

"They made Cleveland a necessary stop on national tours by being some of the finest promoters around and people that acts wanted to play for," says Cleveland rocker Michael Stanley. "The good thing about them is that they would take a chance on acts and help build them. You knew there was a relationship there."

Last year, concert giant SFX Entertainment, a division of Clear Channel, bought Belkin. But even though it's been absorbed into a larger conglomerate, the core of the Belkin regime remains intact: President Michael Belkin Jr., Senior Vice President Barry Gabel, and Senior Director Dan Kemer. Indeed, the majority of the big acts that have visited of late -- from Tool to Maxwell to Creed -- were booked by this Belkin brain trust.

"The marriage between radio and music fans and artists of all kinds came together because of the Belkins, and they've kept that going," says Deanna Adams, author of Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection, a history of the city's rock scene. "Even though Clear Channel bought them out, there's still that relationship that Clevelanders have with the Belkins. They know that if it's a Belkin production, that's something that they're going to want to know about."

Add to that the muscle of Clear Channel. "[Its] empire, at this point, probably controls 75, 80 percent of the major concert business in North America," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar magazine. "They're a huge force. In addition to the clout that size brings to the table, they're also very active in buying entire tours. They did the entire U2 tour, the Madonna tour, Godsmack, Rod Stewart."

So, while Belkin's name may have changed, its influence hasn't.

"Locally, the public can look forward to a lot more concerts, an exciting new amphitheater, and a ton of events," says Michael Belkin Jr. "On another level, we're also proud that, in a competitive industry, where change is the only constant, we're still here and love what we do."

2. Kevin Metheny
Program Director,
Clear Channel's Cleveland Radio Stations

As the program director for all six of Clear Channel's Cleveland holdings (WMJI, WGAR, WMVX, WMMS, WTAM, and WAKS), no man has more impact on the city's airwaves than Kevin Metheny. And consequently, no man has a bigger bull's-eye on his back.

Media vultures, Scene included, have spared no vitriol in the wake of Clear Channel's buying spree of the late '90s. The corporation snapped up some 1,200 stations, greatly centralized the radio industry, and thus created a severe backlash against Clear Channel and its main men.

"Radio has become homogenous. There's a KISS in every market now, thanks to Clear Channel, and they all sound the same," says Peter Salant, a Connecticut radio consultant who has worked with Clear Channel and who was once director of operations at New York City's WYNY. "The only thing they care about is their stock performance. The listeners have been affected negatively from the beginning of these changes on the air over the last two or three years."

Still, Metheny has taken the criticism in stride. The man is used to the venom. As program director at WNBC in New York in the mid-'80s, he was referred to as "Kevin Metheny the Programming Weenie" by Don Imus and dubbed "Pig Virus" by Howard Stern for his perceived stodginess.

Yet Metheny has demonstrated his mettle during his tenure in Cleveland, which began in September. After receiving an early baptism by fire by letting go a handful of popular DJs, including country favorite Danny Wright, Metheny has demonstrated the relentlessness that has made him the man many feel will help right Cleveland radio.

"The care and feeding of on-air personalities requires a very soft touch, because you're usually dealing with pretty smart people, with pretty strong egos, that can't be managed like an average employee at an average business," says Jim Meltzer, general manager of Clear Channel's Cleveland cluster. "He knows how to get the most out of personalities and the most out of imaging and positioning."

All this makes Metheny's work as glamorous as that of the nanny in a nursery full of yowling infants. But while he may not have the highest public profile, Metheny is certainly among those with the most responsibility -- and the most to live up to.

"Everybody's hurting, and [Clear Channel's] underperforming the other groups right now, so they've got a lot of pressure on them," says Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of Inside Radio. "The next generation's not as interested in radio, and it's all of a sudden become a panic situation for everybody."

3. Terry Stewart
President and CEO,
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

The Rock Hall helped boost this town's once-flagging self-esteem, which had sunk to subterranean depths after living down burning rivers and "mistake by the lake" ribbing. But following the afterglow of its 1995 opening, the hall began to see attendance figures stagnate.

Enter Terry Stewart, former head of Marvel Comics. Since taking over as CEO and president in 1999, Stewart has endeared the hall to younger generations by putting together last summer's hot concert series, which featured big names like Godsmack, Linkin Park, and Alicia Keys for performances later broadcast on MTV. He also increased the emphasis on artists of today through exhibits like On the Charts and is hosting more shows by upstart local bands.

"When we played in there, it was awesome. We had a great response," says Tony Lang, frontman of the band that bears his name, which has played the hall twice in the past year. "Now that they're putting younger bands in there, they're getting young people. What really did it was MTV live at the Rock Hall. That just put it on the map and made kids go in there and see the place."

This has been Stewart's main objective.

"The hall, by definition, is a museum and hall of fame, and if you only stick with that, you're talking about dead people and old farts," Stewart says. "So we've made a conscious effort to connect to the young bands both in our curatorial and archival material. We start talking to all the young bands, as soon as they even show up on the radar screen, about who we are and what we do, both for the purposes of having some of their material here to honor them and to also let them know that we're involved in many educational, 'do-good'-type efforts, so that they can feel good about being involved with us."

The results have been clear. The Rock Hall has enjoyed a 15 percent increase in average monthly attendance under Stewart and now brings in better than 45,000 patrons a month. It recently had its biggest single-day draw yet on Martin Luther King Day, making the hall look like the hip, vibrant institution it was intended to be.

"He made it come alive," says David Spero, Cleveland radio legend and current vice president of education and public programming at the hall. "Just the fact that he's got this passion for what this museum is all about -- I mean, he's a collector, he's a fan -- I think that translates into what he does. He made it a point when he got here to know everybody and to let everybody know him."

4. Mushroomhead

Not since the Michael Stanley Band's storied four-night stand at Blossom in the early '80s has a single act exerted the kind of dominance over Cleveland music that Mushroomhead now does. In the spring of 2000, Mushroomhead became the first local group to headline Blossom and sell out its pavilion since MSB did it two decades earlier.

But whereas Stanley couldn't establish much of a presence outside of Northeast Ohio, Mushroomhead is poised to position itself among the metal elite. It has sold over 80,000 copies of its fourth album, XX, scored a multimillion-dollar deal with Universal, filmed a hot new video with director Dean Carr (Marilyn Manson, Deftones, Dave Matthews Band), and landed a slot on this summer's Ozzfest.

"We don't get involved with any act, frankly, unless we think we can have a platinum record with them, so our expectations are pretty high in that we feel that they're a successful band," says Avery Lipman, president of Republic/Universal Records. "They're a band you can't not have an opinion about. They're just so in-your-face, they evoke some response -- whether it's positive or negative. I think that's a great thing."

Though the band's booking agent, Mitch Karczewski, claims he got shafted after negotiating much of Mushroomhead's contract, what isn't disputed is that, after eight long years of constant gigging and slowly building its fan base, Mushroomhead has earned a shot at the big time, which could pay dividends for Cleveland music in general.

"If anything happens with the Universal deal, I think it's going to have a major impact on the scene here as far as just giving other bands a sense of a light at the end of the tunnel," says Anastasia Pantsios, a longtime music journalist and photographer. "When you have a band like Mushroomhead, who has built what they have painstakingly, brick by brick -- everything has been done by them -- any savvy band could look at that and go, 'This can be done.'"

"I think you've seen some bands get signed because of them already," says Bill Peters, host of WJCU's Metal on Metal, who's also a Warner Bros. rep. "I think Chimaira and Switched and some bands that you've recently seen sign to major labels could be indirectly due to Mushroomhead."

Moreover, the band appears eager to share the spotlight with Cleveland.

"There's a lot of talent in this town, and I think we'd all be proud if we could reach a level of success that might draw some attention to the other hardworking bands in Cleveland," Mushroomhead singer J. Mann says. "We started a record label called SMDC Records to release and promote Cleveland music. We are currently compiling a CD entitled Cleveland Hardcore 101 to document the last 15 years of Cleveland hardcore. Nationally, we hope we can re-create the scene we have here. There's no place like home."

5. Kermit Henderson
Owner,
Doll's Rapid Creations

When rap retailer Kermit Henderson first met the impoverished young rhymers who would later form Bone Thugs N' Harmony, they weren't as concerned with scoring gold records as having a home to hang them in. The aspiring rappers were so poor in the early '90s that some were living on the streets. Henderson put out their first record, Faces of Death; infamous West Coast rap impresario Eazy-E soon took notice, and the group went on to sell over 15 million records, become one of the biggest Cleveland acts ever, and solidify Henderson's long-running status as the kingpin of Cleveland hip-hop.

"He's a pioneer for Cleveland," says urban radio promoter Tony Franklin. "I think he's been very, very instrumental as to where people are right now in the game. He's allowed a lot of saturation for a lot of groups -- Money Loc, Romey Rome, Fade Entertainment. He's helped a lot of people, plain and simple."

Henderson began by selling LPs out of the trunk of his car in 1973; by 1978, he owned four record stores and established himself as a national force in hip-hop, which in turn helped posit Cleveland as one of the top three markets for rap at the time. Most important, though, was Henderson's dedication to breaking underground acts by giving young rappers much-needed mentoring and space in his stores, when no one else would take a chance on them.

"He's one of the biggest supporters of Cleveland artists I've ever seen in this city," says Brad Bell, a sales rep at ATM Distributors. "He pushes their product in his stores, and he's basically a cheerleader. His is one of the few stores that's been around for close to 30 years. That's very rare in this business. I've seen hundreds come and go, and he's one of the few staples here. He knows what people are looking for, he's very attuned to the music, and he's a great promoter."

Henderson does have his detractors: Bone Thugs made a lot of noise when Henderson reissued their debut without their consent, and some have branded the rap magnate Cleveland's version of much-feared hip-hop mogul Suge Knight. Still, he remains an important advocate for up-and-coming urban musicians. In 1994, he founded the 80-store retail coalition SIMMS (Successful Independent Music Merchandising Stores), which is dedicated to breaking young artists. Henderson is also a strong supporter of TOUCH (Talent Outreach for Underprivileged Career Hunters), which sponsors talent shows for financially challenged kids. And he dedicates an evening a week to coaching blossoming artists.

"I basically will do public service: advising guys what to do, giving them options of recording studios to go to, the people to contact with demos, suggesting to them how to increase their skills," Henderson says. "The days of 'Let me shop this demo' are over . . . So now, people have to basically put records out themselves, and they need people like myself to help them push it to even get the attention of labels. But I like the opportunity to be able to showcase people, whether it's singing, whether it's hip-hop, whether it's gospel, jazz, whatever. I really feel good about giving people opportunity."

6. Mike Shea
President and CEO,
Alternative Press magazine

After launching Alternative Press in 1985 as a no-frills, no-color fanzine that looked like it was assembled by a dyslexic paste-up boy, Mike Shea fashioned it into one of the country's leading music publications, with a circulation topping 100,000. Along the way, Alternative Press would help break the careers of acts like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn, all of whom appeared on the cover of A.P. before other national magazines. Consequently, A.P. played a significant role in the alternative music revolution of the early '90s.

"They were the first magazine to put Trent Reznor on the cover. They have that insight," says John Malm, head of Nothing Records. "They give exposure to a lot of bands that hit later on. Right now, they're the only alternative music publication out there, really. Spin is moving more towards the middle. So is Rolling Stone. They're providing people with an avenue to seek out new bands and experience new things."

Adds Kevin Lyman, founder of the Warped Tour, which employs A.P. to do its tour program: "Mike's covered acts that no one will and given them national exposure. When I started the Warped Tour, obviously I did think about Rolling Stone or Spin, but they didn't cover the music, they didn't cover the scene. It was kind of like I was out there trying to beg someone to understand what I'm trying to do. But Mike got it. He actually cares."

That a small publication originally funded by $20 flower shop and bakery ads could even compete with publishing giants speaks volumes to what A.P. has achieved. And it's all been done in Cleveland.

"I've tried not to let the city's boundaries limit our goals," Shea says. "We had to extend ourselves way out there in the beginning to get people on the coasts to pay attention to us, and it took a while before the big guys in the biz dealt with us seriously. Now, we no longer get the question 'So why are you guys in Cleveland?'"

7. Gerald Levert

With his deep, sexy voice, Gerald Levert has done more than influence a new generation of soul and R&B artists; he literally helped create them, with a sound that's been a catalyst for lovemaking. If there's one thing that Levert's spiritual offspring can learn from the man, it's the value of controlling all aspects of one's career.

The son of soul legend Eddie Levert, Gerald formed the trio LeVert in 1984 with his brother Sean and friend Mare Gordon. Between LeVert and the solo career that followed, Gerald moved over 10 million records, garnered a slew of Grammy nods, and placed an album in the Top 10 of the Billboard charts a full 16 years after his first record. It's all enabled Levert to spread the wealth by starting his own production company, Trevel Records, and getting four Cleveland acts signed to major labels.

"He's made a tremendous impact on the Cleveland music scene by trying to put other people on in Cleveland and grow some Cleveland groups here, like the Rude Boys and Men at Large," says veteran R&B retailer Matt Whitfield of Downtown Records.

"I think he's been a great inspiration to the younger musicians in the city of Cleveland as a result of his longevity," adds John Kellogg, a Cleveland-born entertainment lawyer who works with such clients as Bad Boy Entertainment, the O'Jays, and G. Dep, and who was a member of the influential R&B combo Cameo. "He's a prolific songwriter and producer who has produced hits on Barry White's Practice What You Preach -- he really brought his career back. He's produced songs for Anita Baker. Not only has he shown that artists can make it, but he's really shown people how to make it in the music business."

And this means giving back to the town that gives you a start.

"I think I helped a lot of young people who were in the ghetto or who would have had to work regular jobs. I've made it possible for them to see the world," Levert says. "It makes it all worthwhile when you hear on the radio 'Cleveland's own.' That means they're proud of you."

8. Steve Popovich
President,
Popovich Music Group

Steve Popovich's impact on Cleveland music and beyond over the past 38 years is nearly as big as the man who gave him his greatest success. After signing Meat Loaf to his Cleveland International label and moving over 30 million copies of Loaf's debut, Bat out of Hell (in conjunction with CBS Records), Popovich matched that success as vice president of A&R at CBS/Epic, where he and his staff signed Michael Jackson, Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon, and others. He later resuscitated Polygram Nashville in the '80s and in recent years has relaunched Cleveland International, the most successful label in the city's history and one of the most prosperous independent labels ever.

Now focused on preserving the ethnic music of the Midwest, he's become one of polka's biggest patrons.

"Steve is a great proponent of polka music, and he's done everything possible to promote it and create interest by recording different artists, including Frank Yankovic," says Cecilia Dolgan, president of the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame. "Steve's one of those people who hasn't turned his back on his roots and his heritage."

In addition to scoring the first-ever polka Grammy for his work with the legendary Yankovic, Popovich received Grammy nominations in 1997 and 1998 for Frank Yankovic and Friends' Songs of the Polka King series. He also helped earn Grammy nominations for Cleveland International act Brave Combo, a neo-polka ensemble that's reaching a new generation of fans.

"Steve is a visionary, so he doesn't concentrate on where polka is today, but rather where it could be in the future," says Grammy-nominated polka artist LynnMarie. "In order to make the genre grow and gain a wider audience, you need to rebuild polka into a recording business, and that is what Steve is great at."

It's all part of Popovich's plan to make sure that Cleveland's heritage doesn't go unnoticed.

"Why isn't there a street named after Frank Yankovic in Cleveland? To me, that's a disgrace -- that America's polka king, who has sold millions of records, has nothing named after him in this town," Popovich says. "We're cultural elitists. We love the Cleveland Orchestra -- and that's well and good, because they're world-renowned -- but so was Frank Yankovic. But it's kind of like ha-ha when you say polka."

9. Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy
Owners,
Beachland Ballroom

Almost as colorful as the beautiful murals that brighten the walls of the Beachland Ballroom are the bands that play beneath them. In a recent week, a young polka queen, a fiery Mardi Gras ensemble, and a teeth-gnashing punk band all took the stage.

The Beachland has enlivened the city's club scene by booking acts as disparate as Tortoise, Big Chief Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias, and the Hives -- all of whom might very well have bypassed Cleveland were it not for the Beachland's growing reputation as one of the finest clubs in America.

"For years, everyone was going, 'Ah, Cleveland's a crappy market,' but then these guys have been doing a good job and getting people out," says Dave Kaplan, founder of the Easy Action Industries booking agency, which handles such notables as the White Stripes and the Detroit Cobras.

John Petkovich, frontman for Cobra Verde, likens the Beachland to a baseball team vying for free agents. "If you're a Cleveland team trying to get a free agent, you're probably going to have a hard time attracting them, because people would rather play in New York or Los Angeles or Boston. It seems like there's got to be some special intangible [to get people to come to town]. The Beachland has that kind of intangible."

"From my angle, as far as garage and punk bands, it's really the perfect kind of place you're looking for," says Eric Davidson, lead singer for the New Bomb Turks. "The people are really nice, you're treated well, and I've definitely heard other bands recognize that."

And with the club scene in a precarious state -- with the closing of the Euclid Tavern, ownership changes at the Blind Lemon and Metropolis, and the uncertain future of the Grog Shop, whose building has switched hands -- the Beachland's ascension is key to resurrecting the city's reputation as a rock stronghold.

"I'm downright determined to figure out some way to help convince folks -- like my contact at a Southern booking agency -- that Memphis may be the cradle of much rock music history, but Cleveland deserves to be the site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for more reasons than Alan Freed and the Moondog mayhem," Cindy Barber says. "I also hope that a little of what we are trying to do at the Beachland helps support the development and recognition of new bands, as well as new audiences. One key component of a new economic model for the city of Cleveland could be the return to a vibrant music town."

10. Jim Wadsworth
Founder,
Wadsworth Productions

Jazz has often been an afterthought in this town. The Tri-C Jazz Fest brings attention to Cleveland jazz every April, but during the rest of the year, it's as scarce as notches in the Cavaliers' win column.

Jim Wadsworth is changing that. Since taking over booking for the swanky club Night Town two years ago, Wadsworth has established the club within the national jazz circuit.

"The redefinition of Night Town as not just a great Cleveland restaurant that features a lot of Cleveland musicians, but the fact that it's now a nationally recognized club -- Jim has certainly been at the center of that," says pianist Joe Hunter, who plays with such notables as Ernie Krivda and performs at Night Town every Wednesday evening. "The opportunity to see world-class artists like McCoy Tyner, Ahmet Jamal, and John Pitzarelli in an intimate setting is an incredible opportunity for Cleveland."

Adds Terri Pontremoli, managing director of the Tri-C Jazz Fest: "If you look at our club scene lately in jazz, Wadsworth is the only guy presenting in clubs on a national level. He's bringing in people from the outside and takes chances by bringing in a lot of significant artists."

Wadsworth wants to further develop the city's growing reputation for jazz.

"I felt great when I heard that, per capita, we had the best rating in the country last year when the Ken Burns jazz series was on public TV," Wadsworth says. "I'm also proud of the eclectic crowds I have been able to draw. My shows at Night Town are drawing from all parts of the community -- young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. I think the music plays an important role in making our community more united. I'm most proud of that."

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