It's Not the Size . . .

The Cleveland Music Fest is bigger than ever, but will it be better too?

For fans of local music, last year's Cleveland Music Fest was loaded with promise: A $10 ticket earned concertgoers the chance to see more than 250 area bands perform in nine venues around town.

But by most accounts, the good intentions didn't yield a good fest. Shows frequently started late, concert lineups often changed, some bands advertised to play the fest never did -- and many of those that did later lodged complaints by the vanful. Their biggest beef: the fest's ticket-sale policy, which pitted band against band for the best performance times and locations.

The festival's organizers at Peabody's don't deny there have been past problems, which they attribute to a late start in planning. So how are things looking for this year?

Dan Cull, co-owner of Peabody's, estimates that more than 12,000 people will attend this year's fest, which kicks off this Friday (see Concert Scene). That's up from 8,000 attendees in 2002 and 6,000 the year before. More bands (280) are slated to play, more venues (14) are involved, and bigger and better headliners (including the Sign-offs, Switched, and Party of Helicopters) have signed on. Plus, CMF has added a networking show at Peabody's on Thursday, which will be headlined by Integrity. (Scene is a sponsor of Cleveland Music Fest.)

Of course, past years have proved that making the fest bigger won't necessarily make it better, and some say red flags are waving again. As with last year, the 2003 fest has been hampered by delays in planning, with artists not getting booked until mid-December. By comparison, bigger music fests, like New York's CMJ and Austin's South by Southwest, begin preparations close to a year in advance. And while no one is confusing the Cleveland Music Fest with the others, the project could certainly benefit from more than two months of lead time.

According to Cull, though, CMF is on schedule.

"Actually, the only thing we got a late jump on was moving the date because of Valentine's Day, because we didn't want to conflict with the panelists and their girlfriends and wives and things like that," he says. "Other than that, regarding the bands and promotion, we definitely got a good jump on it. That's why I think we're getting 12,000 people to come out."

Increased attendance expectations have some artists wondering why their cut isn't growing too. One of the biggest criticisms among last year's performers was the ticket-sales policy: Each band was required to pay a $30 entry fee to perform, then had to sell tickets to its own show. The more tickets each band sold, the better club and time slot it was awarded. Bands pocketed $1 per ticket if they sold out their allotment of 100.

"The reason [artists get only $1] is that we try and keep the ticket price down," Cull explains. "The bands aren't motivated by pay; they're motivated by exposure for this type of festival."

Cull's logic doesn't wash with Jay Baskette of the Narcoleptics, a Cleveland punk band that played CMF last year but has chosen not to return this year. "It was ridiculous how little money you made from the tickets," he says. "Bands should be able to keep more money for each ticket they sell, because it's their hard work that got the money, and they're just handing it right over."

The festival's ticket-sale policy remains the same this year. Meanwhile, some bands report that, within one week of their deadline for ticket sales, they had yet to receive any tickets to sell.

But if little has changed about the artists' cut of the proceeds, at least the price of attending the show has held steady. For a crack at 24 dozen bands, the $10 admission is a pittance. The similarly minded Midwest Music Fest charges $145 per ticket, while the prestigious SXSW runs well over $500. Granted, those fests feature many more high-profile acts, but Cleveland's version still offers music fans a great introduction to the area's sounds.

"Anything that's going to get local bands together and generate more of a local buzz, I'm for," says Pants, frontman for the metalcore troupe At Wit's End, which will perform at Thursday's networking show. "Obviously, there's things I disagree with in how it's run . . . and it could always be pushed and promoted more, but it's a window."

Let's just hope it opens a little wider this time.