Does Cleveland Still Rock? Why Major Rock Bands Have Been Bypassing Northeast Ohio

In the late '60s, singer-guitarist Nils Lofgren would bring his band Grin to town at least twice a year. Lofgren, who currently plays in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, talked about those days when we spoke to him via phone earlier this year, prior to Springsteen's appearance at the Q.

"There were always fabulous audiences and great FM stations that would have you on the radio and support your music," he says. "It's a great town. I'm still coming there on my own and with E Street. It still is one of the great rock cities."

The history to which Lofgren alludes is indeed a rich one. Disc jockey Alan Freed staged the Moondog Coronation Ball, arguably the first rock concert, at the Cleveland Arena in 1952, cementing the city's reputation as a rock 'n' roll town. Elvis Presley would play some of his first concerts north of the Mason-Dixon line in Cleveland. The Beatles played Public Hall in 1964 and then returned to perform at Municipal Stadium in 1966. That same year, Mike and Jules Belkin formed Belkin Productions, a regional promotion company that would bring major acts to town, and Henry LoConti launched the Agora, a string of regional clubs that would host national and local acts.

Cleveland had become the country's rock 'n' roll capital.

Major artists even used Cleveland as a launching pad. David Bowie played his first-ever U.S. show in Cleveland. Rush received early radio support in Cleveland, helping propel the band to worldwide success.

But is Cleveland still "one of the great rock cities," as Lofgren put it?

"It does have a good rep as a rock 'n' roll town and has a strong local advocate in [Live Nation's] Michael Belkin," says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor and CEO of the concert tour industry trade publication Pollstar, when asked if Cleveland remains an attractive tour stop. "The only thing I can say is that the big tours that play a relatively small number of markets ultimately go where they think they can make the most money.  Everybody plays New York, L.A. and Chicago.  After that there are lots of markets competing for dates."

Bongiovanni says that artists don't use hard data to determine tour routing. Rather, they rely upon "anecdotal experiences at all levels" to determine whether shows "generally sell better, worse, or as expected," compared to other markets.

You've gotta wonder if Cleveland's slipped in that respect, since many of the major tours featuring some of pop and rock's biggest names have gone to Columbus and Pittsburgh recently but not Cleveland.

"There's only one reason shows are going to other cities," says Ali Hedrick, a Seattle-based booking agent for the Billions Corporation, which represents more than 100 national acts, including Death Cab for Cutie, Neko Case and St. Vincent. "Those shows do better in places like Columbus and Pittsburgh. Maybe the Cleveland economy isn't as strong. I don't know why. Now, I can even get strong offers out of Grand Rapids. There are other places to go. There are more cities and venues popping up, but I still favor Cleveland because I love the Beachland Ballroom so much. Cleveland is an amazing city, but I just think there might be a bigger group of people going out to shows in those other cities."

While most of last year's top-grossing tours included stops in Cleveland, the ones that didn't were significant. Former Beatle Paul McCartney, U2, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Foo Fighters all skipped town. Motorhead's 40th anniversary tour, which took place last year, didn't include a Cleveland stop — a true tragedy now that frontman Lemmy Kilmister has died.

And looking forward, the list of acts on the road in 2016 that aren't coming to Cleveland seems to keep growing. Black Sabbath's farewell tour isn't scheduled to come here, and Iron Maiden ain't coming to Cleveland either. Pearl Jam and the Cure will tour extensively this summer, but neither act will come to Cleveland. Radiohead is on the road but doesn't have a Cleveland date. And legacy acts such as Peter Gabriel, Sting, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson and Steely Dan have all announced tours that don't include Cleveland dates. The recently reunited Guns N Roses announced the 21 cities it will hit on a summer tour. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Detroit made the list, but not Cleveland.

These are acts that used to include Cleveland on their tour itineraries. And many of them are Rock Hall inductees. But their most recent tours have bypassed us. Why?

Representatives from AEG declined our requests for interviews, but plenty of other local pundits weighed in.

"It was a different world then," says former WMMS program director John Gorman, when asked about why Cleveland drew such big concerts throughout the '70s and '80s. "Cleveland was a well-oiled machine. There were so many ways to break an artist out of Cleveland. At WMMS, we were right at the center. We had showcase nights at the Agora. Up and Coming Night would play there first. We used to do the Coffee Break Concert in the studio. As years went on, we took it to the streets. You could have a rock concert at 1 p.m. that was another showcase for mostly up and coming bands. Jules Belkin was running Belkin Productions, and he would talk to the station, as would Hank LoConti and Buddy Maver at the Agora. There was an awful lot of communication. Cleveland has a higher musical IQ than most markets, and in those days we could exercise it."

In 2001, Belkin Productions sold to SFX (and then Clear Channel/Live Nation), but the company continues to have a local office in Northeast Ohio and promotes shows at Blossom, the Q and Hard Rock Live. House of Blues is also a Live Nation venue, and the promoter often brings acts to other venues in town, ranging from Playhouse Square to the Akron Civic Theatre and Lakewood Civic Auditorium.

"Mounting a national tour is a complex jigsaw puzzle with many issues that come into play: artist desire to play the market, venue availability, routing from city to city/mileage, ability to sell tickets for the attraction, local airplay/product sales/streaming, other competitive traffic in the marketplace and no question, the amount of income the artist can make compared to another market," says Live Nation's Barry Gabel, who denies that Columbus and Pittsburgh have become more enviable destinations for touring acts. "This is true for theater dates and arena dates, as it is for stadium dates. The answer is never just a., b. or c., but 'all of the above.' Northeast Ohio continues to be a vibrant concert market. At the end of the day, artist management usually has a specific game plan to maximize artist earnings, career path and an overall direction on tour promotion."  

LoConti passed away in 2014, but promoter Chris Zitterbart now books acts at the Agora and brings a wide range of bands to town, including metal, rock, pop and hip-hop.

"It's a mixed bag," says Zitterbart when asked about Cleveland's status as a desirable tour stop. "I think there are a lot of tours out there. A lot of good ones come to Cleveland, and a lot of good ones miss Cleveland. It comes down to simple economics. I can assure you that if every show was sold out, bands would not skip Cleveland. A big part of it is that if fans want the shows to come, they have to go out and support the shows that are booked. I see Pittsburgh and Columbus getting some of the shows we should get on some level. If you're routing the tour, you don't want to play two cities that are too close to each other, so sometimes agents feel it's easier to do Columbus and Pittsburgh; but then again, there's no reason bands couldn't play Cleveland and Cincinnati too."

Denny Young, who works with the Elevation Group, the team that books rock and pop acts at the Trinity Cathedral and will also bring concerts to the new Goodyear Theater and Hall in Akron, admits that it's become tougher to get bands to come to town.

"The reality is that shows are definitely bypassing Cleveland," says Young, who also worked at Belkin Productions from 1988 to 1992. "Because it's a business, people are looking at the expense to do a show and the revenue that you'll bring in on a show. They take those shows to the place where the expenses will be the least and the revenues will be the most. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. The kicker is that when I worked at Belkin Productions, Jules and Mike Belkin owned Belkin. They lived in Cleveland. Cleveland was critically important to their business."

Young says that now that Live Nation, a publically traded corporation, owns Belkin, control of the company has shifted to corporate headquarters in Los Angeles.

"If Peter Gabriel and Sting are doing a deal with Live Nation and Live Nation has bought 20 dates, Live Nation says it will take the shows to the 20 markets that will yield the best return," says Young. "Jules Belkin back in 1989 would have said, 'There's no way Sting and Peter Gabriel are going to bypass Cleveland.' The agent would have told them how much it costs and how little profit he might make. Jules would have said, 'That will be my problem.' Today, Peter Gabriel and Sting are not coming to Cleveland. Peter Gabriel and Sting are going to Columbus."

Young says that Cleveland lacks any sort of artist development.

"What Cindy [Barber] is doing at the Beachland and what Kathy [Blackman] is doing at the Grog Shop is awesome, but it levels off after that," he says. "We have great bands coming in and then something happens. People like to blame radio. We don't have an alternative radio station. But big deal. People are listening to music online. Once you get out of the clubs here, the artist development is lacking. That's what we want to focus on at Goodyear Theater and Hall. We want to develop more artists."

Annie Zaleski, a locally based freelance writer who contributes to Alternative Press magazine, Scene and the Plain Dealer, among other publications, says, "An artist needs a show on a certain day, and if there isn't an open venue at the size they need, it doesn't happen."

She says Clevelanders shouldn't take it personally when an artist doesn't come to town.

"Sometimes bands aren't coming to town in a given year because they've been there the previous year," she says. "And sometimes other factors come into play. For example, Paul McCartney hasn't played Cleveland since 2002 — but in his current rounds of touring in recent years, he's making a concerted effort to play cities and markets he's never played, ever."