Showcase Showdown

The Cleveland Music Fest plays through its growing pains.

Cleveland Music Fest Tickets are available at all CMF concert venues and by calling Ticketmaster (216-241-5555/330-945-9400)
Cleveland's first stab at a music fest was made with a butter knife.

Undercurrents, which began in 1989, grew steadily until the mid-'90s, allegedly got Pittsburgh's Rusted Root signed, and slowly began to fall apart. Last year, Undercurrents was limited to two clubs and 25 bands and is now often referred to as "Blundercurrents."

"I booked it once at Peabody's; we had 20 bands, and 20 people showed up," says Peabody's owner Dan Cull. "It was horrendous. And that was a weekend night. It was missing the draw, it was missing club support."

Still, the idea was there, if not the execution, and that's where Cull came in. Last year, he launched the Cleveland Music Fest, a three-day marathon of bands, industry panels, and showcases that ended up drawing over 6,000 concertgoers.

"It shocked a lot of people. It went over extremely well," says Randy Kelley, manager of the band Gatlin, one of the headliners of the 2001 fest. "It could open [Cleveland] up to being another Seattle. CMF is going to open a lot of doors for a lot of bands that don't have the access to these major labels -- or even minor labels."

Buoyed by last year's promising start, CMF has bumped up the number of bands and DJs performing from 140 to 250; lured a dozen agents, talent buyers, and A&R dudes; and incorporated nine venues into the mix. (Scene is a partial sponsor of the event.)

"I think it's brilliant, flat-out," says Kalin Stipe, booking agent for Club Hi-Fi. "Ten dollars for hundreds of bands -- how can you go wrong? Everybody talks about the Cleveland music scene, but if they don't come out for this, about the next step that we would have to do is tranquilize people and physically drag them out to shows."

But not everyone shares Stipe's enthusiasm. A quick glance at the message boards on local music site and reveals a growing number of disenchanted and downright angry bands, frustrated over the event's organization -- or lack thereof. The biggest gripe is that groups are being asked to sell tickets without receiving any of the proceeds. This is after paying a $30 fee to participate in CMF. Moreover, the number of tickets a band sells determines when and where it plays, including who will be on board for Saturday's showcase at the Odeon, where the major label reps are going to be. This has made selling the tickets even more challenging, because bands haven't known what day or in what venue they will be performing. It's only in the past few days that the lineups have begun to solidify.

"It's bullshit," says Eve Muzik, drummer for hardcore folksters the Decline. "How can I sell tickets when I can't even tell people where we're going to be? People will not buy tickets from me. We looked at the fine print; there was never anything in there [about having to sell tickets]. We never would have gotten involved in this, had we known that."

In addition, many acts are confused as to whether they're even in the fest, making it difficult for them to adjust their schedules -- and potentially costing them gigs elsewhere.

"I hand-delivered my package to Peabody's, paid my fee, waited patiently, and I haven't been notified at all," says rapper Not, whose name does not appear on the CMF schedule. "Now, more or less, it's too late for me to do it, because I don't know how long the showcase is supposed to be, and I need to have enough time to build a show. I entered the CMJ Music Fest a few years back, and I wasn't accepted into that, but they let me know I wasn't accepted. That's a courtesy thing."

"The reason for that confusion is just the late jump," Cull says. "We did have some bands that didn't know what the hell was going on basically, just because it was so chaotic in the beginning because we needed to get it going. One of the reasons that we have bands complaining about ticket sales is that they didn't have long enough to do it, to be honest."

But there's no reason for this late start, other than a lack of basic planning, especially since CMF 2001 went over so well, and Cull and company knew they were going to do it again this year. In the face of all this band backlash, Cull is quick to point out that acts don't have to sell tickets.

"They can still play in the music festival," Cull says. "There's a ton of bands that didn't sell tickets; they're just going to end up with the lesser time slot. But isn't that only fair? The bands that bust their ass should get to play in front of a big crowd, because they brought their crowd. They wonder why they don't get a part of the ticket money like they do at Peabody's, but I explain to them that we don't want to do a $15 ticket and give them five bucks of it. We'd rather do a lower ticket price to make sure that everyone can sell these tickets, and we can sell as many as possible for the event."

Still, not everyone has their mind made up about CMF.

"There are good and bad things about it," says Adam Boose, frontman for synth-driven rockers Furnace St. "From a consumer's standpoint, 10 bucks for three days and, basically, access to any of the clubs in Cleveland -- I think that's a pretty good deal. And most of Cleveland's really good bands are doing the thing. As far as the ticket sales, the only headache that we've come across is that we're trying to sell the tickets, and there's 200 other bands trying to sell the same tickets."

"Personally, I had a positive experience with it, but I think some of the other bands get frustrated because they think it's a showcase, and that everybody from the industry is going to be at their venue. But if you're playing somewhere in Lakewood, it's going to be tough, especially if you only have five label reps," says Tony Lang, frontman for the band that bears his name. His was one of the bands showcased at CMF in 2001, and it's been pegged by organizers to headline again this year.

By holding the panel discussions earlier in the afternoon on Saturday, Cull hopes to get reps out to more performances this year.

"I'm going out to shows," says Michael Faley, president of L.A.-based Metal Blade Records. "I was just about to go on the website to see who's playing where and lock down where the metal bands are going to be. The reason for coming to an event like this is that people have these big conventions in places, and a lot of times good talent is left out of those events because of the politics involved. I think these regional music get-togethers and conferences are a good thing for local music. It allows us to come out and, in a couple of nights, see a lot of talent in the area."

Indeed, Gatlin's Kelley reports that the band received considerable major label interest from Sony, Maverick, and Warner Bros. after its performance at CMF last year.

"It was really awesome. We got a really good reception," he says. "A lot of people, record labels and everything, just started knocking on our door."

"We brought four huge record companies out last year," Cull says. "When they see followings, they see ticket sales, which equals record sales."

And a stiletto in place of dinnerware.

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