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

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

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." 

She says that many indie rock bands go to Columbus because the state capital has "a huge amount of younger concert-goers there thanks to the presence of the Ohio State University."

"Plus, Columbus is a big city — the 15th-largest city in the U.S., population-wise, according to statistics through 2014, and booming," she says. "Cleveland, meanwhile, is the 48th-largest city, and has steadily lost population since 1990. The Cleveland market simply isn't as populous as it used to be, which means there are fewer potential concert-goers."

She cites the fact that PromoWest books a variety of different-sized Columbus venues, including A&R Bar, the Basement, Newport Music Hall and Express Live!, which means "there's a clear pipeline bands can follow in the market as they grow." PromoWest also owns Stage AE in Pittsburgh, and can book bands in both cities.

"You frequently see bands playing both [Express Live! And Stage AE] on a tour, since it's the same promoter handling these venues," Zaleski says.

And then, you have the "radius" agreements.

Now in its fifth year, the annual Rock on the Range festival that takes place in Columbus each summer poses a logistical problem since many of the bands that play the festival sign "radius" agreements ensuring they won't play within the immediate area of the festival. A radius clause prohibits bands from playing in the region for a certain time period before and after the festival. Bands that play at Lollapalooza, for example, are barred from performing within 300 miles of Chicago—including cities as far as Detroit, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee—for as long as six months prior to and three months after the festival.

"[Rock on the Range] is a great event, and I enjoy going every year, but many of the bands sign radius clauses, and they're often bands that I book," says Zitterbart. "So instead of having them come through in the summer, I have to wait for the fall. It's something I learned to adjust to and deal with it."

Zitterbart says he's been surprised that acts such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Motorhead have recently skipped Cleveland, a city with a thriving local metal scene and where hard-rock acts have historically drawn well.

"It is disappointing that those big metal shows haven't come to town," he says. "I think the admission tax being at eight percent doesn't help the cause. I'm not saying that's the only issue, but it doesn't help the cause. Ozzy and Sabbath have missed Cleveland a number of times, but you expect Maiden to play here. In the past, you maybe don't notice that Slayer is playing Columbus and not Cleveland; but with social media, everyone now knows where they're playing."

Live Nation's Gabel says the admissions tax can be a deterrent but it's "simply one element on the booking decision."

Gorman maintains that once Clear Channel bought Cleveland radio stations and then absorbed Belkin under the guise of Live Nation, the synergy that existed between local promoters and local radio went by the wayside.

"The tours are all booked nationally and Cleveland is one line on the ledger," says Gorman, who adds that despite population loss Cleveland is still one of the top 20 media markets in the country. "With the exception of [the Internet radio station] OWOW and college stations, who plays anything local? We don't have that flavor. I'm not sure why so many acts are skipping Cleveland. It could simply be that the decisions aren't being made in Cleveland."

Zaleski agrees that radio — or the lack thereof — is a major factor.

Detroit is the No. 12 radio market in the country, which means if/when an artist is coming to town, chances are they'll have a station promoting the concert and playing new music by the band. Cleveland comes in at No. 31, which doesn't give the city as much clout in that area. Columbus has several solid new music stations (CD 102.5, 105.7X), that promote the indie- and rock-leaning shows there, which, again, also helps. While Cleveland's college radio stations are among the best in the county, the lack of a strong mainstream alternative-leaning new music station hurts. And the WMMS offshoot 99X, a HD station on a secondary signal, doesn't pack much of a punch since its signal is so weak.

"With all that being said, even if tours go to Columbus and Pittsburgh first, chances are a subsequent leg will include Cleveland — and I even see some tours that do feature all three of the cities," says Zaleski. "It's not as though we're shut out 100 percent of the time for all tours, big or small. And when it comes down to it, Cleveland has a rather full slate of shows. Country and pop do well here, for example, and the vast majority of classic rock acts play the market. Plus, acts that have solid history with the city reward the fans with special engagements or stops"

She cites the fact that Joe Walsh and Dropkick Murphys opened their respective recent tours in the area with two shows apiece. Hanson played two nights in Cleveland in October, one of just 10 cities in which the band did this; and acts such as Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies and Rick Springfield consistently stop in Cleveland on tours.

"The city might not always be a must-stop for certain tours — or certain-sized tours — but there's a lot of positives about the market, and a lot of great shows that do come here," she says.

WRUW promotions director and DJ Roger Ganley doesn't share Zaleski's optimism. He's been particularly critical of the city's status as a rock 'n' roll town and says the city's music scene has slipped into a state of decline.

"Commercial radio here doesn't play new music," he says. "That affects a lot of different things. Years ago, when the Odeon was thriving, we had a great relationship there and would do band meet-and-greets. None of that happens anymore. In the old days, Live Nation would book tours into Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh, but now they just take the shows to Pittsburgh. It's less work for them. Last summer, the Slayer tour with King Diamond skipped Cleveland and went to Pittsburgh. It didn't draw well there, but half the people there were from Cleveland. They also played Columbus the night before. Things like that make no sense. Some of the people booking shows in Cleveland don't get the music. I'm so tired of driving to other cities to see concerts that should be taking place in Cleveland. "

Another local music fan who wished to remain anonymous agrees with Ganley and summarizes the situation as a problem that can be traced back to the corporatization of the touring industry and isn't specific to the Live Nation office in Cleveland.

"The concert business has changed dramatically from what many of us used to know and love," says the anonymous fan. "In the old days, the Live Nation/Belkin's Cleveland office essentially only booked shows for Cleveland. That changed when Live Nation downsized and combined other markets into their Cleveland office's responsibility.  Today, we have Live Nation Cleveland booking shows in multiple markets like Columbus, Pittsburgh and Detroit in addition to Cleveland. Tours often offer limited dates in a region, so Live Nation Cleveland is forced to pick and choose which of their markets to put the tour in. If they choose Detroit and Columbus, for example, then Cleveland and Pittsburgh are left out. Vice versa if Cleveland and Pittsburgh are chosen. They analyze what markets make the most financial sense to do the shows in. The reasons tours are bypassing Cleveland are much more complex then just fingering blame on the promoters.  It's a whole different ballgame out there today. I liked the old days better, when Cleveland got everything."

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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