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

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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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