Rust Belt Rock: Local Music Industry Vets Weigh in on the State of the Cleveland Music Scene

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Justin Markert - Cellar Door Records Owner

How did you start in the business and why?

We actually started off as a coffee shop/music venue in Madison, Ohio 10 years ago. Me and my buddy Rick Fike saw an empty storefront and the things just took shape and we did it. We were in bands, and we wanted to create a place where we could book quality line-ups, local bands and out-of-towners, and put them in front of a decent crowd. We ended up selling the coffee shop but kept at the promotions/record label end of things, and it really started taking off around 2012 when we added Allie Markert and Nikki Delamotte into the mix and launched

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

I think the crowds are getting bigger. This probably has a lot to do with the power of social media but it seems like more people are paying attention. With avenues like Facebook and sites like Bandcamp, a band can get their name out there easier. Also, there seems to be less posturing, at least in the circles we run in. Less attitudes. It's much more of a community now.

What are your two most memorable local shows?

The first would probably be the Cellar Door Rendezvous music festival we did over two days in both rooms at the Beachland. It was awesome as one of the organizers, but also to see so many of my favorite bands on one stage. The second is probably Megachurch, All Dinosaurs and GoldMINES at the Happy Dog in September of last year. Megachurch blows my mind every time I see them.

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

There are so many great shows, events, festivals, you name it, happening in Cleveland every weekend, so it's hard to not spread the local music fan community too thin on any given night. And what's the answer to that? Making that community larger. Getting not just the attention of hipsters and scenesters, but to get the eyes and ears of the young professionals, sports fans, West Sixth-ers etc. to see what's happening, because the truth is everyone has pretty diverse taste in music, the key is to get them to realize that there's so many good things happening right here.

What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

 Brite Winter. Emily [Hornack] and Tom [Fox] have made huge strides with this festival in the last couple years. Invading Ohio City with local music is definitely good for the community as a whole.

The Modern Electric. I've know these guys since they were teenagers, and even back then they had something special going on onstage. They've managed to build a rabid fan base and pack rooms over and over again even though they haven't had a new album in four years. When their new one comes out, I'm sure they'll be making even bigger waves.

What is missing from the local music scene?

Mellow rock. I'm not kidding. We've got plenty of indie-folk going on, plenty of cutesy indie-pop, but where are the Regina Spektors? The Jeff Buckleys? Where are the National and Bon Iver of Cleveland? 

The most exciting local act right now is...?

Well of course, my first answer is Cellar Door artists So Long, Albatross, The Commonwealth, and Ohio Sky. But outside of our immediate circle: Seafair and Likenesses. A lot of bands are good, there are great musicians all over town, but every once in a while there's a band that is more than technical ability and good songwriting, bands that can also move you emotionally. Seafair and Likenesses both possess that power. Oh, and Signals Midwest are always great!

The local act that had the most potential but never made it or died off?

Joshua Jesty. It's not that he never made it. He plays out and is writing all the time. But when you listen to his songs, you don't understand how this guy isn't playing stadiums, or at least cashing huge licensing checks. And he writes like a song a week, these big melodies just keep coming, he's a hook factory.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

If you're trying to book bands, or be a promoter, or a record label, be transparent. You're not the "Vice President of Operations and Artist Development in the Ska and R&B sector of Collinwood." That's bullshit. You're just a guy or girl that wants to get the word out about good music. A business card doesn't make you a CEO. If you're genuine in what you're doing, fans and artists will trust you. 

If you're a band, don't play every week. They'll be less likely to come to your show if they know there's always next week. Build anticipation. And be nice: No one likes a bad attitude.

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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