Making Musical Cities

"We're from Cincinnati."

The words out of the soft spoken, diminutive lead singer of the Heartless Bastards, Erika Wennerstrom, were said politely, as a correction to one of the most powerful men in television, who had just wrongfully attributed her band as a product of the venerable Austin, Texas music scene.

That it was the Heartless Bastards' network television debut on the Late Show with David Letterman didn't matter, nor the fact that the confusion arose because of Wennerstrom's recent relocation to Austin from Cincinnati. She was very clearly, in a very midwesternly way, letting Letterman know where the band's real home town was located.

So when the HB's play this Friday at the 8th Annual Midpoint Music Festival, it's a homecoming gig for sure, and perhaps a testament to Cincinnati's growing presence in the national music scene that Wennerstrom protested so much.

In a year that has already seen Bad Veins signing with Dangerbird, a four star Rolling Stone review for Wussy, as well as the continued electro-musical exploits of artist Spencer Yeh - who's collaborations with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore seem to be drawing more and more attention - Cincinnati is defining itself once again as a musically innovative city.

In the past, Cincinnati was more often than not a passing reference in the national discussion when musical cities were being counted. Sure we had the alt rock explosion of the 90s with the Afghan Whigs, Ass Ponys, and Over the Rhine, but the resulting 'scene' that became so prominent in Athens, Georgia in the 80s and Seattle, Washington in the 90s never materialized. And until recently, King Records' pioneering contributions to bluegrass, soul and funk in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were barely acknowledged outside of the city, and hardly known within its boundaries.

So what makes Cincinnati a musical city now:  Cutting edge artists? Low cost of living? Music Festivals? A history?  Perhaps its a bit of all of these things.

"Cincinnatians appreciate live music, and many of our great venues have built-in audiences. Plus, the quality of music coming from musicians in this city continues to raise the bar for new acts, essentially perpetuating a cycle of evolved songwriting," says Margaret Darling, a member of the the band, The Seedy Seeds and three year veteran of Midpoint.

Midpoint has certainly done its share of raising the collective consciousness about the power of local, original music. If you want an analogy, Midpoint is the tip of a very large musical iceberg, exposing just a small part of what makes the Cincinnati music scene so strong, by presenting a local crop of talented artists alongside well regarded national indie bands each year in digestable, nightly musical showcases.

But Midpoint is a mere babe by comparison to the granddaddy of music festivals and one of the most influential multi-media events in the world, Austin, Texas based South by Southwest  (SXSW). Now in its 24th year, SXSW generates close to $26 million annually and it's estimated that $616 million in economic activity, 11,200 jobs, and over $11 million in city tax revenues can be attributed to the influence of music on the local economy.

While Austin has 16 years on Midpoint, its numbers make a compelling argument for why a music festival like Midpoint is holistically important to a city. Midpoint's annual impact continues to grow, drawing thousands of music patrons to downtown, Over-the-Rhine and Northern Kentucky for three nights. Part of Austin's music cache, however, lies not only in its branding, but its buy-in from the corporate and civic communities as recognizable partners.
Austin, is of course a model musical city as well:  the city recognizes the role of music in a variety of ways, providing music by local artists at the airport, funding a cable access channel devoted entirely to local artists, and administering a loan program specifically for the music industry.  Austin's convention and visitor's bureau even includes a 'music marketing director' to capitalize on homegrown talent. That being said, it's still very hard to find gigs there for live musicians, and the cost of living, once a selling point, has grown steadily as more and more businesses and tech industries call it home. Cincinnati, with its affordability, accessibility, and talent base remains in prime position to grow and develop into its new role.

Many artists, some who live in Cincinnati, and others who have relocated away for career or personal reasons, think there are unique ways to address the challenges and continue the momentum Midpoint brings each year, by sustaining artists on a year round basis, much like Austin does.

Michael Bond relocated to Chicago in 2006 for a job and change of scenery. A web developer, he still runs the record label he started here, datawaslost, and will return to Midpoint with his band Coltrane Motion. Bond thinks there is a creative business angle that could support a local talent base of artists year round.

"At a business development level, the focus needs to be on supporting micro-businesses, creating the structures that allow creative folks to run galleries, labels or festivals in their spare time, or to start small businesses with risks and costs low enough to give them time to grow. The key is not to get 5/3rd or P&G to 'support the arts' but rather to have a thousand smaller systems supporting themselves."

Recently, artist collectives like Project Mill are filling that role, as are cross disciplinary collaborations like the one The Lions Rampant, another local band playing Midpoint this year, forged with Ragged Productions to produce a music video as stylized as anything out of NYC to promote their latest single release.
But sometimes artists have to follow the business, and that usually leads them to recognized musical centers like New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. 

Multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Higley recently moved to Nashville to maintain his musical career.  He's played in Cincinnati bands Pearlene and Chocolate Horse, and toured nationally with Brendan Benson of Raconteur's fame and pianist Ben Folds, before relocating this past summer.

"Unfortunately, as far as music goes, you're always going to lose people to cities like Nashville that have built-in industries,"  he says. "Until Cincinnati gets its own Music Row, I don't think that will ever change.  There just simply isn't the industry, the studios, the labels, the publishing companies, etc. There aren't session and touring opportunities."

But Higley praises the scene for what it does do to nuture local talent.

"Events like MPMF, Taste of Cincinnati, and the Fountain Square summer concert series are all good examples that support local musicians. If there were some sort of organization to pull together bands, graphic artists, promoters, and small labels, to promote the city's music as a whole, I think it could be pretty big."

Dave Davis agrees.  A mastering engineer by trade, Davis also teaches Digital Design at DAAP and is a principal in The All Night Party, a creative re-envisioning of what a locally based record label can be. Its Davis' goal to help musicians find ways to support themselves with their art.

"We're in the business of connecting bands to fans, on many levels.  Fans like to support artists, and products are a great way to do that.  So we make cool, unique records - digitally or physically enhanced - and all manner of "musicated merch" - attaching music to stuff like t-shirts and trucker caps.  We work hard to create and present artists with clear options, and connect them to all the new web-based services to get the most bang for the buck and meet their goals."

Imagine as well the possibilities with the marketing of Cincinnati's corporate community. Top flight advertising firms, Fortune 500's headquartered here, and a wealth of talent at their feet. Unfortunately, they don't always find one another. Monika Royal Roberts, an advertising and marketing professional for 12 years, sees a disconnect between some local production work and local music.

"In my experience, very few ad projects that require music have ever incorporated original local music or musicians. I think the main reason lies in the fact that businesses don't know how to necessarily find original local musicians, and therefore miss opportunities to use their music. If a company wants to connect their product or service to Cincinnati, and wants a true hometown feel, the most authentic thing they can do is use original local music in their productions," she says. 

Davis agrees.

"To push it farther requires a little curation and a deeper connection with many artists. People outside the music scene, don't really know who to call or even what music is available."  

But when they do connect, it works. For example,   locally based chili-empire Gold Star found and featured local bands the Newbees and Buckra, and commissioned their "Lost in the Taste" theme songs in 30 second spots.  The Newbee's Jeff Perholtz, says the spot "paid for our next album." Conversely, the Cincinnati Reds licensed the song, 'Paint the Town Red' from New York based Hotcakes for its promo spots last season. In fairness, the Reds have produced their own 'Clutch Hits' compilation as a fundraiser for its Community Fund featuring local and national artists and are known for playing local music at the ballpark.  But the message, and more importantly, the opportunies are clear.

A recent collaboration between the Cincinnati Ballet and local musician, Peter Adams, also hints at the possibilities of finding synergy between the 'high' arts and local music.

Adams was commissioned by the Cincinnati Ballet to compose a piece of music for their New Works.  Already a successful solo artist with a national draw and mentions in big rock magazines, Adams, embraced the collaboration and the chance to earn a living from his work in his hometown.

"It was a nice change of pace to be commissioned and have outside pressure and deadlines, not to mention the energy that comes from working with other talented artists," he says.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Midpoint 08' at the Courtyard on Main St.
Spencer Yeh at the CAC
The Seedy Seeds at the Lodge
Jesse Ebaugh of The Heartless Bastards
The Lions Rampant video shoot
Andrew Higley, Chocolate Horse
Wonky Tonk at Midpoint 08'

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