“We built this city on rock and roll.” --Jefferson Starship
Cincinnati again becomes the indie music headquarters of the heartland as the Midpoint Music Festival returns this weekend with a growing reputation as one of the nation’s most exciting band showcases to be found in a compact, walkable urban setting.
The seventh annual Midpoint Music Festival officially kicks off at 6 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 25) with a free show on Fountain Square from up-and-coming local band Seabird. It ushers in three nights of 185 bands- most independent, unsigned artists- playing on 16 stages in Over-the-Rhine, the central downtown core and Newport’s Southgate House. Organizers hope for some 40,000 club hoppers over the three nights.
This year Midpoint is under new management. Alternative weekly, CityBeat, bought the festival from its co-founders Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian, who started it as a labor of love to support and showcase the region’s robust indie band scene. But the two had wanted out of producing the event because of the demands of their day jobs. (Donabedian works for Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. as managing director of Fountain Square; Rhiney is a professional development counselor at the University of Cincinnati Law School).
CityBeat, which had been heavily involved with Midpoint as a promotional partner, took over a well-conceived event that has earned an impressive national reputation in just six years. Thanks to Midpoint, in certain substrata of the nation’s rock music communities, bands have come of age knowing Cincinnati, not for its sports teams, riots, or world-class symphony, but as a supportive music town.
“Musicians know Midpoint as an independent festival where they will be heard by receptive ears. It also has a reputation as a good time,” says Dan McCabe, Midpoint producer and CityBeat promotions director. “Bill and Sean did a great job building a festival. Talking to bands through the submission process, it became apparent that groups really want to play at this.”
Producing the event is an opportunity for CityBeat to reinforce its branding as the media booster of the independent, original music scene. It may also provide an alternative revenue stream.
“We think we can make some money on it,” says John Fox, CityBeat editor. “It’s not like a music festival will make or break our company. But, like everyone else in this business, you have to figure out different ways to make money other than selling ads, which is getting harder and harder to do. Everyone is suffering, even us, but maybe not in ways the big dailies are.”
Fox said events like Midpoint let CityBeat offer companies a different way to connect with the young adult market other than buying a traditional ad. For example, Toyota will put out a 20-car fleet of its youth-friendly xB Scions shuttling fest goers between downtown venues (The Scions will be run a route designed to mimic the proposed streetcar system with ten pick-up points running along Main Street, west on 12th Street, back south on Walnut Street, and east on 5th).
In taking on the festival production, CityBeat organizers were confronted with the same problem that Donabedian and Rhiney had struggled with the last couple years. As Fox puts it: “The reality is Over-the-Rhine can’t support it any more. There just aren’t the bars.”
Part of Midpoint’s unique reputation was its compactness concentrated in Over- the-Rhine’s Main Street Entertainment strip. Among the many band showcases in the country, none is in an area where 17 stages are a block or two apart. But that coziness was impossible to maintain with up to ten clubs closing in the Main Street district the last few years. The Main Street scene has struggled, never really recovering from the loss of patrons after the 2001 riots. Some clubs that have tried to reopen in recent months have failed.
CityBeat producers took the classic given-lemons-make-lemonade approach by expanding the event into the central downtown core while retaining some Over-the-Rhine locations. Other than the Southgate House site, it is still a walkable event utilizing a diversity of venues. In the process organizers have managed to cleverly connect downtown and Over-the-Rhine with the first music event to take advantage of an energized residential downtown.
To hear McCabe talk, all of downtown is a stage. He sees the area organically--the central business district is a rock concert venue. “There is an incredible infrastructure we have by using downtown and Over-the Rhine together,” he says. “We have large venues and small venues and now we have a transportation system. Fans can use the restaurants, hotels and Fountain Square. Next year we hope to put music on the square every night of the festival.”
The downtown venues range from the swanky 150-seat Fifth Third Bank Theater at the Aronoff Center to the more bohemian Inner Peace Holistic Center (Walnut and Seventh) and the Coffee Emporium (Walnut and Central Parkway). Such theme clubs as Cadillac Ranch and the Lodge Bar, which normally don’t feature indie music acts, have signed up. The only traditional Main Street club involved is the Courtyard Cafe. The shortage of Main Street venues has been filled by the alternative arts community with stages at the Know Theater, the New Stage Collective and InkTank in Over-the-Rhine.
In the past Midpoint needed to rock the suburbs to be successful, that is, convince people from outside the city to come downtown for a night of music and club hopping. McCabe says, with the revitalized downtown residential scene, he isn’t sure that is even a priority anymore. He sees this as an event the new urbanites will appreciate.
“The downtown population has exploded,” says McCabe. “Suburban living is on the out. It’s the walkable, urban living that is in and cool. That’s the future. For those folks this is a very consolidated festival.”
According to Downtown Cincinnati, Inc., the OTR/downtown population was about 8,100 at the end of 2007. That has grown by over 2,000 people since 2002. Most of that increase is made up of young professionals, who have been gobbling up the hundreds of downtown condos and apartments that have been built or renovated.
Indeed, downtown boosters now see Midpoint as a central business district showcase-- a club-hopping, party-scene version of the recent Downtown Tour of Living.
“Downtown has gone through a major transformation with residents. So, when we have an event like Midpoint, people’s interests are peaked to see the new downtown,” said Arlene Koth, DCI VP stakeholder services.
Other changes in CityBeat’s Midpoint structure:
- Organizers were proactive in inviting bands to play, unlike past years where it was exclusively a submission process. That assures local fans can see some of Cincinnati's most critically-acclaimed acts. CityBeat booked bands that had been past winners at its Cincinnati Entertainment Awards who might otherwise not play Midpoint. They include Wussy, 500 Miles To Memphis, Buffalo Killers, Jon Justice, July For Kings and the Seedy Seeds.
It has booked national signed acts breaking with the tradition of a festival exclusively devoted to unsigned bands. “We felt we needed to build a little more of a national brand,” says Fox. Still the national groups are somewhat on the fringes for the mainstream music fan, but well known on the indie rock scene. They include indie rock icon Robert Pollard, Mates of State, The Sadies, Spectrum and Why?.
It has abandoned for this year the music industry panels and keynotes speakers that helped make Midpoint a networking business experience for out-of-town bands. McCabe says the rock convention aspect will return next year, perhaps under the auspices of the Chicago Grammy office. He says Grammy officials will be in town to observe this year’s Midpoint.
Your Soapbox Guide to Midpoint
The challenge and the beauty of the Midpoint Music Festival is: You are on your own. One needs to bring a sense of discovery, exploration and maybe do a little research to find which of the some 185 bands will suit your fancy.
The Midpoint Web site makes that easy with band profiles and YouTube/ MySpace links.
At Midpoint all bands are created equal and it’s difficult to single out a must-see act. In fact, it’s hard to find a bad set, since bands bring their “A” games. After all, they only perform a 50-minute set so you can expect to see each group’s “greatest hits.”
With that in mind, here are five acts each night guaranteed to please a diversity of tastes, with a mix of national acts and locals:
Seabird (6 p.m., Fountain Square): Catchy piano-driven power pop has landed this Independence, Ky. band prime-time promotional exposure in the ABC show “Pushing Daisies.” It’s “Rescue” will be the show’s theme song this season.
Daniel Martin Moore (10 p.m., Aronoff Fifth Third Theater): Heart-felt folk pop from the Cold Spring, Ky. singer-songwriter about to make a national splash with a new album to be released in October by Seattle label Sub Pop.
July For Kings (10 p.m., Cadillac Ranch): A bit of a reunion for lead singer Joe Hedges and his band mates from Middletown. Hedges has honed a thrilling, passionate live show making his mark as a dynamic frontman as a solo artist and with JFK, which flirted with major label success once signed to MCA.
Why? (11 p.m., Aronoff): Cerebral, sonic psychedelic pop from these ex-Cincinnatians, now based in Oakland, Calif.
Oh My God (11 p.m., Know Theater): Atmospheric pop with great vocals of frontman Billy O’Neill and an absurdist sense of humor. As the band notes: “We are influenced by monkeys in Fellini-esque settings.”
SS-20 (9 p.m., Southgate house): A rare show from one of Cincinnati’s true punk pioneers; Three chords-and-a-cloud of dust with a delightful anarchic message.
Jon Justice (11:30 p.m. , Arnold's): The 26-year-old Flemingsberg, Ky. guitarist is cleverly bending the blues format managing to mix R&B, soul and hard rock into his own distinct groove.
Jukebox the Ghost (11 p.m. Aronoff): The Washington, D.C. trio gets compared to Ben Folds with its catchy piano pop.
Lonely China Day (11 p.m. Inner Peace Center): It’s Mandarin rock with this group from Beijing bringing its ambient, experimental guitar stylings with a mantra-like quality as they sing lyrics based on Chinese folklore.
Pomegranates (midnight, Blue Wisp): Irresistible, hook-filled, dreamy and intelligent pop from this Cincinnati quartet getting national attention with last year’s release on Lujo Records.
Jeff Scott Roberson (9 p.m. New Stage Collective): Unwind a little with one of the great earthy Cincinnati singer-songwriters who has been making soulful, lonesome country/folk for almost two decades.
Wussy (10 p.m. Aronoff): Everyone from the Village Voice to Rolling Stone has discovered this richly textured Cincinnati group with the poignant lyrics of Ass Pony founder Chuck Cleaver and sonic vocals of Lisa Walker. Best described once as “high lonesome slash and burn” and an “articulated drone.”
Mates of State (10 p.m. Southgate House): Drums and keyboard. What more do you need? Not much when you have the unpretentious, toe-tapping, sweet melodies of this couple out of Kansas.
William Sides Atari Party (10:30 p.m.) Know Theater): And now for something completely different. A one man electronica band “performing” with an Atari Synthcart program and an array of synthesizers and other gadgets.
Flow (midnight, Cadillac Ranch): Traveling to Midpoint from Tel Aviv, check out the group dubbed Israeli’s “indie band of the year” with a collection of soaring and thickly textured anthems reminiscent of U2.
Stuff you should know:
A three-day wristband ($29), or a one-day wristband ($15), is good for admission to all the venues and allows you to ride on the free Scion shuttle system. You can also pay a $5 cover good for admission that night to a single venue.
Photography by Scott Beseler
MPMF 07' sidewalk signage
Dan McCabe at the Courtyard
The Lions Rampant on Fountain Square
MPMF 07' street signage
To receive Soapbox free every week click here.