During an interview in advance of May’s MusicNOW festival, Bryce Dessner — its organizer and guitarist for The National — told me something very provocative about Cincinnati as a concert market for Indie Rock bands.
And it might offer insight into why “vanguard” Indie acts — those whose experimentalism or artfulness, whose risky newness, resonates with enough fans to make a cultural impact — seem to skip Cincinnati once they reach mid-level (or higher) popularity.
“A lot of tours will skip it,” Dessner said. “When labels are discussing where artists should play, Cincinnati is not on the top of the list.”
The reason, he says, is that the hipper acts that can draw more than 1,000 fans — several thousand, actually — in other Midwest markets would do less business here. Those are exactly the kind of acts MusicNOW brings to Cincinnati, largely through Dessner’s music-scene contacts. They play Memorial Hall, which holds about 600, but often could play to bigger crowds in other cities.
The National itself has fit that bill since its 2010 breakthrough album High Violet. Formed in Cincinnati but now Brooklyn-based, the band closed out this year’s MusicNOW by playing (and not quite selling out) 3,000-seat Music Hall, its first appearance here since a 2008 concert/rally on Fountain Square in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. In that time, it did do other Midwest dates.
The reasons for Cincinnati’s precarious status, Dessner says, are both cultural and practical. In the first category, there’s the lack of commercial-radio support for Indie music and a lack of ongoing edgier music series at existing arts institutions and organizations.
There’s also a practical problem here — a lack of an appealing, affordable year-round venue (a theater or concert hall) that regularly books Indie acts that have outgrown smaller venues like Southgate House, 20th Century Theatre, Bogart’s and Madison Theatre.
“There are only so many dates you have open on a tour, and you have to maximize where most people can see them,” Dessner said. “Columbus has beat out Cincinnati recently.” (He opined that Louisville and Indianapolis, too, are coming on strong.)
Does this matter? If you believe a community needs to embrace and get excited about progressivism in its arts in order to be progressive itself, then, yes, it matters a lot.
Dessner stressed that he loves Cincinnati’s music scene — praising local support for such grassroots efforts as his own MusicNOW and the primarily indoor MidPoint Music Festival (which CityBeat operates), which mostly brings rising Indie acts to relatively small clubs in downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Dessner also praised Over-the-Rhine’s new MOTR Pub, which brings similar acts to town year-round for free. And he also said that national booking agents more familiar with Columbus venues might route their acts there, figuring Cincinnatians can drive up to see them.
But if you look at www.pollstar.com, you can see what he’s talking about. Lifestyles Communities Pavilion, a 6,000-plus-seat venue in Columbus roughly equivalent to our 4,000-seat PNC Pavilion, has the following summer Indie headliners not playing here (as of this story’s deadline): Bright Eyes, Panic! At the Disco, Devo, Owl City, Death Cab for Cutie and Flogging Molly. And it’s easy to think of prestigious, artier acts that have played Columbus and skipped Cincinnati. Indianapolis’ Lawn at White River State Park (which holds about 5,000) has The Black Keys (who opened for Kings of Leon here last summer), Florence & the Machine and The Avett Brothers, while its indoor Murat Theatre (an equivalent to our Taft) is bringing in Bon Iver.
Dan McCabe — who books MidPoint as well as Fountain Square’s related free Indie Summer Series of up-and-coming acts (and also operates MOTR and works as CityBeat’s events coordinator) — thinks the problem is more a business one than cultural.
“There’s not an infrastructure to bring them in,” he says.
But the conservatism of national promoters who now use Cincinnati’s bigger theaters/auditoriums also plays a role. Faced with higher costs, they choose the familiar over Indie acts on their way up.
“There’s not the room, and not the savvy promoter/talent buyer to program that room,” McCabe says. “I’ve spent 20 years developing artists in town, bringing them to this region for the first time. And then I watch their careers expand and go to Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and skip Cincinnati. And it has everything to do with the infrastructure available. Somebody has to take the initiative to take a room and make it happen.”
He believes Over-the-Rhine’s vacant, in-need-of-repair Emery Theater — on whose board he sits — could open up the market to rising “progressive” acts. With its two balconies fully renovated, it could seat 1,600.
Yet there may be changes forthcoming. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has begun renovations at Taft Theatre — including, at long last, air conditioning — and will begin overseeing its booking this fall. For one season, 2013-14, the orchestra will play there during Music Hall renovations.
The PNC Pavilion at Riverbend, which the CSO also owns and whose booking policy has in the past leaned heavily on Classic Rock, this year seems to be opening up. Among newer acts headlining there are Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee (with Lucinda Williams), Wiz Khalifa, Grace Potter, My Morning Jacket, the Script and — an example of the kind of “progressive” mid-level indie act that has skipped Cincinnati before — the Decemberists. (Live Nation, the national promoter which books Riverbend, didn’t respond to interview requests; Nederlander, the city’s other big national concert promoter, declined to talk.)
Bill Donabedian, who co-founded MidPoint (when it primarily offered local and unsigned bands) and now supervises Fountain Square activities for Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., is planning to announce on July 9 that he hopes to launch a three-day, six-stage outdoor festival for 2012 in Cincinnati called Bunbury. The 7 p.m. kick-off event, which will feature local bands, will be at the site where he wants to hold the festival — Sawyer Point Park and Yeatman’s Cove.
“The major summer outdoor festival with large artists has been lacking,” Donabedian says. “Jammin’ on Main is gone; Tall Stacks has never been consistent; Desdemona (an Indie-heavy fest in 2006) was a one-time thing. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
He sees Bunbury as the next step up from the current MidPoint.“Bunbury is meant to be major acts,” he says. “You would get The Flaming Lips there. You would get The National — those bands we sometimes miss, I think. I just think the climate is right.”