The new CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest will capitalize on Cleveland's rock history.
CLEVELAND -- Who's next?
This is the question being asked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which, nearly a decade after first opening its doors, is sponsoring the inaugural new-music showcase CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest.
The event boasts a cornucopia of mostly up-and-coming bands and will take place in a variety of Northeast Ohio venues Wednesday through June 11. Such a festival long has been on the drawing board of Rock Hall officials. However, it wasn't until a few years ago when the CMJ Network, which for a quarter of a century has produced one of New York City's and the nation's higher-profile new music festivals, got involved that the project moved forward.
"It'll be a marquee event for Cleveland, bringing people downtown but also positioning Cleveland as a hip, progressive town," said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Todd Mesek. "We wanted to bring in some partners who would really help us make it a success. We got together with the folks at CMJ. We got the major clubs in town involved with their support, their assistance, their teamwork and their partnership in this event. And it's been a really just rewarding experience."
For CMJ Network Chief Executive Officer Robert "Bobby" Haber, who said in the past he's been reluctant to stage another event outside of New York, the decision to move forward with a new music festival in Cleveland was tantamount to a "chocolate and peanut butter" experience.
"It was the overall elements," Haber said. "A real compelling musical heritage, obviously a locale where this type of event did not occur and, very significantly, finding a local partner who really understood the nature of this event and really espoused the spirit of what CMJ has been building over the years. And also a place whereby we felt the city could become a part of it. Really, everything just gelled."
Among the established bands participating in the CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest are The Pixies, Digable Planets, The Misfits, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Stephen Malkmus (formerly of Pavement) and more than 100 other live performances. Aspirations among festival organizers are high for this event to somewhat define Cleveland much in the same way South By Southwest epitomizes Austin, Texas, and even the CMJ New York City festival is synonymous with the Big Apple.
There is no denying that to the casual music fan, the festival may be too diverse or may lack a major mainstream band. Both Haber and Mesek say the former is by design, while the latter ties into the growth of the festival itself. In recent years, CMJ New York has featured then-unknown bands such as The Killers, Jet, Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire. Going back over its history, groups such as U2 and R.E.M. also received stage time at the festival.
The notion is the festival took a chance on those bands before they became big, meaning getting them to return for a CMJ New York headlining show in future years is plausible.
"The point is we're trying, we're taking the risk and we're trying to get something in the pipeline that we can build on from year to year," Mesek said.
Added Haber, "It doesn't happen overnight. We think, and this is truly my own personal impression, Cleveland is a great town. Obviously, the history is very, very rich but more importantly, it's just the passion of so many people involved in this festival to do it for Cleveland. There's a huge spirit about the city. What it's been. What it is and much more importantly, what it could become again."
One of the more compelling aspects of the CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest is the Festival Village tent, where 10 up-and-coming bands will perform each afternoon on two different stages. Located in the Powerhouse parking lot on the Flats' West Bank, this showcase event speaks to the promise of a new music festival -- perhaps a Festival Village band this year could be playing a prominent venue next year.
Among the major hurdles to overcome in planning a festival of this magnitude were getting all of the local, competing clubs to become partners, as well as designing a transportation system linking all of the participating venues. RTA will be offering special routes to accommodate festivalgoers. The ride is only $1 or free to festival all-access pass holders or guests with a non-winning lottery ticket.
It's no secret that Cleveland's credibility in the music world has slipped of late, with many high-profile tours such as Eminem's current Anger Management Tour and Ozzfest 2005 bypassing Northeast Ohio. While it remains to be seen whether Northeast Ohio can justify its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame label in the future, the CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest appears to be a step in the right direction.
"We're trying to produce an event that helps Cleveland market itself," said Mesek. "That brings in out-of-towners. That contributes to the economic vitality of downtown. An exciting event that helps showcase Cleveland, that helps showcase the Rock Hall, that helps show people that Cleveland has a thriving music scene. The buzz is good but honestly, we're going to see how it goes."