Cleveland coined the term Rock and Roll. People still talk about Detroit and Motown. And, Chicago is known for the Blues. Yet, despite evidence that music can revitalize rust belt cities, that it can raise property values, and make these places more attractive to workers and companies, the music industry doesn’t seem to be a priority here.
“ Maybe the first two years we were open, we were miraculously making money,” says Cindy Barber, co-founder of the Beachland Ballroom, one of Cleveland’s top venues—and few venues—for live music. It’s an intimate place: the kind where you feel like you’re up close with the music. Yet, Barber just can’t make any money. She’s thinking of turning the Beachland into a nonprofit.
“You go to Beachland Ballroom, every one of those shows should sell out,” says David Spero. He’s been a producer, manager, and in the 70s, was one of the pioneering Cleveland DJs who introduced the nation to performers like David Bowie. Back then, the industry here was alive.
“Every label was represented here: Columbia, Atlantic, Warner Brothers, Capital, RCA,” Spero says.
It soon got too big and technology changed, and Cleveland lost its place as kingmaker for rock.
Today, Cleveland bands have to find labels and booking agents elsewhere.
About two years ago, the Cleveland band Cloud Nothings was nothing more than the tinkerings of Dylan Baldi, who was more interested in music than college.
“I’d just record songs all the time like when I wasn’t in class, or instead of going to class,” Baldi says.
He put his basement recordings on the internet and to his amazement, found himself booked with a show in Brooklyn and record deals with labels in DC and the UK. He had been playing all the instruments himself and had to scramble to find band mates. Now, he’s just getting used to seeing his name in the music press. And, Baldi says they always mention his hometown.
“They definitely write about that because it’s such a strange thing for a band people know about to be from Cleveland, which is too bad because there are a lot of good bands here,” he says.
One winter day, he was at the Beachland Ballroom celebrating the release of the band’s self-titled album.
There’s a sense that Cleveland and the Midwest are doing a poor job supporting their music industry, and a poor job benefiting from it. Richard Florida is an academic and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, and he says these post-industrial cities have a lot of assets that could create vibrant music scenes, but it can’t just happen on its own.
“So the first thing we can do in Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and Detroit, and Milwaukee, and Chicago, is to create real incubation assistance for young bands. I think the band is a better example of a start-up company than these high tech garage start-ups,” Florida says.
He recommends marketing assistance, help with business planning. Cities should make it easier for musicians: provide cheap housing and create incentives like Austin did.
And, the effects can be huge. Austin estimates its music industry contributes more than $600 million to its economy. A Cleveland nonprofit is currently studying how much the music business means here. Michigan has tax breaks for the music business but hasn’t bothered to promote them.
And, Chicago’s Music Commission did its own economic study and found it had the third biggest industry in the country, but no one knew it. But its new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, wants to change that with his plan for Uptown Music District.
“Where arts and culture can be the engines of economic growth,” Rahm said.
Maybe Chicago, then, will become the model for this region.