COLUMN: Cincinnati's music scene among country's best because there's no cost to explore it

Why? Free nightly shows and wealth of festivals

CINCINNATI -- I’ll grant you a few legitimate excuses for not making it out to the clubs once in a while to catch local bands:

  • Indie rock causes you seizures.
  • You’re at an age where music begins and ends with YouTube.
  • You’re at an age where sleep wins every 10 p.m. decision.

For everyone else, I’m not sure you appreciate how good you have it in Cincinnati. Few other American cities boast such a welcoming landscape for exploring homegrown music.

It all begins with something simple yet astonishing: The bars most devoted to live local music — Northside Tavern , MOTR , Comet , the Drinkery and Mayday to name a few — don’t charge people to walk through the door. I checked the calendar listings in 15 other fertile music cities and found that only Portland has a similar number of clubs regularly offering local music for free.   

There’s no gentleman’s agreement among the Cincinnati bars, but simply a shared business model and circle of life: Free shows bring more people in, boost the liquor sales and put more eyes, ears and, potentially, dollars into the hands local bands, who do much to promote and drive people to the shows in the first place.

This is tremendous for anybody driven to discover new music.

On a Friday a few months ago, I wanted to hear a local band and I didn’t really care who, because I didn’t know much then about Cincinnati music. A CityBeat listing led me to the CD-release show at MOTR of a band called Pop Goes the Evil . I was floored with what I saw and heard, bought the CD and T-shirt and have since become an eBANDgelist.

To top it off: These free shows happen every night in Cincinnati. Everywhere else, aside from the rare midweek freebie, expect to pay anywhere from $2 to $12 just to get in for an evening of homegrown rock ‘n’ roll.

Southgate House Revival , in Newport, Ky., a strong supporter of local music, is the fly in the ointment of the local freebie formula. While shows in Southgate's Lounge are free, local bands that perform without cover charge in Cincinnati are often booked in Southgate's Sancutary, which is ticketed. Southgate's Revival Room is also ticketed. But the club is geographically isolated from its counterparts across the river with no walk-by traffic. Southgate is also unique here because, while its bar opens daily at 4 p.m., it operates first as a multi-stage performance venue.

Unlike most other cities, where local bands play for some percentage of revenue from the door, Cincinnati bands can count on earning anywhere from around $100 to $500 for an evening’s set. With a three-band bill, which is not uncommon here, clubs have to push a lot of pints across the bar to pay for the evening’s music.

But it makes financial and cultural sense to Dan McCabe, a longtime local musician, show promoter and co-owner of MOTR who also programs the MidPoint Music Festival .

“When you present a free show, a lot of people in the audience are artists and musicians themselves. We don’t need to charge them a ticket to get in. They’re helping to build this scene,” McCabe said. “It behooves us to develop the artist. If we get a band in with no cover, it’s easier to expose more people to them and for people to experiment.”

The ecosystem for local music depends on another Cincinnati peculiarity: A multitude of multi-day, multi-artist indie rock festivals built on local talent. Beyond MidPoint and its outdoor, summer counterpart, the Bunbury Festival , there’s Cincy Punk Fest  and Iron Fest, which are at Southgate, and Cincy Psych Fest  at Mayday, along with the debut last weekend of the Ubahn Festival in downtown’s underground railway tunnel.

The festivals promote the cross-pollination commonplace among local bands and educate people to large swaths of local bands, feeding the walk-ins that fuel Cincinnati’s nightly club scene.

“A lot of the same musicians we’re seeing on a Tuesday are coming out to our show on Wednesday, so why shuffle the same $4 cover charge around?” said Joe Suer, who plays drums for Ohio Knife and Halvsies.

“A handful of venues realize they have a built-in crowd and it doesn’t make sense to charge that crowd every time a band is playing,” he said. “The club owners invest a little more time and energy in the bands that are doing a good job in promoting themselves.”

Some musicians have mixed views of the free shows. One said they potentially “devalue” the music and that, without that revenue source, there will always be a ceiling over the pay for local artists. Another musician said many bands perform so often locally and over-saturate Cincinnati audiences.

“From a band’s standpoint, to be able to tell your friends they don’t have to pay, they can  say ‘There’s no barrier here. Just come see the show and hang out with your friends.’ That’s huge for

the bands,” said Jacob Tippey of The Frankl Project. “But there’s really so much access to music, and it’s going to take (support from) a local fan base that really wants to keep local music going, and it’s a struggle.”

Yusef Quotah, of Halvsies and You, You’re Awesome, thinks there’s room to charge for certain local shows. He recalled the $5 charge earlier this year to get into the CD-release show for DAAP Girls. “Everybody got a CD, and the place was packed,” he said.

Venues could do more to build audiences.

Aside Southgate House, no venue in town regularly hosts “all-ages” shows designed to draw people under 21. The logistical challenges and potential liability of identifying, policing and charging those under 21 are too daunting for most clubs, McCabe said.

I find myself -- the rare 50-year-old attendee -- happy for the earlier start times of an all-ages show. My only real frustration with Cincinnati’s club scene is that the opening bands on any given night often don’t start playing until close to 11 p.m. This makes midweek attendance really tough for me, and I imagine for anybody else who needs to work in the morning.

“Twenty-one seems younger and younger to me all the time, so I feel like I’m doing my part to help the youth just by having people in their 20s at the shows,” McCabe said with a laugh. “Right now, there’s more audiences, more cash in the audience’s pocket to purchase CDs and merchandise, and it works for everybody.”

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This version of the column corrects and adds details about bookings at Southgate House. An earlier version of this article also listed an incorrect location for Cincy Psych Fest.

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