MidPoint returns with grand ambitions, but can the local music scene handle its growth?

Cincinnati musicians embrace national headliners

Like cellphones, iPods and jeans that sag to the knees, it’s hard to remember when there weren’t indie rock festivals.

In 1991, Lollapalooza introduced the concept of live music as a multi-sensory happening for the attention-deficit set. Today, there are dozens of multi-day indie music festivals throughout North America. For every international magnet such as South by Southwest —better known by the visual acronym SXSW—there’s an ambitious festival with regional appeal and grand ambition.

Cincinnati is among the few American cities boasting two such festivals—Bunbury , each July, and the more urban MidPoint Music Festival , which returns Sept. 26-28 at 15 sites downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. Both festivals feature scores of bands and solo artists, lean heavily on local talent and create environments ripe for treasure-hunting discovery.

Like the evolution of festivals at large, MidPoint has grown over a dozen years from an insiders-only party into a come-all street fest. When the alt-weekly CityBeat took over MidPoint, six years ago, festival puzzle master Dan McCabe expanded the lineup beyond Cincinnati-area bands to include nationally known artists and handfuls of emerging bands from around the Midwest and beyond—bands that, much like their counterparts in Cincinnati, are little known outside their hometowns.

Insiders say the upsides of that strategy—greater attendance, more ears on local music and a cultural spotlight on downtown—outweigh the potential overshadowing of local talent by the interloping headliners.

“This festival still isn’t in a position to compete for huge, large-scale acts, and it doesn’t need to,” McCabe said. “It’s a taste-makers festival, and I think a lot of festivals make that mistake, of trying to buy a brand identity, rather than build a brand identity.”

Marketing MidPoint to the Midwest

McCabe set his ambitions for MidPoint by studying a map. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Louisville, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Charleston, W.V.—all are conceivably driveable distances from Cincinnati, McCabe thought, for those inspired enough to spend a few nights here. McCabe’s challenge: turning MidPoint into a destination festival without weakening its local commitment.

This year, the best-known bands on MidPoint’s marquee are The Breeders, an indie rock grandmother born in Dayton, along with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Cody Chestnutt, the Head and the Heart and, perhaps a line or two below, Shuggie Otis, Kurt Vile’s band and Foxygen. With 170 artists stuffed into three nights, even the headliners have to cede the spotlight to the sheer deluge of music.   

“MidPoint’s ethos hasn’t changed for 12 years, and that’s to show off what Cincinnati has to offer,” McCabe said. “The point of MidPoint is always about discovery, discovering your new favorite band, the next wave, the new artists breaking out, and that’s what it will always be.”

McCabe would love MidPoint to follow the flight path of SXSW, in Austin, Texas. Only 700 people attended the inaugural festival there, in 1987, when organizers plotted to focus attention on Austin-area artists. Now, the festival has splintered into tracts for music, film and interactive—a vein of “sports-related content” is coming in 2014—drawing more than 45,000 people over nine days in March.

A key to that is the infusion of cash coming from corporate sponsorship. Dewey’s Pizza was the first business to partner with CityBeat during MidPoint, and more than 15 sponsors are on board for the coming MidPoint. The money allows McCabe to sew more established artists into the lineup.

MidPoint co-founder Bill Donabedian is on a similar strategic path with his newer creation, the Bunbury Festival, at Sawyer Point. Bunbury’s aesthetic of a single-site, multi-stage locale borrows from Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo, while MidPoint uses the urban playbook built by SXSW and the CMJ Music Marathon  in New York City.

“They all have a role to play,” said Gary Bongiovanni, longtime publisher of the touring-industry trade publication Pollstar .

Reflecting Music's Evolving Ecosystem

As music sales plummet in the digital age, artists have had to recalibrate career paths and sustainability. An increasingly vital piece of that is licensing music to corporations and film, commercial and video game producers. Often, Bongiovanni said, the connections to make that happen are made at the large, urban-based festivals.

“The other festivals are aimed purely at the public, where SXSW and CMJ are oriented more to the industry,” he said. “The impact of the smaller (festivals) isn’t as broad, but they can still be an important stepping stone for artists to further their careers.”

Such business-to-artist partnerships are beginning to happen, quietly,

through MidPoint. Festival insiders last year helped Procter & Gamble license music from Columbus-based Lydia Lovelace strictly for internal P&G use, said McCabe. This year, he added, representatives from corporate marketing departments in Los Angeles and Chicago are planning trips to MidPoint.

As another outgrowth of support for the MidPoint musicians, an entity called the Counter Rhythm Group is distributing its Musicians’ Desk Reference—an industry-related yellow pages—for free to all festival performers before launching it nationally three weeks later at CMJ.

“SXSW courted record labels (early on). They were firmly entrenched in an old model of what the music industry was—the label executive cruising around and trolling for artists they could throw on a wall and see if it sticks,” McCabe said. “It’s not anything I’ve pursued. I see the way the industry is changing to licensing as a way for artists to get heard and paid.”

Bunbury and MidPoint are vital touchstones in a quietly fertile landscape for local music—quiet in that few outside the region know about the richness here. Beyond the festivals, there’s a newish web site (CincyMusic ) and an app developer (Lisnr ) devoted to local music, a label (Phratree Records ) tethered to local artists and others on the margins, and musicians who play in each other’s bands and turn out for each other’s shows. Also, there’s no charge to see most local shows (McCabe co-owns local music haven MOTR). Audiences are conditioned to experiment.

MidPoint’s identity is cemented in the ethos of a scene that takes care of its own. The festival has expanded to include an open midway of vendors and free music and developed a partnership with Give Back Cincinnati to build its crew of volunteers. Findlay Market is piggybacking onto the festival this year with daytime shows Friday through Sunday.

Local Artists on Board with National Headliners

For local bands, there are obvious lures to performing at MidPoint or Bunbury: Among them, seeing and being seen as part of a larger community of musicians and potentially performing for people who otherwise never set foot in local clubs.

Still, one has to wonder: How many people devote time and money at MidPoint to catch a local band they can see a few weeks later, for free, in a local club? Musicians shrug at the question.

“It’s a big to-do for a festival like this,” said Stuart MacKenzie, a founder and vocalist of the DAAP Girls, who performed at Bunbury in July and are on the coming MidPoint bill. “It reminds friends and family you’re doing something different and notable.

“We’re playing in the same place as The Thermals (Thursday at the Taft Theatre), and we can say we shared a stage with them,” he said. “A lot of times, people don’t necessarily want to see DAAP play at midnight at MOTR. But here, they can go early to DAAP and see other great bands later.”

There’s also the networking, MacKenzie said, that can lead to friendships with more established bands and invitations to join regional or national tours.

“It gives you extra momentum with fans, shows you’re making moves and able to show your fans you can play at that level,” he said.

Joe Suer, a drummer in two bands performing Thursday night at MidPoint, says the only negative of MidPoint is figuring out how he’ll bring his drum kit from the 8:30 p.m. Halvsies show at Know Theatre to the 10:45 Ohio Knife show at Mainstay Rock Bar.

MidPoint, he says, is far better organized and geographically positioned than it was a decade ago, when festival venues were spread throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

“(Back then), it really didn’t make it a lot of difference from a normal weekend with lots of shows happening,” Suer said. “Initially, the thought was just helping local bands, but the question is ‘Why would anyone outside this region care?’ We play a lot of the same places and see a lot of the same faces, but MidPoint has grown so much, and that (dynamic) has changed dramatically. Having headliners definitely enhances local bands because it brings more national attention to this market and to what everyone is doing.”

Yusef Quotah also performs in two bands on the MidPoint lineup—Halvsies and You, You’re Awesome (11:30 Saturday at the Contemporary Arts Center). He’s intrigued with the potential for licensing his bands’ music to corporate entities—a development that never would have happened, he said, without the allure of national-level artists.

“I’ve played (MidPoint) when it was almost all local, and I like it a lot better now that there’s nationals. You get a lot more people downtown watching music and they spill over to the local bands,” he said. “I wanna kinda get bigger, to tour, to put records out that a lot more people are buying or get songs on commercials, because I’d love to make money doing this. If MidPoint becomes the way to do that, then I do want that to happen. Because it benefits us and everybody else making music in this town.

“I’ll probably never sell anything to Chik-Fil-A, because

I don’t like what they’re about,” Quotah added. “But if Volkswagen comes knocking, I’m definitely on board with that.”

MidPoint's Forward March

While the financial payday to music festivals is potentially significant, Pollstar’s Bongiovanni said, MidPoint and Bunbury—despite the track records of their presenters—still have work ahead.

“Concert promotion, in general, is risky, and throw into it the outdoor event, where anything can happen, it’s extremely risky,” he said.

Bongiovanni cited the Bottle Rock Festival , which debuted this past May in Napa, Calif. Despite strong reviews, solid attendance and headlining artists such as Jane’s Addiction, the Avett Brothers and Flaming Lips, the festival was “a disaster” where it really mattered.

“It was widely praised as a successful event, and then the bills came due. They overpaid for everything and didn’t have enough money to pay the stagehands,” he said. “The people who started Coachella almost lost their house the first year. The talent and reviews were spectacular, but they didn’t take in enough revenue to make it work.”

As more independent promoters launch festivals everywhere from mid-sized cities to barren cornfields to cruise ships, Bongiovanni said, it’s critical for Bunbury and MidPoint to retain their strong local cores.

“With any festival, you have to create an environment where everyone is comfortable—the fans, the bands, the sponsors,” he said. “It seems like (MidPoint and Bunbury) are doing it right, but unless you’re one of the well-capitalized promoters, like Live Nation and AEG, you’re one mistake from bankruptcy.”

MidPoint has climbed from its own history of debt, McCabe said, echoing Bongiovanni with his formula for MidPoint’s growth. Last year, he said, MidPoint drew about 25,000 people—that’s comparable to the draw for music, alone, at SXSW—and sold close to 2,000 multi-day passes.

Still, Cincinnati officials could do more to promote the festival. The city’s official tourism website carries scant information about MidPoint—”come for Cincinnati Reds, stay for MidPoint Music Festival”—and incorrectly states some venues are in Northern Kentucky.

“Every year, MidPoint has taken a step forward. Sometimes we trip over ourselves,” McCabe said, mentioning the festival no longer tries to “invent venues” and has, instead, refocused on existing houses.

“We’d love to sell 30,000 tickets, but you’re not going to see that in our stated goals,” he said. “How is the experience of artists, audience, staff, the clubs, the sponsors, our volunteers? That’s how we measure our success.”

If You Go...

What: 12th annual MidPoint Music Festival

When: 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sept. 26-28

Where: 15 venues throughout downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine

Cost: Passes range from $10 per venue daily to $69 for all-access throughout the festival and $169 for a limited number of VIP passes).

Festival web site: mpmf.com

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