Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at One Key Plaza
Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Cleveland's Music Scene Mainstays Discuss The City's Past, Present & Post-Pandemic Future
At this point, Cleveland's integral role in music history is well-documented. The first-ever rock and roll concert was held there in 1952. A few decades later, the city helped catapult the careers of greats like David Bowie, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen. It's also the hometown of Kid Cudi, Chrissie Hynde, Cloud Nothings and Machine Gun Kelly.
But it's not merely in the shadows of the triangular, lakefront Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum or that famous scene of Spinal Tap getting lost in the bowels of a Cleveland theater. It's a treasure trove of music and art in the here and now.
Like many cities, Cleveland's music scene has faced its fair share of obstacles, from the COVID-19 pandemic, the relocation of prominent local musicians, and the decades-long relegation from regular tour stop to a not-as-frequent destination. Still, its artists continue to make waves on their own terms.
To offer their excitement, tough love and observations on the current state of the Cleveland music scene, GRAMMY.com caught up with some of the city's movers and shakers.
Name a label, person, organization, band, etc. that deserves more recognition for their great work within the scene.
Anne Nickoloff (Life & Culture Reporter at Cleveland.com. Host of Sunny Day at WRUW 91.1 FM): I'd like to name two local venue owners/orgs that have done some really crucial things, in the past year, especially: Sean Watterson (Happy Dog) and Cindy Barber (Beachland Ballroom). When the pandemic shut down venues, Sean did a ton of work with NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) to get the Save Our Stages Act attention in Cleveland and beyond.
Besides her work with Beachland Ballroom, which pivoted to host outdoor and socially distanced shows during the pandemic, Cindy also runs a music nonprofit, Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present and Future. During the pandemic, that nonprofit gave grants to almost 100 local musicians and venue owners, and fundraised for venues through auctions and virtual shows.
She also helped put on some paying performance opportunities for musicians during the pandemic, which were hard to come by!
Emanuel Wallace (Music journalist/photographer for outlets like RapReviews, Cleveland Scene Magazine, and Cleveland.com): Mourning [A] BLKstar is one of the Cleveland-based bands that are doing great things. Their style spans across multiple genres, and their sound is continuously evolving. It's truly unlike anything else coming out of Cleveland at the moment. The group's latest album, The Cycle, is amazing, and MAB landed a cover story from The Wire magazine.
Two other individuals who deserve recognition for their work within the scene are Grog Shop's Wallace Settles and Beachland's James Carol. Between the two of them, they are responsible for booking a hefty percentage of shows at these legendary venues—especially on the local side.
Haley Morris (Musician in Pleasure Leftists, Himiko aka Kiernan Paradise, Donkey Bugs. Owner of Memorabilia Productions. Host at WCSB 89.3 FM): Lisa Miralia, musician/WCSB DJ, does a lot of community building in the realm of experimental music in Cleveland and has for a long time. She's everybody's cheerleader and really puts her soul into creating music events.
Rachel Hunt, WRUW DJ/performer, puts Cleveland artists on spotlight every week on her show and does so much work to support venues, performers of all kinds, not to mention working to raise money and develop safer spaces/practices within venues and various organizations.
In Training are a group of DJs and electronic musicians that started in Cleveland, but moved and worked very hard to program and bring live electronic dance music experiences through Cleveland and promote LGBTQIA awareness in the scene and create a safe space. I think that even though they aren't in Cleveland anymore, their efforts helped push the scene in a more diverse direction that didn't leave with them.
Sam Harmon is a DJ, experimental musician (Glacial23) and engineer who has been making great music for so long and who also works with a group he helped start, Makers Alliance. They do a lot of experimental art and help people learn to build instruments and technology.
What challenges does the Cleveland music scene face now, and what changes would you like to see?
Lisa Claus (Owner of LC Media, LLC. Programming Committee Member and Northeast Ohio Music Relief Fund Grantmaking Committee Member at Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present and Future): The challenges stem from the same challenges faced by various segments in Cleveland: Lack of communication and connection to other important, decision-making entities.
When discussing the city of Cleveland, you hear the term "silos" frequently used to describe various organizations and stakeholders in Cleveland. These silos develop their own separate planning, programs, and events, sometimes competing with other entities for money and marketing. We need to work together, especially now that we are emerging from COVID.
I would like to see coordination and investment among the various stakeholders in Cleveland: City and county government, education, nonprofits, technology, finance, arts, and so on. We need an umbrella music or arts organization to serve as a resource for the Cleveland music and arts community. This organization could serve as a liaison between the music community and the previously mentioned stakeholders in Cleveland.
Music and arts as a whole need to be discussed in terms of "economic development" for the city/county, not just as an afterthought or extra job that takes place after a person's "day job."
LaToya Kent (Lead vocalist/songwriter in Mourning [A] BLKstar): Cleveland doesn't have a strong hub for managers, booking agents, and tour support for artists that want to reach a larger audience. A lot of Cleveland artists put their own music out, create their own independent labels, or have to seek out larger labels from other states or countries because of this.
I would love to see us have a stronger foundation in support of our artists branching out. I believe it will represent our scene in an innovative way worldwide.
Morris: I think that the challenges Cleveland faces aren't necessarily Cleveland-specific problems and are pretty relatable to the world at large and broader music scene. Namely, I think "The Straight Boys Club" as a concept is a very plaguing and big issue here. It's [intense] and alienating particularly because it is a small town.
Certain people glom onto a certain type of thing or style and tend to gatekeep it, and those people tend to be men. A lot of the artists/musicians around who are most successful tend to be men. And I love men; don't get me wrong. I work mostly with them.
But it's pretty glaring to me that opportunity, respect, credibility, and the benefit of the doubt is generally afforded to men by way of "the club"—and a ton of mediocrity at that—before a woman stands a chance. That's not even talking about basic dignity and the double standards that apply. The working culture within venues and bars suffer from this too.
There's not a lot of room made for women or non-binary people in experimental music or places that don't fill a type. And I'm not trying to dump on those who do fill a type. Being a type doesn't make it any less legitimate. They're absolutely wonderful, and all the power to them. The music here at the forefront, in my experience, is really homogeneous, and a lot of the standout performers tend to leave for bigger and better things and supportive communities.
I'm not saying much new there, but Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit—those places aren't far away, and I know a lot of people who added great diversity to the Cleveland music scene moved there instead. The West Coast, too. [That] could be for a number of reasons, but I can't help but feel the Cleveland music scene pushes people away or shuts them out entirely.
Gratefully, I don't think it's getting worse, and I see hope on the horizon as more and more artists develop and come of age who will help dismantle the hierarchy, add diversity, and also as the LGBTQIA community gains strength and support. I'm not planning to leave and hope to do more to not give certain things a pass.
For one, I appreciate having an opportunity to speak out about these issues here.
Some might say, despite its rich history, Cleveland has fallen off the map of major music markets. How do you view Cleveland in comparison to other music destinations throughout the country?
Claus: We have a major asset in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which gives us worldwide attention. Other cities would kill to have an institution of that caliber.
But, a museum is not the same as being a music destination. It can be, but work needs to be done in saturating Cleveland with local music so that visitors see and hear music when walking down the street, visiting landmarks, even when landing at Cleveland Hopkins airport. When you visit known music cities, such as Nashville and Austin, you find live music everywhere. It gives these cities a feeling of being "alive." We need that here.
When looking at Cleveland, we have the talent, work ethic, trustworthiness, and many other desirable qualities. What we don't have is support from the city and county as an economic driver for Cleveland. In order to be taken more seriously by outsiders, we need to take ourselves seriously.
Having a Cleveland Music Office or Music Commission through the city and county government would be a great start. We could model ourselves after music cities who do offer these music offices, such as Austin, Nashville, Seattle, and Toronto. It is not necessary to try to become any of these cities, but we do need a structure to work under and to provide advocacy and offer guidance.
Nickoloff: I grew up in Lorain County and live near Cleveland now, and I've seen growth in Cleveland's music scene in my lifetime. I remember being really bummed out when my favorite artists would skip over Cleveland, but stop at Pittsburgh, Columbus, or Chicago.
But in recent years, Cleveland has become more of a destination for tours and has popped up more often. I think a lot of that is due to great local promoters and venues in the city. Large-scale live events—like Brite Winter and WonderStruck—have also become feasible, whereas fests were less of a "thing" here a decade ago.
When it comes to local artists, I tend to see this divide. There are artists who find a lot of success in Cleveland, but I've also seen artists leave the city to find success in cities with more substantial music markets. I think exposure is a really hard thing for musicians in Northeast Ohio, and "breaking out" can be tough here.
There are great local journalists dedicated to covering Northeast Ohio bands—shouts-out to Jeff Niesel, Amanda Rabinowitz, Dillon Stewart and Dave Sebille, just to name a few—and you too, Lizzie! I'm totally leaving others out, and I'm sorry to anyone I forgot!
That being said, I think it can be hard for artists to gain national or regional recognition these days, and that can cause difficulties for artists who need the exposure.
What excites you most about the future of the Cleveland music scene?
Wallace: I'm excited to see how the Cleveland music scene evolves as we continue to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Circumstances have made artists and venues get more creative in how they reach the masses. We saw Grog Shop selling posters and collaborating with Vans, we saw the Lights On Lager to benefit Mahall's, Beachland, Happy Dog and Grog Shop. It's those things that will keep the scene going.
Nickoloff: The music, of course!! This city has such a thriving local music scene that's constantly churning out incredible tunes. Just some of the artists that I'm excited about right now: Mourning [A] BLKstar, Uno Lady, Holden Laurence, Mr. Gnome, Biitchseat, Sonder Bombs, Herzog, Extra Medium Pony, Slug Fest, FreshProduce, Grumpy Plum… the list goes on.
For the past 60 years, the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter has recognized and celebrated the creative accomplishments of our members across the Midwest, fought for their collective rights, and supported them in times of need. We are proud of our legacies and excited to continue looking ahead. Here's to the next 60.