Gang behind the gigs
Competition brings more national acts to Tristate

Sunday, September 20, 1998

BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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More local promoters mean more national acts visit the Tristate.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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Look, out in the yard. Isn't that the Dave Matthews Band?

OK, things haven't gotten that crazy, but shows featuring national musical acts suddenly seem to be everywhere.

A few years back, the end of Riverbend's season signaled a national concert drought for the area that lasted until Riverbend opened the following spring.

Not anymore. Celine Dion at the Crown, Juliana Hatfield at Sudsy Malone's, Lyle Lovett at the Taft, Fishbone at Ripley's Alive, Travis Tritt at Cincinnati Gardens, Jon B at Music Hall, Ziggy Marley at NKU's Regents Hall, Roomful of Blues at Jefferson Hall -- as Riverbend closes, the area's concert calendar remains full.

The biggest reason, say those in the know, has been a boom in local promoters.

"I've never seen so many," says Steve Liberatore, a national talent booker for the Nederlander Organization, which manages Riverbend. He formerly headed one of the biggest independent local promoters, Casablanca Productions, which booked Bogart's, among over venues.

A year ago, Nederlander, which had also been booking the Taft, expanded into the Crown and Bogart's. Some in the local concert scene raised an alarm, calling the move a monopoly that would drive out smaller promoters. Instead, the opposite has been true.

Today, Nederlander is at the top of a hotly competitive Greater Cincinnati concert industry.

Along with Riverbend, the Crown, the Taft and Bogart's, Nederlander of Ohio also brings shows to smaller area venues and occasionally books concerts at Dayton, Ohio's Hara Arena. As its interests have expanded, Nederlander recently moved downtown, from its offices at Riverbend to the brownstone on Broadway formerly occupied by Cincinnati Magazine.

The promoter boom doesn't surprise Nederlander vice president Mike Smith, head of the company's local operations.

"I keep talking about this until I'm blue in the face -- the more that's going on generates more activity. Whether it's on the Riverfront or Allyn's Cafe, when you create an entertainment community with vibrant entertainment, it spurs others."

It's still not easy, some of those others say.

"It's a tough town. You gotta have your own little niche," says promoter Kevin Blum, 35, whose KMB Productions books reggae, rock and jazz acts into such venues as Sycamore Gardens, the Swing Lounge, the 20th Century and the Beach water park.

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"Nederlanders, they're king, they get what they want," he says, which leaves other promoters scrambling for the leftovers.

While that may be a challenge for would-be promoters, it's great news for music lovers. When there were just a few folks booking the area, they let lots of new acts pass by, concentrating on stars with guaranteed ticket sales.

Increased competition has made the new generation of promoters more willing to take risks, booking spanking-new acts in the hope they hit it big and remember who booked them first.

And it's not just rookies getting a place in the local lineup. The market also is seeing unprecedented numbers of blues, jazz and folk veterans who did not play here a few years ago.

"With all the different people booking and all the different venues, now you can see anybody in this town," Mr. Blum says.

If Nederlander stands at one end of the spectrum, with about 400 shows a year, according to Mr. Smith's estimates, then Magus Productions is at the other. Magus' husband-and-wife team John and Brenda Madden do 35-40 shows annually, ranging from singer - songwriters such as Chris Smither and Patty Griffin to roots rock bands such as the V-Roys and Los Straitjackets.

Magus remains little more than a risky, time-intensive hobby, funded in part by Mr. Madden's day job as acquisitions agent for General Electric. At 50, he's the eldest of the new wave of promoters, but he's not planning a new career. He says he's lucky to make a couple hundred dollars a year doing shows.

He created Magus Productions in 1994 for one reason. "No one, at the time anyway, was doing any of the kind of music I was listening to in the kind of atmosphere I was comfortable listening to it." His efforts have earned the respect of fellow promoters.

"John Madden is the best promoter in town, cause he honestly, truly, 100 percent cares about the music he's doing, and he only does what he loves," says Matt Barth, 30, a former employee of Bogart's and Nederlander who now co-owns Thigmotrope Productions with Dan McCabe.

Thigmotrope, another labor of love, got its start at Sudsy Malone's, where Mr. McCabe booked the talent. Mr. Barth had worked at Bogart's before the Nederlander takeover and decided to leave for a less corporate environment. In March, the two men, who had worked across the street from one another for years, decided to team up.

"We try to deal with the future of music," Mr. Barth says. But Sudsy's, despite its reputation as the area's alt-rock capital, can barely hold 200 people, so the club often loses those groups to bigger venues.

To prevent that, Thigmotrope has, since August, also booked the 1,000-plus capacity Annie's Riverside Saloon. "Hopefully, now that we have Annie's, we can hang on to them," Mr. Barth says. Thigmotrope's biggest upcoming Annie's show is an Oct. 19 date with the Brazilian metal band Sepultura.

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Venues find niche

The new generation of promoters includes club owners who, facing greater competition, have been booking national acts into their clubs.

Jim and Tony Cafeo of Jefferson Hall have helped establish the Main Street nightspot as the premier local showcase for blues. Jerry Dorizas of the Greenwich Tavern has, since the club reopened in May, presented such jazz greats as Ahmad Jamal, Roy Ayers and Ray Brown. The Silver Saddle in New Burlington recently started presenting national young country acts.

Dan Morris, 30, is another club-based promoter, working out of Ripley's Alive with partner Rob Stratton, 25. They plan to expand their Dingo Boy Productions from the club, which they bought from Mr. Blum. They have retained the college nightspot's spacy jam-band ambiance, while Mr. Blum took his international reggae acts with him.

The newest kid on the booking block, Dingo Boy is willing to do things differently, as witnessed by the recent booking of nationally known jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, who did a middle set between local bands.

"People looked at me strange," Mr. Morris admits. "I brought Stanley Jordan to a hippie rock club, put two bands in front of him and two people after him. People were floored."

He did the same when Mojo Nixon opened for Big In Iowa at the latter's CD release party.

"There's no concert formula on how you have to do things," Mr. Morris says. "Get a little inventive."

That's how another new-breed Cincinnati promoter, Gerald Johnson, 31, has made a name for himself and his Platinum Entertainment - Midwest Concerts. One of the few African-American promoters in the area, he has an R&B show booked into Music Hall on Friday with Jon B. But he has also done well with gospel musicals and stand-up comedy packages, doing around 10 events annually for the past couple of years. He is starting to expand to Indianapolis and Louisville. "It's a risky business," he says. "Timing is everything. You have to know the market and know what ticket price to charge." One obvious niche for a young, black promoter is rap, but not for Mr. Johnson. "I'm not interested in rap shows," he says. "There's too much violence. It's not worth it."

Intense competition

Once promoters get the talent, their challenge is to sell tickets. Even as the concert scene booms, promoters aren't merely competing with one another, says Rich Mischell, who has been booking country shows into Cincinnati since 1981.

"We are competing with the Internet and cable TV, pay-per-view, big movies like Titanic," he says. "There are so many different entertainment venues, and that's not even bringing in sports." That doesn't worry Nederlander's Mr. Smith. He sees it all as helping Greater Cincinnati get into the going-out habit.

When Riverbend opened in 1984, Cincinnati's national reputation for not supporting concerts was well-earned, he says. That same July week, Bruce Springsteen did two nights at Riverfront Coliseum early in his "Born in the U.S.A." tour. Neither sold out, cementing Cincinnati's bad rep.

"When you did get the big shows, the attendance wasn't there," says Mr. Smith. "When Springsteen didn't sell out, the industry tagged this market as a bad concert market."

Actually, Cincinnati had had that tag for several years by then. Riverfront Coliseum (the original name of the Crown), was still under the shadow of the 11 deaths at the Dec. 3, 1979 Who concert. By then, Cincinnatians felt they had good reasons for staying home. Just 2 1/2 years before the Who concert, 165 were killed in the Beverly Hills nightclub fire in Southgate.

"An entire generation purposely or subconsciously avoided contemporary entertainment," Mr. Smith says.

After the Who tragedy, the show's promoter, Philadelphia-based Electric Factory Concerts, closed its Cincinnati office amid a blizzard of lawsuits.

With no locally based arena promoter, big concerts were rare. No one seemed willing to work with the market to bring it back. Outside promoters such as Belkin (Cleveland) or Sunshine (Indianapolis) didn't fill the void, rarely booking events here.

Thanks to our location, the national concert industry has plenty of alternatives. With similarly sized concert markets in Columbus, Dayton, Louisville, Lexington and Indianapolis all within 100 miles, promoters and acts who wish to avoid Cincinnati -- for whatever reason -- can easily do so.

Then in 1984, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra opened Riverbend and brought a new promoter onto the scene -- the Nederlander Organization, a Detroit-based company that had recently expanded from legitimate theater to the new outdoor amphitheaters being built everywhere. Suddenly, there were dozens of major shows each summer.

Since then, there has been steady growth in the local concert industry, keeping pace with Nederlander's increasing dominance of that industry.

Tough decisions

No one's avoiding us anymore. As proof, Mr. Smith cites July 21, 1998. Van Halen and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band played Riverbend, Tori Amos played the Crown, Paula Cole was at Bogart's; Drivin' 'n' Cryin' was at Top Cat's.

That harmonic convergence was part of a seven-day period that also saw the Spice Girls Riverbend debut and Jimmy Buffett's sold-out two-night stand there; shows by the Black Crowes and the Brian Setzer Orchestra at Bogart's; and the Coors Light Festival at Cinergy Field with Luther Vandross, Frankie Beverly & Maze, James Brown, LSG and Patti LaBelle, among other R&B stars.

"Everybody's creating an environment where going out is fun, it's enjoyable, it's safe. . . . This kind of thing snowballs on itself. I am absolutely thrilled there are more people doing more things," Mr. Smith says.

A call for radio

Not that everything's perfect. For one, he -- and other area music promoters -- would like to see local radio more aggressively embracing new artists and supporting worthy veterans.

Thigmotrope's Mr. McCabe and Dingo Boy's Mr. Morris both make it a point to have local acts open for national bands. That's the way to build local audiences, they say.

That audience seems sure to get bigger, as Greater Cincinnati's population continues to expand.

"We're looking at the growing youth demographic, an upswing of the baby boom's baby boom," says Mr. Smith, who got his start 25 years ago as a teen-age maintenance man at Nederlander's Pine Knob outside Detroit. He sees Greater Cincinnati as a competitive market that will continue to create opportunities.

"Sure, you watch your back and you want to compete and you want to maintain any advantage that you have," he says. "But there's plenty of business to go around."



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