By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
"Who will you discover?" is the theme of the expanded MidPoint Music Festival. Tonight through Saturday, the festival will field 204 local, regional and national unsigned acts on 15 stages in downtown Cincinnati. For even the most obsessive fan, that's a lot to discover.
But with unprecedented city support for an original rock event, including a $15,000 grant, officials are hoping that for hundreds of musicians and music-industry people flocking here this weekend, their biggest discovery will be Cincinnati.
"This is about image building and it's about creating excitement in the city that will attract investors long-term," said City Councilman John Cranley.
After a successful first year and the resulting word-of-mouth, the crowd for MidPoint (named for Cincinnati's geographic location) is projected at 20,000, twice the crowd in 2002.
It's a shot in the arm for slumping downtown clubs, a chance for local and regional acts to expand their audiences (and maybe land a record deal) and a marathon festival on the cheap - $25 for a three-night pass or $10 a night - for Tristate music fans.
"It was really cool to see all the acts that will be playing," said Lorin Blake, 28, of Prospect Hill. She was out of town for the first MidPoint, but won't miss the second. "I've been to South X Southwest (the daddy of all music showcases, held in Austin, Texas), and to see something like that in our city, I think it's really good."
"It's a great time," said MidPoint co-founder and local musician Bill Donabedian, who drums with the band Crosley. "It's a pub crawl with original live music."
And a pub crawl with government support. Cranley has been a key supporter, helping Donabedian and partner Sean Rhiney (bassist for Clabbergirl), get the city grant as well as providing corporate connections.
"We have to think about growing this city economically in the long term and increasingly, decisions about where jobs will be located are related to quality-of-life issues," Cranley said. "On a personal level, I'm just going to have a lot of fun. But in my city council hat, this is about economic development."
Austin has proved what a music showcase can do. The city calls itself "the live music capital of the world" and has seen a boom in technology-based industry and a massive influx of young professionals since the start of South X Southwest in 1987.
As city officials and Main Street club owners debate bringing in Beale Street developer John Elkington to help revive the district, MidPoint provides homegrown good news.
Last year's showcase drew its 10,000 to clubs on Main, and in Covington and Newport. This year, after complaints from attendees who spent too much time commuting - and that $15,000 didn't hurt - MidPoint is 100 percent Cincinnati.
MidPoint organizers have beefed up the event, adding 50 bands, and plan to increase the number of bands to 300 by 2005.
Bringing 20,000 people to Main Street means a huge weekend for the clubs. Last year, owners weren't so sure. Most balked at booking their busiest nights of the week with unknowns. But after last year's success, owners such as Jefferson Hall's Jim Cafeo became believers.
In 2002, his club hosted MidPoint's CD release party (and did it again on Wednesday) as well as a Thursday showcase. This year, he's giving his Friday-Saturday to the fest and helped convince other Main clubs to get involved.
"I think it's great. Everything helps," Cafeo said. "The honeymoon's over. You gotta do something to bring people into your place. We do music six nights a week and we have, by far, the most consistent business down here. But you have to keep the music fresh."
Fresh music is what MidPoint is about. It's a showcase, where performers hope to be seen by label reps, producers and other industry sorts who can boost their careers.
As the record industry continues to slump and the number of musical acts grows, these grass-roots events become more important.
"The reality of it is there are too many bands out there; there's more stuff than the public can possibly assimilate. So ... anything you can do to get some exposure; anything you can do to get somebody to write about you, to get somebody to see you," said Jon Hornyak, executive director of the Recording Academy's Memphis branch.
The man delivering MidPoint's keynote address at noon Friday at the Crowne Plaza is industry veteran Jody Stephens, manager of Ardent Studios in Memphis, where everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Replacements to Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs have recorded classic albums. Stephens is also the drummer for Big Star, a seminal '70s band that paved the way for punk and alt-rock.
Getting signed to a major label may be the dream, Stephens said, but for most acts, the opportunity for networking is the most important part of a successful event.
"Whether you're a band, an artist, a writer, a producer or an engineer, it's an opportunity for people to figure out who all the other players are," he said.
"Everybody thinks they're going to be discovered," said MidPoint co-founder Rhiney. "And the possibility of that is there, but it's not as strong as the possibility that you're going to meet someone at the conference or meet someone at the bar who could end up producing your next album."
Music showcases such as MidPoint give structure to an industry the often lacks it. They give bands a chance to network with out-of-town bands and to talk about trading opening slots in their respective cities, which is a primary way for bands to build a bigger audience.
Behind the music
A lot of business will be done here this weekend, but a big reason for the success of music showcases among musicians and music lovers is very simple - fun.
"They're just swimming in their environment and they're out all night and drinking beer and they're listening to a lot of music," said Donabedian. "Part of our mission is letting people know that this a great town. There's a lot here."
Other cities have shown that a vital music scene can be vital to a city's future. This week, it's Cincinnati's turn in the spotlight.
"Something like MidPoint can really rally support," said the Recording Academy's Hornyak. "If the city wants to move a music scene forward, they have to first of all stand behind it."
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