Craig Ramsey hadn't planned on playing the Cleveland Music Festival. Now in its 11th year, the annual showcase embodied the local rock rat race that never much interested the indie veteran.
But a "talent buyer" from the show's promoter, Gorilla Productions, sold Ramsey on the idea. He said he too was in a local band, and that this show was going to be different — not just another Gorilla mishmash of a dozen local acts tossed haphazardly onto the same bill.
HotChaCha, a well-regarded all-girl indie-rock quartet, would beheadlining. Ramsey's band would get an unspecified cut of the ticket sales. Plus, it was the Cleveland Music Festival, a must-see showcase of 200 of the city's finest acts playing before music-industry reps from all over the country.
"He told me it was going to be insane," recalls Ramsey. "He said it would be packed. It was quite the opposite."
The insane crowds never showed, and neither did prominently billed indie bands Lighthouse & the Whaler and Film Strip, though their names did appear on the festival schedule. Those who didn't show up mostly didn't miss much.
Though crowds were much better at downtown venues, Ramsey remembers around 20 people watching his self-titled band and others perform at Cranky's, a scene clubhouse on the near West Side.
By night's end, the only Gorilla rep in the place quietly disappeared, and only one band — HotChaCha — had pocketed the money it had been promised. "I tried something different, and it didn't work," says Ramsey. "I never ended up getting paid. Lesson learned. It was a bad experience."
From the tiniest clubs to the biggest arenas, the rock & roll business involves jumping through a lot of hoops and killing a lot of time between each one. Gorilla gives aspiring rockers a crash course in both. Launched in 2006 by brothers John Michalak and Dan Cull, Gorilla employs 20 full-time workers in Cleveland and another 65 independent contractors to coordinate events from Texas to Toronto.
The shows it promotes employ a controversial business model that has proven successful for Gorilla but deflating to some of the countless bands who claim they've been exploited. The company has helped a handful of artists find nominal record deals — and it's initiated almost as many lawsuits aimed at quashing the foul words of detractors.
"As outside promoters, they do the strongest events in town," says Peabody's partner Chris Zitterbart. "I think it's the concert promoter's job to promote the event, and Gorilla Productions does that better than any other promoter does. They make fliers. They make posters. They're all over the web. They teach bands how to be successful."
Michalak and Cull have been around a long time, and they have plenty of friends in the business. These days,
they're cultivating more enemies too.
Gorilla Climbs the Ladder
"Promoters are their own breed," says Steve "Skinny" Felton, leader of the theatrical Cleveland metal band Mushroomhead, a satisfied Gorilla client. "They're in it for fame, a little of the money, and a little of the lifestyle."
The men behind Gorilla Productions got their share. Michalak is a bassist with a lifelong interest in the business. From 1995 through 2001, he owned the rock club Peabody's DownUnder, ground zero for original music in the then-booming East Bank of the Flats. It's where stars like the Replacements and Weezer introduced themselves to Cleveland, and where a cavalcade of local and national acts kept the place packed most nights of the week.
But Michalak unloaded the club in 2001 to his younger brother Dan, a rock & roll socialite who had helped bands like Mushroomhead, Integrity, and Brandtson cultivate followings in the '90s. Times were changing in the bar business, especially after the economy tanked following 9/11. Gone were the days when a local club could meet a headliner's guaranteed fee simply by banking on gangbuster bar sales.
As Cull ran Peabody's, Michalak reinvented himself as a full-time concert promoter, doing business as Sugarlight Productions. Local promoters like Spotlight Talent and (later) Hardcore Marketing were running successful shows based on a new model: They would add a half-dozen local bands to the bill and have them all sell tickets. With six groups, then seven, and eventually 12 or more bands on the bill, the promoters had effectively recruited dozens of musicians to plug the show on the streets, thus taking a couple thousand dollars of worry off their minds. Depending on whom you talk to, Michalak either improved or tore down the business model.
In 2000, he and Cull took the method to its extreme with the first Cleveland Music Festival, a mega-band, multi-venue showcase. Then they exported it: In Texas three years later, Michalak organized the first Dallas Music Festival. National acts like Edwin McCain headlined among nearly 400 local bands, playing in 20 venues over four days. Dallas Observer called it "the city's best-organized and least interesting festival."
Meanwhile, as nightlife in the Flats went downhill, Peabody's moved across town to its current location near Cleveland State, where it resumed its role as a force in Cleveland nightlife. Alt-rock bands and heavy headliners took the stage after a legion of opening acts on two stages, sometimes three. In the pit, behind the bar, upstairs in the office, it was a good time — if you had time to kill and didn't mind wandering from room to room to find a band you wanted to see ... or escape the ones you didn't.
"When Dan owned Peabody's, he was a rock star and Peabody's was like Cheers," one local musician recalls. "Everybody knew him and wanted to hang." But not everybody viewed the burgeoning Gorilla business model in the same light.
"Dan Cull was the architect that took Peabody's from being a great rock club, where you could see a diverse two-, three-band bill of good music, and made it into a metal-based club where any shitty band can buy their way onto the bill — or even headline — if they sell enough tickets," says one Cleveland music-industry lifer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And oh yeah, now instead of two, three bands, you have 10, 12 bands."
During business hours, Cull was a charismatic quick thinker and fast talker whose staff tried to keep up with his manic plans. "He makes more promises than he can deliver," says a former Gorilla employee. "A human tornado," as another music insider puts it.
Cull cashed out of Peabody's in 2005. It was time to shift full-bore into the promotions business, thus freeing him of the liability of club ownership and opening the doors to better bucks.
As one former Peabody's employee puts it: "Club owners don't make money. Promoters make money." In 2006, Cull and Michalak gave birth to Gorilla and set it loose nationwide.
Cull, the group's president, brought some Peabody's employees with him, while VP Michalak recruited some Sugarlight holdovers. Nine former Gorilla employees talked to Scene — all of them anonymously; they all say their ex-bosses are blazing a trail of lawsuits that they want no part of. Each is partial to a different partner and refers to the other as the bad cop in the business.
"The reason John and Dan are good partners is they're the polar opposite of each other," says one former worker who favors Michalak. "Dan's a jock, and John's a musician. John's the cold, logical one. Dan's more emotional. Dan wants to be everybody's friend, and John is everybody's friend."
The Peabody's Method
Early on, working at Gorilla was more fun than playing Donkey Kong. The crew drank cheap at Peabody's and stayed late. Based in an Ohio City brick storefront with an attached house, the company still treats employees to exhausting nights out on the town, but its goals have grown more serious. Over the past year, say ex-employees, Cull and Michalak have turned up the pressure, focusing more on artist sales than artist development. Former agents say they called more than 200 acts a week, some working strictly on commission, some on salary.
"They call it the music industry," recalls a former employee. "But we're not in the music industry. Music industry is Lady Gaga, with millions of units. We're in concert promotion. All we did was sell tickets and keep whatever was left over. We were called talent buyers. But we were signing local bands that have no draw [and] sending them 100 tickets [to sell]. We weren't buying talent."
As Cull explains it, a Gorilla show works like this: The company rents a club and assumes all expenses for the night. Gorilla selects between 8 and 10 bands to perform, accepting applicants or recruiting groups via mass e-mail or phone calls. Gorilla gives bands tickets to sell, typically at around $8 or $10 each. Early on the day of the show, bands meet Gorilla at the club and deliver the take from their sales. Sell a predetermined amount of tickets — often 20 or more — and they pocket a certain dollar amount per ticket, usually around $5 if tickets sales reach the plan's top tier.
Sell poorly, and you play one of the first time slots; sell well, and you get a better time.
Recent employees still call it "The Peabody's Method," but the Internet offers variations on the theme.
Type "Gorilla Productions" into Google, and the next word that comes up is "scam." The fourth automatic suggestion is "battle of the bands scam." About once a month, Gorilla brings a national touring band to Peabody's, and it also promotes small tours for emerging acts. But its bread and butter are battle of the bands that pit local groups against each other.
Technically, band battles are a two-round process. Four or five first-round shows yield winners, who then sell tickets for the second-round finals a month or more later. The winner of that show — as determined by crowd response — claims 20 hours of studio time and $500. The Gorilla staff then submits the winner's music to four major labels, and the cycle repeats. That's 50 or more bands vying for spots on one show. Some promoters question whether it's a sustainable practice.
"Gorilla Productions is like a strip-mining company," says a rival promoter. "They take every natural resource that city has and leave the city with nothing to survive on."
Gorilla also dangles the promise of "a record deal" — which it values at $25,000 — with Rock X Records, a three-person operation owned by Cull and Michalak. Its roster includes two signees, one release, and no album reviews to its credit. The New Jersey funk-rock ensemble Keeping Riley was the outfit's first artist. Frontman Noah Hercky says Rock X paid to record, press, and promote the disc — and it feels like a real deal. "We've got a company behind us," says Hercky. "We've seen the fruits of our labor."
As of mid-July, the Gorilla website listed 130 shows scheduled from the East Coast to Canada between July and November, with tickets between $8 and $15, and each concert listing between 6 and 24 bands. Of those, 86 are billed as "battle of the bands." In that kind of competitive field, many bands don't feel like lucky winners.
"I can tell it's a little fishy," says Scott Roger of the Akron metal band Ichabod Crane. "Younger bands can't. Often times, shows they're booking don't have a national band. So they're having you sell a product that doesn't have a draw. It's all local bands. And the tickets are expensive — $10, $12. What's worth $12?"
Roger recounts playing two Gorilla shows, and he doesn't remember either fondly. He voices a common complaint: The company overbooks shows, assuming bands will drop out. The only thing worse is when every band shows up, making time slots even more chaotic and unpredictable.
The Gorilla sales pitch varies. Cull says bands can play without selling tickets at all, but Roger says a rep told him if his band didn't sell, it wouldn't be guaranteed a slot. Some deal in vagueness and best-case scenarios: He recalls being promised a prime time slot based on how many tickets his band should be able to move; when the band didn't sell them all, his start time was moved from 8 p.m. to 5:30. "It's like a bait-and-switch," says Roger.
A former out-of-town Gorilla rep explains how the business enters new territory: "Gorilla would just go on MySpace and spam bands about playing for them. They targeted a lot of newer and younger bands from that area. They were mostly scream-o metal bands and then turned to a good bit of hip-hop/rap. They would sign up anyone that would reply. It was a decent setup for some kids, because for most of them it was their first time onstage. My personal opinion on Gorilla was that it is a good money-making scheme on kids. Once [bands] realized they could book their own shows, I think they did."
"You get nothing out of it unless you're a headliner — no money unless you sell 20 tickets," says Joe Cox, guitarist of Here Lies Another, a Cleveland metal band with one album under its belt. "They're not going to help you go further if you're a local nobody band. It always seems that they get a bunch of shit bands together — bands that shouldn't even be there. Then they run three stages and make all the money."
The consensus is that Gorilla works best for bands on the top or the bottom, who have the most to gain and the least to lose. For the considerable space in between, it's a crap shoot.
"If you're a high school band just beginning, go with Gorilla," says Cox. "If you're a veteran, stay away."
"They were willing to let us play. That was the cool thing," says a current promoter who paid his dues playing Peabody's band battles. "When we were younger, we didn't look at it like a scam. The incentive was: You get to play Peabody's. We did make some connections, so we thought it was good."
But according to past Gorilla employees, that also means over-promising and under-delivering.
"Gorilla was selling pre-teens on the idea of becoming rock stars, then leaving them disappointed when they figured out that the battle of the bands is much different than the way that Disney makes it look," says one former employee. "When I told my parents and friends outside of the industry about what angered me about my job, the stories of hopeful kids with their Christmas-present guitars getting taken for the ride was always what hit them the hardest."
The Gorilla Festival
At the 2010 Cleveland Music Festival in May, more than 200 acts played at a dozen venues. Headliners included Wolfpac and Critical Bill, two rap-rock groups with national cult followings. Key venues like Peabody's and the Agora reported good attendance; Michalak claims the company sold 6,000 weekend passes.
In recent years, Gorilla has added advice panels and a pig roast for industry professionals flown in from out of town — executives from labels big and small, writers, booking agents, and others. Attendees have included music pundit/MTV alum/label exec Matt Pinfield and behind-the-scenes pros who've worked with groups like Linkin Park.
To date, the major success story from ten years of Cleveland Music Festivals has been Salt the Wound, an abrasive local underground metal band. At the 2007 festival, the group impressed a rep from the California indie metal label Rotten Records, which signed them and released two records.
After this year's fest, Atlantic Records A&R rep Jeff Blue inked a deal with singer-guitarist Lance, formerly of Dangerous New Addiction, and says he's "looking at" two other local groups.
"A lot of good came out of that conference," says Blue, who notes that Cull personally shepherded him to see 20 artists. "There's a lot of bands. I had a great time."
Like most promotion professionals, Cull has a tendency to oversell. Asked to name some of Gorilla's success stories, he mentions three artists — two of them with connections to the promoter that are tenuous at best. First, he name-checks Kate Voegele, a local singer-songwriter with a major-label deal. "She did really well on a show at CMF," says Cull. "And as you know, Kate Voegele now is doing really, really well. She was on our event, and we do a lot of that: We'll have national artists that break after playing on our events."
Asked to clarify, Cull says he doesn't claim Voegele as a Gorilla or Music Fest success; he was just talking about her. Voegele's father, one of her early managers, says he's never heard of Gorilla, Cull, or Michalak. Another of her former handlers says she made her industry connections elsewhere.
Cull also cites Chimaira, the city's ambassadors to the international metal scene, who have moved nearly half a million copies of their five albums. "That was my very first battle of the bands winner" recalls Cull. "They're doing great now."
"They have nothing to do with it," Chimaira bassist Jim LaMarca says of Gorilla. And Cull, pressed for details, doesn't disagree.
"All the personal success stories that we'll ever have are really attributed to the artist," he says. "The artist makes themselves successful, not Gorilla Productions. We just give them the education to make them a success."
Cull also cites his friends in Mushroomhead, and band leader Felton agrees that the two parties have had successes together.
"I think their intentions are genuine," says Felton. "Whether it works out for everyone or not ... In Cleveland, who else are you gonna work for? I don't see anyone else putting on CMFs."
The Gorilla Suits
When Gorilla set up shop in Washington state, it hit up area bands primarily through the Internet. Through phone calls and mass e-mails, Michalak eventually reached one group whose lineup includes the nephew of Bon Von Wheelie, the drummer of Girl Trouble, a veteran but wholly obscure garage-rock band from Tacoma. The rookie ran the deal past his aunt.
To Von Wheelie (the nom de rock of Bonnie Henderson), the arrangement smelled like "pay to play" — a hot-button term that generally refers to any band paying a club or promoter to perform. Her website, neverpaytoplay.com, dissects how Gorilla and similar companies operate. She derides the practice of catering to "local" bands by sending mass e-mails via MySpace, resulting in overloaded, mismatched bills and prizes that ultimately disappoint.
Gorilla wasn't hearing it: The company sued three members of Girl Trouble and the band's record label for "tortuous, defamatory, and false statements," seeking damages in excess of $25,000 for their trouble. The case is pending in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
"We hear it from groups who don't want to sell tickets. And we hear that we're pay to play, and we don't think that's an accurate term, because 'pay to play' means you pay someone to play," says Michalak. "We don't require anyone to sell tickets, and there's no participation fee. We're affected by that [accusation] and hurt by it."
Michalak insists neverpaytoplay.com is harming the business prospects not only of his company, but of every independent concert promoter in the country. Cleveland's 2/20 Productions, whose website says it operates in 40 markets across the country, has joined the suit. Michalak hopes others will pile on.
Wade Neal, Girl Trouble's Washington lawyer, says it's a textbook "SLAPP" case, which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a financial strong-arm tactic to censor opponents by dragging them into expensive legal proceedings.
Their claim has some precedent: Liz Kramer, a 24-year-old college graduate who spent a year as a Gorilla booker, left the company in 2009 and posted a list of reasons she left on her blog, most of which painted the company in an unflattering light. Gorilla sued her for $40,000, claiming she had damaged its reputation and violated an anti-competition clause in her contract. The parties settled, and final court fees were billed to Kramer. (Kramer refused to discuss Gorilla for this story, citing the terms of the settlement.)
Twenty-six states — including Girl Trouble's Washington — have passed anti-SLAPP legislation, and six more have bills pending. Ohio is not among them. Girl Trouble's lawyer says the website simply presents Henderson and the band's opinions, backed by facts.
"Her opinion was: She didn't like it and wanted to speak up about it," says Neal. "Her opinion was: They can do what they're doing, but we can talk about it. They're using the courts as a weapon to shut people up. What if every company was like Gorilla? One of the greatest threats to free speech is not the government or [large] corporations — we have a series of medium companies that are thin-skinned." (Henderson declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Though Cull says Gorilla business is up this year, he and Michalak also say the site's detailed claims and snarky attitude are draining their wallets and scarring their souls.
According to their suit, neverpaytoplay.com has resulted in "the loss of business opportunity caused by Defendants [that has] caused Plaintiffs to suffer from severe psychic injury including headaches, nightmares, and a lessening of Plaintiff's activities of daily living due to depression and anxiety."
Gorilla's claim that it doesn't force artists to sell tickets could be supported by Cleveland singer-songwriter Nicholas Megalis. Instead, he's the defendant in another suit brought by the company.
Now 21, Megalis has been a bright light on the scene for years. His 2008 album, Praise Be Hype Machine, established him as an artist with vision and talent. For months, representatives from Gorilla visited his shows, he says. They promised to help him break into the big time. They assured him they knew people, and that a headlining national tour was only a few phone calls away. And he wouldn't have to sell his own tickets.
Young and hungry, Megalis already had a good reputation in town, and he was ready to take it to the next level. In August 2008, he signed a management contract with Gorilla.
Within a week, Megalis was playing before 10,000 people on a bill with Nine Inch Nails at Quicken Loans Arena. Tommy Judson, a former Gorilla band manager and promoter, was quick to take credit for the score on his LinkedIn profile. Gorilla still counts Megalis' gig with NIN as a major feather in its cap. But the show was actually set up by the local office of the national concert promoter Live Nation and by Nine Inch Nails' management. It happened before Megalis had anything to do with Gorilla.
The promoter did get Megalis on a big show in October 2009: the massive New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience festival. The singer's name appeared among others in a full-page Rolling Stone ad. But more people saw the ad than the set: Megalis reports that his 11 a.m. side-stage gig was witnessed by a crowd of six.
Megalis spent a year traversing the country, playing Gorilla shows that consisted of shared bills with seven or more bands; he usually took the stage after the night's top ticket-seller. Megalis recalls playing to a good crowd in New York City, but also showing up at a Texas club to find it had no gig scheduled. (Gorilla declined to confirm or deny the claim.)
Megalis split with Gorilla in November 2009, after his contract expired. He claims he made no money during his 15 months with them. When he told Gorilla he didn't want to renew, the company filed a $66,000 breach-of-contract lawsuit in January against the singer and his dad, whose advice allegedly usurped the company's exclusive managerial authority. Cull and Michalak say they can't discuss the case.
"I trusted Dan," says Megalis. "And I trusted John with my career. I have all this wasted time. It feels like my career was stopped, and my advances as an artist [were] slowed down."
The Non-Promoting Promoters
Things haven't slowed for Asleep, and the Youngstown rock band is happy to share the credit with Gorilla Productions. They are one of several bands on nationwide tours set up by the promoter this year. Asleep and Cleveland hip-hopper Chip Tha Ripper both played well-attended showcases at South by Southwest, the music fest in Austin, Texas.
"I don't think we've ever played one less-than-stellar show [with Gorilla]," says Jon Dean, guitarist of Asleep. "We had a little special treatment, but it was nice to work with someone who lived the music as much as we did."
Most bands that deal with Gorilla don't get the special treatment afforded Asleep and Chip Tha Ripper. Then again, concert promoters are rarely liked among anyone other than their most successful clients and others riding the gravy train. After all, it's their job to squeeze every possible entertainment dollar out of your debit card.
"Dan and John are good guys," says a former Gorilla employee. "They just try to do too much. The problem is, they do quantity, not quality. You're working with thousands of bands a year. Bands fall through the cracks, and those bands get pissed."
Cull says he's available to personally discuss grievances with any band that hasn't benefited from its time with Gorilla.
"We do everything we can to help local groups grow," says Michalak. "We don't force anyone to be on our shows. If there is any negative feedback out there, it's generally that bands are confused because they think it's someone else's job to promote them." It's a curious quote coming from a concert promoter.
"They pretty much don't do anything but print the tickets and take the money," says Nick Riley, drummer for Film Strip, one of the bands that heard Gorilla's pitch to play the Cleveland Music Festival and took a pass. "They push the work off on everybody else. I'm pretty sick of that being what people think of when they think of Cleveland."
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