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Rust Belt Rock: Local Music Industry Vets Weigh in on the State of the Cleveland Music Scene



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Sean Kilbane - Happy Dog Co-Owner

How did you start in the business and why?

I worked in the brokerage industry for many years and had always found myself going to see local music as often as possible. That career had run its course, and I wanted a change that could satisfy a need for facilitating creativity, particularly local music and running a small business.  In 2008, an opportunity presented itself to take over the Happy Dog, so I contacted a couple of friends to join in and take the leap. 

How has the music scene in Cleveland changed over those years?

I think there are great local musicians and bands today just as there were 10 or 20 years ago.  It's difficult in rock 'n' roll to create something totally new or come up with something that hasn't been done, so maybe today you hear more bands reverting back to different sounds from decades past and putting their own stamp on a particular style of music.  Also, technology has allowed for major shifts in how a band creates, records, and distributes their music — the obvious advances that were not even remotely possible years ago. 

What are your two most memorable local shows?

That's a difficult one, but I do remember the first time in the early '90s that I saw the Revelers at one of the bars in the Phantasy complex, maybe the Symposium, and I thought they were great. I would open the Scene and Free Times every week to find when and where they'd be playing next and go catch them. Not to be outdone, Chris Allen's Rosavelt, the first time I saw them in Cleveland at the old Grog Shop not too long after they had formed, was an incredible show. More recently, the Happy Dog had a show back in mid-April with Herzog, Little Bighorn and Dead Sweaters.  That was one of the best local line-ups we have had or may ever and the bands did not disappoint. 

What are some of the challenges involved in promoting local music in Cleveland?

It's a real challenge to motivate bands to keep doing what they are doing. There is so much rejection and so many obstacles for these folks involved in creating music and making it a focus of their lives. I think most have to keep things in perspective and realize that the odds are against them, but that is all right. They can still dream big and have a lot of fun along the way. No need to just give up. I think that it takes a lot of support from venues and recording studios and other outlets such as Scene and the Plain Dealer to really push bands to keep making music. We tried from the outset to set up a model that will generate as much money as possible for the bands playing.  Bands can be a strange collection of characters trying to make music for various reasons, and most of the time, they splinter or break up.  If you can give them an avenue to present their music, an atmosphere where they are treated well and are having fun, then they will want to continue doing what they do and writing more and growing.  To an extent, the same thing can be said for recording. Guys like Brian Straw at 78th Street Studios or Jason Tarulli at Studio Time in Akron aren't getting rich recording bands. They are fostering the growth of the bands and the creation of records to be released on some scale, hopefully to be recognized and released on a greater scale. Publications taking an interest in the local scene and writing stories and reviews does so much to get the word out about new acts or up-and-coming bands. It gives them exposure and a sense of satisfaction and credibility, as they try to have their music heard. All of these things combined give a band a chance to do more and a have a little more optimism about where they are hoping to take it. 

What are two local success stories in any part of the business?

One real success for most all Cleveland music venues has been the recent change in the rate of admissions tax. A coalition of music venues, including Peabody's, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Now That's Class, Brothers Lounge and others worked diligently with City Council to lower the rate and find some relief from the 8-percent across-the-board admission tax that had been in place for years.  Studies were done and statistics gathered.  Comparisons from other cities were brought in and economic data was compiled to make a case for the reduction.  Councilman Jay Westbrook spearheaded the effort, along with the other venues mentioned above, who were being led by Sean Watterson, my business partner at the Happy Dog. Council President Martin Sweeney introduced the legislation, with strong support from the likes of Councilmen Zone, Cimperman and Keane, and the new admissions tax law became effective last year, with venues under 150-person occupancy paying zero percent, and venues of 151- to 750- person occupancy paying 4 percent. In our case, we give the total proceeds of the cover charge, less the admissions tax, to the bands. More money for the musicians. 

A second success that has been very rewarding to be an integral part of is the emergence of classical music in our venue and the neighborhood, and the resulting interest in our city, from other cities, and from around the world.  From a one-offclassical concert with a few Cleveland Orchestra members a few years ago, spurring on a monthly classical night with CIM students, Classical Revolution, culminating in a week-long Cleveland Orchestra residency in Gordon Square, the collaboration between world-renowned musicians and a local neighborhood venue has been extremely gratifying. 

What is missing from the local music scene?

Not too much comes to mind.  It's a pretty diverse scene and there are more venues now than there were five years ago and a good amount of DIY spaces and houses too.  Maybe just a slight aversion to risk still persists.  So bands either break up, give up or don't try and tour or even make a move, if it seems doable or necessary, for fear of failure.  The ones that do take those chances are to be commended for giving it a shot.  Others who don't may never find out what could have been.  Don't get me wrong, it's a long shot for the vast majority, but so what? That being the case, most of these bands have absolutely nothing to lose.  Go have some fun, live and grow along the way. 

The most exciting local act right now is...?

There are so many really good bands out there now. Very talented and all different sounds. A real matter of taste and I'm biased as many members of these bands work at the HD, so: Herzog, Shale Satans, Goldmines, Shitbox Jimmy, Little Bighorn. Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites from Akron are really on a roll too. 

The local act that had the most potential but never made it or died off?

The Mice.

Advice you'd give someone trying to make it?

Real simple stuff, I suppose.  Bands seem to sound really tight when they practice regularly, imagine that.  Don't expect anything to be handed to you.  Keep an open mind about your music and other bands' music and pull for each other.  If your music is good and deserves to be heard, there will be people who will do everything they can to help you succeed. 

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