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Unsung Heroes: Profiles of Some of the People Keeping the Local Music Alive

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Cleveland's music scene features a range of clubs that cater to all kinds of different acts. Country, rock, indie, jazz — there's a venue in town for every genre of music. A savvy group of club owners ensure that you can find a good band to see seven nights a week. Outside of that network, there's a slew of other people who book and promote local bands and assist in keeping an infrastructure intact. Here's a look at just a few of the unsung heroes working behind-the-scenes to promote the city's diverse music scene.

Tom Orange, Matt Laferty and Andrew Auten

New Ghosts

Tom Orange, Matt Laferty and Andrew Auten, the guys who run the experimental music series New Ghosts (it's named in honor of the late Albert Ayler, the famous free jazz saxophonist who was born and raised in Cleveland), promote concerts that are avant garde even by avant garde standards. "We want to celebrate and promote the legacy of Albert Ayler," says Orange. "So many touring bands are psyched to play in his hometown and love his music. The audiences are great but there's no civic recognition that he grew up here." They all met by happenstance. Eight years ago, Laferty moved to Cleveland from upstate New York. Prior to living here, he had never booked a show. But after moving here and checking out the musical landscape, he realized he could fill a niche by bringing bands to Cleveland rather than driving for hours to see them play in another city. In 2011 he also teamed up with Auten to issue an album of early Albanian traditional songs and improvisations. And he would regularly see Orange, who returned to Cleveland in 2008 and started playing and booking shows a year later, at the same concerts he would attend. So it made sense for him and Auten to join Orange and start booking shows together in some capacity. Since March 2015, the New Ghosts guys have co-hosted over 20 touring bands from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Berlin and Scandanavia at various venues around town including the Bop Stop, Now That's Class and Mahall's. "We see ourselves seeding the community," says Laferty. "Cleveland has a great DIY culture here." The group just brought folk/free jazz guitarist Eugene Chadbourne to Mahall's and has a handful of shows lined up for the rest of 2016 including a celebration of Albert Ayler's 80th birthday scheduled for June.  (Jeff Niesel)

John Panza, Lauren Voss, Ed Sotelo, Fred Gunn, Jane Panza

Panza Foundation

A 501(c)(3) organization based in Cleveland, the Panza Foundation provides support for local musicians struggling to make ends meet. A local musician who plays in a handful of bands, John Panza founded the organization with Lauren Voss, a local musician and videographer. "John and I used to talk about ways that we could contribute to advancing and promoting Cleveland music going back 5 or 6 years," says Voss. "We tossed around buying a venue or a space for musicians to record and practice in, support them in touring through creating a network of DIY venues across the U.S., or at least regionally." Eventually, Panza decided to start the foundation and offer small grants to artists to cover costs for recording, touring expenses, musical equipment or "anything that a band would need to advance themselves professionally." Panza Foundation doesn't operate under the burdens of many non-profits. The organization doesn't have an application process. Rather, board members research bands and then select the recipients. "There are lots of foundations that award grants through a nomination process rather than asking artists for applications," explains Voss. "MacArthur Foundation is one of the most well known grants that operate this way. We wanted to get away from the intimidation factor; most of the bands we support are not likely to bother applying, or to look for grants. They are too busy making music." To date, local acts such as Goldmines, Obnox and Ex-Astronauts have received grants to purchase gear, to cover tour expenses and to provide funds for recording. They've also giving money to this year's Lottery League, the event that randomly pairs Cleveland musicians with one another and has them play a Big Show. "The bands we wanna support are not the kind who will apply for grants," says Panza. "We operate a bit like baseball scouts looking for talent. Then, we approach the bands and set the process in motion. It's rather fun actually and more often than not pretty surprising for the bands. I think just by virtue of the bands Ed, Lauren, [board member] Fred [Gunn], and I have been in and are currently in, we favor ones that challenge more than please. We look for bands that take the whole process seriously, from writing to practicing to recording to touring." You can find a complete list of the 2015 and 2016 grant recipients at panzafoundation.org. The Foundation is currently in talks to assist in curating a series of concerts at ArtNEO. "The key is getting grants into the hands of talented, deserving musicians and then letting them do their thing without us bugging them," says Panza. "In the end, we just wanna hear awesome music." (Niesel)

James Carol

Cleveland Music City

A music promotion and consulting company, dedicated to help "Cleveland's rapidly growing music scene continue to grow," Cleveland Music City regularly puts on local concerts and hosts local music festivals. "Like everyone, I want to help the Cleveland music scene grow," says James Carol, who runs the organization. "That's always been my main objective, and I'll continue to focus on that. I hope for bands to make more money, and to not just be looked at, as spot fillers. I want venues to stop being taxed so much and for an agreeable policy to be worked out." Since Cleveland Music City is a for-profit business, Carol wants the bands he supports to tour and get licensing deals. "I don't really make any [money]," says Carol. "I'm more in this to learn and to grow myself. I do aim to look into more online, related ways of growth. But with that being said, I hope to continue helping, supporting and paving the way for others. I may not last forever, and maybe that's a good thing. But I'll never stop planting seeds, so the future can enjoy the benefits." Upcoming Cleveland Music City concerts include the Whiskey Hollow's EP release on April 15 at the Grog Shop; Shawn and Shelby's CD release on May 14 at the Beachland Tavern; and Bro Dylan's CD release on May 28 at the Beachland Tavern. Carol will also help book the 2016 NEOCycle Music Fest, which takes place on September 10 and 11 at Edgewater Park. (Niesel)

Denny Young

The Elevation Group

Formed in 2002 by Steve Lindecke and Denny Young, the Elevation Group has recently taken on a bigger role in bringing musical acts to Northeast Ohio. In 2014, it launched Cathedral Concerts, a music series staged at Trinity Cathedral. Earlier this year, Elevation announced LaureLive, Cleveland's first multi-day, multi-stage, multi-act contemporary music festival, scheduled for June 11 to 12 at Laurel School's Butler Campus. The festival will feature 32 bands from around the world performing on four stages. Lindecke and Young, who previously worked for the locally based concert promoter Belkin Productions, also just announced they'll book the new Goodyear Theater and Hall set to open this spring in Akron. And they've been managing Akron rockers Red Sun Rising, a band that has a No. 1 hit single on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Chart in the U.S. and Canada. The group also just announced tour dates all over the U.S. and Canada, including several dates with Sick Puppies on the Harddrive Live Tour. "The local music scene is important for a couple of reasons. We have several local artists who are playing on the LaureLive festival," says Young. "That's super important. I think the work we've done taking Red Sun Rising from a hard rock band from Akron to the Billboard charts is significant. They're signed to a major label and a major booking agency. They're a mainstay on Sirius XM. They're a big deal. They're all based in Akron. We can take artists to a different level out of this area. You don't have to live in New York or Los Angeles anymore. I think we're proving that. The band features extraordinary songwriters and delivered a single that enabled them to be signed. The band is fronted by Tom Brady-like quarterback, prototype frontmen who are great looking, have phenomenal voices and possess great stage presence. If we have all of that, I'd love to manage 10 bands from Northeast Ohio. But it's hard to find all of that in one situation." (Niesel)

Bill Peters

Auburn Records

Now in its 32nd year, the local heavy metal label Auburn Records has always been "a labor of love" for owner Bill Peters. The same goes for his WJCU Metal on Metal Friday night radio show, which is now in its 34th year, and the annual Cleveland Metal Holiday Food Drive concert. "Heavy metal fans are the most generous when it comes to supporting good causes," says Peters.  "We have increased our donation totals significantly each of the seven years of this event.  It feels great to be able to give something back to make our community a better place to live by helping those less fortunate.  I'm even more excited about this year's benefit [which takes place on Dec. 3 at the Beachland] because my good friend from Germany, Iron Ingo Stührenburg, has just confirmed he will be returning to host the event. He was not able to make it last year." Last year, Peters also took two very successful trips to Germany. "[Cleveland rockers] Shok Paris were one of the main acts at the Keep It True festival in April and Deadiron played the world's biggest heavy metal festival Wacken Open Air in the summer," Peters says. "Both bands were incredibly well received." He released CDs by both of the bands last year as well. "The Shok Paris CD became the biggest selling Auburn release I have ever had in Japan," he says. "I was really happy about this. It's a tough market to break into." This year, he plans to release several albums. "I'll be traveling to Chicago in May and Los Angeles in October to attend metal festivals, along with a possible trip back to Germany again this summer," he says. "I have taken my Auburn bands overseas to Germany over 25 times now, including seven trips to Wacken.  It's my second home. I love the country and its people.  My label has always enjoyed a strong cult following in Europe." (Niesel)

Gabriel Pollack

The Music Settlement/Bop Stop

One of the most ambitious young promoters in town, Gabriel Pollack has high hopes for the Bop Stop, the Detroit Shoreway venue he manages. "The Bop Stop has such a rich history and has helped foster a thriving jazz community in Cleveland," he says. "Moving forward with the venue, I want to honor its past while focusing on presenting creative, original music. I like to think of the Bop Stop as a small performing arts center so although most people think of us as a jazz club — and most of our programming is jazz — we are open to presenting original music of any genre." The club even presents a monthly comedy show. Since the Music Settlement, a leading music education institution in the region, owns the space, Pollack likes to present shows that "get our students and the general public to think outside the box." "I want violin players to realize that they can be an orchestral player, gypsy jazz fiddler, or a shredding metal violinist, and I'll book any of those," he says. "Another goal of mine is to get musicians from different musical backgrounds to communicate with each other and create new, contemporary sounds." The monthly jam session, Outlab, is a general "improvisation jam," with no specific genre association, so it can attract musicians from diverse backgrounds. "The Bop Stop is a unique space," Pollack says. "We present over 220 shows a year and host music classes three days a week. Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen manages our kitchen which allows us to have food service during our performances while helping chefs get their products into the marketplace. Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present, Future curates the walls of the Bop Stop with a music-themed photography exhibit. The proceeds from our bar support the many programs the Music Settlement offers. It's a feel-good space." (Niesel)

Vince Slusarz

Gotta Groove Records

For almost 25 years, Slusarz worked for Newbury-based Kinetico Incorporated, a plastics manufacturing company. He liked his job as chief operations officer. But after the company was sold in 2006, a new CEO came in, eventually eliminating his position. Unemployed at 51, Slusarz suddenly had lots of time for soul searching. A muse appeared in the form of a new turntable. He bought one for himself and gave his old one to his 19-year-old daughter, who told him that all her friends were buying turntables with USB ports so that they could download music onto their computers. That got him thinking. Pressing records, he figured, wouldn't be a huge departure from his plastics-manufacturing experience. In 2008, the owners of Dynamic Assets in New Jersey replied to his query about selling their equipment; he bought the presses and moved them to an old warehouse near Superior. He's been busy pressing local and national releases ever since. "We are continuing to ride the wave of the ongoing resurgence in vinyl and are happy to play our part in it," says Slusarz. "We pressed a number of Record Store Day titles, but nothing unusual about that.  We do plan on having the Finebuilt semi-automatic press we bought from the original [Cleveland-based] Boddie Record pressing plant we purchased from Mrs. Boddie several years ago ready to be put into service within the next two months." Gotta Groove also just pressed and delivered the new LP from quirky indie singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman. It's the first LP release by Blue Arrow, the vinyl record store that recently started a new record label. In addition, two Gotta Groove employees — Heather Gmucs, who has run the presses since 2010, and Sarah Barker — have started creating vinyl-based visual artwork under the name of Wax Mage. (Niesel)

Rachel Hunt

Live from Cleveland/Live From Lakewood Festival

Local writer and Scene contributor Rachel Hunt hosts Live from Cleveland, a WRUW program that "puts a live band in your living room" every Thursday night from 10 to 11 p.m. "Whether or not bands feel like there is an overwhelming interest or fiscal return for their music, I think it says a lot about our regional scene that we are able to host a different band every week on Live from Cleveland, at a college radio station, an analog media platform that many think is dead," she says. "These are bands from every genre imaginable, at many different stages of their careers." She's booked the program for the past five years and has seen hundreds of bands come through the basement of Mather Memorial. "The fact that Cleveland's music scene sustains lifers like that is incredible," she says. "That bands want to come on the program for nothing more than a multi-track mix, some promotion, and a good time means a lot to us. It's something that no other radio station, commercial or non-commercial, has consistently done in the area."

She also works as the live music coordinator for Night Market Cleveland and Gather in Glenville. She assists with Brite Winter and other miscellaneous events around town. "Whether it's Now That's Class, Happy Dog or the Beachland, all of these bands and venues I've worked with have always gone above and beyond to accommodate me and curate a good show," she says. "The music scene thrives in Cleveland because legislature, startups, venues and college radio stations are all paying attention to what local bands have to say. So, in my opinion, it's a great time to get your voice out there because there are a lot of people right now who are listening." (Niesel)

Wallace Settles

Dirty Jones Productions

Wallace Settles (aka Dirty Jones) was one of those artists looking to leave his imprint on the world through music, but who found that doing so came with a heap of difficulties with no viable solution in sight. He's the promoter behind the local showcase Cruel Winter Fest, which took place at the end of last year at the Grog Shop. The lineup featured some of the city's best hip-hop, including the likes of Tribe Untitled, Young James & Toby, Mondo Slade, Creez Mob, Phrazes, Walker OG, Zell, and Don Purp, among others. Tae Miles and Ray Ave shared top billing, with music by Elliot Nash and hosting duties handled by Kris Hilton. Settles first started rapping in 2007 with the local outfit Moriarity. ""I rapped for awhile and then I made a mixtape," he says. "We had a little buzz behind it, then the group album came out and then I made my solo joint. After I made the solo album, I noticed how hard it was for me to promote everything and I said to myself, 'Why is this shit so hard? Why is this so hard for me to promote? Why is no one listening to none of this shit?' That's when I realized that there was nobody really promoting and managing acts and putting on events and shows." Two years ago, he made the transition and started throwing events and helping the Grog out with booking artists for bigger shows. Feeling as if the business side of hip-hop in Cleveland was lacking, Settles was willing to sacrifice his own popularity as an artist to do the hard work of getting exposure for artists and putting on what he refers to as "legitimate rap shows." He'll be the first to tell you that he misses primarily being an artist, but he also says that being behind the scenes has its perks. "I like behind the scenes better, just because it's like you can control your own destiny," he says. "You can pick the shows you want to do. When you're behind the scenes, you know when artists are coming into town at least three months in advance." Settles plans to get back to the music side of things and release a compilation album featuring all of the artists he currently manages, including the aforementioned Common Ave and Case Barge. "It'll be like what Jay Z did with the Dynasty," he says. "We've got all kinds of artists — R&B groups, DJs, all kinds of artists. So I'm trying to bring everything together and push the product properly so everybody can hear everything we've got on one cohesive project and it won't be as confusing." He's also set his sights on making Cruel Winter bigger and better. "I want to make this thing gigantic," he says. "I could even have it in the summertime at Voinovich Park with ten thousand people there going nuts and a national headliner and all that stuff. That's the ultimate goal." (Emanuel Wallace)

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