Cover Story: Sounding Off

(The ebb and flow of Cincinnati's music scene)

Cover by Mark Shepherd

I kinda cringed when I was asked to revisit the cover story "Sonic Schizophrenia: Defining the Cincinnati Sound" from the issue of June 29-July 5, 1995.

The notion of there being a definable Cincinnati sound is totally ludicrous today. With the shifting, constricting paradigm of corporate labels and the disappearance of geographical scouting by labels, what happened in the early '90s here seems completely out of the realm of possibility unless another city scene comes along and dominates the music press and A&R reps' itineraries.

And that's highly unlikely. With the expanse of the Internet and broadening exposure and tastes, where a band is from has become almost completely irrelevant.

But it was fun to go back and remember the excitement of those years. To this day, when I talk to people about the local music scene, I go back to this era and recall the few years where some bands seemed more preoccupied with getting industry attention than with doing something unique and creative.

"Any city with a true 'happening' music scene would seem to require a common music thread connecting its artists," I wrote in 1995. "Or at least that's the way record companies would like it. Nice, neat categories make marketing and demographic studies so much easier: Seattle Grunge, Athens Pop, Memphis Soul.

"With the musings by industry insiders over the past couple of years that Cincinnati may become the next Alternative music hotbed — an idea fueled by area musicians and media — several local artists have garnered attention and, in some cases, gone on to national success. But, without exception, each one of those acts has carved out its own unique niche in the Pop music cesspool, making it virtually impossible to hear a song on the radio and think, 'Hey, that band has got to be from Cincinnati.' "

We went on to profile The Afghan Whigs, who'd set off the national attention back then when they signed with Elektra Records after recording two albums for Seattle's Sub Pop Records. We'd heard that record-company folks, many of whom wanted to sign the Whigs themselves but lost out, were intending to invade Cincinnati and try to grab a Whigs clone.

There was only one problem: No other band in Cincinnati sounded like the Whigs. No group in Cincinnati sounded like each other. Despite numerous showcases for a handful of major labels, not one band from the local scene nabbed a deal as a result. Individually, however, several bands secured national record deals on their own merit.

"If people are expecting to bring out a one- or two-word title to label this scene with, it will all be very temporary," said Chuck Cleaver, singer/songwriter for Cincinnati's Ass Ponys, which signed to A&M after a friend passed a tape to the label. "If Cincinnati is known because there are a lot of good bands and it's pretty eclectic, then I think it will be fine. Eclectic hasn't been that readily accepted by the general public. They want you pigeonholed. If they can't attach a word like 'grunge' to the scene, I don't think there will be much hoopla."

It wasn't the first time Cleaver, who's still going strong with the Ass Ponys, would prove prophetic.

Once the buzz subsided and Cincinnati musicians returned to the "let's just do what we want" mentality, the original local Alt/Indie/Underground/Rock scene just got healthier and more diverse. Our relative isolation from the industry is a positive thing, resulting in diversity and originality.

If MTV or major music magazines stop coming to town, so be it. The original local music fan is all the better for it. That diversity is why we'll never be the next anything, and it's also why our music scene kicks ass. Who wants to see the same band in different skin at the clubs every night?

This story was a good early example of what CityBeat has tried to do with local music from the beginning. We strive to be thoughtful and not condescending, giving local music lots of space because we feel it's just as valid as any other music and we feel that more people, particularly in town, need to pay attention to it. Local music has always been a priority at CityBeat.

The story went on to compare the local scene to other AltMusic superstar cities and featured comments from local artists and out-of-towners with Cincinnati ties (Larry Nager, then at The Memphis Commercial Appeal, offered a few insightful quotes). The story concluded that, while there might be a slight urban-Appalachia tinge to a lot of the music, there's not a Cincinnati sound, so don't get your hopes up for that national spotlight to shine too long.

At the end of the piece, Cleaver talked about how, when on tour, fliers for their shows would promote the fact that the Ass Ponys were "From Cincinnati." "It's weird. A year ago that would have been the kiss of death," he said.

Luckily, being "From Cincinnati" hasn't reverted to being a negative selling point, thanks to the consistent work of bands to this day who tour and spread their music nationwide.

There are still plenty of bands in Cincinnati who work hard at being what they think labels want, trying to sound like whatever's hot on the radio right now. You can see right through them, and their longevity is questionable.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other bands and musicians doing work that's crafty and refreshingly distinct. We'll keep telling you about them for another 10 years and beyond. ©