Cover Story: Independents' Daze

Desdemona Festival brings in some of the coolest acts from Indie Rock and beyond

Janis Hastings

Desdemona Festival

Desdemona, this weekend's giant Indie Rock festival on the banks of the Ohio River, has literally arrived. But a couple of weeks ago, it arrived figuratively, entering the Indie Rock pantheon as the subject of news item at, the genre's news-and-reviews Bible that fans either love or love to hate.

Known for snarky commentary and overwritten, cutting CD reviews, the site's Desdemona write-up mixed concrete news about the event with some trademark smart-ass swipes. After quoting organizer Nick Spencer's description of the fest as part of his attempt to "make Cincinnati a more attractive place for young and creative people," the writer adds, "Well, good luck with that."

For Spencer, who has run for city council twice and owns the Over-the-Rhine bar alchemize, the barb is probably akin to a blessing from the Pope. You haven't arrived on the Indie music landscape until Pitchfork disses you.

It's this kind of online mention that Spencer has been using to draw attention to the fest. Without spending big bucks for advertising, the so-called "viral marketing" approach is a new kind of word-of-mouth sales approach, reaching potentially millions of viewers with a well-placed nod on a blog, message board or other Web entity. Spencer thinks it's an approach the city of Cincinnati should look at for its own marketing schemes.

"Cities always just seem to think, 'OK, we'll spend $6 million on some national ad campaign that nobody will ever see,' and it will say something like 'Cincinnati: Things Are Happening Here,' " Spencer said in a recent interview.

"Put five stock photos and bright colors in it. Who do you think will look at that and go, 'Oh wow, I gotta get there?' For me, if you don't have a huge budget, you're smarter to try to employ more viral marketing and word-of-mouth (tactics) and build your reputation that way, and I sorta saw Desdemona as one way to do that.

"With a certain segment of the population at large, this event is going to make them, at least a little, think differently about Cincinnati. If it's a part of an overall effort, I think it can do a lot of good in that regard. That's my hope."

The fest has indeed been mentioned on numerous Web sites, even making Rolling Stone's weekly e-mail newsletter last month and getting nods through blogs like and

Having a good product is the key to making any event a success, of course, and Spencer has booked an impressive lineup for the fest's three days. Details follow across the next few pages, including an easy-to-use schedule on page 27 with info about every band on the bill.

As previously reported (see "Building Desdemona," issue of May 31-June 6), Spencer has been frustrated by the city's seeming unwillingness to fully embrace the festival and lend a hand. While he says people have generally been supportive, the molasses pace created by miles of red tape has been infuriating.

Most recently, Spencer was rallying DesFest supporters to e-mail city council members in order to get the city to pitch in and help cover what he says is nearly $25,000 in expenses for things like venue rental and the required police, fire and EMS support. Council voted to cover those costs for the Taste of Cincinnati festival last month, and Spencer says he doesn't see why his event, a non-profit venture designed to boost the city's reputation and bring dollars into local businesses, should be any different.

"It's just short-sightedness," Spencer said. "They just don't understand the amount in taxes and in business that these events generate, even though it's pretty easy to calculate. Not only that, but look — most people in this region come downtown for (the Reds') Opening Day and (festivals like) Oktoberfest, Taste of Cincinnati, Jammin' On Main, MidPoint. Just look at what brings people down here. It's one of the few things that the center city area still has going for it, a good schedule of events through the summer.

"To hear (council) arguing, bickering about (fest grants), it just blows my mind. That's why you don't see events downtown every weekend. I don't understand the logic. Most of the people I deal with from the city are really helpful and really nice and really want the event to succeed, but, again, we're operating within a really restrictive system."

Red tape and city grants be damned, Desdemona is going forward. Spencer likes the synergy created by the "competing" Pearl Jam concert less than a mile away at U.S. Bank Arena on Saturday.

"It'll be fun to just have that many music fans right next to each other," he said. "It'll make parking fun, too."

Barring major catastrophe, DesFest will hopefully go off without a hitch. If Mother Nature cooperates, Indie music fans will experience an amazing weekend.

"When you do these things, you live in terrible fear of thunderstorms," Spencer said. "It's your worst nightmare: three days of rain."

Here's hoping God is a Ghostface Killah fan.

DESDEMONA FESTIVAL runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Sawyer Point. Admission is $12 each day and $24 for all three days. See the full lineup starting on page 27. Find more festival details and links to all band Web sites at

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