Every year Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian meet on Main Street to hang the MidPoint Music Festival banner a week or so before the fest. This annual event is the semi-formal symbol of another successful year for the 15-person all-volunteer staff, which spends 11 months of every year planning the event. Last week Rhiney and Donabedian climbed out the second-story window above the old Jefferson Hall to string the 23-foot banner across a steel cable.
"You keep feeding the banner and I'll keep the neighborhood kids from swinging on the rope," Rhiney says.
Donabedian leans halfway over the fire escape stairs and connects the final few zip-ties as the sun shines down on him.
"I'm getting too old for this shit," Donabedian says. "This is the last time I'm doing this."
The banner is quickly hung, and Rhiney secures the ropes on the west side of Main while Donabedian ties up the east. Donabedian says that everything is going according to schedule as far as MidPoint is concerned, and aside from a batch of banners that was printed wrong, the set-up process is right on schedule.
"There's always going to be fires," Donabedian says.
"As soon as you think things are caught up, something will happen."
While the festival — and the staff — has grown during MPMF's first five productions, the organizers face ever-changing challenges just to keep it going. The steady decline of the Main Street business district and recent failures of touring festivals and local music showcases make producing MidPoint an ever-evolving task.
But while other festivals are scaling back or taking time off, MidPoint is moving forward with an innovative event in a market where young people are just as likely to watch a cover band in the suburbs than seek out new music in diverse neighborhoods.
MidPoint is becoming one of the biggest Indie festivals in the Midwest, and some say it's one of the best in the country. It's doing so by re-evaluating its practices to ensure that everyone can get something out of the weekend.
This year MidPoint will offer services to both fans and performers that they've never before found at a music festival.
Let's say your favorite band is The Shins. Go to mpmf.com, click on the "Sounds Like Search Engine," which offers searches by genre, region, state or country, and type in the name. The search of MidPoint bands with a similar sound to The Shins will produce six results, including Stereo Deluxe (from Indianapolis) and Vanity Theft (from the Lebanon/Springboro area).
After following links to samples of each band, you find that Stereo Deluxe's first song is more Weezer-ish and its second has a sloppy White Stripes feel, while the all-girl Ohio band Vanity Theft has more of a scratchy Pop Punk sound. Neither sounds much like The Shins, but they each sort of sound like bands that are sort of like The Shins.
(Disclaimer: The "sounds like" information doesn't come from the bands themselves but from the CityBeat critics' writeups starting on page 37. So maybe these bands don't think they sound like The Shins either.)
The MPMF site also offers a customizable schedule that can be text messaged to you on the day of the show. Register your cell phone number and service provider and you'll never find yourself stuck finishing a drink at Arnold's while your favorite new Johnny Cash-sounding band (Girls, Guns and Glory from Massachusetts) is playing at Mr. Pitiful's (10:15 p.m. Saturday). A downloadable text file will provide a complete schedule — searchable by venue, day or band — on an iPod.
MPMF has gone even further with its creative offerings to artists. This year the festival scrapped the traditional tradeshow to provide a free recording studio called Radio MidPoint. Performers can plug directly into a computer and record a song, which will be aired live inside the Contemporary Arts Center and streamed on mpmf.com. The artists will leave the festival with an unmixed single.
"I was just thinking how cool it would be to see other bands and how they record. It's almost like performance art," Donabedian says. "We've turned the recording studio inside out — instead of it being this place where everyone's inside walls and the public can't see it, let's see what this looks like."
Like every year, MidPoint will provide opportunities for artists to interact with industry professionals. This year's speakers and panelists include such trade experts as TV and music executives, marketing professionals, music writers, bar owners and attorneys (see "Parties, Panels and Workshops ... Oh My!" on page 32).
Main Street blues
When MidPoint started back in 2002, Main Street still offered the area's biggest collection of bars and nightclubs in one spot. It was a natural place to hold a music festival, with ample parking and a reliable clientele.
Since then, our city's young professionals have taken their disposable income across the river, leaving the bars in the Main Street Entertainment District to fend for themselves.
During the last couple years the area's decline in business began to negatively affect MidPoint, as some bars and clubs had to re-open just for the event. Rhiney says he's excited that this year the festival isn't facing these kinds of obstacles.
"What's great is that this year I'm not telling you all the places that we're opening up," Rhiney says. "There's four new places that are coming on-line for MidPoint and then they'll be on-line in the fall as regular businesses. New places like Below Zero, Ocho Rios and Buddakhan have already come on-line. New venues have sprung up, so it's not like we're trying to create an area for one weekend as we've had to do (in years past)."
Aside from the Poison Room (301 W. Fifth St.), the MidPoint map is a relatively dense collection of Main Street bars and nearby performance spaces. Arnold's (210 E. Eighth St.) and Buddakhan (713 Vine St.) are the only other venues located south of Central Parkway, and the CAC (Sixth and Walnut) will be the festival's main headquarters.
The fact that certain bars had to be temporarily re-opened just for MidPoint last year drew criticism from some people who would prefer the festival be moved to a more happening part of town — like Covington or Northside. But Rhiney and Donabedian say it's not that easy.
Neither of those neighborhoods have the amount of venues in such a close proximity that Main Street does, even if Main Street is at less than capacity. Plus, MidPoint has built relationships with some of Main Street's anchor businesses like The Courtyard Café and Mr. Pitiful's, which makes the scheduling — and rescheduling — process much easier.
"It's like getting married and bringing along 16 kids to the marriage," Rhiney says of possibly moving the event. "Bill and I are the single spouse and bringing along a lot of baggage to the marriage."
Rhiney says he's encouraged by recent developments in Over-the-Rhine, which show promise for the area, and feels good that MidPoint is a small part of the potential renaissance.
The festival utilizes local businesses, which helps the neighborhood and also gives MidPoint a personal connection with companies that respect how sudden problems can force everyone to work a little harder to get things done. This year's concert T-shirts were designed for free by Nati Evolvement Clothing Company and are sold at Park + Vine, a general store that sells environmentally-friendly products in the area.
"We're all kind of doing what we're doing," Donabedian says. "But without doing anything more, we're all lifting each other up."
Critics and fans
Recently, local blogger Joe Long posted a lengthy criticism of MidPoint on his music blog, eachnotesecure.com. Long, a DJ at woxy.com, wrote that there are certain negative aspects that MidPoint has no control over, like funding and Main Street's business problems, but that the event organizers could do a better job of booking a more-established lineup and promoting the event.
In response, Rhiney and Donabedian say that the first two problems basically cause the second two.
"I think it's a different festival that Joe's talking about," Rhiney says. "I welcome anyone to do something like that, and I think Desdemona is something like that — a music festival with national headliners."
In essence, there's no way to secure the big bands with little money.
"It's never been a stubborn thing," Rhiney says. "We've had people who are signed to Indie labels and small regional labels since day one. They're all in there. Everyone thinks all these major label bands or national artists are knocking on our door saying they want to take part, but that's not the case, unfortunately."
Music festivals are having trouble making money across the board, and many are rethinking their strategies. What was once a huge multiple-city tour, Lollapalooza is now a single three-day event in Chicago.
The previously mentioned Desdemona brought in big Indie bands for an outdoor festival at Sawyer Point downtown in summer 2006 but had financial problems that ensured it wouldn't return this summer. The Midwest Music Summit in Indianapolis, a festival similar to MidPoint, took this year off to plan for 2008.
To Rhiney, it's important not to create unfair competition for the up-and-coming artists by booking national acts opposite them. MidPoint tries to look out for the little guys through its extensive panel of industry-connected judges who rate each application independently.
This year, MidPoint hired two national acts to play pre-parties in an effort to bring people down earlier to catch the 9 p.m. showcases. Superdrag is scheduled for 7:30 Thursday and Forget Cassettes for 7:30 Friday, so they'll be done just in time to give people an opportunity to check some of the less-established acts.
Rhiney and Donabedian recall a gig at Toronto's North By NorthEast festival a few years ago when their band, Clabbergirl, was scheduled to play the same time-slot as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Just as Clabbergirl went on, the crowd filed out.
"And maybe rightly so," Rhiney says, "but how are we supposed to compete with that?"
Joe DeLange, owner of a music promotions company called Tinderbox Music in Minneapolis, says MidPoint is one of the five best festivals in the country.
DeLange, who has been a MidPoint panelist for five years, says the festival continually draws influential industry types because Rhiney and Donabedian know how important they are to the festival and treat them as such. DeLange says that guests like this year's music supervisors — professionals in charge of licensing music for TV and films — are invaluable sources for independent bands.
Music supervisors basically cast the music side of TV shows and often target up-and-coming bands. DeLange said the formalities of securing the rights to major-label artists can take too long, so independent artists are often used simply because they're cheap and easy to work with.
This year DeLange will again participate in the "Demo Derby," where a panel of industry-types will listen to an artist's song for a minute or two and then give a critique. DeLange says the amount of attention aspiring artists receive from industry professionals is one of the things that sets MPMF apart from other festivals.
"It's not South By Southwest or CMJ (Music and Film Festival in New York)," DeLange says, "but is it number four or five now? Yeah, I think there's an argument that it's in the top five in my book."
Back to work
Rhiney and Donabedian have both come straight from their day jobs when they meet to hang the banner on Main Street. During the day, Rhiney works in UC's Career Development Center and Donabedian is managing director of Fountain Square.
Donabedian pulls out one of the MidPoint posters and points to a typo right in the center. Rhiney just laughs — at this point there could be worse problems than the posters reading "240 Bands 19 Stage."
After two pints of Christian Moerlein and a complimentary 12-ounce from the owner of Kaldi's, the MidPoint co-founders are still dressed in their work clothes, preparing for their next festival-staging endeavor of the evening.
Donabedian's phone rings, and he learns that one of his staffers needs a ladder to hang the smaller banners at each venue. Donabedian had just declined an offer to borrow a ladder, assuming his volunteer would be prepared.
"You see?" Donabedian says holding up his cell phone as evidence. "It never ends."
MidPoint's 240 bands, 19 stages and 17 venues take nearly the entire year to plan. The staff takes a month off after each festival and then gets right back into the process of accepting applications, evaluating and inviting artists, marketing and planning the event.
Rhiney and Donabedian don't hesitate to pass credit down the line of MidPoint volunteers, noting that the festival couldn't have continued after the first year if they didn't receive more help. As MidPoint grew, it benefited from the fact that the volunteers — everyone from promoters to stage managers — are very good at the roles they volunteer to fill.
"It is hard," Rhiney says. "This needs a full-time staff to do it right. We have people who are with us who took these things we had to do that first year. Without them we'd be dead."
For more on the MIDPOINT MUSIC FESTIVAL, keep reading or go to mpmf.com. Be sure to check for running commentary during and after the festival at blogs.citybeat.com/spill_it