Another national story about Cincinnati, another tizzy in the local media. And more evidence that perhaps Cincinnati is its own worst enemy.
By now you might have heard about Esquire magazine's special section, "Things a Man Should Know About Music," naming Cincinnati No. 7 on its top 10 "Cities That Rock." The section was previewed in a USA Today item last week, which prompted local newspapers, radio and TV to declare, "A New York-based men's fashion and lifestyle magazine likes us! They really like us!"
This sort of story, of course, is preferable to the national media attention we usually get — generally negative if not embarrassing coverage of police shootings, riots, Marge Schott, Pete Rose, anti-gay laws, etc. So you could just hear the collective sigh of relief in the city's newsrooms when the USA Today/Esquire item broke. Finally, some good news to report!
The funny thing is, as many of you already know, Cincinnati has had a great local music scene for quite some time. It's not surprising that Esquire would take so long to stumble onto it — but why would the local mainstream media act so surprised at the mention?
It's easy to laugh at the media's general cluelessness about all things cutting edge.
(Someone here at CityBeat had to give a certain TV reporter covering this story directions to the Southgate House, which Esquire called "Where to Rock in Cincinnati.") Keeping the scene to yourself and your friends is part of the fun of being underground.
The old science principle that says by observing something you automatically alter it can be applied to the local music scene — meaning that when TV stations and national magazines come sniffing around trying to clue Joe and Jane Average in to bands, the scene naturally changes, often to the dismay of the original fans.
That happened to a degree in the early 1990s, when Spin magazine caused a similar stir with its stories on cities — including Cincinnati — vying to become the next Seattle. The Afghan Whigs were seen then as heralds of a new golden age in Cincinnati Rock, and they in fact developed a pretty good national reputation (recording, ironically, for Seattle's SubPop label).
Ass Ponys, Over the Rhine, Throneberry, Brianiac and other area bands signed deals with national labels, but fame and fortune didn't follow. The Whigs' Greg Dulli moved out West, the band broke up, the spotlight moved somewhere else and Cincinnati's 15 seconds of fame faded.
But that didn't mean good music wasn't continuing to be made here. Ass Ponys and OtR retrenched and remain exceptional talents. The Whigs' John Curley stayed in town and has become the scene's elder statesman of sorts, coaching new bands at his Ultrasuede Studios.
And the usual cycle began again. Bands form, play in front of 10 people at a local club, break up and scatter to form other bands. Styles come and go — Swing, Alt Country, Hip Hop, Pop, Latin — and get merged and pulled apart. Clubs support local music, then don't, then do again.
And before you know it, the local scene has rejuvinated itself. The MidPoint Music Festival draws thousands of people to hear local music and even gets city funds. Pepsi Jammin' on Main, Tall Stacks, Taste of Cincinnati and other mainstream festivals book (and pay) local bands to play. Playhouse in the Park features local musicians in its "alteractive" series. Local Hip Hop stars Five Deez and Hi Tek tour nationally and even internationally. The Cincinnati Entertainment Awards continue to grow after seven years.
Those paying attention, however, know that the local scene is facing its challenges as well. 97X, which has always played local music, is being sold and its future format remains up in the air. The Enquirer's music critic, Larry Nager, was fired and his pet local music project, the Cammys, put on hiatus. Newport officials, as evidenced by the recent Suicide Girls snafu, still seem interested in shutting down the Southgate House.
These positives and negatives are simply the latest developments in the give-and-take of Cincinnati's music scene. It's no big deal — except to those who live and die for music. And they don't need a national magazine to tell them which way the wind blows here.
For the rest of Cincinnati, why wait for validation from the media? Find out about the local scene for yourself. It won't hurt. I promise.