The state of the scene: a guide to Cleveland’s music scene

By: Beth Casteel

Cleveland may be better known for its collection of restaurants and its slew of sports teams, but that doesn’t mean the city is just thriving on good food and questionable teams.

You see, under all of that, is a music community that runs on the city’s rich history as a music town.

While Cleveland’s music scene can date all the way back to the first decades of the 20th century, it really picked up during the 1950s, when the city helped kick-start the genre of rock.

Between the people involved in the community to the shows coming through, the city quickly became known for its contributions to rock and roll.

However, the days of Cleveland being known for music have seemingly faded into the background as other things in the city were discovered, yet that hasn’t stopped the scene from flourishing outside of the public’s attention.

Whether it’s the DIY punk scene or rappers trying to become the predecessors of others who made it big, there’s a sense that the music community hasn’t died — it’s just a gem hidden under the city as a whole.

Mike Gibson, a longtime music fan and musician, has been involved in the scene for as long as he can remember. From growing up watching his uncle’s band, Titan and Big Machine, playing shows to eventually getting his own drum kit to play himself, he’s found that the community as a whole is keeping the scene alive with its passion.

“Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and at times, you really feel that. I sometimes find myself at a local show just in total awe of how much of an impact a few local people can have on you. Having a room full of people sing louder than the vocalist at a local show is absolutely crazy,” Gibson said. “That’s Cleveland. We’re passionate, we’re proud and we never stop doing the things that make us who we are. Cleveland is an everything city that is blessed enough to have a rich music scene to be the glue that holds it together.”

That sentiment is seemingly echoed throughout the community as a whole. There’s something unique and special to this small pocket of creative people in the area that make for this vibrant and flourishing scene.

“Cleveland has got a really vibrant music and arts scene, maybe not all the scenes linked together, but I know people from every different type,” Willow Hawks, who plays the ukulele and is the vocalist of The Sonder Bombs, said. “They’re not all completely intertwined, but people do know each other.”

Of course, as Hawks explained, not everyone is linked together in the scene. With genres like rap, the DIY punk scene, indie artists and a whole slew of others thriving in the area, there’s a lot of people involved in the music community here in Cleveland.

While you may not see everyone or know everyone, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people from other niches in the scene that you can get access to, you just have to spot them out.

“There definitely is a music scene, you just have to get out there and find it,” Ashley Blasko, guitarist and vocalist of The Willow Tree, said. “As an artist, I do find it somewhat difficult to break through certain barriers when it comes to being in the scene itself. It may seem like a small music scene when you first get into it, but there are many doors to be opened with surprises behind each one.”

Blasko then continued on by saying: “[I love] experiencing all of the different bands this city has to offer. I love making connections and making friends with new bands that have an exciting sound or passion.”

With the variety of genres and bands working to make the scene what it is, it’s important to note where the scene actually is.

Geographically speaking, Cleveland is pretty spread out, meaning that the scene isn’t exactly in one set place.

Whether you’re going to shows at The Grog Shop on the east side or Mahall’s on the west, there’s still a footprint of each little area that makes up the music scene as a whole.

“When I go to different cities, I recognize and realize how big our scene actually is, and how collective and appreciative we are to be here instead of anywhere else,” Kevin Cappy, the bassist of The Sonder Bombs, said. “I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that Cleveland is perfect because it’s drivable to places like Chicago and New York, so it’s very accessible to a lot of other vibrant music cities. It’s definitely a product to the places that you’re able to reach around it.”

While Cleveland’s music community is spread out, that doesn’t seem to have affected how close people in the scene are with one another.

From the outside looking in, there’s a sense that the community is incredibly tight-knit, and regardless of the genre or where you’re located in the area, there’s an underlying feeling that people are connected through their shared passion of creating something for others.

“Breaking into the scene definitely has its ups and downs. Generally, most of the bands I’ve opened for in the beginning were very helpful and welcoming. It’s always great to see bands supporting each other,” Blasko said. “Cleveland definitely has a tight-knit community when it comes to the music scene here. The support is amazing; not only do we stand and applaud each other at shows but it goes far beyond that to social media and helping each other broaden our audiences. This support also extends to bands who are on tour from out of town. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. It’s a great feeling.”

While there is a tight-knit group of people in this small little pocket of creators in Cleveland, there can still be the mentality that you get what you give when it comes to how you’re received by other people in the scene.

“If you expect support from people, you have to give support to people. You can’t expect people to book you because they think your music is good, that’s going to help you, but if you’re not supporting anyone else, you’re not really contributing,” Jimmy Wilkens, guitarist of The Sonder Bombs, said. “There’s strength in numbers because you support your friends and they support you, and you grow together, then you pass the torch a little bit, and that’s been really rewarding.”

That idea of supporting those who support you is seemingly relevant no matter the stage of your career. Hawks went on to explain that even starting out, it’s important to maintain your presence in the community by showing your support to other bands in the area.

“I feel like a lot of people starting out, the idea of breaking into the music scene, it’s kind of a fantastical. It’s a cliche because it’s not about breaking into it; it’s about maintaining,” Hawks said. “You can play as many shows as you want, but if you’re not going out to other people’s shows and supporting all the musicians who are supporting you, then, yeah, you’re going to have a way harder time. You’re just kind of trying to do your own thing expecting the best results.”

While there is a get what you give mentality in the scene, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Supporting the musicians and other creative outlets in the scene is something you’ll hear a lot once you talk to the people inside these creative bubbles, and for good reason.

Yet another sentiment that was echoed throughout the interviews from these bands is how fun and fulfilling to support your friends in the music community. 

“I think my favorite part is the feeling of family that we all share, at least within our few genres (like the Cleveland DIY scene). [It feels like] everybody is really there for each other,” Hawks said. “[When you’re] around all the people that you love and met without music. You know what I mean? Like there are so many good people that we all have in our lives that we would not have known without going to shows.”

In addition to just being there for one another, it can also be a way of having an outlet when things can be difficult.

Sean Benjamin, a solo artist who started playing around 2007, has found that having a community of people to talk to when things aren’t easy can be the biggest help of them all.

“There are a lot of things that you have to do [or deal with] that people don’t see. Let’s say you do a show and you feel like you didn’t perform that well, you don’t want to go out there and blast that it on the internet,” Benjamin said. “You end up internalizing a lot of stuff, so it’s really good to have the music community to open up to and be there for each other.”

To further go off of that, Wilkens explained that one of his favorite parts of being in the music community in Cleveland is being able to help bands who are first starting out.

Being a fan of the “behind the scenes” sort of things, like sending emails and booking your own shows, Wilkens enjoys helping bands just starting out do the tasks on the business side of things.

“I like teaching younger bands how to be a band. It’s not just like writing good songs and playing shows, there’s a little bit of how you structure your social media. How you email people, things like that, and I really like when I help a band out,” Wilkens said. “I love the behind the scenes stuff, I like helping a band and they take my advice and then they land something or something happens and it’s really rewarding watching a band grow because of something I helped them with.”

While that support is something that is consistently brought up within the music community, there’s also the sense that the underground scene in Cleveland isn’t just run on the support of others.

As with anything, it’s difficult not to see that the little bubble that Cleveland resides in can be affected by the outside world too. The music scene in Cleveland is always evolving, and throughout its years as a scene, the outside world has influenced the type of content that people get from the area.

One of the most pressing of those: politics.

“Politics always work its slimy little claws into the music scene. It’s a great way to support one another, and a lot of people are passionate about politics, but it also is what I call ‘the great divider,’” Gibson said. “The current political climate has made it difficult to not notice the amount of politically driven music and culture in Cleveland. Sure, there are extremes on both ends of the spectrum, but I really enjoy well-written pieces that leave it up to the listener to interpret.”

With more politically-charged music coming out of the scene, Cappy has noted that there seems to be a greater sense of urgency to the music scene as a whole.

“I think it’s affected a feeling of urgency a little bit. More than ever do I see bands actively promoting a good message and solid agenda because it’s the most important now than it’s ever been and it’s ignited a sense of urgency politically,” Cappy said. “I’d say that we haven’t seen [that urgency] in punk in a long time. It doesn’t have to be protests and political statements all the time for sure, but it’s definitely like it’s ignited some sort of understanding and support now more than ever. Music is like the vehicle for getting that out.”

Politics may have worked its way back into the scene, but that doesn’t mean it has divided anyone. If anything, it’s only brought the scene back into the eyes of those who may have overlooked the music community for those restaurants or sports teams.

As of right now, the scene is currently making waves and the music community is seemingly growing, even if it’s under the eyes of the masses.

“This was years ago before I really started regularly playing shows…I remember when I was younger, a lot of bands wouldn’t come to Cleveland, they would just skip us, and I think a lot of people were kind of fed up with that, so they started booking their own shows in their house and stuff. Once people started like enjoying going to show and numbers started going up with attendance, I think that’s when bigger bands started coming because they knew they’d have an audience,” Wilkens said.  “I think BravoArtist also had a big part in that too. They’re the only promoters I can think of that a notable touring band will come through and then [they will] put local openers on it. You’re almost guaranteed every show you go to that’s a BravoArtist show, [you’ll see a] big band and a little opener, and that’s really important to the music scene here.”

Of course, with the scene growing and evolving in recent years, there’s always the opportunity for it to get larger, and the best way of doing so? Going out to local shows and supporting the bands in it.

“I think there’s a lot of really great music out here in Cleveland,” Benjamin said. “[If people are interested in supporting the scene, they] should go check some of these bands out, even the ones they haven’t heard of or the ones they’re not friends with because you might be able to find someone who has written a song that you would love. So go out to the venues and see some for artists and support the original music.”

As the Cleveland music scene continues to evolve and new waves of bands cycle through the area, one thing is certain: it’s a scene that will always be around, no matter where you go in this world.

If there was ever a question of the state of Cleveland’s current scene, all one needs to do is walk down the stairs of Mahall’s crowded Locker Room or go to the Ballroom of the Agora to see what this little music community is all about.

“That moment when you go to a show and you realize, you look to your left and look to your right, and realize all your favorite people are around you and you’re all singing the same song. Like all the schlepping to that show is actually worth it,” Cappy said. “I got into music for this ubiquitous feeling of having a moment where everything is united and everything is sequential with each other, and that’s my favorite part. That one moment where you’re just like ‘yes, this is what this is all about.’”