Sean Rhiney
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Sean Rhiney

 

Ever wonder what it takes to design and coordinate your very own music festival? If so, this is the interview for you! Way Cool Music spent some quality time with Sean Rhiney, lawyer/musician/co-founder of Cincinnati's Midpoint Music Festival, to learn about this festival that has grown by leaps and bounds since it's inception in 2002. Read about how the founders first devised the plan, took full advantage of the Internet and harnessed the power of Cincinnati loyalty to make MidPoint a reality.

 

 

WC:

Tell us a bit about your background in the music business.

 

Sean Rhiney & Bill Bonabadien

 

 

 Sean
Rhiney:

I'm in a couple different bands. Actually, I'm in three bands now because one is just never enough. I didn't get into rock and roll until post-college, here in Cincinnati. I'm still in Clabbergirl and Pike 27, which is a roots rock band. I'm also playing in a band called JC3 now, which is a hard rock band. I play bass in all three.

 

 

WC:

Did you grow up in Cincinnati?

 

 

SR:

I didn't. I'm from Louisville originally and made my way up here to go to undergrad at Xavier. I liked Cincinnati so much that I stuck around for law school and after.

 

 

WC:

When did you start playing bass?

 

 

SR:

I didn't start playing until my second year at law school. We formed this horrible, horrible cover band with one of our other classmates. But, it was my first chance to be in a band. They asked, "Do you play bass?" I lied and said, "Yes." I figured that it had two less strings than a guitar and I had learned three chords at that point. The drummer and I kept going and hooked up with another guy, which became the original version of Clabbergirl. We just released a song a year for a few years for some of the local 97x contests. Then, we made (Clabbergirl) a real thing in 1999.

 

 

WC:

Clabbergirl won the Cammy award in Cincinnati back in the day...what are you guys doing now?

 

 

 

Clabbergirl

 

SR:

Well, we went through all kinds of crazy lineups. We lost our original guitarist the night of our CD release. He relocated out west. That's when we expanded with multiple guitarists and my partner in MidPoint, Bill Donabedian, even became our keyboard player. To be honest, the subject of this interview is the reason it's in stasis right now because MidPoint came around in 2002. We released our disc in 2001 and it did really well, won a couple of local awards. But, Bill and I started buckling down on MidPoint. It kinda takes up most of your year. So, that makes it hard to record. I think, at that time, guys in the band were in two other bands which can also take away some of your focus. But, we are working on stuff and, hopefully, we'll be playing out again. We ended up having to sub this year for a last minute MPMF cancellation. Someone came to me on the last night at MidPoint and said, "This Dallas band just called and said that somebody's pregnant." Apparently, the guitar player's wife was having her baby that day which sounded legit. We laughed because it ended up being the lamest excuse of MidPoint. That won the award. Literally, 10 bands used that excuse to cancel within the week of the show.

 

 

WC:

Was it the same woman?

 

 

SR:

Yeah, she gets around. I'm sure one or two had merit, just playing the odds of 250 artists coming in from all over the United States to play. But, I just got so tired of booking people in that I called my guys up and said, "We're playing tonight." We had already been accepted, but it was the one year I said that we weren't going to play just because I'd been so busy.

 

 

WC:

Tell us how MidPoint Music Festival came about.

 

 

SR:

Bill and I are good friends. We had met in 2000 when I organized a tribute to a local band called The Psychodots, which is a fairly famous midwestern band. All the really strong local bands on the pop scene were big fans of theirs and my band organized this tribute to benefit a public radio station here. Bill's band, Crosley, was there and we started talking early on about the concept that because Cincinnati has such great, diverse musical talent we ought to do something to attract attention to it. A couple folks had organized one-night, multi-band fests for different causes and different reasons. Some of which were doing really well. We asked, "What does it take to attract the attention of the media to this hotbed of local talent?" It takes making it an event rather than just another show. We started formulating what MidPoint could be in October or November of 2001. We worked up a plan to do, maybe, 100 bands over a couple of nights in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky since that's where all the great clubs are. We fleshed out the details of how we'd do it with really just Bill and I focusing on it. And then, I woke up on January 1st to a website that Bill had created with a call-out for entries. So, obviously we were serious. And, it really just snowballed from there. It never would have gotten off the ground but for the fact that we are both fairly well integrated into the local music scene. People gave us a lot of support and encouragement, and we had a lot of participation by local artists. Then, the question was would national and midwestern artists come...and they did. I'd say 35 40% are from our regional base, which is as far north as Dayton, Ohio and as far south as Louisville, Kentucky. 35% are from the Midwest region...everywhere from Iowa, to Chicago to West Virginia. Another 20% comes from the East Coast and another 5 10% from the West Coast. It's been fairly consistent every year.

 

 

WC:

Was the idea of including keynote speakers and music industry people in the festival in the original planning concept?

 

 

SR:

Absolutely. We had never attended one before, you know, South by Southwest or North by Northeast or Mobfest in Chicago. We only knew generally how they operated. We knew we wanted to bring in industry people to a conference...to make it worthwhile for them as well. They all want to discover a new band, but they all want to network with one another too. We knew we wanted to give worthwhile presentations that weren't fluff and wanted to bring in big names. What ended up being in our favor was that there are a lot of people from Cincinnati who are major players in the industry. They signed up right away. All I had to do was make a phone call, and when they knew I was from their hometown they were really generous. They started referring people our way. People you wouldn't expect. Ken Lewis is one of our biggest supporters. Ken is from Cincinnati, but works in New York City. Ken engineered both the Kayne West and Usher albums, so he is having a good year you could say. He was up for a total of 10 Grammys for his work this year. He's been here every year, so generous. And, Mike Meisel and Peter Rauh are artist managers that managed Nirvana and Foo Fighters for years. Both are Cincinnati guys. They helped legitimize us in our first year, which is the hardest year, I think. But, we've really expanded our reach and grown with our panelists and made it worthwhile for them and for our attendees.

 

 

WC:

Since that first year, what kinds of things have changed?

 

 

SR:

We've grown. 100 bands in the first year to 250 bands this past year. There's a significant change from the first year to the second year since we've moved everything into downtown Cincinnati. The first year it was in downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, in Covington and Newport, which are really just right across the bridge from each other. We decided to condense everything into Cincinnati in the second year. We've got an entertainment district that is already set in place that has 15 different venues, the majority of which are within a block of each other, and a few more that are only four or five blocks away. So, it makes everything more accessible and condensed. It makes it easier from an administrative standpoint too. Ultimately, it benefits the artists because, if you are going to drive all the way from Ames, Iowa to play a show, and you aren't getting paid a lot of money or you accepted conference badges, you want exposure. You want to play in front of a lot of people. And, if people are having trouble getting around, they aren't going to catch everyone that they want to see. It's the one thing I've noticed, remarkably, from the first year. Literally, on Friday and Saturday night, every venue is packed. That wasn't the case the first year. The first year was about 10,000 people over three nights, Thursday through Saturday. The second year was 25,000. This past year, we had about 40,000 (attendees). We increased our venues. We increased our stages, but not significantly. I think that 250 bands is a good number, especially with where we are now. It may grow...it really depends on the quality of the submissions. We don't set a number when we start. The last thing we say is that we have to fill 250 slots. Because if there aren't 250 bands that our listening committee judges are above a certain level, we won't increase it just for size. It just turns out that, in 2004, we had a lot of really strong entries. That's how the festival grew, and that's how it'll stay as long as we still have this great district in downtown. You have the proximity. This set up is very much like one of my favorite places in the whole world, New Orleans. But, there's nothing better that. If you are not from here, if you are staying in a hotel, you can walk to the district. You can walk from club to club. It's just steps to some shows. In fact, you could see three to five different artists in one hour. You could catch one song and move on if you wanted.

 

MidPoint Music Festival

 

 

WC:

How are the businesses in the area reacting to all of this going on?

 

 

SR:

They really appreciate it. Unequivocally, every bar owner will tell you that it's their best weekend of the year. That tops Oktoberfest, which is just insane around here. That tops Jammin' on Main which has been a big festival downtown. This is their best bar weekend of the year.

 

 

WC:

How has MidPoint changed the overall music scene in Cincinnati?

 

 

SR:

In awareness. In the last couple of years, there has been a strong movement towards focusing on local artists in the general media. People are recognizing that it's not necessarily a commodity, but music is as much a part of the fabric of the city as doctors, lawyers, salespeople...people like that. We aren't LA or New York City, nor would we want to be. Now, the music community is being recognized, and this festival helps promote it. I think all media likes it when something like this is packaged. Just ask them to explain Fugazi on the morning show to their viewers...they'll have a heart attack...it's unexplainable. But, give them a festival, an event that is fun. On top of that, there are bands that, in a year or so, will be playing to bigger audiences, will be playing on the radio. It's undeniable that it's going to happen, and it's already happening for some bands.

 

 

WC:

Have you heard from any bands who've been able to keep that momentum going?

 

 

SR:

We've kept track of our alums from years past to see how everybody's doing. What we do have are a ton of artists who have hooked up with producers, in the first year even, who are getting their album produced by people like Ken (Lewis). Ken produced a band that he saw out of the first year of being here. Kim Taylor, a fabulous Cincinnati artist, now has management out of Boston from one of our panelists. Things like that happen on a pretty consistent basis. And, there are plenty of buzz bands that are a step away from the next level.

The other things about connections are the artists from different cities connecting with each other. I can't keep track of the number of artists who came to MidPoint the first year who came back through Cincinnati the next year. They've found all these great venues and all these great comrades-in-arms, and vice versa. Now, there are all these local bands who are playing venues, on good bills, with other bands they got to see play at MidPoint. (When you are) booking shows that you never know whom you'll end up booking your artist with. So, they may be with the worst band in the world or some band that has no draw. But, the festival gives them the chance to see other artists play and say, "We would be a great match," or "Our music sounds nothing alike, but we both drink the same amount of beer." That's what happened.

 

 

WC:

What are some of the criteria that your listening committee uses to decide who plays the festival?

 

 

SR:

We have a listening committee comprised of artists, producers, engineers, A & R people, people generally in the industry, disc jockeys for modern rock stations, etc. We have a listening system that is criteria based. It's based on a lot of things you'd expect. You are evaluated on the songs that you submit. So, strong song writing always tends to do well. That being said, being unique and diverse tends to make you stand out. There are ways so that it is all balanced out. You have to evaluate three different songs, evaluate an artist's originality, their background, their resume, have they played festivals, etc. Being established helps, but there are artists who were brand new, who got together just a few months before MidPoint that were phenomenal. It was their talent that got them selected. And, there are artists that have moved 10,000 units and have recorded five or six discs that also play at MidPoint. We don't set out looking for anything in particular. It's been a rock festival primarily because 60% of the bands in the US are rock bands. That being said, we've still crossed over and always had DJ electronic every year, still had hip-hop, R & B, and soul. We still had roots, honky tonk, and a little country.

 

 

 

Art Alexakis 2004 Keynote Speaker

 

One interesting thing about the selection process: Bill and our webmaster, Mike Dewees, designed an online press kit that allows anyone on our committee who has a broadband connection to access the electronic press kit of the band, look at the photos, look at the press kit, read the bio and then listen to the songs. The judges love it because they can fly through it and really get a good taste of some of these bands in the comfort of their own home or studio. Some of them are very interested in hearing the bands. I've had members of our listening committee call me before the festival kicked in to ask if they could contact a band they just judged because there was a song that they really dug. So just by submitting, you expose yourself to people who could advance your career, which is an interesting thing. I don't think another festival or conference that I've participated in even touts that.

 

 

WC:

Since you do have such a diverse kind of music, are certain judges assigned?

 

 

SR:

What Bill and I strive to do when we invite judges to be part of the process is that we look for a diverse group of people who are experts, maybe very good in a particular genre, but all submissions are randomly assigned.

 

 

WC:

What kind of tips can you give bands looking to play the festival this year?

 

 

SR:

Overwhelmingly, people are looking for good songs. It doesn't have to be the super produced song. You don't have to spend $5000 in the studio to get it right. That being said, your boom box and your hard rock band in your basement are not going to do well because no one is going to be able to actually hear your message. In the brief time allotted to evaluate, people aren't going to catch on. But, I'll contradict myself; there was a guy who played acoustic, it was just him and his boom box and, man, did it work. It was phenomenal, the songwriting was stellar. The song was just good and I didn't care that he did it on his boom box.

People always talk about the cost of submitting to these festivals. Bill and I are constantly coming up with ways to give artists more value for what they are paying. We figured out that, this year, for your registration fee, not only did you get considered for the festival, which, if selected, you got paid or received all access badges for your whole band, a value of up to $700, you were instantly considered for the compilation. In addition, just for registering, we gave away studio time and mixing by Ken Lewis, along with 500 discs printed up for free. Not bad for a $20-30 investment.

 

 

WC:

Where do you see the festival going in the next five years?

 

 

SR:

It's growing by reputation significantly. We are getting calls, daily, from the press such as Entertainment Weekly and places like that. People are starting to take notice of what the festival is all about. They like the uniqueness of it. Our panelists are like our apostles. They love it because they have such a good time and tell others in the industry about it. It's an efficiently run conference and they get the most out of it while they are here. I'm getting calls from people saying they are interested and want to know more. So, it's expanding that way. The bands go back to their hometowns, be it Poughkeepsie or down the road, and say, "This is the festival to go to," so we're seeing increased registrations from these areas. It's fun to track the growth. For example, Chicago submissions, from our first year to this year, have multiplied ten-fold. So, those bands went back and told their friends about it. They come back because it's a worthwhile experience. It's always going to pull a lot of artists and talents from the Midwest, which, I think, is a good thing because there's nothing like it in the Midwest. There's nothing that really does it the way we do it, that offers what we offer. And, has the high quality of panelists that come in, the venues that we offer...it's always going to have that. Time and time again, I hear that the industry folks love it because it's such untapped territory. I won't name festivals, but if you go to New York and see 50 bands, they are all signed. It's great, but they aren't going to get much business done when you are in the industry. And, if you are a no-name artist, you are going to get overshadowed by those artists that are signed. You aren't going to get a great spot. So, people see the value in (MidPoint).

 

 

WC:

Tell us some stuff you've learned about the music industry, in general.

 

 

SR:

It is a very aware industry. They recognize the strength of independent artists, which is what MidPoint is all about. What's even better is artists are more in control of their careers than you could imagine. These are people who are selling their own CDs and marketing their own products. They are doing things that bands weren't doing 15 or 20 years ago. Independent artists, as a whole, are a force to be reckoned with. And, the industry recognizes this. It's always going to be an education to make sure that artists are aware of that. It's not about being seen in that one club by that one guy from A & M. It's about touring your butt off or about putting together something with a good producer. Or, getting out and touring outside of your own hometown if your town is not on the main map. Those are the kinds of things that are taught at the festival. I'm a musician and a lawyer, and I've learned something every year by attending the panels. I wish I could sit through all of them and not be so busy, but there's something to be learned. So, the industry is aware and the artists are aware. I've learned so much.

 

 

WC:

With you being a musician and having a full-time job, and doing MidPoint from May to September, how do you juggle all of these responsibilities?

 

MidPoint Crew

 

 

SR:

We have an amazing group of people we work with year round. It's not just Bill and myself. Susan Vitello coordinates all the stage managers. Tara O'Donnell is our ex-patriated Cincinnatian who lives in LA now and coordinates our massive volunteer staff. Sarah Hawkins coordinates press and media. Michael Dewees had a big hand in creating the website and all of this new software that we use to run the site and the festival. It can be a full time job, so it's nice to spread it around. We are working on MidPoint every week in some respects.

 

 

 

 

1.

What's the worst job you've ever had?  Doing maintenance at an apartment complex when I was 13.

 

 

 

WC: 

I think that's illegal.

 

 

SR: 

That's probably why it was bad. I was treated like a factory worker in one of Kathie Lee Gifford's shops.

 

 

2.

What's your favorite movie or lyric quote?  That sequence in Pulp Fiction when Travolta blows the kid's head off and Jackson calls Ving Rhames for help. It's actually tied into MidPoint because, we secretly call Bill "the Wolf," because he's our problem solver. It's just a great sequence..."You ain't got no problem Jules. I'm on the motherfucker. Go back in there, chill them niggaz out and wait for the Wolf who should be coming directly. Feel better, motherfucker?"

 

 

3.

Who would you want to star in the movie of your life?  A young, thin Brando. Not the Marlon who ate Aretha Franklin-type Brando.

 

 

4.

What's your favorite TV theme song?  Greatest American Hero or The A Team

 

 

5.

If you were a superhero, what would your name be?  Bert

 

 

6.

What do you want to be when you grow up?  Responsible

 

 

7.

Finally, why are there so many songs about rainbows?  Cause rainbows have nothing to hide.

 

 

To find out more information about the MidPoint Music Festival, visit the official website at www.mpmf.com.