Decades ago, when Barry Gabel started the Tri-C High School Rock Off, he was aiming to create a space for young rockstars to make connections in the industry.
Now in its 27th year, the Rock Off will do that one final time: Live Nation has announced that it will host the final Rock Off this year, and will not renew the annual high school music event.
Three performance rounds will take place on Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and Feb. 17 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with a grand finale — The Final Exam — on March 2, to determine the winners. Winners will receive cash prizes and opportunities to open at the House of Blues or Live Nation concerts. Tickets to each event cost $15-$20.
Gabel, the senior vice president of marketing and sponsorship sales at Live Nation, dreamt up the event after seeing a need for an onramp for young musicians and kept it going for many years — first at small indie venues like The Odeon and in its most recent years, at the Rock Hall.
“I thought there was enough passion out there because I go to enough concerts — I’ve been doing this since 1979,” Gabel says. “There was no agenda other than, let's find these kids that are out there, that could be the next crop of passionate kids that would find a way into our industry.”
During the events, he found those passionate kids, many of whom are now adults working in the music industry, both in Cleveland and beyond. Gabel rattled off some of his favorite participants: Clevelanders like Ray Flanagan, Maddie Finn, Erik Potapenko, Welshly Arms singer Sam Getz, Jaded Era, Brian Poston and Detention — and also out-of-towners like First To Eleven from Erie, Pennsylvania, and Peter McPoland from Woodlands, Texas.
We caught up with Gabel to hear more about the Rock Off’s impact on Cleveland’s music scene, and what’s in store for the 2024 competition.
Cleveland Magazine: It looks like you’ve got some fun in store for this year’s Rock Off. MGK’s coffee shop, 27 Club, will be there, right?
Barry Gabel: Yeah, they actually featured a couple of special coffee concoctions celebrating the Rock Off. On the first floor, they’re going to have a 27 Club coffee lounge, complete with furniture and special drinks, and some other cool items and activation.
You know, he used to come down — Colson [Baker, Machine Gun Kelly], when he was just out of high school, he used to come down to the House of Blues and cheer some of the bands on and throw himself out into the audience. Fond memories of him coming down with EV. They all used to come down, during the Lace Up time period. Colson is so pro-Cleveland, I knew he’d want to be involved in this thing.
CM: Definitely. With the programming this year, do you have any other kinds of special events in store?
BG: We have some great merch this year that we'll be selling. Aaron Sechrist, OkPants, I’m hiring him to create a very limited-edition 27-year anniversary T-shirt that he's going to create, that's going to have the list of all of the bands that won for the past 26 years. We'll have some other unique things for the finals as well. We’re probably going to put together an alumni booklet, also with pictures of different years. We’ve been at the Odeon, and the House of Blues, and the Rock Hall; we’re putting together a little yearbook.
CM: Why is the Rock Off coming to an end after this year’s event?
BG: It's bittersweet. But it's not just one reason why. There are so many reasons why. People think you put this event on for an entire month or four weeks and it's really easy to do; you just open the doors. Business has changed so much at Live Nation; when it was both Belkin and Live Nation early on, we had the manpower. There were always bands around. The timing was available, to be able to have a venue available for us, to stage this every weekend. I'm not going to say that it's a struggle to get bands. But I don't know if there are that many high school local bands that will sign up. I love that the bands that you've signed up for are really into it.
We like being able to go out on top. But I will tell you that, who knows? We're getting tons of calls from so many different venues and people that don't want to see this end, and while I'm not really available to discuss if there can be something that will follow after this year — it most probably will not be with Live Nation — but who knows. There are just too many great venues around town and too many great local clubs and passionate music people that don't want to see the Rock Off end. So we'll see what happens. But for us, we are announcing that we're going to be out of High School Rock Off business after this year.
CM: Yeah, I’ve seen some venue owners talking about the possibilities of doing their version of it. Is that what you’re talking about?
BG: Anybody can do a battle of the bands; we've been able to do something that's really unique in town. I started this because I really felt that there was a link missing in the high school world. If you go back 27 years, at the high school level, there was the sports outlet, you could join the sports teams; you could join the high school marching band; the debate club, or the chess club. But there really wasn't this community of rock and roll kids. They probably were out there. But there was never a place to take it from the garage, or the church basement, to a professionally run venue where these kids could actually be supported by industry people that could show them that there was a possibility to find a pathway in this industry.
Other clubs, maybe they're doing it because they're trying to sell beer. We never were really that way. It was never, at the end of the day, about making a ton of money on it. Because this is not a moneymaker. It really is from the heart. It's been a passion project, for at least me. I've let our company know, ‘Hey, this is really good for the community, and we should continue to do it.' But with lack of staff sometimes and people running in different directions, this is not such an easy event.
I would love to see other clubs take on the mantle of this and continue to support local high school kids, not just college kids.
CM: Knowing that this drew people from out of state, I feel like locally, it’s had such a big footprint too. Could you speak a bit about the legacy this has left behind in Cleveland’s music scene?
BG: The legacy is the kids that are finding a way into the industry. The legacy is breathing life into a kid’s opportunity to find a way in this industry — whether it's a Ray Flanagan or Maddie Finn, or the Detention kids, it gives them that runway that says there's an opportunity here, just keep believing, and something might happen. But even if it doesn't, what it really has done is given these kids the opportunity to be fearless. That in itself is victory. If you can live your dream, and be fearless, and believe in yourself and get onstage, feel like you can be the king of the world or the queen of the world — what better thing can you give kids than feeling confidence? That, to me, is the legacy. Being confident and being fearless.
Past Winners of the Tri-C High School Rock Off:
- 1997: TIE - Qwasi Qwa from Mentor and Insect from Revere
- 1998: Jive Picnic from Walsh Jesuit and Hudson
- 1999: Amara from Solon and Gilmour Academy
- 2000: The Deep from Boardman
- 2001: TIE - The Deep from Boardman and AAK from Berea
- 2002: Johnny Psycho and the Switchblade Rockers from Firelands
- 2003: Johnny Psycho and the Switchblade Rockers from Firelands
- 2004: Jupiter Hollow from Boardman
- 2005: Eclyptic from Hudson and Streetsboro
- 2006: Another Found Self from Boardman
- 2007: Gravity from St. Ignatius, Brecksville and Padua
- 2008: Thee TV Oh Dees from Avon
- 2009: The Sharp Edges from Marion L. Steele and Elyria
- 2010: Maddie Finn from Streetsboro
- 2011: Crossing Boundaries from North Allegheny, Sewickley Academy, Quaker Valley and Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania
- 2012: Phaylinx from St. Ignatius and Nordonia
- 2013: Noize from the Basement from Field and Tallmadge
- 2014: Backstage Politics from Beachwood, Hathaway Brown, Lake Catholic and University School
- 2015: M4 from Academy, Fairview and Wattsburg, Pennsylvania
- 2016: First to Eleven from Academy, Fairview and Wattsburg, Pennsylvania
- 2017: The Waves from Archbishop Hoban and Woodridge
- 2018: Montage from Cleveland School of the Arts
- 2019: Peter McPoland and The Haps from Woodland, Texas
- 2020: Detention from Firestone, Highland Middle School and Stem Middle School in Akron
- 2021: No event due to COVID
- 2022: Seeing Scarlett from Avon Lake, Sandusky, and Huron
- 2023:The Subliners from University School, Hudson, Lakewood, Bay and Revere