Summer is a good time to be a live music fan, or even a performer, in Cleveland. From May to August, public and donor-funded entertainment events such as Wade Oval Wednesdays and Edgewater Live fill the lakeside air as thousands of fans flock to public parks to hear the likes of Carlos Jones & the P.L.U.S. Band or Wesley Bright & the Honeytones.
It is not, however, a good time to own a music venue nearby.
“We’re taken aback in the summer when there is so much free music being presented,” says Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson. “Free music paid for by the public and generating alcohol sales for the Metroparks and taking business away from us.”
It never really is a good time to own a Cleveland concert club. Grassroots venues such as the Happy Dog, Beachland Ballroom & Tavern and the Grog Shop struggle to keep the amps on 11.
“Rock ’n’ roll made money for a really long time, but that world is gone,” says Beachland co-owner Cindy Barber. “I think of those days almost like classical music to other people, preserving that style of rock ’n’ roll. That good songwriting and kind of raw but powerful instrumentation is being lost right now.”
These “for-profit but barely profitable” arts venues, as Watterson calls them, occupy a weird space. Like the Bob Dylan albums between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, they’re the forgotten gems between the classic nonprofit arts organizations and larger for-profit event venues.
“We view this segment of the music business as business rather than as culture, but there are other segments of the arts that are not having to exist as pure for-profit businesses,” says Watterson. “Would the [Cleveland] Orchestra be able to exist without support beyond just ticket sales? Probably not.”
If we truly want to double down on our Rock Hall fame and make Cleveland a music city, we must first realize grassroots music venues such as the Happy Dog occupy a singular place in the city, and should be treated like it.
Happy Dog, for instance, presents art in a way that’s uniquely digestible for our Midwestern sensibilities. Poets and painters unwind next to singers and academics. At readings, talks and concerts, high art is served with a beer and a shot chaser, and Bohemian culture comes dressed in work boots.
More importantly, they make it possible for working musicians to pay for strings and, you know, their bills. The Beachland saw 80,000 visitors and 1,500 bands last year. The Happy Dog pays artists 100 percent of the proceeds at the door. In the past five years, Happy Dog has stuffed more than $1 million in performers’ pockets, and staffs its kitchen and bar with artists. “Try finding another day job that lets you go on tour,” says Watterson.
Medium-to-small for-profit venues are also useful development tools. In 2011, Arts Cleveland, formerly known as Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, commissioned Remix Cleveland, a study to analyze the economic impact of Cleveland’s music scene. It found music added $474.1 million to the local economy in 2010 and generated $91.6 million in tax revenue.
Using Beachland Ballroom as a case study, the report described the club as a neighborhood anchor that created a destination out of a “once dilapidated and desolate area.” Since then, the area has continued to grow, with Six Shooter Coffee, Millard Fillmore Presidential Library and PopEye Gallery moving in. Yet, without careful planning, the same kind of development these neighborhood anchors spark could flame into trouble for the clubs.
In England, rent hikes and noise complaints from new flats shuttered nearly 200 live clubs in a decade, including the Sheffield Boardwalk, which launched The Clash and Arctic Monkeys. As the NRP Group plans a 323-unit apartment complex near the Happy Dog, Watterson sweats a similar future.
Over the pond, a new “change agent” law protects the clubs by pushing soundproofing responsibility on the newer entity. Doing something similar in Cleveland would acknowledge these venues’ unique flint.
“Do you recognize some of these neighborhood anchors and make adjustments here because we value what this brings to the neighborhood, the same way that we’re willing to tax abate a brand new condo or townhouse development?” asks Watterson.
Venues like the Happy Dog pay the same taxes as large ones, like Quicken Loans Arena, but receive none of the help from taxpayers, who subsidize construction at The Q. They do all of the cultural heavy lifting of a nonprofit without any of the foundational support, or the public helping-hand offered through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. They organically drive foot traffic, tourism, intellectual expansion and development.
For that beat to get louder, the venues need a stronger backing track.
Watterson believes another study would give advocates hard data to approach policymakers. It worked in 2013. After the Remix study was released, a coalition of music figures used the findings to lobby the city of Cleveland to lower the admissions tax from 8 percent of ticket sales to 4 percent for venues with capacities of less than 750 people.
The effort was a success. But the reduced rate is still problematic for small clubs, which pay more here than in any other large city in Ohio. Columbus imposes no tax at all. Cincinnati clubs pay 3 percent, the rate for most Ohio cities. Over the past five years, the Happy Dog paid $25,000 in music licensing fees just to host bands, and another $10,000 in admissions taxes. To a small venue, that’s the difference between scraping by and prospering.
Or in Barber’s case, the difference between paying your Saturday night act and replacing the Beachland’s worn, storm-damaged roof.
“We might be guaranteeing [a band] $5,000 but only get $3,000 at the door,” Barber says. “We’re still paying 4 percent of that $3,000 even though we lost money.”
Everyone else, meanwhile, gets extra help. Admissions tax revenue is paying for part of the renovations at Quicken Loans Arena. The city keeps 3 percent of The Q’s admissions tax payment while the other 5 percent goes to pay off existing Gateway loans, Cleveland.com reports. The nonprofits get double benefits too. They pay no property and sales taxes, and no admissions tax.
Why shouldn’t small clubs get similar assistance? With the vast value they provide to the community, one could even make a convincing case for zeroing their admissions tax rate out altogether.
At the very least, small clubs need an advocate. A night mayor could help them get up to code, navigate tricky tax situations and have a representative at the table. The position could be an intermediary between artists, venues and government, and promote inclusive, homegrown music. “I wouldn’t feel so bad about the admissions tax if some of that money went back to paying for a music promoter,” says Barber.
By recognizing that these clubs play a unique tune, Cleveland can ensure the survival of its institutions, and stake its claim as one of the country’s great music cities.
“Cleveland is a city that is very afraid to be first and very afraid to be last,” says Watterson. “If you wait for someone else to do something and copy it, it’ll never be as good as the original.”
A previous version of this article stated that the Happy Dog paid $25,000 in music licensing fees and $10,000 in admissions taxes in 2017. That amount was paid over a five-year period.