Whatever Happened to Midpoint? The Rise and Fall of Cincinnati's Homegrown Festival
When people look back on the music scene in Cincinnati in the summer of 2018, they will say that it was a time of new beginnings. The former champion of local music on the airwaves had long since been sold to a bible broadcasting company, and it successors began to find their footing (including ourselves, shameless self-plug). Cincinnati’s favorite sons, The National, came home to start a festival that celebrated the best of what indie rock can be. And to cap it all off, Cincinnati gained yet another festival, Bellwether, which brought the free spirited camping of Bonnaroo to Southern Ohio.
Yet amidst all the new developments, buried beneath the headliners, Cincinnati lost something. Midpoint Music Festival, which had run every year since its inception in 2002, announced that it would be taking the year off. The news wasn’t exactly a shock; you don’t have to wait until a month before to know that an event with no line-up or active promotion isn’t happening. Rather, the surprise came from how quiet it all was. A festival that had run for nearly two decades, that was once one of the premier attractions of one Cincinnati’s premier neighborhoods, disappeared and was only mourned by the stalwart few longing for days long since passed. What Midpoint was to those people, what it could no longer be to Cincinnati, is what will be missed, even if the general festival going public doesn’t feel it right away.
Understand, Cincinnati looked a lot different in 2002 than it does today, and nowhere more different than Midpoint’s original home, Over-The-Rhine. A neighborhood that is now considered the first name in Cincinnati entertainment and nightlife was best known for crumbling buildings and crime. Over a five year period in the early 00’s up to fifty buildings were scheduled for “emergency demolition,” and due to the spreading decay the district was ignominiously named in Frommer's 500 Places to See Before They Disappear.
But even then, OTR offered a wealth of bars and restaurants, even if they weren’t as well traveled as they are today. Midpoint co-founder Bill Donabedian, then playing in a local band, recognized the potential of the neighborhood as he sought to showcase the local scene he was so involved in. Inspired by Popopolis (a multi-stage one night event at the former Southgate House) and South-by-Southwest, Donabedian decided that Cincinnati was ripe for a local showcase. “I would be playing at this club, and across the street was another club with another local band playing… If we could just put an umbrella over this, and brand it, and bring others bands in, and bring speakers in… we just thought enough was there.”
Midpoint was founded with the artists and the scene in mind above all else. The idea in those early days was that the festival would draw in local and regional bands from all over and prompt them to share ideas and gigs, making connections that would strengthen local music not only in Cincinnati but in any city that a Midpoint band hailed from. A panel of speakers would be featured every year, giving insight to bands on everything from audio production to business management. For one weekend a year, Midpoint would make Cincinnati a Mecca for unsigned artists while also providing people who might not otherwise come out the perfect way to support local music. “SXSW had the some idea years ago… it was we’ve got a great scene, how do we bring attention to it?”
From the outset Midpoint had no trouble attracting the attention of local talent. The inaugural Midpoint showcased over 150 acts at twelve venues in OTR. The festival’s largest year, 2005, featured more than 300 acts at 18 venues over three days. However, though Midpoint had become the annual showcase for local and unsigned artists that Bill Donabedian intended, it was struggling to make money. “We never got support from the big companies in town, we were never really able to crack that nut.” Relying on an all volunteer workforce and the cooperation of OTR’s bar and restaurant owners was starting to catch up with Midpoint, and, in 2008, Bill Donabedian finally gave in.
“After six years of this, maybe we just scuttle this, maybe we just get rid of it. It was this neat thing, it was what we wanted it to be, maybe its lived its life. And then we were like, ‘well that’s kinda sad...’ Citybeat seems like the only logical choice.” Enter Citybeat’s marketing director Dan McCabe. With more than a decade of experience pursuing on-the-verge regional artists, McCabe sought to curate the event, bringing bigger names to Midpoint and bolstering what was, from a business standpoint, a failing festival. “The infrastructure worked, the hopping around different rooms, but I think the biggest change... all drilled down to the talent programming needed addressing and that’s the first thing we tackled.”
From 2008 forward, Midpoint became a sort of hybrid. The local flavor was still there in bands like Wussy and the Heartless Bastards, but now they would be featured alongside signed artists like Jason Isbell and Best Coast. In 2010, local alternative pop band Walk the Moon played Midpoint long before “Shut Up and Dance” launched them into the radio stratosphere. While this all may have made Midpoint more enticing from a consumer standpoint, it was directly opposed to what Bill Donabedian had set out to do. “I was in a band, and we had a bad experience at North-by-Northeast, where Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was booked at the venue next door and our venue just emptied out… its really hard to be an unsigned act that just traveled eight hours and go head to head with a signed artist.”
As Midpoint was changing, so, too, was Over-The-Rhine. The bar hopping that was once a unique selling point of Midpoint weekend became a weekly occurrence as OTR revamped itself. In the words of Cincy Events Management founder Debbie Branscum, “The Salmon short army had arrived.” OTR’s revitalization made the event harder and harder to produce, as bars and venues no longer needed Midpoint to drive in business. However, it also provided opportunities.
In 2012, Midpoint had what might have been its best year. Washington Park had just finished renovations and would host a main stage in the heart of OTR, featuring hot indie acts like Grizzly Bear and The Dirty Projectors while over 180 other showcases played in the neighborhood. It was the best possible combination of both versions of Midpoint, a festival that was enticing to fans of independent music that also preserved some of Bill Donabedian’s original local showcase vision. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.
Though 2012 was a banner year for Midpoint, it was also the beginning of its downfall. In that year Citybeat was acquired by SouthComm Communications, who were more interested in maintaining the paper than running events like Midpoint. The festival programming, courtesy of Dan McCabe, was still strong but the general disinterest of SouthComm prevented Midpoint from capitalizing on whatever momentum it might have had. After 2015, Citybeat was prepared to discontinue the festival until a new buyer stepped in at the last minute.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has operated venues around Cincinnati like the Taft Theater and Riverbend through their music management division for years. In Midpoint, they saw an opportunity to expand their hold on live performance in the city. 2016, the CSO’s first year of Midpoint, was programmed like an off the dial Bunbury with a truly impressive array of independent artist playing on four stages in OTR. However, the showcasing format that was so core to the festival was done away with. Instead Midpoint would look more like a traditional festival, with large stages set up in Over-The-Rhine parking lots.
In 2017, Midpoint moved again, this time to the CSO owned Taft Theater and surrounding area downtown. The move made sense in some ways--the CSO was now programming too large of talent to host in barrooms, and the parking lot set up of the previous year was a compromise that didn’t really satisfy anyone. Also, events like Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati were hosted in the same area, why not a music festival? In the end however, Midpoint could not sustain the move from its home. Though it seemed that OTR no longer needed Midpoint, Midpoint still very much needed OTR.
The CSO has promised that Midpoint will return in 2019 when their announced Riverview venue on the banks is completed. However, it seems just as likely that they are using whatever positive recognition the Midpoint brand has left as leverage to get the ball rolling on Riverview’s construction, which is currently being held up by the Cincinnati Bengals. Whatever the case, if Midpoint should return it will return vastly different from what it was before and almost unrecognizable from its original vision.
Of course, it’s fair to wonder at this point if Midpoint should come back at all, and if it does what it should look like. “Midpoint is an Old Yeller at this point,” Bill Donabedian said of his creation, “It’s not Midpoint anymore.” A festival that was once so unique, that offered a showcasing and bar hopping experience not available for miles around has lost so much of it identity that it's hard to say what it offers, especially alongside Homecoming and Bunbury. If Midpoint comes to Riverview in 2019, not only would it no longer be the only indie music festival in Cincinnati, it wouldn’t even be the only indie festival happening in Smale Park.
It is easy to blame Midpoint’s decline on simple mismanagement. Certainly within the music scene, the CSO is seen as a major culprit in its demise. However, it's also clear enough that Midpoint had been living on borrowed time for quite a while. After all, Bill Donabedian seriously considered killing it a decade ago, right in the middle of its golden years. The truth is, Midpoint, in its original form, would be much more difficult to execute in 2018 than it was in 2002. “It could still work in OTR,” said Bill Donabedian, “it's just a question of how hard you’re willing to work.” Over-the-Rhine offers the perfect concentration of bars and venues to host a showcase like Midpoint, but while they once thrived off each other, Midpoint would now be just another attraction in what has become Cincinnati’s most attractive neighborhood.
And that’s a good thing. On any given night there is a great band playing a bar in OTR and on any given night people who might not normally experience local music are walking into The Hub or MOTR and getting a taste of what the local scene can offer. In the words of Dan McCabe, “The strength of the Cincinnati music scene does not live in festivals.” The changes to OTR, which played such a large part in the fall of Midpoint, made the music scene here stronger. And while it is tempting now, as it was to Bill Donabedian sixteen years ago, to “put an umbrella over” the music happening every day in OTR, that kind of branding is no longer necessary.
A festival like Midpoint, which shines a spotlight on local and unsigned artists, will always be a good thing for up and coming musicians. However, Cincinnati no longer needs it in the way that it once did. And if you are one of those people who miss what Midpoint was, ask yourself what it really was that made Midpoint special, and then head down to MOTR - its waiting for you.