For the past 15 years, Cincinnati's MidPoint Music Festival has been the annual indie rock rite of passage for the city's music lovers. Originally conceived as a SXSW-style conference and showcase for local and regional bands, it has grown and morphed over the years, adding more and more national and international acts, while serving as an important engine for the revitalization of the city's once moribund Over-the-Rhine downtown neighborhood.
With Wednesday's (June 8) announcement of the the 2016 lineup of acts, the festival's new owners have placed a large bet on growing MidPoint into the type of event that can build on the already strong local and regional fanbase and transform the three-day festival into a national draw.
Among the first group of bands announced on Wednesday were such topline acts as: Band Of Horses, Future Islands, JJ Grey & Mofro, Wolf Parade, Reggie Watts, Lucero, Frightened Rabbit, Houndmouth, Kamasi Washington, Bob Mould, Nada Surf, Josh Ritter, Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, The Mountain Goats, The Wood Brothers, Tokyo Police Club, Car Seat Headrest, Antibalas, Joan of Arc and Langhorne Slim.
Past years have had up to 180 acts, many of them lesser-known, with a few bigger names including Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr., Chromeo, Purity Ring and Iron & Wine sprinkled into the mix.
"It definitely had to move in that direction because when we took this over we wanted to make sure to grow it in a way that would be sustainable moving forward," said festival organizer and veteran local promoter Rick McCarty, who works for Music and Event Management Inc. MEMI is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music, which owns and operates the Riverbend Music Center amphitheater and adjacent PNC Pavilion, the historic Taft Theatre and the nearby Rose Music Center in Huber Heights, Ohio.
MEMI purchased the festival from the local free weekly, Cincinnati Citybeat, last year after McCarty said its publishers realized they could not scale it up in the way it needed in order to continue. "We wanted to make sure we kept the ethos and spirit of it intact, which we think we've been able to do because we have bigger names who can drive ticket sales, which also allows us to include more emerging artists," he said.
While he wouldn't divulge how much MEMI is spending on talent -- though he said it was easily two or three times more than last year -- McCarty noted that Wednesday's announcement represented around half of the 2016 roster, which will reach around 60-70 bands and include many more up-and-coming acts. The new ownership and more robust lineup also comes with plenty of other changes.
One of the longtime signatures of MidPoint was its focus on presenting bands in a dozen or more theaters, rock clubs, bars and other non-traditional spaces in and around the Over-the-Rhine area, which has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade-plus. The once dilapidated home to the biggest concentration of Italianete architecture in the nation now teems with popular restaurants, new condos and apartments and a constant stream of start-up businesses.
This year MidPoint will bypass those spaces, though, and set up a series of four all-ages venues in and around the neighborhood in parking lots, one of which will offer free admittance for all-day showcases. "While there was a lot of charm [in the previous set-up] that made it unique and fun, from a fan perspective people were sometimes disappointed when they couldn't get into a showcase because there was something else going on or they were in venues where you had to be 18 or 21 to enter," said McCarty. "We wanted to make it more inclusive and there was just not enough indoor real estate."
That change immediately elicited some complaints from a few local bar/venue owners angry that they were left out of this year's equation. But McCarty said he firmly believes that a rising tide lifts all boats and the increased attention and attendance will lead to festivalgoers patronizing some of those same establishments when the music ends each night at 11 p.m.
The revamped fest will also expand its hours, with music starting mid-afternoon on Friday, September 23 and continuing from 1:30-11 p.m. on that Saturday and Sunday.
"We really think it's a win-win for the entire community and it will hopefully drive a lot of traffic from people who are from out of town," he said.
McCarty wouldn't speculate on what attendance might be, but Citybeat publisher Tony Frank told Billboard last year's event drew 25,000 and that he's convinced that "MPMF will continue to be a celebration of music and Cincinnati, and I believe it will continue to have a positive impact on central core neighborhoods and local businesses."
Along with last weekend's fifth-annual Bunbury Festival -- which, coincidentally, was launched in 2012 by MidPoint's co-founder, local promoter Bill Donabedian -- McCarty said he couldn't see how the revamped MidPoint isn't a win-win for the city. "There are a lot of bands playing at this event that might not include this town on their touring itinerary," he said. "It gives us a chance to have another competitive edge to bring more new, fresh artists here."