to make a living, area rockers often don't stray too far afield

Weekday afternoons tend to be quiet time in music stores. At Heights Guitars, co-workers Darrell Branch and Samantha Wandtke share a pizza and chat with a guy who's just hanging out. He might be there to shop, might not. Branch and Wandtke don't seem to mind either way. With the right staff, music stores can be like barbershops in that way -- businesses that double as informal gathering places for like-minded folks.
Two years ago, the future of this longtime Cleveland Heights musicians' clubhouse was in doubt after the passing of proprietor Greg Stiles. The owners of Toledo's Vintage City Guitars expressed interest in buying the inventory. But as it happened, Wandtke, that shop's manager, was spending a lot of time in Cleveland with her band Fangs Out. So she suggested to her bosses that they buy Heights Guitars and keep it open.
"You could just see that [Stiles] had invested a lot of time and love in the business," she recalls.
That dedication has helped Heights Guitars survive the onslaught of national chains like Sam Ash and Guitar Center, whose lower prices have had the same effect on indie music shops that Home Depot and Lowe's have had on local hardware stores. Plus, Wandtke had learned during her frequent visits how tight-knit and supportive the Cleveland music community can be. She transitioned from commuter to permanent resident just five months ago, she says, and already has as many or more friends than she did in her hometown Toledo.
And increasingly those ties go beyond checking out each other's gigs and coming together for the occasional benefit. The same DIY, entrepreneurial, local-centric spirit that has established Cleveland as a national leader in urban farming, launched unique retail experiments and revived a manufacturing sector is also at work in the local music scene. Many musicians are realizing that potential already, finding -- or creating -- "day jobs" that allow them to make both art and a living.
When the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture interviewed musicians for their report Remix Cleveland: A Music Industry Study, the researchers were told that "the Cleveland Music Sector is passionate, under-appreciated, diverse, engaged, and has incredible potential for entrepreneurship."
Jake Fader agrees. "This is a wonderful place for artists and entrepreneurs," says Fader, a guitarist and engineer at Elevation Recording Studio at E. 40th and Lakeside. "Sometimes it's hard when you're in the middle of it to see that -- the ‘grass is greener’ thing," he adds, noting that every musician complains at one time or another of a lack of hometown support. But the reality, especially among young bands who can only imagine the days of being plucked from obscurity by deep-pocketed record companies, is that Northeast Ohio musicians do for themselves -- and for each other.
Stylistically, Fader's current band, the rock trio Silver Branches, is miles away from his previous outfit, the world-beat-driven Mifune. But some of the folks he met in that scene are current clients of his at Elevation. Many say they travel here because Cleveland is a more affordable place to record and stay than other cities. That's a small step for the local economy and a giant leap for Fader, who gets to count music as both his passion and his day job.
John Greiner never intended to make his bones as a poster artist. But after getting "burned," as he puts it, in the comics business, he took some time to reassess. That's when he started drawing flyers for friends' gigs -- punk and noise bands, mostly. He's a longtime fan and collector of poster art by folks like Derek Hess.
At first he was paid in free admission, "or maybe a burrito or something like that," says Greiner. But as his reputation grew, the requests came with offers of real folding cash. "There was a point when I was doing two to three posters a week."
The only reason he's doing fewer now is because that success opened up other doors. His rock poster work helped him land an enviable gig designing promo materials for the insanely popular Melt Bar and Grilled restaurants. In a couple weeks he and fellow artist Jake Kelly will launch a Lake Erie Monster-themed quarterly comic book. The concept grew out of Ten Imaginary Movies, their 2011 exhibit at the B-Side lounge. To pay for the printing, Greiner and Kelly sold ads -- which mimic the style of those found in '70s comic books -- to local businesses, some in the music biz. Meanwhile, the local music scene still is propping up Greiner's career, and he supports the scene by continuing to work with bands like Megachurch and All Dinosaurs.
Rob Fernandez is at the leading edge of a paradigm shift in band marketing -- not just locally, but nationally. A DJ and producer -- aka Rob Riddum, one half of Bob and the Devil -- on his own time, Fernandez also is general manager of IndieMerch, which produces and distributes t-shirts and other "merch" for bands. The company is based at the Jakprints headquarters on Chester Avenue and shares some of the same principals.
IndieMerch has invested in state-of-the-art print-on-demand technology that finally marries screen printing quality and speed. No longer do bands have to order t-shirts in bulk, guess which sizes will sell best, haul them to and from shows, and eat the cost of those that don't sell. Instead, shirts are printed to order and shipped directly to the customer.
"It's a revolution in the making," says Fernandez. "We're really only limited by our and our clients' creativity."
Working at the other end of the technology spectrum is Clint Holley of Well Made Music. Holley is preserving a dying art -- vinyl mastering. The former Hayshaker Jones guitarist and Beachland Ballroom sound engineer is an avid vinyl collector. But he knew little about vinyl mastering when he launched his new career working for Vince Slusarz at his record-pressing plant Gotta Groove.
This was no small commitment; it required purchasing a pricey mastering lathe -- the machine required for vinyl mastering -- which haven't been made in decades. There are only a handful of people in the world restoring and selling them. Holley's set him back $30,000, a figure he recounts cheerfully.
"We've been so busy," he says, "I've never worried about making my investment back." Gotta Groove works with clients both locally and around the globe, including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and several Chinese death metal bands.
"The younger generation is driving the resurgence in vinyl right now," explains Holley. "There's something to be said for buying something tangible that you can hold in your hands. And there's something ritualistic about going to the record store, buying your record, taking it home and listening to it."
Try that with an MP3.
Holly's been working six to seven days a week preparing for the annual Record Store Day (April 21), which has become a popular date for new vinyl releases. His work plays an important role in helping not only Gotta Groove, but also other local trend-buckers like the indie record shops Music Saves and My Minds Eye, which deal in vinyl.
Fader of Elevation Recording points out one major "geo-psychological challenge" facing the Cleveland music scene: There is no agreed upon nucleus. Popular venues are spread throughout the region. And while folks living in the far-flung ’burbs are eager to call themselves Clevelanders, "If there's six inches of snow on the ground, just try getting someone from the west side to the Grog Shop."
On the other hand, an aspiring musician doesn't have to work 60 hours a week in a day job just to make the rent. Many, like Fader, can stitch together a living by combining work and passion.
"I'm super lucky that way," he admits. "That's the greatest thing about living here."

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1-5: Elevation Recording Studio
- Images 6 - 10: Rob Fernandez and IndieMerch
- Image 11: Clint Holly of Well Made Music
- Image 12:Gotta Groove Records
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