A One-Hit Wonder?
Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may soon have trouble keeping up the mortgage
By Larry Nager
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: As its second birthday rolls around this month, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is having a rocky time. Chief among its woes is a drastic drop in attendance. In its first 12 months of operation, the hall of fame drew 850,000 to the Cleveland lakefront. This year, new executive director David Abbott says attendance will only hit 600,000 or so, a drop of more than 25 percent. Attendance was expected to fall off after a honeymoon year that began with the national media attention and hoopla of 1995's all-star grand-opening concert and other festivities. What makes the city of Cleveland so nervous is that there's no guarantee it won't continue that free-fall.
"We don't have enough history to make any kind of historically based assessment," Abbott says.
At the same time admission revenues are plummeting, alternative funding has been hard to come by. Corporate sponsors, fearful of appearing pro-drug, just said no to the museum's current psychedelic exhibit, "I Want to Take You Higher." The museum had to foot the entire $750,000 bill from its operating budget, resulting in a major deficit.
A less-controversial expansion project did manage to find a sponsor in AT&T, which is paying $5 million to equip the hall-of-fame exhibition area with three movie screens that will show films of each induction class.
Luckily for the museum, its great first year kept the "I Want to Take You Higher" deficit from being a major bummer. "We're still on budget," says Tim Moore, director of communications for the hall of fame. But, he adds, "We can't continue to do it this way."
Right now, they have little choice. The hall of fame's executive staff has seen more personnel changes than Spinal Tap had drummers. When Abbott, former director of the Cleveland Bicentennial Commission, took over in May, he became the third executive director in less than two years.
One problem is the basic paradox of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: As Cleveland's newly minted nickname shows, "The Home of Rock `n' Roll" is basing its entire downtown development on a music that is supposedly the sound of anarchy and rebellion. So it's no surprise that just about everyone has his own opinion of what the hall of fame should be and what it should do.
Cleveland's city government and business community see it as a municipal cash cow, a sort of Hard Rock Cafe with a postgraduate degree.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is a pretty volatile bunch. It's composed of musicians and music-industry folk who usually stop their own infighting just long enough to take on the suits in Cleveland over such policy decisions as exhibit content and sponsorships. The New Yorkers, headed by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, stress the artistic integrity of the museum over its tourist value.
And smack dab in the middle of these two contigents, busily juggling all those agendas, is the hall of fame's director du jour.
"There's as wide an array of opinions over what this place should be as there are types of music that are considered rock-and-roll," says Abbott.
Even Cleveland's hosting of the hall-of-fame inductions -- something that founder Ahmet Ertegun once said would never happen -- was hardly the master coup it should have been.
Without a music community big and affluent enough to fill a hotel ballroom at $1,500 a plate, seats were taken by Cleveland high society, a crowd less interested in music than being seen at the social event of the season. Hundreds left before the all-star closing jam, leaving proof of their disinterest behind, as tables were littered by dozens of programs and commemorative CDs. It's hard to imagine Memphis society folks at the Blues Ball leaving such collectibles behind.
If Cleveland lost some face with the New York crowd over that, a far more serious problem for the museum has been the apathy of the working-class folks. That's the one thing that the hall was supposed to be able to depend on -- Cleveland's legendarily loyal rock fans. After all, these were the people known for spending their hard-earned money on records and concert tickets. They were the ones who called in by the thousands to land the hall of fame more than a decade ago.
But something happened. Maybe the sale of the Browns killed fandom in Cleveland, or maybe rock-concert fans aren't necessarily rock-museum fans. Abbott compares it to New Yorkers not going to the Statue of Liberty. But any way you look at it, locals just aren't supporting the museum. Only 25 percent of museum attendance is from Cleveland. Abbott says they're doing more market research, trying to figure out just who to sell the hall of fame to. Dedicated music buffs aren't the answer, he believes. Instead, he's thinking they should target the more casual fan, one who would be likely to come to Cleveland to see the museum, maybe take in an Indians baseball game at Jacob's Field, and take the family to Sea World.
Ultimately, the problem goes much deeper. Cleveland is simply the wrong place for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For music fans, there's no other reason to be in northeastern Ohio than the hall of fame. To give it credit, it is a world-class music museum. It's a great place to spend a day or two, with several theatres showing short music documentaries, interactive computerized exhibits scattered all over the place, and such show-stopping artifacts as John Lennon's glasses and hand-written lyrics, Rev. Gary Davis' weather-beaten J-200 Gibson, and the fuselage to the plane from the Otis Redding/Bar-Kays crash. But with no other music attraction nearby, it's just not proving to be enough of a draw. Abbott says an annual music festival might help (perhaps something like Memphis in May?).
Another problem has been the weather. Cleveland is in the snowbelt. And as that Canadian Arctic wind comes whipping in across Lake Erie, it gets seriously cold in October and doesn't thaw out until sometime in April. Even Abbott calls January-to-May museum attendance "horrendous."
Let's face it: Civic pride aside, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really should have been in Memphis.
The climate makes it accessible just about all year round. The city is becoming filled with musical attractions, creating a critical mass for the discerning music tourist. Graceland alone was drawing 750,000 a year even before the 20th annual Death Week boom. With the spanking-new Elvis Presley's Memphis, the under-construction Gibson Guitar facility, the coming-soon Hard Rock Cafe, the proposed Grammy museum, Sun Studio, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the nearby attractions of the Delta, fans can come to Memphis and stay busy for a week. Throw in the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival or the Center for Southern Folklore's Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, and you've got a good 10 days.
There's a whole spectrum of activities for all sorts of music lovers here. The most casual visitors are happy with a trip to Graceland and walking along Beale with a drink in hand; more serious folks can seek out Green's Lounge and Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle or do the Delta pilgrimage.
So along with an MIM-style festival, guess what is Cleveland's other plan for boosting attendance?
In 1998, as the museum moves the hall of fame to that AT&T-funded addition, the newly freed space will be filled by a much-expanded Elvis exhibit. Graceland is loaning a bunch more Presleybilia and, together with the stuff it's already got -- such as the '68 Comeback leather suit and Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service studio equipment -- it will be the biggest single-artist exhibit at the museum. The museum is also hoping to add a restaurant, and given the hall of fame's rampant Memphilia, don't be surprised if it turns out to be Elvis Presley's Cleveland.
Meanwhile, as Cleveland struggles to hold onto its piece of the rock, Memphis is on a roll. Instead of hanging the city's hopes on one big music magnet, Memphis, the true home of rock, soul, gospel and much of the rest of American popular music, is becoming one happily disorganized musical theme park, with attractions all over town, in places that resonate with real history. All that's missing is an aggressive ad campaign.
Go to Cleveland and see Elvis' guitar or leather suit. Come to Memphis and see his house, his high school, and his housing project (until it's razed later this year). See Beale Street and Handy Park, hit the juke joints on Saturday night, and hear true-vine gospel on Sunday morning. Come and feel the pull of the Mississippi, get that Memphis beat deep down in your soul.
It always seemed a bit ridiculous for Cleveland to be the site of the hall of fame, a situation made sillier still by the city's trumpeting itself as "The Home of Rock `n' Roll." A might presumptuous, considering Cleveland's own rock heritage (Alan Freed, the Raspberries, the Michael Stanley Band) is currently displayed in the museum's tiny "My Town" exhibit, closing in early 1998.
But Cleveland came up with the money to build that deluxe I.M. Pei pyramid the New York foundation had to have, and those East Coast record-industry folks, who'd always sold a bunch of product in Cleveland, figured it made sense.
But it never did. "The Home of Rock `n' Roll" is really only the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and after that first big year, it's looking more and more like a one-hit wonder.
Former Commercial Appeal popular-music writer Larry Nager now covers music for the Cincinnati Enquirer. His history of Mid-South sounds, Memphis Beat: A City and its Music, is being published in the spring of 1998 by St. Martin's Press.
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