Just the other day I was musing on my ’90s experiences in the Cleveland music scene: DJing clubs and on the radio, writing two books and for various local and national publications, compiling a greatest hits collection for Cleveland. And since Cleveland really isn’t all that big a town (are any, really?), there were a few people I either worked with or bumped into one way or another all the time. And Johan was one of them – whatever happened to that huge goofball? (not that his goofballatry was huge, HE is huge and also a goofball)
- Linas Johansonas was called a few names by his constituents in Cleveland’s music industry.
But his radio personality names were “The Noodle” and “Johan.”
….As a marketing director for the Agora Theatre in Cleveland, an award-winning disc jockey on WENZ-FM (107.9) radio show “Inner Sanctum,” and the former co-president of Flax Records (affiliated with Cleveland International Records), he understands the mechanisms of music promotion and production.
Being co-owner of Flax Records didn’t hold its appeal for long, he said. “I didn’t want the hopes and dreams of five musicians saddled on my shoulders. I knew them all too well.”
Over a 15-year career, he promoted more than 1,000 shows as marketing director at the old Agora Ballroom, which burned to the ground, and at the Agora Theatre, when it was relocated on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland.
He’s defined as a pillar of the Cleveland music scene in “Networking in the Music Industry” written by Jim Clevo and Eric Olsen. His name is mentioned several times in “Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Cleveland Connection” by Deanna R. Adams, and in “Radio Daze” written by Mike Olszewski.
He left the broadcast business when WENZ was sold to Radio One Inc., and was transformed into an urban-formatted radio station.
Hey, I left “The End” then also.
- These days, Johansonas is thinking that smaller is definitely better.
That’s why being the chairman of the programming committee for the fledgling low-power WHCR-LP-FM (106.7) Harbor Country Radio in Three Oaks sounds so interesting to him.
He believes in the power of public radio, which gives listeners an independent choice.
“Public radio is so important. It gives all points of view a chance,” he says.
Johansonas moved to Union Pier on July 4, 2003, and married his wife, Milda, who is the owner of Milda’s Corner Market in Union Pier.
After graduation from Eastlake North High School in 1977, Johansonas studied mass media at Cleveland State University, and worked at the college’s radio station, WCSB-FM (89.3).
During high school, he got a bit part as “The Noodle” on WWWM-105, now Magic 105 in Cleveland. He also landed an internship in the promotions department at the Agora Ballroom. The first concert he worked, as a novice providing hospitality services for musicians, was a Plasmatics concert.
After that concert, punk rock diva Wendy O. Williams was pursued by the Cleveland Vice Squad on obscenity and indecency charges related to the performance.
Here is my November ’92 interview/profile of Johan from the Networking In the Music Industry book:
- Club Manager
A club owner/manager is plenipotentiary within his domain. His thorny personality and creative logic are often the match of a Middle-Eastern potentate’s, and a band or its representative must often negotiate with the delicacy of a veteran diplomat. The more you know about how these people think, the more likely it is that you will be able to achieve your goal of entertaining the sultan. He has to hire someone. Not that any of this preamble applies to Johan, who isn’t like that at all. (Yeah, right.)
L. Johan: Manager and Marketing Director, Agora Theater. Cleveland
What kind of club is the Agora?
We have two different rooms here. The smaller room has about a 500-person capacity, and is referred to as “The Ballroom.” The Agora Theater has a capacity of 1,100-1,700, depending on how the seating is set up. There is a big difference between the two stages. Sometimes we have two shows going on at the same time: one in each room. In the theater, in the last few months, we have had acts like Robert Cray, Sonic Youth, the Soup Dragons-Tom Tom Club-James package, Glen Frey, Faith No More-Helmet, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (both of the last two sold out), and B.A.D. 2. That’s just in September and October .
Do you work with local bands?
Yes, although I hate the term “local.” In the Ballroom, I’ve recently had a Cleveland band called Lestat, who only plays out a few times a year. It is very important for bands to know who they are, and what their audience is into. There are bands that play every night of the week around town, and they can get away with it because of the type of music that they play. Then, there are other bands who are concert acts, and you’re not going to see them play, whether it’s U2 or Genesis or whoever, every weekend. You would get bored. So bands like Lestat, Exotic Birds, and we’re just talking in the techno-pop vein, only do spot concert gigs. They play once a year, twice a year, but they draw people to those shows. It’s an event. It’s a concert. People don’t come to disco dance in front of the band; they pack it in close to the stage and watch the show. Is it local? Is it regional, or what? It’s a different atmosphere than when you go see First Light, or the Armstrong-Bearcat Band. Lestat sold out this room at $7 per head. That’s a band that I gave a guarantee for. How many clubs actually give a local band a guarantee? Very few bands in this market can command a guarantee.
How do “local” bands get booked at the Agora?
If you are a “local” band, chances are that by the time you get an opening slot here at the Agora you have already established yourself in this market. It is very rare for an unknown band, comprised of unknown musicians, to do their first gig at this level. The Agora’s stature in this market is equal to that of Graffiti’s or the Metropol in Pittsburgh, The Ritz in NY, or The Cabaret Metro in Chicago. It is one of the premier places to play in town. It is something to shoot for.
New bands should go to the smaller places first, and work their craft for awhile. You’ve got to do those small gigs to actually find your identity on stage. It’s one thing to work in a rehearsal room, it’s another thing to do it in a recording studio, and it’s a whole different thing to do it on stage in front of people. A live show becomes a visual thing as well as an audio thing. You have to be able to stimulate the eyes as well as the ears; especially in this age of MTV and videos: people want more from a live show than a guy in a flannel shirt playing an acoustic guitar. You have to put on a show; that’s exactly what it is – a show. A show entails more than just playing music: whether it be the lights, the costumes, the choreography, or what have you.
Work your craft in the smaller places and see if you can hold an audience’s attention for an hour-and-a-half. See what it is like working the stage. See if you have stage fright. The Agora is the type of place you go to when it is your turn to shine. You get one shot here and you’d better not blow it. A lot of musicians turn down gigs here because they feel they are not ready. A lot of people come to see you here; a lot of reviewers come, and you can get a bad rep if you have a bad performance here. It’s happened many times.
Do you select the opening act for the shows that you book?
In our situation, we select the opening act about half of the time. There are many times when the headliner comes in with an opening act, but we end up adding a local act anyway to stretch out the night, and to give the local bands more opportunities. The opportunities for local bands to open-up here are much greater than at a Belkin show somewhere. This is about the largest room in town where the local bands have a chance to play.
The main thing that I look for in an opening act is musical compatibility. If Material Issue is the headliner, the majority of the people are coming to see them. A lot of people might not even know who you are if you are the opening act, but they are going to have to sit through your act. I’m not doing the opening act, the audience, or the headliner any good if I put an act on the bill that the Material Issue crowd isn’t going to like. The audience doesn’t have to know the music, nor do they they have to have heard of the group, but I have to make sure that the crowd will enjoy the opening act. The crowd has to sit through the opener in order to get to the band that they have paid good money to see.
We just had John Valby here who, the best way to describe him is as Mickey Mouse singing dirty songs. He is hilarious and packs the theater. I put on Charlie Wiener as an opener. A lot of these people who came to see John Valby have never heard of Charlie Wiener, but they enjoyed him. You have to know the audience that is coming to see the show. Is the local compatible? Do they sound like a local band? A lot of local bands come in here, and half the audience thinks that they are on-tour with this group. They approach the band after the show and ask them what hotel thay are staying at, not realizing that they live down the street. That’s the result that I am looking for when I pick an opening act.
When I listen to a demo tape, or when I see a band live, the first thing that I make a judgement on is, do they sound local? There is a group called The Katzz; they are an all-black R&B group. They rented out the theater to shoot photos and videos awhile back. They had never played out. I opened up the theater and they were doing their thing. I came back in a couple of hours to see how they were doing. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Wow, this is as good as anything that you would hear on any urban station.” They didn’t sound local, and visually, they had three guys in front who did choreographed dance routines as well as anyone on MTV. I needed an opening act that night for The Rudeboys, and I knew that anyone coming to see The Rudeboys would be entertained by these guys. Personally, I think The Katzz are better than The Rudeboys. Please Gerald LeVert, don’t shoot me. So I put them on the show; their first gig ever was in the Agora Theater opening for The Rudeboys in front of a lot of people.
This goes against what I said earlier, but then again, you never know. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. We turned Lynn Toliver, of WZAK which is the urban station in town, onto the group. Since then, they have gone on to do numerous shows in town. Their record went to #1 on WZAK, which has the tightest urban playlist in the country and is always last to add a song, let alone a local band, let alone a local band that doesn’t even have an independent record contract, not to mention a major label deal. They knocked off Gerald LeVert at #1 (how ironic), and held the #1 position for five weeks. This is a phenomenon and they are a group to look out for because they are going to go places. I didn’t create them, but I discovered them, and I gave them a break. They played at the ZAK Tenth Anniversary Party with Jodeci, and a bunch of other national acts, and no one there thought of them as a “local” group because they presented themselves as confident professionals. They just said: “Here’s our show.”
There’s a Cleveland band who was just recently signed to a large independent label, and they kind of upset me because they are still acting like this local band, playing on a four-band bill. You don’t even know who the headliner is, and there’s no presentation in that. They seem to be caught in a rut. They’ll be the ones in a couple of years who say in Spin magazine that they don’t get no respect in Cleveland. Gee, haven’t we heard that one before. There is another group in town that pass themselves off as a nobody local act still playing at the Euclid Tavern, and they are international underground stars; they have toured with The Pixies, and they are written about in all of the international underground publications. No one in town realizes that My Dad Is Dead is this big international underground band. Your home is just another market. Using the word “local” is like using the word “religion” in that it carries very reflexive and powerful connotations. I think that a lot of people, including radio stations and other venues, need to change their frame of thinking when it comes to Cleveland bands.
Can’t the word “local” simply mean “where a band has its greatest following”, assuming that that is usually going to be where the band resides?
Then you are telling me that Artful Dodger, who live in West Virginia, is a local band because this is where they draw best. Cleveland is one of the big-draw markets for many national acts. Todd Rundgren lives off of Ohio. Does that make him a local, or an Ohio act?
To me “local” has negative connotations. It means that you are a class B musician, that you are an amateur, that you aren’t as good as others. I really hate that term. The other aspect of the term “local” that I don’t like is that it implies that you should be afforded some sort of preference over other acts because you are from the same town. Just because you are from Cleveland doesn’t mean that I owe you a goddamned thing. WMMS doesn’t owe you a goddamned thing either. It’s not the water that we drink that makes us great rock and rollers in this town. It’s not in the air that we breathe. Just because you are from Cleveland, nobody owes you anything. A lot of musicians have the attitude that, “We’re a Cleveland band, so we should be getting support.” No. The problem is that no one in this market has the balls to go up to a band and say “You suck! Don’t quit your day job.” Or,”You write good songs, but you can’t sing.”
How would a band, local or otherwise, best get you to consider them for an opening assignment?
You are looking for that golden answer, and it’s not there. For any given show, there is a multitude of bands fighting to get on the show. We talk to some bands a lot. They have been around for awhile; they might be on stage crews, so they are playing guitar on-stage one night and running the sound board the next, and you get to know them. It could be just a casual, “Who’s opening up for this show, would you consider us?” So I write their name down on the list of possibilities.
If I have never heard of you, the first thing I will tell you to do is to send me a tape and a press kit, but I get tons of that crap. I get tons of it, and there are only 24 hours in a day. Considering the fact that I have to listen to every major new release, every major independent new release, every regional release, every local release; as well as monitor what every radio station is playing, monitor my promotions on every radio station, monitor my commercials on every radio station, and do my work, it’s very hard to listen to the tapes that come in from unknown acts. Sometimes it will be three or four months before I listen to your tape, if then.
I need something to pique my curiosity. Maybe I will see an ad in the Scene where I will see that you are on some hot show somewhere else, and then I’ll go, “Michael Belkin booked them; maybe there is something about them. I’d better go read their bio and listen to their tape.” Or maybe they rented a flatbed truck and performed in front of the Phantasy at Undercurrents [Cleveland area band showcase], or something creative like that. There are many ways to pique my interest, but the competition is stiff. If a well-known act in town is willing to do a show for me for a reasonable price, they are going to get it because the bottom line is selling tickets.
One thing that you can do is go to the promoter with a plan for selling tickets. Go to him and say, “We want on this show really bad, and a) we will play for free; b) give us 25 tickets and we will go out and sell them.” Realize that for the promoter, money is the bottom line. It’s not my job to support your life. Everyone is in it for the money. If you are one of those who claim to not be in it for the money, you’re lying. You have to eat. You have to pay rent. You’ve got to make money one way or another. I don’t like it. You don’t like it, but it’s a fact of life. So the bottom line is, What can you do for the promoter? Give me a reason to put you on the show.
Is it important for you to see a band live before you book them?
One of the lines I use is, “If I want to see a band I’ll book them myself,” when bands call to ask me to come see them at this or that club. It’s really hard for me to get out to see a band because I’m here. I have my own shows to take care of; and if I do have a night off, the last place I want to go is to another bar. If you have piqued my interest, I am going to book you because I want to see what you are all about. It’s like that for national acts too. I booked Transvision Vamp, not because I thought I was going to make a lot of money, but because I wanted to see what she [Wendy James] does on stage. Luckily, it was a successful show.
You have to realize that the problems that a local band has are no different from the problems that a national act has. When Atlantic Records releases an album, there are 19 others that they release that same week. Ask Kevin Raleigh, late of the Michael Stanley Band. When his album was released on Atlantic, 19 others came out that same week. He is competing against not only those 19 other albums on his own record label, but he is competing against every other record that every other label released that week. When you get signed, all you are doing is moving up to the next level and starting at square one again. Even if you are a local band, you are still competing against everyone else in the industry, not just against the other local bands.
Is Nine Inch Nails a local band? Where does he live now? LA? I heard he bought Sharon Tate’s place, via New Orleans, via Cleveland, via Mercer, Pa.. What is he? Yes, he has played in some bands from Cleveland, but he also played in a band called The Innocent on a Chicago label.
How do you get booked into markets other than your home?
We lack booking agents in this market. There is a national booking agency in Detroit that pushes Detroit-area bands onto national tours. There are a lot of smaller national booking agents around the country who book lesser-known acts, and you don’t have to be from that city to be on their rosters. The Junk Monkeys from Detroit are booked by a guy from San Francisco. There are a few agents in Cleveland who book bands on the college circuit, like a G. G. Greg. G. G. Greg makes most of his money booking bands outside of Cleveland, not in Cleveland. First Light is on the roster of an agency in Washington DC. Try to hook up with a booking agency. Find a band that you are compatible with; find out who their agent is, and try to get a slot with them on five Midwest dates. Or go to other cities and find the bands that are playing in front of the audiences that you would like to play to. Network with other bands; offer them a spot on your shows in Cleveland in return for a spot with them in their home town. Look for other methods if the obvious ones don’t work.
Look into fanzines; a lot of people don’t realize that this international publication called Alternative Press comes out of Cleveland. It’s a great paper, and it comes out of a little apartment on the west side.
Cities have their turns. In the 80’s it was Minneapolis; then Athens, Georgia; then Austin, and finally Seattle. Cleveland’s turn is coming. Mark my words, and it is going to come in the techno-pop or alternative vein. Nine Inch Nails broke it. Death of Samantha is a national act. We already talked about My Dad Is Dead. There have been a lot of bands that have gotten somewhere but aren’t known as Cleveland bands, like Pere Ubu. Hello. Musicians from that band play in other bands like They Might Be Giants. Look at R&B: from the O’Jays, to LeVert, to the Rudeboys, etc.
I’m tired of the talk about Cleveland. I’m tired of the sob stories. I’m tired of the negative energy. Bands should take that negative energy, turn it into positive energy, and further their careers. Don’t expect it to happen in a year or two. Look at the Spin Doctors, who I passed on more times than I can count. Other promoters booked them around here and they drew 50 people. Things take time. Now the Spin Doctors are this “instant hit”; that record came out over a year ago. Bob Seger was a local artist in Detroit for ten years before he finally made it big. Look how long it took Sammy Hagar to cross the continent. He was the Michael Stanley of the San Francisco Bay area for the longest time. Longevity is the key. I’ve seen a lot of bands who were on the verge, and then they broke up. Keep it together.
Is networking important?
Of course it’s important. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in the business. People have this intimidation thing. Don’t be in awe of anyone. Go up to the person who you want to talk to at a party, or at his club, and talk to him. Tell him that you are going to be sending him a tape, or whatever, in the next week. He will remember you and is a lot more likely to listen to your tape if he has a face to attach it to.
You have to learn how to get attention. Attention is something you have to get all the way up the chain. Madonna still needs to get your attention and she knows it. She sure got your attention this week, didn’t she? [with the release of Sex] Springsteen hasn’t had such a great year, has he? He didn’t really get our attention. Michael Jackson calls up the Enquirer and plants that crazy stuff about himself just to keep his name in print. Half the stuff you read in the rags is planted there by the artists themselves.
I know that a musician’s job is to play and write music, but that just isn’t good enough in the 90’s. Ask Aerosmith. They make all of their own decisions and run everything. You should see these bands who play here sometimes; they are playing the show, and driving the truck and selling their t-shirts, and making their own t-shirts. You do whatever it takes to get it done. You have to be driven; you have to be committed. Your music, your band, your project has to be #1 in your life. Your day gig, or whatever else you do to pay your bills, has to be secondary. You have to be committed; because if you’re not, that next guy is. He is going to have an edge on you.
Wow, that brings back some memories – in a way it’s hard to believe that was only 12 years ago because it sure feels like longer: the names have all changed (other than Michael Stanley!) and I am almost completely removed from that scene. I try to not dwell too much on the past because it’s all so out of reach and the positive and negative emotions fight each other and just end up overwhelming me: much was accomplished, much more left undone, and, combining a bit of reality and a lot of self-pity, I have never felt properly appreciated for my efforts and accomplishments around here. But who does (other than Dick Goddard and Michael S.)?