By Peter John Ross
How many bands have had a top 10 single from Columbus? None. Ever hear of a film being shot in Columbus that made it to Sundance? Nope. Aside from Cameron Mitchell, how many mom & pop restaurants are Columbus only? Maybe a handful, and I assure you they aren’t making as much money as Applebee’s on a Friday night. We live in a city; basically Mayberry from Andy Griffith times 1,000, where conservatism is a mantra. Columbus, Ohio has one of the very few Republican, ultra conservative newspapers (the Columbus Dispatch). Not only do they report stories from a right wing skew, they buy most of their articles from OTHER papers and cities. Gee, I wonder why we have no identity of our own when over 50% of the stories are written by people in other cities and we don’t even get to see anything of our own city. We’ve earned the nickname “Cowtown” because Columbus has the illusion of being a big city, with its skyscrapers downtown, fancy malls, but in reality it’s not like any other larger city.
Most cities get to have some kind of hometown pride. This city seems terrified to embrace anything that hasn’t already been deemed “hip” by some other city. Our most successful bands are cover bands. I was privy to watching a local rapper trying to get the community to support him at a community event in Southfield, and his own neighborhood pretended he wasn’t there. It was a song ABOUT Southfield! For God’s sake, Lil’ Bow Wow is from Reynoldsburg and I went to the opening night of his movie and there were 11 people in the theater on a Friday night …. IN REYNOLDSBURG!
Why doesn’t Columbus, the city support its own artists?
I have a theory. Anyone looking to make a living at the arts knows that rent isn’t free. The reality is that art costs money. Making a film requires a lot of money in some cases, ranging in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions. Making a good demo for a band requires money to get a well recorded, engineered CD. Even paint and brushes cost money.
In other places outside of this sensory deprivation tank, there is a lot more “new money”. Columbus is one of the richest cities in the world, but we never hear about it. All this “old money” and the deeply conservative rich people in Central Ohio do not want to give up their money to starving artists when they can make more money, or start a non profit group & pay themselves a salary for being so generous. Also bureaucracy rules so that most of the money goes to the administration of giving money to the arts, not the arts.
Most big cities have a “Gossip” or “Society” section of their newspapers. This allows anyone to find out where the Old Money is going to be, maybe at an Opera, or a Museum opening, or a Gala of some sort. Want to get face time with the Old Money? Read about it in the paper, but not here in Columbus. We don’t have anything like that in our newspapers. Of course it helps that our only major newspaper is owned by one of the richest families in the United States. Of course, they also own a TV station, multiple radio stations, and most recently one of the 2 “Arts” papers too.
Most major metropolitan cities have tons of “new money”, meaning people like highly paid sports figures or already famous musicians that would rather put their cash into high risk investments. A millionaire in their 20’s like an NBA player is much more likely to invest in something like clubs, restaurants, movies, or has a cousin who is a rapper etc. This influx of money into the community supports not only the few artists, but also the technicians and support for that industry. If you want to invest in a band, which means money is going to the studio, the engineers, concert venues, print ads, etc. A new club is more likely to succeed if they have the financial backing of someone with money, but if a famous person who invests also frequents said club, more people are likely to come too. It’s about investing into the culture of the city itself. Making more jobs and creating the whole environment for the arts to thrive.
In Columbus we will never be able to have an NFL team because the Ohio State Buckeyes will never allow it, or the city can’t afford to support both a Big Ten college team and the NFL too. We’re off to a good start with having the NHL team the Bluejackets, but none of the players are making enough cash to influx that back into the city & the culture. Yet. Give them one or two winning season, and maybe some of the players will make enough money to spread it around and maybe just a few of the players to actually LIVE in Columbus for more than the season. Now we also need an NBA team, a few hundred million dollars, and we might START to get caught up to most metropolitan cities.
Even then, I don’t know if this city will open up & decide if it likes anything that hasn’t already been homogenized and incorporated. I was under the impression that this city had a lot to offer. So far, I’ve been wrong about that. It’s not just the media, as they are indeed a part of the problem, but they do in fact represent the people too. Most people don’t want to hear a song they’ve never heard before. Most people won’t see a movie that doesn’t have a marquee name on the poster. Maybe in 5-10 years, people might actually decide for themselves if they like a song, and not wait for Entertainment Tonight to tell them its okay.
Part of this attitude seems to be, “If you’re from Columbus, then you can’t be good.” It’s as if people are saying, “Well, you can’t be any good as an actor because you are my neighbor and no one from here has ever made it, obviously you aren’t good enough.” Not taking into consideration that there isn’t enough work for even the most prolific actors to work full time without a day job. Only a handful of musicians can afford to work full time, and those that do are almost universally doing cover songs and not original music. It’s as if we’re saying that our own lives can’t be interesting enough to write about (whether it be music or movies), so we’d much rather hear about something so exotic and interesting like Chicago or Texas where life is so much more intriguing.
I mentioned grants before. Sure, we have a few tiny grants, but the bureaucracy of getting one, and the precious few that are offered, are just meager morsels of cash. Nothing an artist could live on by any means, nor create anything big. The art foundation grants appear to be more for art and artists that otherwise would never see any money, IE abstract films or painters, and performance artists. That’s great for them, but it doesn’t help the struggling musician who maybe wants to make an album that people want to hear or the filmmaker who might actually want to make a movie that makes a profit. The scratchy-black-&- white-abstract-expressionistic-man-living-in-a-box-movies or the performance artist peeing on an American flag will have their funding, but anyone else with pop sensibilities needs to either leave Columbus or struggle perpetually.
So what’s the solution? How do we change a mindset that has apparently been etched in stone?
In my opinion, all we need is one hometown hero to make it big, and we can prove to the conservative money holders that these long shot investments in musicians or filmmakers are a worthwhile venture. Then, that hometown hero would have to either stay in Columbus or work out of Columbus to start the Hometown Pride. Every single wannabe at that point can use the example set before them as the evidence that sometimes long shots pay off. Think of the “Seattle Grunge” movement for music or the Kevin Smith New Jersey pride in indie film. Thus far, even when someone FROM Columbus makes it big, it has had no effect on hometown pride, but then again every band or actor or artist that ever left Columbus never came back (like George Clooney and even Lil’ Bow Wow).
What is needed is for real investors to put money into the pop arts of Columbus. Art represents the collective of the community. Thus far, we reflect that this town has NO identity and that Columbus would rather buy articles from Florida than write one ourselves (see the Dispatch). We’d also like to hear bands play cover songs than write one about their own lives.
The only other alternative is to leave Columbus, not worry about the city that isn’t worried about you, and seek out a community that will accept you and your work. If you’re planning on having a career in the next few years, this might be your only real option because change is slow.