THE CITY OF KENT has a long and proud history as a music town. From the folk-filled 1960s and the start of the Kent State Folk Festival, to the glory days of the 1970s when music by the likes of Devo, the Numbers Band and the Measles (featuring a young Joe Walsh) blared out of downtown venues, Kent’s reputation has often been linked to happenings around the country, the events of May 4, 1970—and to music.
That tradition continues to this day, thanks to a revitalized downtown, a growing university, the diversity of artists presented by the Kent Stage, and the popular music festivals presented by the Crooked River Arts Council.
In early 2009, I sat down with three of my friends to toss around the idea of putting together a music festival in Kent. Entrepreneur Mike Beder, then WNIR-FM sales manager Marty Student, Kent Stage owner Tom Simpson and I met to discuss the concept of a summer festival—when the weather was good, students were scarce and downtown businesses needed a boost. We decided on a blues festival, since it seemed like the perfect accompaniment to the heat of the season. The whole “blues and brews” idea seemed like a no brainer.
Business sponsors were secured, media promotional partners came on board, and we started to pitch the idea to downtown establishments. The concept was, and remains to this day, relatively simple. We asked the venues to host a band that would fit the event, and in turn, our group would deliver a multifaceted professional marketing campaign to bring out the people. In order to operate such an event, we formed the Crooked River Arts Council, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
Seven downtown venues signed up, with a nice line-up of local and regional blues artists. But even though everything seemed to be in place for that first Kent Blues Fest on July 24, 2009, we still were nervous.
“It really was a ‘if you build it, will they come?’ situation,” says Beder, who at the time operated one downtown bar—the Water Street Tavern. “We wanted to build on Kent’s music reputation, showcase the city, help the downtown economy during a slow time, and put on a good party.”
Fortunately, the crowds came out and had a blast. The response to the inaugural offering led to immediate talks of making the Blues Fest an annual event. The festival expanded over the years, adding venues and artists, garnering more sponsors, and boosting the marketing efforts.
“From our perspective, the lack of parking in the city meant we were doing our job,” Beder adds with a laugh.
Over the years, the Kent Blues Fest has presented a wide range of artists encompassing the many facets of the blues. Audiences flocked to see national artists such as legendary harmonica player James Cotton (who passed away earlier this year), Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Tab Benoit, Mitch Ryder and Roomful of Blues, as well as local and regional favorites including Wallace Coleman, the Armstrong Bearcat Band, Colin John and Long Tall Deb, the Juke Hounds, Jon Mosey, the Bluestones, and dozens of others.
The 9th Annual Kent Blues Fest continues the tradition on Friday, July 14, featuring live blues acts at more than 20 venues. “It’s our signature event, the one that started it all,” says Student.
The council now presents four festivals annually—the Blues Fest in July, the ‘RoundTown Music Festival in September, Kent BeatleFest in February, and the Kent Reggae Jam in April. Two of these festivals actually originated from previous efforts.
The Kent Reggae Jam was the extension of a mini-festival spearheaded by Charlie Thomas, owner of
the legendary Ray’s Place restaurant and bar. Thomas, a big fan of reggae music, successfully organized “Reggae
Meltdown” for several years, but he had tostep away when his other business interests made it impossible to continue. He literally had other fish to fry. Thomas happily agreed to let our group move it forward.
The ‘Round Town Music Festival grew out of the long-running Kent State Folk Festival, which got its start in 1966. The event, presented in association with Main Street Kent, now showcases all types ofmusic at more than 30 venues on one night. This event goes beyond the city’s fine bars and restaurants to include coffeehouses, galleries and
even yoga studios, as well as Acorn Alley Plaza and the Hometown Bank Plaza.
The first Kent BeatleFest was held in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s arrival in America. It was designed to just be a one time event, not an annual happening. Boosted by the barrage of publicity surrounding the Beatles anniversary, the response to the Kent BeatleFest was “yeah, yeah, yeah!” Fans immediately started asking about plans for the following year. We all agreed that the Beatles event would continue. Still, we were concerned about drawing people to downtown bars and restaurants in the heart of winter. The worries were unfounded. A couple of years ago, the temperature on the evening of the Beatles celebration was all of nine degrees, and downtown was hopping. The 2017 Kent BeatleFest was the biggest yet. It’s a tribute to the universal appeal of the music, and the resilience of the people of Kent and northeast Ohio.
The Kent BeatleFest not only presents top tribute acts such as Hard Day’s Night, Revolution Pie, Abbey Road and Liverpool Lads—it also gives local acts of all music genres a chance to put their own spin on the classics.
Student handles all of business and media sponsorships for the Crooked River Arts Council.
“From the very beginning, we decided that all of the music had to be free,” he says. “No venues could charge a cover. That was key. But it also put the burden on us to fund the marketing and operation. That’s where our business sponsors come in. We simply could not operate without their support.”
Sponsors receive recognition on all marketing materials—print and online advertising, social media, festival web sites, radio spots, posters, and other collateral. The no cover charge policy adds immensely to the power of the marketing campaign.
“We continually want to build on the idea that Kent is a destination for music and entertainment,” says Student. “’Free’ is a very popular price point, and it helps to draw folks from all over the region to see what the city has to offer.”
The non-profit status of the Crooked River Arts Council meant that the group could apply to the city of Kent for funding assistance. The goals of the council align well with the city’s objectives.
“The City of Kent is proud to provide support to the Crooked River Arts Council in the form of Celebrate Kent! Grants for each of their four annual music festivals,” says Tom Wilke, Kent Economic Development Director. “What we particularly appreciate about their efforts is how they strategically market their events to people outside the city and the county. This serves to introduce many new patrons to our wonderfully redeveloped downtown
and leads to the promise of many return visits down the road. Bringing entertainment dollars in from outside the area is a boon for our many downtown entrepreneurs and allows them to maintain and expand their workforce, employing many Kent residents and Kent State University students.”
Heather Malarcik, Executive Director of Main Street Kent, echoes Wilkes comments.
“These music festivals draw people from cities all around us to enjoy free, live music and
explore our downtown at all times of the year,” says Malarcik. “The economic impact to our downtown businesses is compelling, and each event provides a great opportunity for business owners to engage with the community and
support the Kent music scene.”
Over the years, the Crooked River Arts Council has distributed thousands of dollars to Grill For Good, Family And Community Services, Big Brothers & Sisters, an initiative providing refurbished musical instruments to veterans,
music programs at Kent Roosevelt, Ravenna, and Streetsboro High Schools, and more. One of the newest initiatives of the council is the establishment of a high school senior music education grant program. The annual opportunity is targeted at seniors who reside in Portage or Summit counties, and who desire to pursue a music career after high school. The amount of the grant is $5,000 and will be paid to the institution providing the musical training.
“This outreach is something we’ve been wanting to do for some time,” says Beder. “It’s a way for us to give back to the city.”
To keep up on the latest on all of the festivals, check out the individual web sites for each event. Businesses interested in becoming involved and keeping the music alive and well in Kent should contact Student at 330-671-3476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to welcoming venues, amazingly talented artists, support from the city, generous sponsors and supportive music fans from Kent and throughout northeast Ohio (and beyond), these four events showcase the city’s arts and
cultural scene and add to the economic vitality of the town we call home. It’s great when a plan comes together.