Desdemona’s Revenge

Desdemona’s Revenge

This past weekend’s three-day Desdemona Indie music festival at Sawyer Point came at the end of a week that — if you paid attention to local media, especially The Enquirer — implied that Cincinnati was on its last legs as a viable “big city.”

With the census report indicating the city was losing population at a rate higher than any other big city in the United States, the hyperbole that Cincinnati is a boring, ass-backwards town riddled with violence and racial strife and devoid of anything to keep young, ambitious and creative people from making the Queen City their lifelong residence was at full volume.

Coverage of Desdemona also painted a bleak picture, as organizer Nick Spencer’s frustrations with what he saw as a lack of full support from city leaders often overshadowed reporting about what made the festival so great in the first place — the cutting-edge music and a cool concert-going experience. In the midst of the city’s low self-esteem, here was Mr. Creative Class presenting something vital on our own riverfront that many young people would travel to Chicago or other “cool” towns to see. Desdemona could be the start of a creative-class revolution, but it often seemed painted more as a fringy little side project.

But Desdemona turned out to be an unabashed success. Thousands of young music fans piled into to Sawyer Point over three days to see everything from Hip Hop (Ghostface Killah) and Electronica (Annie) to Dance Rock (Radio 4) and Indie Pop (Richard Swift). The performances were top-notch, and many of the performers, some of whom had never played Cincinnati before, commented on what a great festival experience it was. It’s the kind of good-vibes buzz that could spread to other artists and booking agents, making Cincinnati look a little more appealing to those assembling touring itineraries.

Things were overwhelmingly peaceful at the event. Spencer told CityBeat’s John Fox Sunday evening that there had been no arrests and some on police detail were even sent home early. It was amusing to see the police standing around all day, idly chatting with each other all over the fest grounds. When rapper Ghostface Killah, who had the biggest crowd Friday night and also cost Spencer the most in booking fees and added insurance, took the stage, several cops hurried to the crowd’s perimeter. But after a couple of songs, they fell back and continued their conversations. It was clear this was not a hostile or aggressive crowd.

There were a few flaws, as is to be expected with any first-year fest. Most problems were worked out as the festival progressed, and the others are things that could be handled better if there are future Desdemonas. One of the side stages had consistent sound problems, marring sets by Marvin and the Experience and Radio 4. Press credentials seemed to be doled out on the honor system. Some local acts mentioned that they had to hunt down Spencer for load-in details.

Local Punk/Blues trio The Sundresses were at the center of the only “controversy” of Desdemona. The band cancelled its set at the last minute due to a communication breakdown with Spencer. The Sundresses’ Brad Schnittger said that, despite Spencer’s insistence that he had e-mailed every act, the band never received any information about their appearance. He said they found out they were playing when they saw their name listed in an advertisement in CityBeat; they found out their set-time the same way. He said they would have played for free if asked but never heard a word from Spencer.

“When I asked Nick Spencer to tell me why The Sundresses should play Desdemona, his response was (with a tone of indignity), ‘Well, if you don’t wanna play, just don’t play,’ ” wrote Schnittger in an e-mail to local media. “Well, fine, if we’re not worth YOUR time, you’re not worth OURS, Nick.”

Hopefully, these are the kind of things that can be handled better next time — if there is a next time; Spencer told the Enquirer it was doubtful he’d “reward” the city by having the fest here again next year. If Spencer — who told me last month that he was handling every detail without volunteer help until Day 1 of the festival — spreads some pre-fest duties around (getting someone to handle PR, local band liaison-ing and other tasks), the bumps could be smoothed over easily.

Spencer also told Fox that he was close to reaching his attendance expectations but was still going to lose money. He said he planned to go back to the city this week to again ask for assistance. Before the closing set by The Walkmen on Sunday, Spencer got on stage and asked the audience to go back and buy two more beers before the 10 p.m. “last call” so he could hit his target intake.

In another example of hindering city rules, the festival had to stop selling beer, a major source of income, just as the headlining acts were starting each night, taking another chunk of income from Spencer.

For the average fest-goer, the experience overall was fantastic and the music was amazing. Desdemona offered a chance for fans of Indie music to see some of their favorite — or future favorite — bands. It also gave the opportunity for more adventurous music fans of all kinds to take a chance and check out something new. You could spot a few older attendees who seemed to not know any of the bands but were curious nonetheless.

It’s the kind of thing that should happen here every weekend. More events like this are exactly what the city needs to encourage young people from fleeing to other cities. It was also a great way to get people to visit our sometimes struggling downtown area.

Desdemona’s overall success was revenge on the naysayers who were just waiting to say, “I told you so.” Instead, it’s Spencer who can claim victory.

Be sure to check my full review here for more musings on Desdemona, plus a slide show of over 100 photos.

— Mike Breen

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10 Comments on “Desdemona’s Revenge”


  1. I have to admit I didn’t actually go to the festival (the bands all sucked with 2 or 3 local exceptions), but the crowds in all the pictures looked aweful thin. The last thing this struggling city needs is to shell out a bunch of bucks in subsidies to a whitebread wankfest like Desdemona. Lets focus on fundamentals.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Right, just keep feeding the big corporations instead. You should run for mayor, genius.

    People like Felix are why Cincinnati sucks. Period.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    o felix culpa, what do you mean by “whitebread wankfest”? I want to understand exactly why you dislike such festivals and the words you have chosen to describe it have left me with no denotation.

    Never-the-less, I did attend one night of Desdemona. The crowd was thin but I had a good time. I have been to many of these kinds of festivals in other larger cities and I am hoping that this is a sign of what’s to come instead of a one time deal.


  4. Is Desdemona the musical equivalent of Spencer’s political efforts?

    No one wants to help him (no volunteers). He dismisses and disrespects the few who do (the band that didn’t play). He purues a “guerilla/viral” marketing campaign and whines about being overlooked by the major media. He shits all over City Council and then cries when they won’t support HIM.

    He thinks he’s doing people a favor by promoting himself (“reward”). A last-minute plaintive wailing for financial support (ever’body buy 2 more beers- I screwed up the financials and don’t comprehend the relationship of variable costs to fixed costs). Anemic turnout (thin crowds). And then- silence. No interviews, no blog updates.

    When will this guy learn that arrogance is not a substitute for ability or appeal?

    This could have been a huge success, especially given the gorgeous weather, but like his council campaigns it became another plot device in the Personality Cult that is Nick Spencer. I rooted for Nick’s success on this one fearing that Desdemona’s failure would be one more reason for him to keep crapping on Cincinnati and crying like a little girl about how unfair life is. Well, bring on the tears I guess.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    It was an undeniable success. Seperate your personal feelings about Spencer and just enjoy the product. He had plenty of volunteers to work the actual event. The crowds were hardly thin, considering that many of the artists were up-and-comers (there were more people there than at the Blues Fest — now in its 14th year — at different points). He did an interview with the Enquirer following the event and he posted a long message on the WOXY.com message boards after it as well. I’ve never heard him complain about lack of media coverage (in the woxy post he noted how GREAT the local media coverage was). He did not attack the Sundresses for cancelling; they attacked him. He persued City Council for months before his last ditch effort; they just ignored him. And the festival IS a “reward” to the city; you don’t think having thousands of people on the riverfront and many from out of town had any economic impact? AND you have to expect to lose money with an inaugural event like this. Festivals like this overpay acts and the first year it is important to make as big of a splash as possible. Nick had balls throwing all of his cards on the table and taking such a big risk, mostly in the name of civic pride.

    It wasn’t perfect (what first year event is?) and Nick clearly has the ability to rub people the wrong way. But, Alice, most of your statements are just false.

    With all of the negativity and hatred coming Desdemona’s way, is it any wonder that very few people ever try to do anything progressive and forward-thinking in this city? It’s easier to just sit back and cry about everything, like Alice.


  6. I’m not “crying” about anything. It just seems Spencer pimps himself nonstop, pisses off everyone who wants to help him, and then sulks about being let down having failed to organize and promote properly.

    “Guerilla” and “viral” marketing is good for low cost promotions- not so much for $100,000 gigs.

    “Pursued city council for months”? Not according to Ron Wahl’s published comments (Wahl works for Spencer’s running mate Jim Tarbell).

    Telling that you don’t discount my actual comparison. Whatever. If Spencer can learn to play nice and get his shit together he will be a force to reckon with. I just don’t see it happening. Maybe blogs about his cat?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I just liked the festival and could give a shit about him as a political candidate (good ideas at times, but still too Republican-ish for me). I don’t know anything about him burning his political supporters, but I certainly didn’t see or hear about him disrespecting his Desdemona helpers. Please enlighten me.

    Is Nick an ego-ist? No doubt. But he produced. If the world was free of self-serving egomaniacs, well, nothing would ever get done (we wouldn’t have ANY politicians). Why are you so worried about the “man,” instead of what he actually accomplished? You sound like a jilted lover.

    And all of the city council members are feigning dumb about getting asked about desdemona funding.

    I liked the ‘cat blog’ idea though!

  8. Anonymous Says:

    But anyway, I guess I’m just looking for your reasons as to why this wasn’t a success, Alice. There are thousands of people who were there who would disagree. Everyone got paid, no one got hurt or arrested, the music was great, the turnout was solid. Nick lost a little money — he doesn’t seem too hurt about it.

    I do agree with the original blog post. Nick would be well served to use more volunteers on the organizational end. And maybe that is a sign of being a little too egotistical/control freaky. But, again, that’s hardly a reason to call Desdemona a failure.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Didn’t Taste of Cincinnati get its funding about a week before the actual event? Why wasn’t it too late for them as well?

  10. seanzy Says:

    I totally enjoyed the festival and didnt think once about Nick’s cat. We Are Scientists were loud enough that I couldnt hear Alicia whining at home. Great shows!


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