Local Current Blog

Rochester rocks: How Med City is becoming Music City

via Riverside Concerts on Facebook

Rochester is nicknamed “Med City,” and many people might not think of anything else when it comes to the Minnesota city — but Rochester also has a growing arts and entertainment scene, and locals are now working to turn it into a destination for music fans.

Steven Schmidt, executive director of Rochester Civic Music Department/Riverside Concerts, is one of those people. He has been putting on shows in Rochester for almost three decades and can attest to how the department has changed — from its days focusing primarily on classical music, to now presenting a broader range of styles.

“When I joined the department I felt that there was a need for us to really diversify our offerings and as a city arts agency, I felt we needed to serve as much of the population as possible,” he said. “So we really took it upon ourselves to really up our game and present all sorts of music. In the time that I’ve been here, I think that the programs this department has started kind of helped plant the seeds for the growing arts community that is evolving here.”

As part of his job, Schmidt oversees the department’s free Down By the Riverside concerts, which draw tens of thousands of people, along with its Riverside Live! and Thursdays on First and Third concert series. Over the years, Schmidt has brought in thousands of artists, from Minnesota-based musicians to those known around the country, and even if he isn’t familiar with some of the artists he is asked to bring in, Schmidt says he is always interested in learning more about what members of his community want to see.

“There’s a real bad rap about Rochester, that there’s nothing to do here, and that’s not true,” he said. “There are lots of things to do here, it’s just that people have brought into this wrong-headed notion that there is nothing to do. This department presents the same sorts of artists that you can see in Twin Cities venues ranging from the Turf Club to Orchestra Hall and everything in between, but folks would still rather travel to the Twin Cities for whatever reason, and they’ll pay Twin Cities prices.

“We offer the concerts at a substantial discount,” he continues, “and so trying to get ticket buyers to spend their entertainment dollars in Rochester and not necessarily travel to the Twin Cities, or Chicago, or New York, or Paris, France. I mean, we’re doing really great work right here in River City. Please support it here, because if you do, we’ll be able to do more of that type of thing here.”

While Schmidt is a veteran in the business, the growing music scene has been opening opportunities for newcomers to jump in, including Christian Clements. A recent transplant to Rochester from Minneapolis, Clements started Positive Tuesday because he says he missed the liveliness of the Twin Cities and wanted to bridge the gap between the artists in both cities. For him, coming from Minneapolis has made working as a private promoter a little easier, but still, being new to the business means Clements is playing it safe when booking artists.

“I’m learning how to be a promoter as I go, so I’m trying to make sure I don’t lose money on shows and that I really do build something for the community and build a new city for artists to come and play,” Clements said. “We’re only an hour away from the Twin Cities. There’s a plethora of talent to be able to cherrypick, and so right now I’m trying to stick close to artists that I know and trying to build shows around that.”

Although there have been more and more musicians from outside the Rochester area coming in to play shows, Schmidt believes it is important to showcase the local artists who live in Rochester. 

“The artist gets to decide what kind of music they want to do and we support their artistic vision,” Schmidt said. “We care that they are honing their craft and getting better at their craft and I’ve observed — not only as a professional, touring and recording musician from here, but with the day job — there is growing sophistication [among musicians] from here. There is some really cool and interesting music being made here.”

While Clements mostly has local bands open for the other groups he brings in, he also wants to do what he can to support local musicians in his community — artists like rock bands Under the Pavilion and Second Story, and hip-hop musician Jae Havoc. Clements believes having local bands open for touring acts is helping them to build connections with more people outside of Rochester.

“I’ve really enjoyed incorporating Rochester bands into the shows. What I’m doing, I can’t do without the support of my community, and I think that it’s opening up doors for emerging bands to get their name out there and say, ‘Hey, we opened up for Caroline Smith or Astronautalis.’ Not only does it help put the word out there locally, but it also gives newer and smaller bands the opportunity to connect with Minneapolis.”

Even though Schmidt and Clements want to see local artists thrive in Rochester, they both agreed that there are some things the city is lacking, like a high-quality recording studio and larger venues dedicated to live music.

Rochester and Mayo Clinic officials gather on Monday, March 16, 2015 to announce the city’s plan to buy the historic Chateau Theatre in downtown Rochester. (Elizabeth Baier/MPR)

“A lot of artists in this town have opportunities to play for little or no money and some venues expect the artists to deliver the audience and that’s really difficult,” Schmidt said. “I’m hoping that venues will get on board with the fact that hey, we are helping to develop audiences for our artists because they help bring customers to my establishment and we need to be paying artists better. Things have gotten a lot better over the years and it is possible for artists to make some money in this town. Is it possible for an artist to make a living as an artist in this town? That continues to be a challenge, and that’s something I hope will continue to get better.”

Schmidt is working with officials from the City of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic to restore the Historic Chateau Theater into a versatile venue that can host all types of events from dance to theatre, and different musical genres, but plans for the project are still in progress.

Although Clements is also supportive of many of the free concerts the city of Rochester puts on, he would also like to see more ticketed events.

“Making music the priority is going to be the tipping point in making Rochester a music town,” he said. “I’m not trying to say that I invented people paying for music in Rochester, but [previously] it wasn’t something that happened regularly. There’s lots of free music in Rochester, and the city supports lots of free events, but actually saying this artist is here this night and it’s worth your hard-earned money is pretty amazing.”

This weekend, Clements and Schmidt are both bringing in Doomtree members — P.O.S and Dessa — for two separate concerts on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. (The Current’s Mark Wheat will emcee the Dessa concert.) They’re each expecting a good turnout.

Simone Cazares is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, majoring in communication and journalism. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.