Backline Cleveland, a gener8tor program made possible by the City of Cleveland and The Finch Group, launched in June to grant local musicians the chance to elevate their careers. The 12-week accelerator offers coaching opportunities with industry professionals, as well as the chance to connect and collaborate with other artists.
The program’s goal is to launch the careers of undiscovered talent in the city, no matter what level they are at. Backline Cleveland also awards a $20,000 grant to each of the four finalists selected after they participate in a rigorous application, audition and interview process.
Developing an accelerator for musicians
Backline was developed in 2018 as part of gener8tor, an accelerator program that supports startups, particularly those in the tech space.
The inaugural program took place in Milwaukee, where four musicians were selected to participate in a 12-week program that involved coaching, mentoring and industry networking, as well as grant funding.
Program Manager Brian Lynch has a background in music and shifted to working closely with each director of the markets Backline is involved in, which includes Milwaukee, Detroit and now Cleveland.
Lynch said the program was sold to cities similar to Milwaukee that have thriving arts and culture scenes but may not be as well known for offering opportunities to musicians as areas like Austin or Nashville.
“The argument is that if you have a really great tech or business degree… your options are to go and work for Google and Silicon Valley, or some startup in Austin—the arts and culture scenes in these places really play a role in where people decide to go,” Lynch said. “And so we wanted to do the same thing in Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland where we are retaining a bunch of this really talented pool of young people.”
Sean Oatz, a Cleveland-based manager and promoter, was selected by the Backline team to lead Backline Cleveland.
Oatz said after spending years working in clubs and helping artists get signed, now is the time for him to provide the “underdog” Cleveland music community the resources they need to break into the industry.
Oatz is recognized for managing Lil Cray, whose song “Kyrie Irving” went viral in 2016. The manager had a hand in influencing audiences to listen to the rapper’s music beyond the viral fame.
“My success was mainly from people starting to notice me [and saying], ‘When you get with him, he’s going to blow your song up and get you a deal,” Oatz said.
Oatz said he wants to create a formula with Backline that helps local artists get recognized beyond the city limits and launch their careers in music.
He believes the public will hear from the first artist in Cleveland with a hit song by January or February of next year.
“We’re gonna blow up somebody, and it’s gonna happen quick,” he said. “We’re a music city, and it’s time we start winning like a music city.”
Participating in the selective Backline application process
Backline looks for musical talent from artists and bands on all different paths and stages in their careers.
Lex Allen, a Milwaukee-based soul-pop artist, was among the four finalists and grant recipients for the Backline Milwaukee program.
Allen, a non-binary person of color, already had a vision for themselves as an artist. They said Backline offered the opportunity to get to the next level of having their music heard outside of their hometown.
“It opened up my eyes to the possibility that it definitely gave us all the tools we needed to succeed. I was able to get set up for recording. It was just everything I thought it would be,” Allen said.
Allen said they were initially hesitant to apply because they didn’t want to compete with other artists.
“I work very heavily to promote equality within the LGBTQ community, and being a queer person of color myself, I feel like it’s very important to see the end goal,” Allen said. “That goal is having people see that they can be their authentic self without shifting themselves because of a certain fan base.”
They already had music on rotation on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee which Backline initially partnered with to spread the word about the program.
Allen applied online and heard they were selected as a finalist. The five-phase selection process involved whittling down applicants to the top 50, 25, 15 and eight.
Over the course of phase three, the top 15 finalists were paired with other artists and a producer for a writing session.
Lynch said artists who may never have been in a professional studio before are brought in with other musicians for five hours as part of the selection process.
A song is created out of this writing session. Judges assess how well each finalist collaborates with other artists, works in the studio and gets their vision across.
The Backline program involves 10 different ears hearing each finalist’s music before they select the final four artists in each city.
They try to make it fair and bring in judges who know what to listen for, Lynch said.
The last part of the process allows A&R, agents and managers to hear the artists’ thoughts on marketing and what they’ve already been able to accomplish on their own and what they want to do in the future.
They see if those ideas align with what is going to be successful in the industry.
Finally, a panel of music industry experts and the city’s program director will select the fellows based on their music, goals and ability to be impacted by the program.
The participants participated in meetings in New York and Los Angeles with top music industry pros for a “crash-course mentorship,” Allen said.
During this time, the artists received advice, guidance and the chance to have an open dialogue with people who could take an artist "a lifetime" to be able to get in front of, Allen said.
“They got us in rooms that would have taken us, by ourselves, probably years,” Allen said. “And they’re all listening to your music and it’s like nerve-racking, but then it’s like, ‘Oh damn! They’re listening to my music!’ They never knew who I was, but I’m going to leave some sort of impression on them from this encounter.”
These meetings help each Backline finalist develop their career path and plan.
Entering the 12-week accelerator program
“Everyone’s course of action is very different because you have so many artists that are at different levels,” Allen said. “So, for me, it was more getting music created.”
Lynch said the program is about figuring out what the artists’ needs are and helping them meet those needs and get to the next level.
“Some are working from a place of having a really big moment a few years ago—maybe they went on tour with some larger artists, maybe they have a really good following on Spotify,” Lynch said. “Others have 25 monthly listeners and play local shows for 10 people.”
Lynch’s team at gener8tor has a robust network and pooled together the collected network of the Backline directors in each participating city to find people to fill every role in this program.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer once we get it in front of everyone. It’s something that doesn’t take any residuals on the backend,” Lynch said. “So it is kind of too good to be true, sometimes, when people are first hearing about it.”
Lynch said the 12-week accelerator program has helped musicians expand their reach locally and get into other nearby markets. Distribution and label deals have come out of this.
Allen has auditioned for shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” but said Backline provides real opportunities to network, build connections and get the tools needed to succeed as an artist.
“They teach you how to build a fan base and engage with a fan base,” Allen said. “I feel like I’ve learned more from that than I would have been given an easy, ‘Here, here, come to the show! A million people are going to watch you and then they’re going to forget about you!’”
The Backline program also provides artists with a life coach and a therapist.
"It’s like a group session with you and the artists that are in the program,” Allen said. “So these things where you’re feeling alone but then you’re in a room with other artists who feel the same way you do. So it opens up this whole dialogue that lets you know, ‘I’m not alone in this.’”
Choosing cities in the Midwest to find and nurture musical talent
Lynch said the immediate impact of Backline’s selection process is getting musicians excited to join together and meet and collaborate with other artists on a local level.
The long-term impact is making cities like Cleveland a destination spot for music.
“Obviously, cost of living is lower in these places. So it’s really about showing artists that, hey, if they have the right connections regionally and nationally, they can live and work in their hometown and achieve the same results,” Lynch said.
Oatz said cities like Cleveland need “big names” who make it big in the region then go on to become successful and ultimately give back to their hometowns.
His vision is to have musicians from Cleveland treated the same way as professional athletes—with the whole city becoming fans and supporting them while they help to put Cleveland on the map.
“Major companies put millions of millions of dollars into acts to make them stars,” Oatz said. “But there’s somebody who's already a star that’s here in the city of Cleveland. And with the resources that Backline will provide for these artists, they’ll be the next big thing.”
Cleveland needs more local artists to make it big to represent the city like Machine Gun Kelly, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Chip Tha Ripper, he said.
“We need more people that’s from this city that’s riding down the street in Lamborghinis and really gonna give back to the community,” Oatz said. “And give the kids something to look up to here other than the street guys, or the crooks or the scammers. Let’s give people something real to look up to.”
Oatz said Cleveland’s creative communities are very strong but exclusive—he said it can be hard for diverse talent to be invited into certain artist groups.
Programs like Backline bring opportunities to the city. Undiscovered artists could go viral, but they might not have the resources to really last or make it in the music industry. This provides them that opportunity to break out.
“You can’t pull up to Motown records here. You can’t pull up to Capitol Records here. You can’t pull up to Universal Studios here, so that’s what it’s doing for us,” he said. “It’s giving us the opportunity to have something here that’s a resource that people can use.”
Allen said the COVID-19 pandemic has made staying in their hometown of Milwaukee a necessity, but the Internet has allowed them to get their music out and reach different audiences around the world.
Their experience in Backline has helped with this. Allen was able to record their new project and perform in London after being selected as a Backline Milwaukee fellow.
“I don’t think demographic matters anymore in terms of a ‘blow up’—you get a solid fan base in a city, and if you get indie stations start playing your stuff, the demand will be there. It’s a very grassroots mentality,” Allen said.
Allen now has a fan base in Rio but has never been there, for example, because their songs have made playlists that reach a global audience.
One playlist was released by Spotify during Pride Month in June and features Allen’s song “Tangerine Dream” alongside tracks by artists like Frank Ocean, The Internet, Janelle Monáe and Grace Jones.
“I made a ‘Black, Queer and Proud’ playlist, and one of my biggest songs was on there,” Allen said. “The demographic you can reach outside of just your city, now you have a following there, and now you have people wanting you to come perform [in other places].”
Selecting a diverse group of talent from the Midwest
For the Milwaukee and Detroit programs, Backline has selected a diverse range of artists to help break out into the music industry.
The artists’ musical styles range from folk-hip-hop to anti-pop and post-hardcore. The artists each have a distinct sound and image, and they span age, race and gender.
Lynch said the program directors are looking first for new and interesting music that has the potential to break artists out.
If it’s music they’ve heard before, judges want to hear something that’s really good.
“Once we know the music is good, which it is for everyone in our top four, eight, 15, and 25, we really start to look at where they want to go and whether this is the right program to help them get there,” Lynch said.
Allen has a very diverse audience, not only in race, gender and age, but also in the type of music they gravitate toward.
“My biggest thing is showing people that they can be themselves and still be lovable and likeable,” Allen said. “I knew going into this that I’m not like everybody. I’m not a typical pop artist. But I do just care about people who want to be seen as themselves, and those are the people that gravitate to my music. That to me is important.”
They're not trying to mold these artists into what the industry standard of success looks like. They embrace who they are.
“I just have never put myself in one pigeonholed type of artist,” Allen said. "I love dance. I love EDM. I love indie music. So, I think it was just the openness and the belief in the artist that [they] just want to help you achieve your vision. They just gave you room to be yourself.”
Oatz said the artists he’s looking for in Cleveland perform a variety of genres, including rock ‘n’ roll, country, R&B and gospel. He said consistency is key.
“I’m gonna prove to people that Cleveland is not only just a rock ‘n’ roll town or, we’re the place that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or Machine Gun Kelly or Kid Cudi came from. But we also got the top gospel singers. We also got country stars here that was born and raised in the city,” Oatz said.
He encourages artists to apply so they have funding to find a platform where they can build an audience outside of their home city.
The $20,000 awarded to each of the four selected Backline Cleveland artists should serve as the startup budget for their careers, he said.
Oatz added that tapping into large audiences on digital platforms requires money, but a lot of undiscovered talent doesn’t have the financial resources it takes, although they are just as talented as famous artists.
He wants to show the Backline Cleveland fellows how to take their grant money and “blow up.”
He said in his role, he’ll give the city information that even if applicants do not get accepted into the music accelerator program, the knowledge he shares on breaking into the music business will still be valuable.
He said if artists are hesitant to apply because their songs are unpolished, he will provide coaching and mentorship to improve the quality.
“I’m telling aunties and grandmas, if you can drop a flow, sign up,” Oatz said.
Backline Cleveland’s application period for artists officially closed July 20, but Lynch said the directors would extend it out a few days.
The accelerator program begins Sept. 7 and concludes Nov. 20. Backline offers additional resources and workshops for emerging musical talent at backlinemusic.com/resources.