Bunbury/Buckle Up founder Bill Donabedian: Creating music festivals in Cincinnati for 12 years


©WCPO/Scripps • July 9, 2014

CINCINNATI—Bill Donabedian runs his professional life from a spartan storefront office in a block of Over-the-Rhine awaiting renewal. It couldn’t have taken more than an hour to set things up—there are only two short rows of desks and chairs—and the office could be cleared just as quickly.

It’s a metaphor for Donabedian’s attention span: When he hits upon an idea, he dives in with abandon, but even while the project is in full bloom, Donabedian is working on the next great thing.

“I live for everything up to the event. Once the event happens, I want to go to bed,” he said.

The event, in this instance, is the Bunbury Festival, the three-day extravaganza Donabedian debuted three years ago. More than 80 indie-rock bands and solo artists are performing on six stages July 11-13 at Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point, and organizers expect more than 25,000 people there. And now, the following weekend, July 18-20, Donabedian and his associates debut the country music festival Buckle Up, also at Sawyer Point.

“My rush is creating something that didn’t exist, creating the moment when 10,000 people roar for a band,” Donabedian said.

Nobody without an instrument in hand has done more to create that roar in Cincinnati than Donabedian.

How many music fans have dreamed of launching festivals featuring their favorite bands? Donabedian, a 47-year-old who still plays his drums, has done this three times—first with the MidPoint Music Festival, in 2002, which he sold six years later to the owners of CityBeat. In the middle of the last decade, he also managed the renovation and booked entertainment for Fountain Square.

Donabedian declined to discuss the festivals’ finances.

Despite the musical motif of these ventures, Donabedian, who has lived in Cincinnati since attending McNicholas High School, in Anderson Township, seems more driven to build something from scratch than to scratch a particular itch.

He has twice developed his own tech companies—the latest is Globili, which works with business and governments to translate signage and other texts, through smartphones, into more than 50 languages. Donabedian talks about Globili with as much passion as he does music.

About Globili, Donabedian said “We want to circumvent Google in the real world.” Early clients include the Cincinnati Zoo and City of Cincinnati.

A dozen years ago, when Donabedian launched MidPoint, he was earning his living through Active Inc., the interactive design company he founded in 1996. His only experience with anything remotely resembling an urban music festival was as a fan and musician. He’d drummed in bands such as The Simpletons, Crosley and Clabbergirl, and attended the short-lived Popopolis festival at the Southgate House.

Donabedian “put myself in every shoe,” he said—from marketing and booking to all the technical and logistics needs of a festival—and partnered with a friend, Cincinnati attorney Sean Rhiney, to organize the music conference that would be attached to MidPoint.

“I’d heard about South by Southwest (in Austin, Tex.) and thought we had all the pieces in place to do something like that in Cincinnati, and we just needed someone to do it,” he said. “You think of everything and you still don’t think of everything.”

Started With MidPoint

MidPoint debuted with close to 200 bands performing in a dozen venues downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. By 2005, the festival boasted nearly 300 bands in 18 venues. All the while, nobody associated with the festival drew a salary, including Donabedian, who took a year off from work to produce the festival. He’d left Active Inc. in 2001 to work in e-learning for the Cincinnati tech firm Convergys.

Donabedian continued producing MidPoint through another career move. The local nonprofit development company 3CDC hired him in 2006 to manage, raise money, hire staff and handle all the programming for the renovated Fountain Square. At one point, Donabedian was producing 200 events a year there. All the while, he was working toward his Master’s degree in Business Administration.

“It was just exhausting and something had to give,” Donabedian said. “Sean and I were actually going to scuttle (MidPoint). I mean, if we’re not going to do it, who is? But we thought if there’s one place that could do it, it was CityBeat.”

Years before turning MidPoint over to the publishers of Cincinnati’s weekly alternative newspaper, Donabedian had mulled creating a second festival—this one during summer outdoors and along the riverfront, focusing on touring acts as a complement to MidPoint’s more local leaning.

Donabedian used the occasion of MidPoint’s first weekend without him to get married. The following year, he committed himself to the Bunbury Festival.

‘Large-scale dreamer’

Donabedian named his festival after hearing a character in “The Importance of Being Earnest” refer to his imaginary friend as Bunbury. Donabedian’s wife, motivated by alliteration, came up with the Bunbury bee as the festival’s mascot.

“I wanted something physical and grounded in reality, and I immediately liked the word,” Donabedian said of Bunbury. “(The character) used it to get out of boring situations, and that’s what the word means—an excuse to get out of something boring.”

“I haven’t missed it for a second. It’s like sending your kids off to college,” Donabedian said of MidPoint. “That was purely cutting my teeth in the music business. You learn a lot the hard way, but damn, you learn.”

Bunbury presented a new level of challenges. Whereas MidPoint happened within existing clubs, with Bunbury, Donabedian had to “basically build a small city” from the grass up—generators, portable toilets, vendors, police presence and concert-level stages and sound systems.

“For all the reasons these concerts are terrible to put on, they’re great for audiences,” Donabedian said.

Brian Kitzmiller, who drums for the local band Black Owls, remembers meeting Donabedian for the first time several years ago, shortly after Donabedian sold MidPoint away to CityBeat. Immediately, Donabedian struck Kitzmiller as “a large-scale dreamer.”

“I’d gotten done playing a show at Fountain Square and we got to talking about music and venues and he said his life’s dream was to open an amusement park. I thought that was kinda’ funny,” Kitzmiller said.

Kitzmiller believes Donabedian held his post-MidPoint focus on music because it’s the way he knows best to make people happy. While the Black Owls perform at Bunbury, Kitzmiller doubles as the festival’s media buyer and marketing manager.

“Upfront, he tells you what his vision is—what he wants and where he sees it—but he’s very trusting of the people he brings in to work with,” Kitzmiller said. “I think he’s gotten used to taking criticism well.

“When you’ve got a festival that’s as large as ours, you’re going to get a lot of pushback and a lot of love, and he just lets it roll off. Bill’s the MBA guy. He constantly looks at graphs and numbers and sticks to the formula,” he said.

BuckleUp Makes Sense

An associate with Bunbury, Debbie Branscum, suggested to Donabedian he could simply leave up all the apparatus from Bunbury for a second weekend and produce a country music festival.

“I wanted to kill her,” Donabedian said. “But it really made sense—you set up once and tear down once. You save a ton of money.”

Donabedian is looking to expand his concert business in other Midwest locales. His idea is creating a touring version of Bunbury, booking and packaging bands and stringing together dates in cities ripe for large summer festivals.

“I want to create things that make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “A lot of people have those goals, too, but I just happen to be (trying it through) technology and live entertainment. There are worse ways to make a living.”

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