Art & Culture in Chicago

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Lets Make Lots of Money

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The Hideout during election week

The Hideout

(This is a story I wrote last April for my in-depth reporting class.  It’s about the music scene in Chicago and the controversial Event Promoters Ordinance which has been tossed around for a few years…)

Last weekend I overheard a conversation in the smoking tent at the bar I work at.  A group of regulars were talking about forming a band.  The most enthusiastic of them, a well-groomed, twenty-something blonde guy, suddenly yelled out in a fit of passion: “Chicago has an incredible music scene that just isn’t happening!”

This got me thinking.  Back in 2006, I spent six months traveling around the UK and Europe.  During my trip, I spent a good deal of my time seeking out good local music.  I was generally disappointed by what I didn’t find.  Although I did see some great bands in London and Liverpool, I found a lot of the music mediocre, unoriginal, and drab.  England and Ireland seemed to be tripping over themselves musically and Europe was just way too into techno for my tastes.  I finished my trip with an invigorated appreciation of Chicago. 

Often, when I tell people I think Chicago is the best music city I’ve been to, they are surprised.  Most people, especially people who don’t live in Chicago, have no idea what’s going on here musically.  And, after minimal Internet research, I understand why.  To say that Chicago has an amazing music scene might not be entirely accurate. Chicago has an amazing UNDERGROUND music scene.  And if you aren’t already part of it, it can be difficult to access. The Chicago music scene has a ton of potential, but is underrated and often ignored.

Chicago’s musical heritage is built on a strong foundation of blues, soul, jazz, and gospel.  Famous venues like the Green Mill (est. 1910) are still around, often hosting new acts, and we have world-class jazz and blues festivals every summer in Grant Park.  Chicago is also known for being the birthplace of House music in the late ‘70’s.  Later, House was nationally popularized in mid-1980s discothèques catering to the African-American, Latino, and gay communities.  At that time, Chicago was also a center for industrial, punk and new wave. This influence continued into the alternative rock of the 1990s. The city has been an epicenter for rave culture since the 1980s.

Chicago has also been breeding a critically acclaimed underground metal scene with various bands like Indian, Yakuza, Pelican, Russian Circles, and Raise the Red Lantern gaining national attention. 

Today, Chicago is the site of an influential Hip-Hop scene.  Common and Kanye West are the best-known Hip-Hop artists from Chicago, but there are countless others who slip under the radar like GLC, No I.D., Naledge of Kidz in the Hall, and Mic Terror.  You will see some of them downtown on the streets and after big events handing out CDs and fliers.  It’s not all good, but the point is there’s a ton of it, and it’s being ignored by most.  Yet, for others, it’s the whole world.  “I’ve always been a big fan of Common and Twista,” says Andrew Barker, author of Chicago Hip-Hop blog Fake Shore Drive. “I realized that there was so much talent that people weren’t hearing. In bigger markets in LA and New York it’s easier for underground artists to get heard because there’s actually industry there.  There’s so much talent here, but outside of Chicago people think the only rappers we have are Kanye, Common, Lupe, Twista, and the Cool Kids. My goal was just to showcase all the talent in town.” 

Chicago’s pride and joy

What makes Chicago most unique now, though, is a flourishing independent rock music culture.  We have everything from Shoegaze to Grindcore to Freakfolk to Klezmerpop and everything in between.  Many people including myself would argue that Chicago indie music has it’s own distinct sound.  It is often characterized by a strong technical and complicated rythym section, decorated by lacy guitar riffs that weave around the songs, oscillating between major and minor chords, breaking every rule in the pop music book.  I could talk about this sound for days because I love it and I believe it is working man’s music for a working city.  The sound is exemplified in the music made by Chicago indie sweetheart, Tim Kinsella.  Kinsella has been a musician for twenty years, and played in eight very Chicago-esque bands, a few of which internationally known and respected.

Chicago is also home to icons The Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Tortoise, Mucca Pazza, Bobby Conn, and Cheer Accident.  To list every band that is playing in and around Chicago on any given night would take all day.  Chicago is also home to a number of annual rock festivals including but not limited to Lollapalooza, The Intonation Music Festival, and Pitchfork Music Festival.  Pitchfork media has been a Chicago indie-music reference for over a decade with their popular and controversial music webzine of the same name.

Chicago is home to some of the best indie labels that exist, like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, and Drag City.  And we have a distinct Chicago identity.  You can’t talk about Chicago music without talking about Kinsella, Steve Albini, and Wesley Willis. Albini is a Northwestern University alumni from the Medill School of Journalism, musician, and ultimately and most famously a record producer.  Albini estimates that he has engineered the recording of 1,500 to 2,000 albums. More prominent artists Albini has worked with include Nirvana, The Stooges, Pixies, PJ Harvey, and Cheap Trick.  Willis was a street performer, musician, and painter.  He was known for his light-hearted schizophrenia-inspired banter.  He died at age forty from complications of leukemia.  As a musician, he was a cult favorite across the country..  

Some of my personal favorite Chicago music gems include The Empty Bottle’s Free Mondays concert series, our multiple independent radio stations, like WZRD 88.3FM, Chicago’s Sound Experiment WNUR 89.3 FM, and Chic-a-go-go, Chicago’s cable- access dance show for kids of all ages.

 I have heard Chicago Sun Times music critic Jim DeRogatis has repeatedly referred to Chicago as “the greatest city for underground live music in America” on both Sound Opinions and Chicago Tonight.

Well, it might be the greatest city for underground live music in America, but it also might be the worst city to be an independent musician in.  A study done by The University of Chicago in 2007 brought to light some discrepancies between the production, distribution, and consumption of contemporary music in Chicago.  Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot wrote about the study shortly after it was released in an article he wrote for the Tribunes’ blog.  He opens with, “Despite having one of the most lucrative and vibrant music scenes in North America, the University of Chicago study describes Chicago as “a music city in hiding.”” 

The study was conducted by The University of Chicago and funded by the Chicago Music Commission.  Since their formation just four years ago, The Chicago Music Commission has made great strides in the name of music in Chicago.  Their website proclaims: “Formed by a group of concerned members of the Chicago music community, the Chicago Music Commission is a nonprofit independent organization working to transform Chicago’s relationship with its world-class music community. CMC is working on behalf of the music community to ensure that its many diverse voices are fully heard by government and business leaders and that the community’s needs are being fully addressed. In serving as its independent voice and building ties among government, business, and the music community, CMC will allow the music community to thrive on its own terms.”

The study was the first comparative music study of music industries and scenes in the fifty most populous metro areas in the U.S.  These included New York and Los Angeles along with eight others with reputations as music-rich cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and Seattle.

For each of these eleven metropolitan areas, the study looked at:

  • The size and shape of the music industry – measured by total employment, number of businesses, payroll, revenues, and sales of recordings.
  • The availability, affordability, and accessibility of live music – measured by numbers of performances, tickets sold, sell-out rates and gross receipts for these shows.
  • The quality, variety, and intensity of the live music scene – measured by percentage of shows performed by the biggest stars and the most critically-acclaimed artists, the size of venues, the range of musical offerings, the number of grassroots performers, and the geographical distribution of clubs.

The survey found that Chicago ranks third in overall size of music industry, third in the numbers of concerts, and fifth in the number of music groups and artists employed.

“We’re number three in the United States, but we’re a long, long way behind New York and Los Angeles in terms of revenue generated,” said Bruce Iglauer, president of Chicago-based Alligator Records, from the Kot article. “The study shows there are a number of cities hot on our heels that are nurturing their music communities, which the City of Chicago at this point isn’t doing.”

The report provides ample evidence of Chicago’s musical vitality. It says the city is home to ten times as many musicians as Austin, Texas, which bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” It also concluded that Chicago’s core music industry generates $84 million annually and employs 13,000 people in 831 businesses. In all music sub-industries, 53,000 are employed and $1 billion in payroll is generated, third in the country.

Other findings about where Chicago fits nationally include: total concert ticket sales of 1.8 million (fourth) generating $79 million in revenue; 24 million albums sold (third); seating capacity of 408,000 (second), including 28,000 in small clubs, more than Austin, Nashville or Memphis; and a wide variety of clubs specializing in at least thirteen different genres of music (third).

Bolstered by the findings, the commission proposed that that the city set up an independent music office to help coordinate all aspects of the music scene through a combination of private and city funding.  Two years later though, no headway has been made and instead of receiving funding, our independent music infrastructure is being attacked.

What we’re up against

What’s the problem?  According to an article written for The Chicago Reader by Deanna Issacs, “For starters, a splintered, fiercely independent music community, venues scattered all over the map, and a tradition of hostile relations with local officials.”

“We’re trying to get people to understand we’re not just a bunch of long-haired people putting on concerts, but an industry that puts money in people’s pockets and entertains a lot of people,” said Paul Natkin, one of the executives of the Chicago Music Commission. The group was formed in the wake of the E2 nightclub stampede in 2003 in which twenty one people died. More than 2,000 spot night inspections were conducted by the city in the year after E2, and sixteen clubs were closed at least temporarily for exceeding occupancy limits.

Here is the CMC’s biggest problem: the E2 nightclub tragedy spawned talk of a city council ordinance that would require independent promoters to obtain $300,000 in liability insurance and pay fees ranging from $500 to $2,000, even if they’re working with fully licensed clubs. The revised ordinance addresses the music community’s concerns over the high insurance fees by allowing independent promoters to obtain “multi-event” insurance to reduce costs. But the music commission asserts that it “has learned that this new form of insurance is only being offered by one broker and has yet to be adopted by others.”  According to the most recent release of the ordinance, an “Event promoter” or “promoter” is any person who is directly or indirectly responsible for the organization of an amusement or event, as evidenced by activities such as contracting with the principals, selecting entertainment, advertising or otherwise holding out an amusement or event to members of the general public, inviting participants to an amusement or event, or renting or controlling the site of an amusement or event.

According to the CMC’s March 3, 2009 press release, “If the ordinance becomes law, it will create unworkable burdens for many small and young music promoters in Chicago, pressuring a key component of the vibrant Chicago music community instead of supporting and fostering its growth.” Andres Meneses, CMC Board Member and music promoter, said “With Chicago music as one of Chicago’s most visible and largest exports and revenue generators, now, more than ever, we need city government to be supporting the music community rather than viewing it as a safety risk.”

In an article titled Work-in-progress event promoter ordinance still cause for concern in music community in the Chicago Tribune last March, Greg Kot notes: “Club owners say the proposed ordinance would cut into their business, and make it financially prohibitive for grassroots promoters to stage the kind of independent events that have long been a vital part of the music scene.”

One wonders if the city has any idea of the fragile grassroots infrastructure that is Chicago’s music scene.  Sure, according to the CMC’s study, we have a whopping 400,000 seats for music fans, and 93 percent of them are in places like the United Center and Soldier Field, but most of the city stands while we see bands play.  There are hundreds of small, independent, some even non-profit music venues around the city who couldn’t possibly pay to stay legal if the ordinance is passed as is.  These are the sorts of venues where the Smashing Pumpkins and Fall-Out Boy got started.  The CMC website pleads, “Chicago’s small music promoter businesses, despite their unique economic and cultural contributions to our city, are extremely fragile enterprises that operate on very thin profit margins and in a regulatory climate that treats them not as treasures of Chicago, with specialized business needs and practices, but as safety risks and mere tax revenue generators.” 

You don’t go to the House of Blues to discover Chicago music.  You don’t go to stadiums, you don’t go to festivals, you don’t go to the suburbs.  Don’t even bother with the Metro if you want to see the new, local stuff.  To see the heart and soul of local music, go to The Empty Bottle, The Hideout, and The Abbey Pub.  Check out Reggies Rock Club, Ronnies Bar, the Whistler, The Beat Kitchen, The AV-aerie, The Hungry Brain, The Bottom Lounge, The Double Door, and Schubas.  They are just the tip of the iceburg for good, local, independent rock music. 

Why these venues are the ones that will be penalized because of a nightclub stampede is not clear.  And whether or not this ordinance is going to ruin music in Chicago is up for debate.  You do have to give the CMC props for trying, though. 

This eloquent statement written by the CMC in April and sent to 47th ward Alderman Gene Schulter should get some attention: “Despite a less supportive city government than other cities, Chicago’s music community gives Chicago a global tourism draw, generates hundreds of millions of dollars in entertainment revenue, and provides more than 50,000 jobs.  Indeed, music is one of Chicago’s most important and visible exports.”  Then the statement goes on to explain what needs to be done.  “Chicago music’s vibrant and diverse current scene and rich history gives Chicago music’s “creative class” the unique ability to help Chicago emerge from the current economic downturn and beyond.  But first our leaders must acknowledge Chicago music is a positive economic and cultural force rather than merely entertainment or source of revenue—or, as we believe is reflected here, a potential threat to public safety.  The City must embrace the Chicago music community in the same way as our competitor city governments such as Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco are doing.  Those cities have implemented laws and policies that actively bolster their music communities rather than creating additional regulatory and financial burdens—and they have healthy, growing cultural economies as a result.” 

The way to legitimize the music scene and make money for the city is not to fee venues and event promoters out of business but to work with them.  It makes sense: people will come to and spend money in Chicago to enjoy live acts, the bands will be exposed, the bars patronized.  Our city is underestimating the value of it’s own people.

In an interview on WBEZ’s show “Eight Forty-Eight” a few weeks ago, titled Chicago Avant-Rockers Release New Album, Thymme Jones says of his long-lived Chicago band Cheer Accident: “We aren’t just doing this for ourselves, we want people to hear the music.  Otherwise I would’ve just been a composition major and have stuff on paper in drawers that people would never hear.  The idea is to communicate to people while we’re on the planet.”

Let’s all just take a deep breath, sit back, and listen to the music.


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