Chicago’s invisible indie music assets
A focus group
On Sunday, 20 January 2008, a group of pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, and alternative musicians spent three hours talking about Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses as a place for people like them to make music and to realize their goals as musicians. The participants pursue music seriously but have not yet broken through to achieve the status of rock stars. They represent the grass-roots or independent (“indie”) segment of Chicago’s music community, a segment that is responsible for more than 10,000 MySpace pages, and which performs most of the music heard live in Chicago, in more than 100 performances each week —in venues hosting audiences mostly fewer than 100.
The participants related their own experiences and evaluated who and what helped propel them forward and held them back. The discussion was part of an outreach by the Chicago Music Commission to Chicago-area musicians who are not already well known to the public. Its goal is to mobilize the energies of those interested in Chicago’s music to improve the conditions in which Chicago’s musicians can make music and expose it to the world. The core mission of CMC is to benefit this constituency, but almost no one in the constituency knows anything about CMC. The discussion occurred at the Café (Guatemalan) Restaurant on Montrose in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago.
Participating in the discussion were: Paige Brubeck (Sleepy Kitty), Curtis Evans (Curtis Evans and Our Friend Electric), Jamie Gallagher (Andreas Kapsalis Trio), Ed Harris (WHRS), Sarah Holtschlag (Ester of Ashland), Kurt Iselt (The Astral –teRRa Trapeze Unit), Andreas Kapsalis (Andreas Kapsalis Trio), Gary Kuzminski (JaGoFF), Dan Lurie (CMC), Paul Natkin (CMC), Hank Perritt (Modofac), Dick Prall (Dick Prall), Tim Sandusky (Studio Ballistico), Tom Schraeder (Tom Schraeder and His Ego), Josh Siegel (Bailiff), and Toby Worscheck (JaGoFF).
They began by expressing their personal goals regarding music and offered suggestions on what they themselves, and what the government, corporate, financial and non-profit communities could do to help them achieve their goals. Participants also evaluated concrete CMC program initiatives.
They considered what advice they would give to a 20-year old aspiring musician who wanted to build his musical career. Would you advise him to come to Chicago or to go somewhere else?
The content of the ensuing discussion is expressed in the participants’ own words, edited for clarity.
Chicago has rich music assets and a welcoming spirit
“Chicago has an incredible history. Blues was electrified in Chicago. Soul music came out of Chicago because Gospel was also founded in Chicago and it was a melding of the two. We had an incredible record row on South Michigan Avenue with Chess and OK. Lollapalooza is here. Pitchfork is here, Intonation was here. You have Looptopia. RollingStone.com was based here for years. Pitchfork is based here. Twice Music is based here, Flavor Kill was started by a Chicagoan that I work with in Reactor magazine. He also started the Daily Swarm which is an incredible music site.
“In the early ‘90s you had the Rage scene, which was coming over from Europe into Chicago and into America. I picked up on that, combined it with my art, and we started a magazine called Reactor. At that time the community was so incredibly tight. You had people making jungle music which is like break beats--180 beats per minute--this fast crazy stuff. You had had house, you had garage, you had techno, all under one roof. Chicago is internationally known for house music. And hip hop.
“Not only was it not fractured, but you had the St. Louis scene which became part of the Chicago scene. You had the Madison scene which became part of the Chicago scene. Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago became the epicenter for that. And promoters were working with it. It brought together incredible talents with video people and all just all kinds of tech freaks.Then Daley--I think misguidedly--shut that down and put a moratorium on electronic music in the city. That shut down a very viable scene that was happening here.
“What Chicago has to offer . . . is that Chicago is really a great place get started performing . . . . There are a whole lot of places to play. The nature of the punk scene I think is what . . . created that. I think that Chicago is a place to really get a lot of experience playing--if you’re willing to do it for nothing. I mean it’s not really a place to make a living at it, but a place to cut your teeth.”
“I feel Chicago has more than New York and LA in its Indie community-- really indie credibility. In recent days, people appreciate music in Chicago. They know its different. We actually have two of the most credible labels in the world—Thrill Jockey and Touch and Go--right here. Having that down the street for someone who says, ‘I want to be the next Disturb’”
Chicago does not have music in its fabric.”
“What’s missing in Chicago compared to an LA or a New York, is that music is very much a fabric of those cities and Chicago has less of that. . . . I was 25 or so coming here and it really didn’t seem like music was necessarily a huge artistic focus in the City of Chicago. It’s not an artsy community on the whole. In New York or Los Angeles, whether you are in the scene or you’re not in the scene you are aware of the scene. But there is a lot of emphasis put on New York and LA and I think we need to say ‘screw what those guys are doing.’ Minneapolis is a fantastic example of a mid-western city that really makes its mark in music because they don’t give a shit what’s going on on the coast. I think that’s great. And I think locally the venues support that wholeheartedly, the musicians themselves support each other wholeheartedly.”
“The spirit of the community is great, but it is fragmented. The easygoing Midwestern spirit is both a benefit and a curse; music in Chicago tends to be a cute novelty; elsewhere it is part of the fabric. Is it because Chicago has an inferiority complex when it comes to music?
There is a ceiling in Chicago; you can only get so far here.
“I think its just following the money really in my opinion. It’s aggressive in New York and LA because you’re really fighting for something you can see. You see the band in front of you getting signed, getting money, going on national tours. You know its real and the aggressive people are going to those cities to be aggressive to fight with the aggressive people for what they think is the pie in the sky. Whereas they are not coming to Chicago because its not happening here, the best acts are not here, the aggressive people are not here, so you know you’re kind of the middle of the road in some aspects. But I think that’s also what makes the music here so cool: is its not bred out of that aggressive nature. I mean you don’t get a Guns N’ Roses coming out of Chicago, you know.
“It seems like the music that we are known for or the music that I know Chicago for is not usually the over-the-top music in many aspects. It has a quality of about it that is Midwestern, but it’s not the coast.
“We see our colleagues going to New York and LA and its nice because now we have contacts in those cities. But there is a shelf [ceiling] in Chicago where after a couple years of playing we were able to do double billing. People we were going to shows to see and playing with--guys who were just hot, jazz or whatever in Chicago, in like two years. And now it’s like where do we go. Not our goal is doing getting good ideal opening slots.
Essentially there’s a shelf that you hit and that’s why people fly and get out of here. The touring thing is one way to get a taste of out of here. LA and New York can be a little stiff, but it’s aggressive. The caliber of jazz or any music is pretty high out there. Here it’s a cute novelty thing.
People believe that If I play this club, or if open for this band then that signals that I am at a particular point in my career; I will be in this level.When you have reached that point, its a good sign that you’re going in the right direction. But great musicians, some great people we know, leave then and we don’t have access to them anymore. They go to New York or to LA because they think they have to go there to go to the next level of success. That’s a great thing for them, but it shows that they perceive that there is a shelf in Chicago. I don’t know if it’s actually a reflection of where you should go if you get to this point or if it’s just imaginary, but its very common belief among people: Chicago is only a stepping stone to go to another place. It sucks.
* * *.
“I can’t understand how there there’s a “shelf.” I mean, there’s all different sizes of clubs. But you can’t live in a city and be a live musician and get people to come out over and over again. So far we [Bailiff] have just worked on our music and put up a MySpace page. We play at open mics. But it’s been a steady movement. We’ve been active for a year and we’ve played 13 shows. That’s a lot for one city. I think we are getting overexposed in the city. But so far people have come out because they like the music. So far it’s been luck. We got an article in the Tribune. Someone from MySpace is giving us some help.
The days of the rock star are over, but the Internet opens the world up to all of us
“There is no ceiling ( ‘shelf”) in Chicago; such thinking is a product of the old model. No one is going to be transformed in self-promotion by moving to New York
“I think the days of the rock star are over. I don’t feel like any of us here wants to be the next Disturbed. If you do want that, there is not going to be room for it as long as Disturbed is still around--and they have Red Hot Chili Peppers right behind them. There are not a lot of us who want to be the next Disturbed or the next Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“But it doesn’t matter in this day and age what city you live in, given all the stuff that’s going on. If I want to work with a publishing company in any city in the world, I can contact them, I can fly there for a couple hundred dollars if I want.
“Something I realized from working with Adreas and the movie stuff is that you think all the films are in LA, but we’ve had one or two films from LA while we had one from London, one from Austin, one from British Columbia. It is a myth that too many musicians still aspire to that that I’m going to move to LA and I’m going to become successful. It’s almost a copout because I don’t feel like everyone is working hard. I don’t feel like everyone is pushing the limit. I’ve not met a Chicago band yet that has this feeling. It’s a myth that I’m always trying to dispel that somehow by moving somewhere else that something’s going to happen. That if you move to New York or to LA that you somehow get some sort of advantage. If your personality is on the passive side and you move to New York, you are not going to suddenly change your personality or your upbringing.
“You can travel around the world and play; it doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what your address is. I would with the agree lazy/whatever argument. I don’t think that applies just to Chicago; it applies to most of the world and most of the people in the world. You do have to work hard and you have to work hard in all the aspects.
“It’s kind of bizarre to me because people hold that against Chicago that we don’t have what New York and LA. That’s where the large corporations are that are really falling apart and aren’t what has the modern day credibility. The average person on MySpace isn’t going to have the newest pop tracks; they are going to have one of the tracks that I’ve never heard of and I think that’s great.
“I think that it could be a lot harder for us to come multimillionaires which was pretty low in the first place. Nowadays I think its nearly impossible, but it is possible to find several thousand fans and to make that work. You have to work on it because that’s the only way. Why bring up New York and LA without bringing up the whole world? Right now we can promote to everyone in the world and unless you are doing that I don’t think people should be bashing Chicago. Right now I can go anywhere in the world for a couple hundred dollars. Beyond that, the question is what are we doing about it.
Venues, audiences and the corporate music establishment are not supportive
“Audiences are a huge factor here. If you go to New York and you play I think people listen a hell of a lot better than they do in Chicago. I’m not bashing Chicago. I love Chicago; I’ve lived here for 12 years, I’m not going anywhere. But audience-wise, people are focused on what is happening on the coasts because Chicago’s this other city, really in some ways feeling like the stepchild the New York and LA. The audiences have that feeling.
“It shows up in venues. Here, venues make a bigger deal over bands from out of town than over local bands This great band from Austin is playing, great band from LA, great band from New York, great band from Seattle. And then you’ve got a great local band. They’re handled differently by the venues, promotion wise. It even goes down to how they are handling the artists themselves—what’s provided in the green room, what you’re getting, how you are being presented to the rest of the audience. They say, ‘Oh it’s a local act.’You are being treated like a local act, rather than a national act. I’ve had these discussions with venue owners and they don’t necessarily disagree.
“Lollapalooza comes to town, we’re locked out. Pitchfork has their thing. They take over Union Park, but they sideline the local talent.”
The human-capital infrastructure is thin
“The Internet is great but you still need people working behind you; you still someone who is your voice. Musicians for the most part suck talking about themselves and suck at promoting themselves because it’s a very personal thing; it’s hard to do. Me having to speak up its like, ‘Okay speak up, okay you’re on the floor,’ but you don’t . . .You still need human capital behind you. Its one thing to say, ‘I’m great. Please hire me or please bring me on board,’ but it’s another thing for someone--especially someone with some cachet--to say, ‘You got to hear this guy; he’s fantastic!’ Those are the relationships that you want to get involved in because those people are pushing you to that next level. We don’t have that a lot in Chicago, we don’t have those entities to bring you up and that’s at the ground floor. How do you build that up? I don’t know. I mean because there’s not an industry here, there’s not a big label presence here and which is great, labels are going like this [points down] so what it kind of leaving us adrift. Where do we put our energy?
* * *
“The infrastructure talent pool may be shallow, but the tendency also is to expect someone else to do everything for you without compensation.”
Chicago musicians do not cooperate with each other
“I don’t know if it’s the size or if it’s just how the community started here, it’s extremely fragmented in Chicago. There’s a rock scene, and there’s a punk scene, and there’s a hip hop scene, and there is a singer/songwriter scene and there’s all these things that are very much broken up. Is that because of the size or is that because people just aren’t talking and getting together like that? Is this going to be the remedy? I don’t know, but I know that does exist and that’s something that I’ve noticed being an outsider and coming here because there wasn’t anything really drawing everything together.
“Why don't bands work together to help each other solve common problems and to pool purchasing power?”
“Is it laziness? Shyness?”
“Bands can help each other and put up posters for each other shows.”
Chicago musicians do not do enough for themselves
“When Dick was making his point about aggressiveness I was thinking, well, maybe the opposite of that is laziness. Which is a pejorative term, but you could understand it to include the shyness factor--a nicer term.”
“I started getting calls like once a week from bands that I’d never heard of saying, “Can you manage us?” “You’re great. You know everything.” I would turn everybody down because the reason they wanted a major label deal is they wanted somebody to do all the work for them. They wanted to be able to just go and play music and have everything else dropped in their lap. I would talk to them. I’d invite everyone of them over and I’d talk to them for hours. All they wanted was somebody to book for them, to do their publicity, to do their marketing, to answer the phones, and to do all that stuff for no money. Because at that point they’re making $100 bucks a show so 10% of that is, you know, $10 bucks.”
“I think the big problem in Chicago is--I hate to use this word--but its laziness. The other part about hiring a manager when you’re just starting out, if you do that and somebody agrees to be your manager, you don’t learn all the stuff that you need to know. When you’re big enough to actually need a manager, you need to know whether they are doing the right job for you or not.”
“It’s not enough just to put up your web site, and say, ‘Well the logo’s on there, the name’s on there, if they want to find us they’ll find us.’ You have to promote aggressively on the street as well as online because you’re wasting your time if you’re just exclusively doing one or the other.”
“The only way you can be considered big time, is to act big time. . . . Whatever you do is at least 50% business and less music than business. . . . You cannot succeed if you don’t promote yourself. If you don’t put posters up, if you don’t make really cool posters which based on technology today are just as easy to make . . . as Columbia Records can make them. You can make really great CDs that are just as good a record that comes out on Columbia Records. You can make an album cover at home on your computer in Photoshop that’s just as good as something that Columbia Records makes. If it goes on the shelf next to something from Columbia Records, you’re equal to them.”
“I think the psyche here is different than elsewhere. I think one of the biggest things that I have noticed is the aggressive nature that doesn’t really happen in Chicago. And I think to me that’s a part of being neglected and that’s not a cop out, I just think it’s different. To me someone aggressive from the Midwest and someone aggressive from like New York… Two different things. Completely different things and your ass will get left. If you’re the Midwestern guy it just works different. And people aren’t afraid to self promote [there]….”
“But you can do a lot to change that with a really cool poster. You can give a band a much different image with posters. You can make yourself seem to be a national act. When you poster the hell out of the city people see a band’s name multiple times and feel like they know them just because they’ve seen their name.
“I am a business person as well as a musician. That’s what I do. You have to act bigger than you are to make people want you or you’re on the same level as those they are not interested in. I’m not on the same level with Curtis; no one here is on the same level. Everyone’s bigger and that’s what you have to make people think if you want people to respect you. And we probably agree on that. However I don’t think people have the same approach. Chicago is a political place. If I’m not doing something, I’m lessening myself. If I’m out, I’m going to shake someone’s hand, I’m going to… but I guarantee you only one out of every ten people are going to help me. But there are other artists who don’t do that and I don’t think they are lazy at all, I think that because they put the extra effort into music and I admire musicians like that. I wouldn’t I think they are lazy. Maybe that was a bad word, but I think if somebody puts all their effort into their music and doesn’t promote, and market it, and publicize it, they are going to end up playing in their basement.
“I agree with what you are saying: a lot of musicians that are really good musicians put all the effort into the music. But I think in bands you need one person at least to be the person that’s going out introducing themselves to the sound guy, to the venue manager, to the bartender, remembering their names and little things like that. Things that make people feel good, make people communicate. In St. Louis, before I moved here, there was this one guy that was like a guitar genius, super good , super good songwriter, super talented, but he was super antisocial. I mean he would not be the one to get you the show. But he was great on stage. Still, you need somebody in every band or every project that is meeting people. I don’t think that every musician is the best person to do that.”
City Hall is indifferent or antagonistic to our assets
“You brought up posters. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could go up and down Belmont and put my posters anywhere I wanted. I could put them all over Wicker Park, I could put them all over. I understand the city doesn’t want to have garbage all over the place, but if I’m out there promoting I can get nailed for $500 per poster that I put up. If I go to any of the nightclubs and I put my little flyers into the windshields of cars of people at Crowbar, targeting my audience, I get nailed $500 for fines. At Pitchfork I had to be very careful with the way that we did that. I hit up all the posts on the El. But there’s cameras everywhere.
“I was standing on the corner underneath the El stop at the corner of Lake and Ashland , I’m on public property, I’m not throwing anything down on the ground; I’m not littering, I’m not asking people for money or pushing stuff in people’s faces, but I’m getting shagged out of there.
“I do not appreciate the fact that if a Lollapalooza does comes to town and utilizes our tremendous asset on the lake and our population they marginalize the local bands. A local band is lucky to get a 10:00 spot in the morning, while they’re setting up stages and laying out the garbage cans. That’s the spot that the local bands get. Unless you are the Smashing Pumpkins or whatever you don’t get real access.
“My point is the city needs to be more tolerant of its art. The city needs to let the artist do what the artist does.”
What CMC can do to help
CMC can be helpful to meet the need for cooperative effort, to expose and develop a deeper pool of infrastructure--talent promoters and that sort of thing. Over the long term CMC can help make music part of the fabric of Chicago.? CMC is active already. The report by the University of Chicago that CMC commissioned is excellent in terms of inventorying Chicago’s music assets and linking it to Chicago’s economic vitality. It has academic credibility. CMC has done about a dozen seminars over the past couple of years and plans two more over the next couple of months. Consideration is being given to two other seminars, one to get venture capitalists together with independent musicians to see whether there’s common ground, and another to explore the benefits of the new interactive advertising and targeted advertising technologies.
But CMC’s profile in the indie music community is very low.
“I go out to the clubs around Chicago probably about once a week or once every other week, to play. I’ve never heard of the CMC. I’ve never seen you in any of the clubs I play. I don’t know what you do.”
“Now that I’ve heard about CMC’s successful efforts to block legislation in City Council that would impose new licensing burdens on the community, I think what you guys are doing with CMC is great. I think that what needs to happen is there needs to be a coalition. We need take stock of the assets that the city does have because we do have an incredible population that’s talented and that is proactive. All you have to do is go on MySpace to see it. Sometimes it’s a little misguided in terms of how people promote stuff, but Toby and myself we promote the Chicago/Detroit angle. And I’ll tell you what, it’s respected all over the world. We have a lot of people in Germany, Detroit, Chicago, in France, in England, that’s all they have to hear are those two words—Detroit, Chicago—oh, okay well we’re kind of soul so a lot of people will oh well you’re soul or you know you’re into this or blues even though it is electronic, but my bottom line is that we’ve got all this incredible talent. Lollapalooza comes to town, we’re locked out. Pitchfork has their thing. They take over Union Park…
“The bottom line is I think what the Chicago Music Commission and what Hank is doing and what we’re all doing at this table, we do have tremendous assets in this city. The sites I did mention are just a fragment of what there is out there. The festivals that I mentioned are just a fragment out there. All you have to do is look at the Coyote or the Pilsen, how they get it together. You know. There’s a whole community that comes together for their stuff.
“There’s been attempts at music conferences here, but they’ve all been self serving, they’ve all promoted the idea, ‘Oh go get signed; here’s a bass clinic for you.’ That’s all garbage. Today artists are a lot more savvy in terms of promotion, in terms of doing their on sites, in terms of email collection using Widget, or what have you. Nobody needs a record label. Chicago just needs to take stock of what we have and utilize it. We need to actively think these things out and welcome everyone into the fold, or at least give them an invitation to the party.
“We do have publishers that we can go to; we do have lawyers that we can go to; we do have promoters that we can go to.
“CMC is doing a great job in opposing particularly stupid anti-music initiatives in City Council.
“CMC should offer a seminar in how venue owners make decisions about what bands to put on the bill and how to promote them. It should offer a seminar in how to get promotional investment. The ideas for more focus groups involving indie musicians are great. The idea for an effort to get venture capitalists together with us is great.”