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Chicago, the Next Austin

The Chicago Music Commission asks: why doesn’t the city promote its music scene?

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At a few minutes before 6 PM last Thursday, the temperature outside was hovering near zero, the wind was savage, and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance—where the Chicago Music Commission was about to convene its most important program yet—was nearly empty. It looked like there were going to be more people on the CMC's 17-member panel than in the audience. But by the time moderator Dan Lurie finished introducing the lineup of local music industry experts, including producers, promoters, broadcasters, performers, club owners, and city officials, an audience of 130 had materialized. They'd braved the weather to hear about the CMC's study of the Chicago music industry, conducted by the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center and presented to the city last summer. What they learned is that Chicago has the third largest music industry in the nation, bigger and more vibrant than music tourism magnets like Nashville or Austin, though you'd never know it based on the city's handling of the resource.

The findings in "Chicago Music City," which crunched data from 2004 for the nation's 50 largest urban areas and specifically compared Chicago to ten other major music cities, included these: Based on government records, there are 53,000 people working in music-related businesses here, though just 2,000 of them are musicians. We have a whopping 400,000 seats for music fans, but 93 percent of them are in places like the United Center and Soldier Field. And according to data collected by Pollstar, Chicago hosts 1,093 concerts by touring groups annually; the group lacked the financial resources to track local groups or include the Lyric Opera, city festivals, or anything else produced by nonprofits. There are holes in the "Chicago Music City" picture big enough to drive Symphony Center through—some of those numbers sure seem low—but the study's basic point is undiminished: Chicago's music industry, though small potatoes compared to New York's or LA's, offers value, quality, diversity, and a rich history. The researchers conclude that Chicago is "a music city in hiding."

What's to blame? For starters, a splintered, fiercely independent music community, venues scattered all over the map, and a tradition of hostile relations with local officials. Most cities that are known as music destinations have government music offices that market that identity. Chicago does not, and after 21 people were trampled to death at the E2 nightclub in 2003, the relationship between the city and its clubs grew more difficult than ever. CMC acting director Paul Natkin, a photographer who's documented the music scene here for decades, says the organization grew from a conversation between himself and Chris Schneider, who runs a recording studio called Pressure Point on historic Record Row. They agreed that "we gotta do something to shine a spotlight on Chicago," he says, but the first goal was "just to get the music community talking together" so they could present a united front to the city. Natkin says they recruited Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, "started calling or e-mailing everybody in our Rolodexes, and said, 'Let's have a meeting.'" About 60 people showed up, and the organization was officially launched in 2005.

Raising visibility is still a major goal for the CMC, but Natkin admits it's been slow going. "We've been doing this for quite a while, just under the radar. We have no money; we're totally volunteer; for the most part it's funded out of the board members' pockets," he says. The CMC commissioned the study as a way to legitimize its cause, and got a couple grants from local agencies to help pay for it. The hope was that it would convince the city to support an independent music office that could function as an industry-government liaison and help push Chicago as a music destination. But so far, Natkin says, the CMC has only about 250 members, most of them individuals, and the city wants to see critical mass. The Harris event was meant to be the first step in taking the organization to the next level. "What we need," he says, "is for each of those 17 panel members to go out and find ten businesses that want to join."

Natkin himself has no problem working with city officials these days. The CMC's producing a continuing series of music-biz seminars sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and is collaborating with the department on a database that'll be part of the expanded Chicago Artists Resource Web site, now set to launch this spring. He says the CMC was able to head off a prohibitive promoter's license proposal, and that Chicago music will soon be the only stuff piped into the city's airports. But comments by some panel members showed that the old tensions aren't entirely gone. Jam Productions cofounder Jerry Mickelson got a laugh when he noted that Choose Chicago, the city's Web site for tourists, lists the Admiral Theatre under nightlife venues but not places like the Double Door, Schubas, Park West, or the Hideout. "In our business, the only time we really hear from the city is when there's a problem, and it usually has nothing to do with us," Mickelson said. "That's something I hope changes, because we're not just here to be beat up every time something happens somewhere else. We should be part of the fabric of what goes on so that we can help."

Other panelists called for everything from more venues to music in the schools, and the League of Chicago Theaters was mentioned more than once as a model for what the CMC ought to be. But when Rita Lee of marketing firm Nu Face Entertainment argued that what the scene here really needs is branding, there was quick agreement. The only potential hitch is what the study turned up as Chicago music's strongest characteristic: its diversity. Chicago offers almost every kind of music imaginable at some level, with "specialized musical venues" accounting for a bigger portion of the music scene here than just about anywhere, according to the CMC report. "It seems there isn't a great deal of synergy" observed Alan Salzenstein of DePaul's performing arts management program. "We're one of the most diverse music cities there is. But how do you brand that?"

The Starving Art Critic

Earlier this month art critic Christian Viveros-Faune was sacked by the Village Voice, in part because of his involvement with the Next art fair, this year's new addition to Art Chicago weekend. Viveros-Faune, who'd recently begun contributing reviews to the Voice on a biweekly basis, is a partner with Chicago gallerist Kavi Gupta in Volta, the company behind the art fair. He's a co-organizer for Next and managing director of another Volta show to be mounted this spring in New York. In an interview with arts blogger Tyler Green that morphed into an indignant essay, Viveros-Faune said the Voice was aware of his other work and blithely opined that "there is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest." The day after Green posted this, Voice editor Tony Ortega announced Viveros-Faune's departure on the paper's Web site, noting that "we're concerned that his work outside the Voice at least creates an appearance of conflict." Viveros-Faune had observed that, like most critics, he couldn't live on what he was paid as a freelancer.   

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