- Donny Harder Jr.
- A show has to be pretty special to get people out in this nonsense.
It's been a damn cold winter in Chicago. And even without a polar vortex, ice storms, and weeks of slush and gray, this time of year can make you just want to huddle somewhere it's heated.
Add this weather to the scheduling conflicts and other responsibilities that we all have to deal with year-round, and it can be hard to get out to concerts. It's especially easy to let yourself skip the kind of small underground shows that are the backbone of the local scene—the ones full of bands that seem to play around Chicago all the time, with no big out-of-town headliner to create a sense of occasion. Winter conditions complicate venue accessibility, given that DIY basement spaces are rarely friendly to folks with difficulty walking or standing, even when there isn't ice on everything outside. Short days and long nights can also aggravate mental health issues (hello, seasonal affective disorder) and prevent interested fans from making it out.
I conducted an informal weeklong survey to see how Chicagoans support the underground music scene when they can't be physically present for shows. I circulated an online form via various Facebook groups that focus on local music (most notably DIY Chicago), gathering responses from music-business professionals, fans, and artists from hip-hop, jazz, punk, hardcore, indie rock, and more.
Out of 40 responses, the most common reasons for not making shows were schedule conflicts, lack of energy, and winter weather. Even Pitchfork is trying to entice people to push past their seasonal malaise with Midwinter, a new indoor music festival at the Art Institute. Once the results were in, I spoke with a few respondents about their tips for staying involved in the local music community.
"It's totally crucial that even when it's cold and shitty outside, you still do what you can to put some energy into the scene and care about it," says Emily Rose of art-pop duo Zigtebra.
Here are some ways to do that:
Buy the music
Put your money where your mouth (ear?) is. Twenty-nine out of 40 respondents say they buy local music, whether digitally or in physical editions. It's one of the most direct ways to demonstrate your investment in an artist, and helps them keep recording music—a lucky few even make a profit from their work.
"Actually buying music is more of a tangible form of support," says Chris Lee, who runs punk tape label Dark Circles. "I try and do that as much as I can."
Sites such as Bandcamp let artists set fixed prices for digital albums as well as individual tracks, but some acts go with the "pay what you can" option. Given that choice, you should never make the amount zero—if you're actually broke, maybe wait till you're not before you download that record. Whether you can afford $2 or $15, try to be respectful of the artist's time and craft. There's also nothing like an old-school physical copy of an album, whether it's vinyl, CD, or cassette tape—and you can often buy them online, not just at the merch table. Streaming via the likes of Spotify technically diverts money to musicians too, but the amounts are so minimal that it's hardly the best way to show your love.
Buy the merch
It's publicity for your favorite musicians, and it's fashionable. When you buy merchandise—T-shirts, hats, patches, et cetera—you aren't just giving artists your money, you're also giving them some advertising. Browsing the spread on the folding table at the back of the gig is a time-honored ritual, but you can often get merch via a band's website or the merch tab on their Bandcamp page (but note that online services will take a cut of the proceeds).
"It's almost like preordering their next record," says DIY drummer and composer Tommy Carroll.
Give a social-media shout-out
But what if you're in no condition to buy anything? Artists always appreciate exposure, especially exposure that they don't have to work for personally, and it's one way to support them if you're strapped for cash. Pushing a band on social media might seem like a cop-out, but if it's what you can offer, use it. Thirty-one of 40 participants say they use social media to help promote local artists and shows by passing around music or event notices.
Some respondents who maintain local-music playlists on Spotify mention that they support bands by adding their music. Others follow artists on streaming services or recommend bands via word of mouth. "It's important to keep them in regular conversation," says Joslyn Vosta, marketing director at Kickstand Productions (which books shows at Beat Kitchen and Subterranean, among other places). "I think the biggest thing . . . is just talking about local bands to people, especially people who aren't familiar with the local scene."
Offer your services
Pay it forward with your time and energy. Survey respondents mention organizing and promoting shows, reviewing local music, and helping make copies of tapes for cassette releases. Musicians can support other local artists by adding them to bills.
"The underground music scene is so much more than just music," says Alyssa Welch, cofounder of music blog and record label Midwest Action. "You're also supporting the artists they work with and the venues that they attend." There are plenty of ways to contribute to this cooperative community while your physical being stays snug at home.
Go out anyway
It's Chicago—the cold is a given. It's easy to feel isolated and unmotivated during the winter months, but if you're able to get out of the house (and not everybody can), it's still important to show up for the musicians who show up to play. That might mean throwing on a couple extra layers or covering that bedhead with a beanie (let's be honest, some of you are probably doing that anyway). "Suffer the cold together, bring a friend," says Carroll.
"If we have a show, I don't feel any drag about getting there, because I'm so excited to put on the party. But I do feel sort of bad asking people to come out if the weather is rotten," says Rose. "That affects how I think about going out."
It might help to set yourself a quota and establish boundaries: How many shows do you want to see? One a week? One a month? How far are you willing to trek? Rose advises marking shows on your calendar well in advance, so that you can allocate the mental and physical resources for (and get excited about) a night out.
"It takes individuals to make a community," she says. "You can't say you're part of a community if you're not going to it and supporting it." v
Curious about my survey questions? I've closed the Google Form that I used to collect responses, but I pasted them in below:
How do you support your underground music scene when you can't get to shows?
What prevents you from getting to underground shows?
How often do you go to shows?
What genre(s) or scene(s) do you frequent?