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Feature Thu Mar 04 2010
On a nippy Monday evening in late February, about 125 young musicians are sitting inside a small room at the Chicago Cultural Center. With no instruments in the room or anywhere in sight, the artists aren't here to perform or write new songs. Instead, they're all waiting to learn the key answer to one question — How the heck do I get a gig booked outside of Chicago?
Sponsored by the non-profit Chicago Music Commission, Musicians at Work forums are held six times a year as a way to introduce artists to different ideas in the music industry. Past panel guests have included Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records, music critic Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times and Bettina Richards of Thrill Jockey Records. This particular panel -- about how to book out of town gigs when you're a local act -- brings together six industry experts: Brian Keigher of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Scott Schaefer of Bloodshot Records, Brian Mazzaferri of the recently-signed band I Fight Dragons, Mo.Billionaire of The Movement Worldwide, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and moderator Joanna Quargnali-Linsley of Misery Loves Co. The Department of Cultural Affairs co-hosts the forums.
Twenty-one year old Dave Cohen, who lives in Crystal Lake, takes a seat near the front row. Cohen wants to learn about the mechanics of touring because his three-piece pop-punk band — They Go Up — will be finishing their first record shortly. He heard about the event from his producer.
"We've played a couple open mic stuff but we're waiting to get our disc so we have something tangible to hand out after shows," he says. "We're trying to see if we can make a buzz."
In front of Cohen, Chatham resident Cedric Tate, 46, texts a friend who will be meeting him later. Tate sings and plays bass in a funk-rock band called Room 11. The band has played venerable Chicago venues like the Double Door, Cubby Bear and the Abbey Pub, but Tate hopes to tour outside of Chicago soon. "I would like to start in the Midwest just because of the type of music we play — Cincinnati, Dayton, places like that," he says, adding that the West Coast will be second on his list.
Across the room, Starina Catchatoorian takes a seat and pulls out a notebook from her bag. Catchatoorian, 28, sings vocals and plays guitar in her three-piece band Starina. She describes her music as a cross between P.J. Harvey and Neil Young, and her band has played the Bottom Lounge, Uncommon Ground on Devon and the Darkroom. But she's eager to go on tour outside of her comfort zone soon.
"All three of us have flexible schedules right now that would allow us to go on tour for three weeks," she says. "It's really cool — it's like opening your perspective on a national level, which I haven't really ever done. I've just always looked at Chicago. I haven't really looked outside of Chicago, but I think in this day and age it's important to, it's the only way."
The Musicians at Work Forum is one main initiative started by the CMC, which formed in 2005 with the goal of promoting the city's music scene and uniting anyone and everyone who works in the music business in Chicago. The group is run completely by volunteers and other board members include Iglauer, Chris Schneider of Pressure Point Recording Studios and Nigerian-American producer Olusola Akintunde.
"There's so many artists, musicians and just every aspect of the music scene here in Chicago at so many different levels," says Jim Goodrich, producer/host of With a Voice Like This and a CMC board member. "We have a well to draw from all the musicians and music business people in the area. It's a shame not to be sharing that knowledge and to foster that community and its growth. That's what we hope to do here, doing what needs to be done and making that knowledge available to anyone who wants it."
Sitting at Cafe Descartes in the Loop, Paul Natkin, founder and executive director of the CMC, explains that Chicago has "got one of the greatest music scenes on the planet but Chicago, specifically Chicago government, doesn't do much to promote it. Or didn't — they still don't do much but they do a little bit more."
Natkin is a veteran music photographer who has shot everyone from Muddy Walters to Bruce Springsteen. He also helps run the non-profit Rock For Reading, which uses music concerts as a forum to raise awareness about literacy and to collect books for schools.
He was inspired to form the CMC after traveling all around the world, soaking in what other cities did to promote their music scenes. Every time he came back to Chicago, he saw new ways the town could become more artist-friendly. Although Natkin is quick to point to the diversity of Chicago's music scene and great live shows organized by the city ("One day, there's an African musician playing a one-string violin, the next day there's an Opera company, the next day we have Buddy Guy"), he argues that the city does a lackluster job of promoting these events, especially to travelers coming to Chicago from somewhere else. In addition, he says, with such a massively diverse music scene, there's much more that can be done to help Chicago musicians make a living.
Natkin cites two American cities as inspiration: Austin and Seattle. In Austin, he's seen local bands play live concerts (and not just buskers) in the airport. In addition, the city pays bands to play on the steps of the State Capitol building every Friday in the summer, and singer-songwriters play before city council meetings. In addition to these concerts, the government helps all artists — not just musicians — get affordable health care, Natkin says. In Seattle, former Mayor Greg Nickels pushed for the elimination of an admissions tax on all tickets of venues seating under 1,000 patrons to help small venue owners stay afloat in the recession.
"Chicago, on the other hand, tries to pass an ordinance that will put independent promoters out of business," Natkin says, referring to an ordinance the City Council tabled in May 2008 that would have forced promoters to apply for expensive licenses that many indie promoters couldn't afford. Natkin attended several council meetings to express his opposition to the ordinance.
In addition to hosting the Musicians at Work forums, the CMC has several other continuous goals and initiatives. A few years ago, Natkin worked with the Department of Cultural Affairs to start the program Terminal Tunes, where songs by Chicago-based bands or songs from Chicago-based labels play through the terminals of O'Hare and Midway. Passengers can purchase some of the music they hear at gift shops and can later log on to flychicago.com/terminaltunes. If travelers type in the terminal they were walking through and at what day/time, they can listen to a 30-second sample of the song. Natkin, who was inspired to start the program from his trips to Austin's airport, recently submitted a third batch of new songs — about 300 of them — that will hopefully be playing in the terminals soon.
"We want to brand Chicago music," he says. "We want to make people understand that it's important. It's important to the culture and to the economy."
Eventually, Natkin hopes the city brings live music concerts to the airports, though he recognizes that within the current budget constraints, "it's really hard to ask someone who's been asked to take 20 furlough days this year to push for spending money to have bands play at the airport."
But even in tough economic times, part of the Commission's goal is getting city officials to look at the music industry as a driving economic force. In 2007, the group published an economic impact study looking at how Chicago's music scene compares to other American cities known for music, including Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Seattle and New Orleans. With a grant from Chicago Community Trust, the CMC enlisted the University of Chicago's Harris School of Cultural Policy's help to measure how Chicago's music scene contributes to the city's economy compared to these other cities. Among many other details, the report found that Chicago's music industry employs nearly 13,000 people in 831 businesses and it generated $84 million in 2004. Read the full report here [PDF].
In an e-mail interview, Iglauer says he found the study "extremely illuminating." Iglauer deals mainly with blues artists, and while the blues scene in Chicago is known world-wide, he argues that so should its jazz, rock, hip-hop and ethnic music scenes.
"Chicago offers more live music, and a greater variety of music, than all but a handful of cities in the country. Ironically, while Austin is the much-touted 'Live Music Capitol of the World,' Chicago has much more live music," he says. "But — with the significant exception of the lakefront festivals put on by the Mayor's Office of Special Events and the events sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs — the city government seems to take no interest in telling the world about our wonderful music scene. This is in contrast to cities like Austin, Seattle and Atlanta, who have aggressive governmental programs to bring the world's attention to their music."
Like Natkin, Iglauer is music industry veteran. He started Alligator Records, considered one of the premiere blues record labels in the world, in 1971 with all his savings. While he loves being based in Chicago, he says much more can be done to help record label owners and musicians. For example, the Convention and Tourism Bureau, which works with conventions and trade shows, "has little regular relationship with the music community, so our music isn't regularly used as a marketing tool to attract conventions, and music events are not being set up to enhance conventions or trade shows."
As a starting point, the CMC aims to improve the city's music-orientated Web sites and hopes to work more with university music programs in the city. The group bought the rights to chicagofestivals.net and during the active summer months, Natkin and others post a comprehensive guide to all the shows in the Chicago area. In the peak of summer, the site gets 3,000 to 4,000 visits per day, Natkin says.
"For the most part, the stuff is going on in the city to some people, but nowhere near the amount of people that it should be going on to," Natkin says. "They're doing a great job of booking music, [but] how do you get people to come here from other countries if you don't make [finding out about shows] a simple process? So that's one of our big initiatives."
On the CMC's Web site, the organization currently posts past Musicians at Work forums for download. The organization hopes to incorporate live streaming videos at future forums and has started using Twitter to accept questions from virtual audience members. The CMC also has a Facebook page with updates about events.
At the forum, panel members discuss the basics of touring for about an hour, arguing that it's vital to know your fan base and how many people you think you can attract to a show. Don't just rely on your friends to show up all the time or a recruit useless booking agent. Instead, aggressively network via social media and always present yourself professionally, the panel argues. When writing a press release, "you damn well better tell us what we need to know in that first sentence," Iglauer tells audience members.
As the audience members get ready to leave for the evening after a Q&A session, Cohen says he'll be telling his bandmates about what he learned. He says he wants to take an honest look at the music he's playing before touring outside of Chicago. "Being at zero basically, if you go on tour and lose money, you have to say to yourself, 'Was it worth it?' The biggest thing I got out of [the forum] was being true to yourself — you have to find out if what you have works, and if people like it. If they don't, you have to be realistic."
Across the room, after hearing about the importance of networking in places you don't have a strong fan base, Catchatoorian says she knows a musician in Charlotte — a young man she connects with via MySpace. She never thought about reaching out to him about booking shows in Charlotte until now. She plans on seeing if he can help her get a gig booked in that area if she can help him in the Midwest. "It's hard reaching out beyond your friends," she acknowledges. As she gets ready to leave, she packs up her notebook, but not before taking out a demo CD to pass out.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.