Five months after the release of its landmark study declaring Our Town “a music city in hiding,” the Chicago Music Commission presented its findings to the community that it hopes to represent during a panel discussion Thursday night at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
Conducted by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, there is no denying that the study is an impressive one: With hard, cold numbers, it proves that the music business in Chicago generates $1 billion a year and employs 53,000 people, ranking behind only New York and Los Angeles and dwarfing smaller but more celebrated music towns such as New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis and Austin.
Unfortunately, there also is no denying that the CMC has bungled the trumpeting of these findings at every step of the way.
Instead of holding a press conference to announce these numbers last August -- bringing, say, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Jeff Tweedy and Common to the former site of Chess Studios for the sort of event this news warranted -- the CMC exclusively leaked its report to the Tribune. As a result, it received hardly any other print, TV or radio coverage, though I did catch up with the study in my column a few weeks later.
Why was that important? Among the goals in the CMC’s mission statement are:
* “To create an effective Music Office for Chicago.”
* “To function as a liaison between live performance venues and City agencies in matters of code and license compliance.”
* And “to strengthen and build upon the global branding of Chicago as a first-class music city for living, for tourism and for conventions as well as a premium destination for the professional business of creating music.”
The CMC isn’t going to accomplish any of that until it learns how to make itself heard, focusing its message and aggressively challenging a city government whose attitude about local music ranges from merely dismissive (failing to recognize landmarks such as Maxwell Street and for many years limiting music in Grant Park to embarrassing offerings like Blues Fest and Taste of Chicago) to downright obstructionist (with the draconian anti-rave ordinance and the confrontational assault on live music venues in the wake of E2).
None of this was really addressed before the 150 people who braved the cold to attend Thursday’s panel, though it was certainly hinted at.
After the study’s primary authors, Lawrence Rothfield, Dan Silver and Sarah Lee, presented their findings complete with Power Point slides, the session shifted to 90 minutes of moderated discussion with 20 members of the music community, including representatives from radio (Kenard Karter of WGCI 107.5-FM), performers’ rights organizations (Shawn Murphy of ASCAP and Gary Matts of the Chicago Federation of Musicians) and entertainment law and management (Rita Lee and Heather Nelson-Beverly).
Their litany of complaints was a familiar one:
* In other parts of the country, “people think [the] Chicago [music scene] is whack,” said Lee.
* “The outlets and the artists [here] aren’t being branded and exposed to the extent that they should be,” said Karter.
* One of the reasons that “Boeing came to Chicago is their CEO is a big opera fan,” yet the city still doesn’t recognize the importance of music here, said Matts.
* And the amazing diversity of music here is both a blessing and a curse, comprising a thriving community that’s hard to promote with one voice, according to pretty much everyone.
But by far the most revealing comments came from Jerry Mickelson, co-founder of Jam Productions, and Michael Yerke, talent booker with Live Nation and the House of Blues. Two of the most powerful and successful concert promoters in the United States, Mickelson and Yerke are cut-throat competitors who agree on almost nothing -- except the fact that the city continues to see live music as something to be tolerated at best and silenced at worst.
Mickelson noted that the city Web sites for the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Tourism trumpet hardly any of the city's two dozen world-renowned rock, dance and jazz clubs, yet one page does tout the merits of the Admiral Theatre, “the world famous home of hundreds of beautiful showgirls totally nude.”
And when someone mentioned a city Business Affairs mentorship program and asked Yerke if he was involved, he noted that he’d never even heard of it, and the only times he’s ever contacted by city officials is on occasions such as a recent tussle about the House of Blues’ license to stay open until 4 a.m.
How did city officials respond?
“I don’t really know what you mean when you ask ‘Does the business community support the music industry?’” said Julie Burros of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “One of the things I’m trying to grapple with in this data [from the study]… is ‘What is the negative?’ What does the music community need? I just have no idea.”
Since the CMC isn’t making itself heard when expressing what the Chicago music community really needs, let me take a stab at it:
* City inspectors who, instead of viewing them as the enemy, work with venue owners to provide safe environments for live music.
* City departments that more readily open public spaces to musicians.
* City boosters who champion the scene’s past and present with everything from displays at the airports to banners along Michigan Avenue to guided tours of club land.
* City programmers who make the big free festivals world-class events instead of third-rate bills outshined by the average hay-seed state fair.
* And, perhaps most importantly, a city government that finally values music as a cultural and economic engine every bit as lucrative and important as sports and theater, two other pastimes that get much more than their fair share of money and attention.
Oh, yeah: It would also be nice if Richard M. Daley just once deigned to attend one of these events and speak directly to the music community that is part of his constituency. I’ve been covering the pop music beat for the Sun-Times since 1992, and not once have I heard a single public utterance by our mayor about one of the richest resources in the world and the pride -- at least for many of us -- of the city that he’s represented since 1989.