Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

The Chicago Music Commission is talking a lot, but is it doing anything?

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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.

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I share your reservations, but this post seems so negative when the meeting (which I attended) seemed to be a gathering of positive people discussing how to tackle the lack of effort. Some of those people are to blame, but the fact that they are there speaks to their renewed effort to improve. For all your gripes with Mayor Daley and the city, the most important message I got from the meeting was that if there is going to be a change it needs to be created by those who will be most effected and not by those who will profit most. I guess I got more of a feeling of change in the air than more of the same, but maybe that is because I have not been covering this as long as you have,
Mitchell Bandur


In your list of things that Chicago's music community really needs, you should include more focus on Chicago's independent musicians, referred to as "grass roots" in the panel discussion on the 24th. More than ten-thousand MySpace pages, according to the report, on the order of 100 live performances a week, and I'll bet that the total number of people attending these performances in audiences numbering fewer than 100 exceeds the number attending the big events, which seem to be the preoccupation even of thoughtful people like yourself.

*This* is the truly invisible part of Chicago's music richness.

Hank Perritt

You are absolutely correct in saying that the grass-roots/indie musicians are the backbone of the local scene, Henry. For the city to foster the club scene rather than demonizing it only helps that musician. Kanye West and Wilco have no trouble getting gigs; it's the up-and-coming rapper or struggling garage-rock or jazz band that needs the small club gig on a Tuesday night. And the city seems to view that scene as a nuisance, at best.

Read your blog while I was out of town... and here's something from before your time:

Back in 1990 Mayor Daley declared it "Chicago Music Day" through the efforts of Beth Gottlieb (of "The Gottlieb Report") and Monica Grayless (then of Dress Rehearsals). Somewhere in our unsorted archives is a photo of the Mayor with a plaque and an assortment of local musicians.

I think the Sun-Times might've run that photo- one of very few you'd ever see of Daley with a musician.

When "Chicago House Music Day," or whatever it was called, was declared some two years or ago, did Mr. Daley even do a photo op? The Gov would probably be happy to declare "Illinois Music Day," pose with Pinetop Perkins, Pete Wentz and Dale Clevenger, give free ukeleles to all seniors, and not improve anything either....

Thanks for being there and writiing. That helps.

Rob Gillis

As a music journalist, Chicago native and frequent visitor from NYC (just last weekend, for the annual Jazz Institute Jazz Fair, hosted by the City at the Cultural Center -- I've just blogged about this on my website, I recognize the need of a more pro-active City office and more positive-to-music approach, but applaud what's been done to date vis a vis the annual Blues and Jazz festivals. I understand City-promised funds for the Jazz Fest are substantially higher this year -- and indeed remember seeing Mayor Richie at the Jazz Fest about six years ago. The inclusion of Millenium Park as a Jazz Festival venue is clearly pro-music -- that's coming from *someone* in City Hall, as is the support for Mike Orlove and Barry Dolins, who curate, respectively the World Music Festival and the Blues Festival -- both events very competitive with what happens that's similar in New York (really, we have no blues in NYC in any concerted way, but that's another story). Yes, by all means, exploit Chicago music -- bring it to the world! That goes for music journalists as well as City employees.

Thanks for a laser-sharp analysis of what's lacking in spotlighting the incredible Chicago music talent. Julie Burros from the City's department of Cultural Affairs comment, "I don't really know what you mean when you ask, "Does the business community support the music industry?"....I just have no idea."--says it all. They just don't have any idea how to support and promote the music industry as an economic engine.

That being said, the Chicago Music Commission isn't a marketing or PR organization. Their study is a good start to igniting a Chicago music explosion that will take some savvy marketeers and grass roots organizers to make it happen.

This could be the start of something big, don't wait for the City to make it happen, the musicians, the grass roots organizers, the right Website, YouTube, guerilla tactics can keep the fires burning...just like your own passion to make Chicago's music scene shine!


Your take on CMC offers some very constructive critisism.

My exposure to the music industry is as a songriter.
During the 90s I routinely made trips down to Nashville to pitch my songs.
The difference between little Nashville and big Chicago is night and day, with Chicago the NIGHT.

Even though I was an amatuer at that point, in Nashville I personally found a very supportive music community. And I saw prople willingly pass on contacts, make introductions, send you to other publishers offering use of their name as a foot in the door. It was a community where everyone helped everyone else, no questions asked, and no pay expected. You contributed whatever talent you had, even if it wasn't directly as a musician, maybe in a support role.

I have lived here all my life and would characterize Chicago as a "what's in it for me" situation. There are some exceptions, but I rarely see anyone help another, if some type of payment isn't offered. Does anyone know that I WILL is the city motto ?

I have a rant on the Blues Fest too, but I'll keep it for another time.
Keep writing,
Bob Wronkiewicz

Why the snarky remark about Blues Fest? A little "constructive criticism" would have been enlightening!
And am I the only one who thinks it's weird that we have free (okay, taxpayer-supported) festivals for jazz, blues, gospel, country (during Taste), and classical (Grant Park summer concerts) music, but the big-scale rock event (Lollapalooza) in our main public park charges admission and everybody seems to be OK with that? Where's the public clamor for a free "Chicago Rock Fest?"

Nina -- Every year, people far more knowledgeable about blues than myself -- starting with my Sun-Times colleague Jeff Johnson, but also including writers at just about every other publication in town -- do the obligatory preview of the annual Blues Fest lineup. And almost to a man or a woman, the tenor of the coverage is "There are a few highlights, but much more mediocre offerings. And the Home of the Blues certainly deserves better."

Yes, there is much to be said about the price of the fest: Free. But if that's the best thing we can say about it, is that really saying anything at all? With a moderate cover charge -- or a charge such as those set up at some museums and street fairs, where people can make a donation if they see fit at an amount they set themselves -- I have no doubt that Chicago could attract much more notable talent from far afield as well as our backyard.

As for why rock fans haven't protested that every other genre has a free fest, but they don't -- well, it seems to me that rock consumers are so used to being hosed these days, with ever increasing ticket costs and Ticketmaster service charges, they've just gotten used to being taken advantage of. And things will never change until they begin voting with their wallets.

Oh, and we did used to have a free rock fest: Before the city started farming out booking duties to local radio stations, and handling the rest themselves, the talent booked at Taste of Chicago was often first-rate. The Replacements played there! And Wilco! But since the change, for the last few years, Taste has been dire indeed -- a true embarrassment.


Thank you so much for writing this wonderful and long overdue article. I'm one of the many enthusiast such as yourself who realizes that the Chicago music industry is one being severely over looked and not supported here in the City of Chicago. I was extremely surprised to here that Chicago ranked only 3rd behind New York and L.A. in terms of music business and yet you would think Chicago does not even exist on the worldwide radar of musical cities. The art of live music venues is another sector within the industry that would give budding artist and established artist alike an opportunity/venue to perfect their craft, make a name for themselves as well as earn an income while living right here in the city. This of course should include any and every type of music available to the public without any discrimination. For all music is a form of art to his/her own admirer. This could be a seed planted for so much more to follow here in this great city, including tourism, recording, arranging etc...

I would be privileged to donate my time as a liaison or in any capacity possible to help support and increase the notoriety of this very needy cause. Chicago is desperately in need of live music venues as they're becoming more and more non-existent. I'd love to stay here in my own city in place of traveling to Detroit, New Orleans, New York or Saint Louis to enjoy the same talent that we have right here in our own back yard. Lets put Chicago on the map.

Mike Williams

Hey Jim,

It really would be great to see Mayor Daley introducing Johnny Winter at the Blues Fest this year!

Jim Ryan

It's a great day in Chicago!

I stumbled upon this article, thrilled to see the Rob Gillis post recalling Chicago Band Appreciation Day. I might add a thank you to Rob for his contributions to many causes, plus all the local players, Paul Natkin and crew, Dress Rehearsals' stagehands, bands and techs.

Chicago Band Appreciation Day and so many other events we did as a community, including Grammy showcase parties at Dome Room, JBTV shoots, parties at Dress Rehearsals, CANTV awards, Peace Fest, Chicago Music Fanfair, so many shows/parties were usually produced by volunteers and students from my classes at Columbia. Clubs and bands, major labels, producers, studios, ad guys, Shure mics, Guitar Center, and even the City of Chicago was cool because we had sales and product, too. There were also numerous investors, management co's, lots of concert work.

Sidebar: The "Film" Office was called "Office of Film and Entertainment" in the early nineties. Kathryn Darrell did the outreach to local musicians as head of the department and was totally the key. Add Hy Kloc from the Grammy office, Chicago Music Magazine, Nort Johnson, Clinton's small business incentive programs, enterprise zones, and the generosity of local bands to that mix. I can only assume that ultimately, politicians preferred to hang with movie stars instead, so we were jilted as an industry.

I met Beth Gottlieb as a student at the college and she had a lot of the same questions you are asking today. Fresh out of Austin, TX, Phyllis Johnson and I suggested she do the research, find her own answers. She took it on, produced and published the Gottlieb Report and won Best of the Weisman Scholars 1990 for her research. She created a survey where the musicians got to vote on their favorite clubs, people to do business with, comparing economic factors, then published a book with all the stats. The Gottlieb awards continued through 1996. Beth and I still work together and she is now Director, Chicago region for Massivemedia NY. (Check them out at - Talk about "branding" and marketing... Unbelievable stuff!!)

Don Grayless and I closed Dress Rehearsals after 20+ yrs and moved to Skokie to care for our elderly parents in 2000. Still teaching Concert and Festival Production Management at Columbia, my students continue to produce incredible local events. Don is doing freelance sound with Event/Creative and built a cool mastering studio in Skokie.

Beth and I are happy to come to a CMC meeting and fire up the effort, share some winning ideas. If you remember Band Appreciation Day, we also had the BAD Art gallery show at Corosh where bands created art on walls/sculpture from their promo materials- too cool. Beth always produced her shows at the best clubs, too, great training for my students. Jerry Bryant (JBTV) cracked me up when moving to his new digs on Grand Avenue this past January- proudly mentioning his Gottlieb award while standing in front of a wall of his gold records. Too much!

So, let's get creative and find a good excuse for a party, rally this crowd. While we're at it, let's get union contracts, a fair day's wage for "live" performances, take back our economy. Change is on the wind, so the timing is excellent.
Support Chicago bands... Tip a Roadie.

Mr. DeRogatis,

Great to see a quasi op-ed piece on this subject.

My comment:

It is NOT ONLY The City Of Chicago that has a responsibility...though a firm pro-active participation on their part will certainly aid the effort. However the problem with that is...they're not "showbiz" and the effort would look like some kind of nfpte organization that is doing a grass roots effort to instill in the people of this community...a sense of themselves, would look that way. So the net result would be the same as doing nothing at all.

For too real private investment money on the part of any privately capitalized (or better yet...publicly traded) entertainment corporations has been spent here in the City of Chicago and moving an agenda out onto the national or television, TO PROMOTE - THAT ENTERTAINMENT and the virtues of that actual product...perhaps other than Oprah Winfrey.

That costs quite a bit of cash to achieve, too. Millions. AND THE REAL MONEY is still only coming from the coasts. Why would they move here?

Who will do it? What will the entertainment be comprised of? What will that agenda look like in the national media, in the advertising as well as, the public relations aspect? Will it be high end pro production and production companies, that compete with the look and an agenda apart from the coasts (NYC and LA) and Nashville for country music, which will seek to influence the audience, here in Chicago, as well as, all over the rest of the POP CULTURAL WORLD.

Right now, ad infinitum, ad nauseum - LA and NYC are driving the agenda for the all the influences that currently garner the audiences attention. And that's everywhere in the world...London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney and the other lesser media centers worldwide. As an aside note, it's GARBAGE. Nobody from Chicago, doing business with Chicagoans, is competing for regular rotation spots for Chicago Based recording labels, on the syndicated radio channels. No nationally syndicated show - other than Oprah - are in competition for programming on the National Networks or cable. Not one national cable channel (and carried nationally on all cable networks) owned by Chicagoans promoting any agenda, let alone any congealed agenda we could presumably agree upon, is even in the offing.

So how is it, do you think, that promoting a Chicago brand, without private corporate product behind it...will improve the conditions that are currently prevailing?

Jam Productions and the new owners of The House Of Blues...Livenation dot NET, where some of this capital may be found have done absolutely nothing in terms of investment to any national branding of anything coming from the musical and cultural base of Chicago.

Nobody gets it!

You can't promote "Chicago Branding" without there being Chicago based product in the offing! won't work.

Who is going to make that investment, and the several other likewise, large capitalized investments necessary (in order for that BUZ to have credibility)...WHO?

So, nobody is advertising nationally, nobody is competing with a large footprint...therefore, nothing will happen, no matter what the city spends.

And even if it will sound like a mouse squeaking in a den of lions.

We also need, by the way, a Chicago Based, internationally syndicated, strictly - NEWS CHANNEL!

If we, the private corporations of the Chicago Music and Television Community do not strategically position ourselves on the web...and then push that WEB out onto the national and international airwaves with product and advertising, then you can put a big "L" on the forehead. Someone (several) has to seed the market first, then we'll get some action.

Brian Sidler
Former Music Writer For Chicago Music Magazine
myspace brian sidler

The best effort governments seem to be able to generate in our "used to be free" society is arriving late to the party. From Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters to Styx to the Larry King Orchestra, Chicago isn't just another music venue; it is the core of modern pop and rock, worldwide. It is the music that birthed the Beatles sound.
The world thinks the world of Chicago's music, so why doesn't official Chicago?
I urge all of you, now real "grownups," with your music roots at Dress Rehearsals and Columbia to wave your $Billion Dollar Flag and start making demands. Don't compromise anymore. The geeks are running things, and they're still mad at you for beating them up in grade school!

If I'm remembering this correctly, Ed Weber was promo guy at ABC/WLS TV, one of the company men on board when Lucy Salenger re framed the Illinois Film Office- they leased big billboards, strategically placed around LA. It was a well designed, hi-end outdoor media campaign targeting production companies where they live, in their face, selling Chicago and Illinois as a location, paid for by the state.

The film industry didn't just stumble upon Chicago at all; that growth was the direct result of a successful marketing campaign thanks to state money. They hired pros, the best art, best o Chicago talent. Both the Illinois Film office and city "Film" office have budgets, funded by the state and city respectively- economic development funds. Strategically aligning with those departments by presenting a fine-tuned, professional promotional campaign, we could sell commercial music studios, music video production companies, spot houses, labels, "live" performance music venues, clubs, tour support services here as well. Negotiate for line items in next year's budget with both resources- that's what Austin is all about.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on January 25, 2008 10:25 AM.

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