According to a recent study conducted by the University
of Chicago, the Windy City "is a music city in hiding."
Although the music business here generates $1 billion
a year and employs 53,000 people -- ranking behind only
New York and Los Angeles -- other smaller cities such as
New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis and Austin are much
better known as "live music capitals." One reason is
they have active governmental offices and vibrant
community organizations aggressively promoting their
musical treasures, while Chicago does not.
But not only is this city's music scene
under-appreciated; in recent years, it's actually been
under siege. After 21 people died at the E2 nightclub in
2003, city agencies began what club owners call a
well-meaning but overzealous crackdown on live music
venues, with effects that linger today. Before that,
city officials passed the so-called anti-rave ordinance
in 2000; tightened restrictions on all-ages licenses
prohibiting young music fans from clubs that sell
alcohol, and barred several major rockers including the
Smashing Pumpkins and members of the Grateful Dead from
performing in Grant Park.
Too often Chicago government has demonized live music in
the name of public safety and slighted or ignored
musical accomplishments that other cities would have
trumpeted. What music lovers have lacked is a strong
voice to make their case, and the question remains: Who
speaks for the local music scene?
In the wake of E2, two credible organizations finally
emerged to fill that role. One is the League of Chicago
Music Venues, a loosely knit coalition of 11 of the
city's best clubs. With members such as the Hideout,
Buddy Guy's Legends, the House of Blues, Metro and
Schubas, the League introduced itself by sponsoring the
Hawk Winter Music Festival in February 2006, but it
hasn't been publicly active since.
The other organization is the Chicago Music
Commission, which paid for the new economic survey. Its
executive director, veteran rock photographer Paul
Natkin, said the group can't claim to be the
authoritative voice of the local scene yet. But it hopes
"We are a group that's trying to get the music
community organized," Natkin said. "We hope that one day
we'll speak for the music community, but the first step
was putting out this study, because there have been many
people in government who've told us that until we prove
that we mean something, we don't mean anything. And what
has meant something as long as I've lived in Chicago --
and that's 55 years -- is money and jobs."
The CMC stumbled by initially announcing its findings
via an exclusive release to one local newspaper -- a
press conference at a club like Legends hosted by a
local giant such as Buddy Guy or Mavis Staples would
have done a much better job in spreading the word -- and
city officials were quick to point out a significant
flaw in the study, which did not account for the impact
of free city-sponsored events such as Blues Fest, Jazz
Fest and Gospel Fest. (U of C Professor Lawrence
Rothfield says income generated by those festivals was
too difficult to quantify academically, given the CMC's
Nevertheless, the survey, which Rothfield describes
as the first comparative study of the music industries
in the 50 biggest U.S. cities, provides an avalanche of
data asserting that our music scene ranks third in size,
third in the number of concerts and fifth in the number
of artists employed.
And by commissioning it, the CMC became the first
musical advocacy group to accomplish something, instead
of just talking about it.
Who, exactly, is the CMC? According to Natkin, the group
does not have a regular membership, just a growing
roster of volunteers led by a board of directors that
also includes Walter Dale, an entertainment attorney who
teaches music business at Columbia College; another
attorney, Daniel Lurie; Bruce Iglauer, president and
founder of the independent blues label Alligator
Records; Chris Schneider, manager of Pressure Point
Recording Studios, and Mark Roth, a founder of
(a property of the Sun-Times
In addition to lacking any women, the six-man board
doesn't include any club owners, though some of the
venues that are part of the League contributed to
funding the study. There are no members with close ties
to the city's thriving house- or dance-music, hip-hop,
alternative-country, punk- and indie-rock, avant-jazz or
And, most glaringly, there are no musicians.
Natkin says it would be difficult for the board to
include musicians from all of the city's many genres.
"We have the Musicians Union on our side, which is an
incredibly powerful organization, and we're not just six
people sitting around a room saying we're going to do
something. But we definitely want to expand the board.
The biggest question we always get is, 'Are you
representing all of Chicago?' That's what we want to do,
but it's not going to happen overnight."
"To what extent can we say the CMC speaks for
everybody? Not as much as it intends to," Iglauer adds.
"We've been working strictly as volunteers, scuffling to
get money, and we haven't been in a position to do as
much public outreach as we'd like to. Hopefully, not
only will the study give credibility to what those of us
in Chicago have been saying for years about this huge,
vibrant engine and wonderful music scene, but it will
give credibility to the CMC so we'll be able to spend
more time doing outreach."
Since the release of the study, CMC board members say
they've heard from three powerful aldermen (who they
decline to name) who are eager to work with the group.
The CMC also takes credit for slowing down legislation
proposed by Downtown Ald. Burton F. Natarus (42nd) last
October to create a new promoters license that would
curb dance parties that he says "raise havoc" in the
Loop. (The Department of Business Affairs & Licensing
has asked the CMC to make suggestions for revising the
proposed ordinance, and city officials have agreed to
seek more public input. The League also has been active
in opposing the legislation.)
Having shown the dollars-and-cents impact of music in
Chicago, the other question for the CMC is: What's next?
"You're asking the exact question that should have
been asked last week [when the study was released],
because the fact that the study is out there is just the
first tiny step," Natkin says. "What the study does is
it quantifies what we are, and it puts a series of
numbers behind it, making it easier to deal with
government agencies, because we're actually an economic
powerhouse. Our goal is that we want to be the liaison
between the music industry and government, so that
rather than everybody working against each other, we're
all on the same page."
Iglauer adds, "In our ideal world, what happens next
is we make enough connections with city government so
that we can start discussing an independent music office
for this city. I stress 'independent' because we believe
firmly that this should be a cooperative effort between
the public and private sectors. It should not be
governmental only, because government serves the
interest of government, and not the private sector."
Iglauer envisions a Chicago Music Office that would
represent the music scene the way World Business
Chicago, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and
the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center represent other
business and cultural interests, with funding partly
provided by the city and partly by local industry. If
that happens, the CMC then hopes to focus on the three
goals expressed in its mission statement, which Iglauer
synopsizes as "shining the spotlight on Chicago music,
easing and improving the relationship between the
private-sector music presenters and city government, and
doing music business education."
The U of C's Chicago Music Economic Impact Study is
available online along with more information about the
Chicago Music Commission at www.chicago-music.org.