City-sponsored Chicago Music Summit to debut

The City of Chicago has for the first time in its history an office charged with serving the needs of the local music community. Now begins director Dylan Rice’s first major hurdle: alerting people that it exists.

“We’re not calling ourselves the ‘music office’ just yet,” said Rice, whose official title is director of creative industries-music. “Right now it’s just me and David Chavez (program coordinator of creative industries) – we’re an Army of two.”

The Army of Two’s first major initiative will be the Chicago Music Summit on Sept. 20 at the Chicago Cultural Center. The goal is to bring 500 musicians, singers and music-industry executives together to attend free educational panels and mini-concerts showcasing a range of local music, and build bridges that could help the community grow -- an attempted icebreaker in the typically chilly relations between the city and the local music business. 

The summit would be a much more modestly scaled version of citywide music festivals such as the annual South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. It would be centered at the Cultural Center, though Rice hopes to expand some events to local clubs, as South by Southwest does. 

Chicago is “a music city in hiding,” a 2007 University of Chicago study concluded. It found that Chicago’s music industry was generating $84 million annually and employed 13,000 people in 831 businesses. In all music sub-industries, 53,000 were employed and $1 billion in payroll generated, third in the country. Yet, it noted that the city has done a poor job of supporting and promoting that resource, echoing complaints that the local music scene is often viewed as an underappreciated renegade within Chicago’s larger economic landscape.  

The administration of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley did not formally respond to the report, and did little to follow up on its recommendations. But the Chicago Cultural Plan unveiled last year re-energized efforts to give the music community a presence in City Hall. The appointments of Rice and Chavez were a first step, in effect creating a one-stop shop in the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events that the music community could call upon to help navigate the sometimes maze-like city regulations imposed on everything from music clubs to street festivals.

“We’d been bugging them to open up a music-industry office in cultural affairs, and that they finally did it is a big story,” said Paul Natkin, director of the Chicago Music Commission, a promotion and advocacy group.

“Our main job is to create policy and programs that support the growth of the music industry, and also to provide assistance with city processes – a customer service function,” Rice says. “We don’t issue permits and licenses, but we can help venue owners and concert promoters get them.”

In a city notorious for making life difficult for small businesses dealing with music, the department run by Rice and Chavez could potentially prove a valuable ally and advocate.

The Chicago Music Summit aims to amplify that mission, but exactly what the summit will entail is still unclear. Natkin was one of about 20 people from the music community -- including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Metro owner Joe Shanahan, and Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer -- who attended a meeting last week with Rice to lay the groundwork for the summit.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Why do we need this?,’ ” Natkin says. “But there was an interesting crowd at that meeting with some great ideas. We do events throughout the year, but it’s easier to shine a spotlight on a one-day free event that addresses how to play the game. We need to know where the resources are in this city and how to access them.”

The awareness-building will take time. Several key figures in the local music scene, such as Andy Cirzan, senior vice president at Jam Productions, were unaware of the new music office or the summit. “I’m not sure they know I exist, either,” Cirzan said with a laugh.

Rice, who has performed and recorded as a solo artist and is a member of the band Software Giant, says he wants to broaden the conversation. Over the next few months he is conducting a series of focus groups with promoters, musicians, media and other members of the music community to help shape a strategy for his office. In the interim, he’s helped relaunch the Chicago Music Commission’s series of music forums (the next one, “How to Get a Gig,” will be at 6 p.m. March 18 at the Cultural Center) and initiated a bimonthly series of “Off the Record” listening parties for new recordings by local artists (next up is Low, previewing its Jeff Tweedy-produced album, “The Invisible Way,” at 8 p.m. March 7 at saki, 3716 W. Fullerton).

“Other cities like Austin, San Francisco, Seattle and Nashville have created music offices,” Rice said. “It is a nationwide trend where they see that promoting music as an economic driver is a smart thing to do. The City of Chicago has not had any specific division doing that as its core mission.”

Natkin is hopeful that Rice and Chavez can make it work because the local music economy is more challenging than ever. “Twenty years ago the music business was 80 percent music and 20 percent business, and now it’s exactly the opposite,” he says. “People need to know how to operate in this business, otherwise they’re just flailing away in the middle of nowhere.”

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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