By Tom Lynch
Here’s an example of how much can change over the course of ten years—Lincoln Park’s Lounge Ax, the premier indie-rock venue in the city, which even had a cameo in the Chicago-shot “High Fidelity,” took its final bow on January 15, 2000, just two weeks into the new decade. By now, it’s unlikely the majority of those who frequently attend rock shows at places like Empty Bottle, Schubas or Hideout were old enough to have ever gone there.
When considering changes and adjustments in all mediums over the last ten years, music offers the most significant transformation, not only here in Chicago but across the globe. Moving into 2010 we’re heavily entrenched in the digital age, as it took iTunes, introduced by Apple in January of 2001, and the iPod, which came in October of the same year, a relatively short amount of time to make over the record industry and put the future of record stores, independent and corporate, in limbo. Goodbye Virgin. Goodbye Tower. It was sort-of nice knowing you.
File-sharing had an almost immediate negative effect on artists, but more significantly, record labels, whose profits depend largely on record sales. Not a lot of people feel much sympathy for major record companies like Capitol or Interscope—much like when Lars Ulrich speaks up the majority of people just want him to quit bitching—but on a local level, independent labels struggle every day. When Touch and Go, arguably the most important indie record label of the last twenty years, announced in February that it would cease its distribution services, it served as a wake-up call for those in denial that the nature of music, and how we’re delivered it, was drastically altering.
When considering the enormous amount of music performed every day across the world, perhaps live music, incredibly, has advanced the least in presentation, though here in Chicago we’ve also seen significant change. The city has become a destination spot with two of the highest-profile music festivals in the world, Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival, which consistently draw notable acts each summer. Though Lollapalooza, due to a radius clause, practically shuts down local clubs from touring acts throughout the season when people are most inclined to spend a night out.
Going back to Pitchfork—the method and sources of music criticism has undergone considerable modification as well, with the growth of independent blogs (which make everyone and anyone a critic) and the influence of sites like the New York-based Stereogum and, of course, the Chicago-based Pitchfork Media. As tastemakers, Pitchfork has no rival, and it’s often said a review from the site can make or break a band’s entire career. No matter your opinion of the site’s often-sprawling writing style, or the reviewers’ slant towards unconventional artists, you give a 16-year-old girl living in Alaska access to Pitchfork and iTunes and she’s as well-versed in current trends as you or I. Ten years ago, this was not the case. Ten years ago, I needed to make frequent treks to Dr. Wax, Vintage Vinyl and Secondhand Tunes in Evanston—not to mention Crow’s Nest—to find certain releases.
And that’s just a vague look at what the music industry has become. To consider all of it at once would be an exercise in self-torture.
“Such is the number and magnitude of changes that have beset the music industry in the first decade of this new century that it’s almost impossible to list them or consider their impact right now, while we’re still in the middle of it all,” Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis says. “Digital distribution replacing physical product is a more significant change even than the introduction of recorded music, I believe. With the notion of ‘the cloud’ quickly becoming a reality, the idea that we will soon be able to instantly access literally any piece of music ever recorded with one or two clicks is mind-boggling, and cannot possibly be a bad thing.”
For music lovers, that’s true, that anything you want you can get by the click of a button is a good thing. DeRogatis admits though that the economic impact could be negative, however, with musicians no longer able to rely on recorded material as a source of income, instead only live performance. But consider this as well—the quick and unlimited access music fans have to music, through the Internet, works to the incredible advantage of artists, both established and upstart. The ability to release music to the world through their own sites or social-networking destinations makes the likelihood of their music being heard greater than ever. The radio is essentially dead, and has been for a while. Artists no longer need it. They need blogs and monumental email blasts and YouTube and Facebook.
DeRo makes this note, however: “I believe that confining music strictly to the digital realm is like virtual sex—it just can’t beat the real thing.” Personally, I agree with him, certainly when it comes to live music but also when you consider physical copies of releases. Mp3s, iTunes downloads, music that exists solely in your computer, an external hard drive or iPod—I’d be an outright liar if I said I didn’t take advantage of certain technological advancements, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that it’s merely soulless data, an endless conglomeration of mysterious ones and zeros that don’t mean anything. Unfortunately, I think DeRogatis and myself are in the vast minority. Teenagers today certainly have no undying fondness for vinyl or compact disc, and in another ten years us record-hawks will be less a minority and more of a fringe subculture.
In the local music scene, the art of running a rock venue has changed as well. Sure, there have been losses—the aforementioned Lounge Ax, Fireside Bowl, Prodigal Son, the old Bottom Lounge—but the abundance of venues booking music on a nightly basis in Chicago at this time is significantly higher than it was back in 2000. The new Bottom Lounge, Reggie’s Rock Club, Ronny’s and Lincoln Hall are a few examples of places relatively new to the scene.
“The scene and the music that filled Fireside and Empty Bottle in the nineties has become mainstream—there are fifteen clubs in town booking original music, everyone is in a band and with the abundance of places to play, the amount of bands and the bad economy, it has changed quite a bit,” says MPShows’ Brian Peterson, who does booking for Bottom Lounge, Ronny’s and Reggie’s, and used to book for Fireside. “It will be interesting to see what happens over the next year, honestly, as the bad economy takes its toll on things… The way things are done will need to change quite a bit if there is going to be anything left of a music scene in Chicago.”
“I suppose the Internet and how much that now runs the business in many ways, from ticketing to social networks, promotions via social networks, and the influence it has on people’s taste,” says Schubas and Lincoln Hall talent buyer Matt Rucins of the most significant change in the industry over the decade. “Probably the second biggest would be that resulting in a lots of bands able to tour now—there are more rooms in the city that are doing live music, so there’s more competition.”
Chris Baronner, Metro’s talent buyer, sees a shift locally in genre, namely what he calls the “re-introduction of dance music to the indie world just after the turn of the decade. Shows becoming dance parties and vice versa. Whether it’s a DJ playing on a band bill, a band spinning at an after-party, a remix as a b-side or simply a band incorporating electronics, the two worlds have swirled together again.” He mentions the launch of acts like The Hood Internet, Flosstradamus and Ghetto Division as examples.
In another regard, however, the club world has undergone significant loss with the shuttering of Sonotheque and now Lava—which are the clubs left in Chicago that continue to book high-profile DJ acts on a regular basis? Smart Bar? Spy Bar? Debonair Social Club?
While venues like Metro, Empty Bottle and Schubas have continued supplying the city with premier bills throughout the 2000s, perhaps no venue has seen more significant growth, or won more attention, than The Hideout.
Consider where Hideout is now—every September the Block Party is a huge success, the bar itself is nationally recognized and has launched careers of several artists and the Saturday night dance parties routinely reach full capacity.
“The Hideout has changed in very positive ways,” says co-owner Tim Tuten, who’s now spending much of his time in Washington, D.C. working for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Though we took over the Hideout in 1996, in 2000 we were still living day-to-day, or better, night-to-night. We just made it from one show to the next.”
Ten years, though, is really a long time. Think about where you were in your life a decade ago. It can be assumed that a creative hotbed like Chicago would produce a number of successful acts during that time—what could not be predicted was that a few of those acts would completely change music.
In his October 18, 2001 column, former Newcity music writer Dave Chamberlain wrote, “You can count the number of hip-hop artists from Chicago who’ve made a mainstream splash on one hand: Common and Crucial Conflict are basically it.”
Wow, has that changed.
“For Chicago as a whole, Kanye West’s ‘College Dropout’ album in 2004 was probably one of the most important releases in the decade,” Tuten says. “Hideout friend and favorite Rhymefest shared the Grammy for ‘Jesus Walks’ [and] connects us in a way. But really the most internationally influential element of the Chicago ‘scene’ is the universal success of Kanye, Common, Twista, Lupe Fiasco and other hip-hop artists. It is wonderful that they pushed hip-hop in a more honest, thoughtful and inspirational direction.”
Impossible to argue with Tuten, as Kanye West has become an international superstar and is probably (and should be) who people think of first these days when you mention Chicago music. As West continues to dominate headlines with his outrageous behavior, he also continues to create and produce epic, incomparable records that take hip-hop in directions many never thought possible. Out of the last ten years, he’s Chicago’s foremost innovator.
What the hell else happened, let’s see. There was an infamous R. Kelly videotape that led to a legal saga only somewhat recently resolved. The 2003 E2 tragedy forced stronger restrictions on clubs, changing the local game. Billy Corgan did a lot, actually, from launching Zwan to taking out a full-page ad in the Trib notifying fans that the Smashing Pumpkins were reuniting. Kind of, anyway.
Wesley Willis died. Thax Douglas didn’t.
In the rock world, Wilco made “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which not only set a bar for indie-rock records in the future but also, with documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” in accompaniment, gave the mass public a look at how relationships between artists and labels can go wrong. Wilmette’s Fall Out Boy has become one of the bigger rock acts in the world—bassist and de facto bandleader Pete Wentz a celebrity all on his own, with success, like Kanye, in not only music but other glamorous art-scenes as well, like fashion.
Rise Against, which started as a punishing hardcore act, has turned into a successful pop-punk band that somehow never alienated its local roots. The group celebrates its ten-year anniversary with a sold-out show at Metro next week.
We have things that keep us local, too, from stellar independent labels to still-breathing record stores to fantastic rock venues bubbling over with character. (Ronny’s may often smell like piss, but damn it I still love the place.) For that, we are lucky.
“We are incredibly fortunate in Chicago, for as long as it lasts, to still have a wealth of brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood centers of musical community,” DeRogatis says. “The many mom-and-pop record stores, the plethora of indie labels—though we’ve lost some great ones, RIP Touch and Go—the clubs, the community and college-radio initiatives. All of them face challenges, economic and social, just as they always have. But we need them now more than ever, and hopefully the community—if not any other sector of society—will never forget that and continue to support them.”
Amen to that.