Partner, Empty Bottle Presents; Talent Buyer, Thalia Hall and Empty Bottle
After moving to Chicago in 2006, Brent Heyl volunteered and DJ’d at Loyola’s WLUW, interned at Thrill Jockey and booked bands for CHIRP Radio’s Whistler night. Heyl has worked for Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman since 2008, starting with Empty Bottle Presents in 2012, and focusing now on Thalia Hall and Empty Bottle Presents. The co-founder and talent buyer for both Music Frozen Dancing and Beyond the Gate at Bohemian National Cemetery, he also highlights collaborations with Art Institute of Chicago (including Midori Takada and Bonnie Prince Billy), multiple-night runs at Rockefeller Chapel (Peter Murphy and SUNN O)))) and a new partnership with Garfield Park Conservatory (Mulatu Astatke and Drab Majesty). Heyl books artists who have a “different approach” and offer a “unique sound,” and he loves “presenting interesting performers in unique settings,” including Courtney Barnett at the Chicago Cultural Center and Michael Morley (Dead C) at the International Museum of Surgical Science.
Co-Founder, Access Contemporary Music
Seth Boustead’s endeavors defy categorization. In addition to his work as a composer, performer, broadcaster and journalist (writing frequently for Newcity), he runs the city’s only classical musical fest, Thirsty Ears Festival, now in its third year. The two-day street festival takes place outside Access Contemporary Music’s Ravenswood location, and attracts around 5,000 people, and may soon be burgeoning even further. “We’re in talks with WQXR in New York to bring the Thirsty Ears Festival there,” Boustead says. The ACM School of Music, meanwhile, has grown from 200 to 320 students, and operates from four locations: Avondale, Rogers Park, South Loop and Ravenswood. Boustead also runs the Sounds of Silent Film Festival, which celebrated its fourteenth year in Chicago with a sold-out weekend at the Davis Theater—in addition to tours in Mexico City and New York, also sold out.
CIVL: Robert Gomez (Co-Chair), Subterranean and Beat Kitchen; Katie Tuten (Co-Chair), The Hideout; Michael Johnston (Treasurer), Schubas and Lincoln Hall; Joe Shanahan, Metro, Smartbar and Gman Tavern; Bruce Finkelman, Empty Bottle, Promontory and Thalia Hall; Billy Helmkamp, Sleeping Village and The Whistler; Ray Quinn, Martyrs’; Tim Tuten, The Hideout
Founders, Chicago Independent Venues League
In May 2018, real estate developer Sterling Bay announced an exclusive agreement with the world’s largest music promoter, Live Nation, to build an entertainment complex in the undeveloped industrial Lincoln Yards area. The announcement galvanized the owners of more than a dozen of Chicago’s independent music clubs, alerting them to the potential conglomerate incursion on their turf, and turning them from collegial competitors into an activist coalition. Within weeks, CIVL pushed back against the Lincoln Yards project, admittedly with limited success, but in the process the members found common ground to embark on a future of pooling resources, enriching their communities, swelling their ranks, and advocating “on behalf of Chicago’s independent performance venues.” Woody Guthrie would be proud.
Co-Founder, Numero Group
Rob Sevier is justifiably proud that his archival label (founded with Ken Shipley) has earned eleven Grammy nominations; and takes equal pride in recent releases, including “Savage Young Dü,” a collection of works by St. Paul punk trio Hüsker Dü (a four-LP set, sixty-nine early songs, forty-seven previously unissued, with a 108-page book); a San Jose slowcore obscurity Duster compilation, “Capsule Losing Contact” (fifty-one tracks on four LPs in rusted slipcase with a thirty-two page lyric book); and “Any Other Way,” the first artist-approved collection by Jackie Shane, a soul singer and pioneer of transgender rights (two LPs, including all six of her forty-fives, plus highlights from the legendary 1967 live sessions, with liner notes telling her story in her own words for the first time). There’s also the newly released “Herculean House Of Cards” from Chicagoan Trey Gruber, whose band Parent was up-and-coming when he died in 2017 at the age of twenty-six.
Jim Hirsch and Mei-Ann Chen
CEO and Music Director, Chicago Sinfonietta
The orchestra is celebrating its fifteenth year with Jim Hirsch at the helm with a “Dialogue”-themed 2019-20 season, featuring works written by underrepresented composers, each encouraging a different social conversation. One of the topics is women’s contributions to the music scene in “Sight + Sound,” which builds on last season’s Project W initiative that focused on women composers, and resulted in this spring’s acclaimed CD, ”Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers.” Among the orchestra’s ongoing successes are Project Inclusion, Residents Orchestrate and professional diversity presentations. Mei-Ann Chen is slated to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a 2020 concert commemorating the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
Heather Ireland Robinson
Executive Director, Jazz Institute of Chicago
Heather Ireland Robinson returned to the Jazz Institute in March 2018, after serving as its education and community coordinator from 2000 to 2002. “It is an honor to see many of the programs I began or shepherded almost twenty years ago come to fruition or blossom,” she says—programs like the monthly jam session, held at Jazz Showcase, where local pros give students the benefit of experience and expertise in an actual performance setting. “It’s incredible to see young musicians—starting at age nine!—transform into jazz-playing cats in moments onstage, right before your eyes.” JIC celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and Robinson has planned a yearlong slate of activities while continuing the Institute’s partnerships with the Chicago Park District (with whom it produces free concert series including the Latin Jazz Festival) and the Department of Cultural Affairs, programming Chicago Jazz Fest.
Owner and Operator, International Anthem and Uncanned Music
Since we last talked to Scottie McNiece, International Anthem high-profile successes have included “Fly or Die,” Jaimie Branch’s 2017 debut album for the label, which wound up on both NPR and The New York Times’ Best of the Year lists. Chicago jazz drummer Makaya McCraven’s 2018 album “Universal Beings” earned a similar rush of best-of-the year honors. McNiece realized how much the label’s profile had been raised when he released Angel Bat Dawid’s “The Oracle” on cassette, with no advance press, only the Bandcamp page; the album “blew up,” in McNiece’s words, virtually overnight. Meanwhile, International Anthem has been building bridges—and a pool of collaborators—with jazz talents in the U.K., which is home to the label’s largest fanbase. Uncanned Music, McNiece’s music-curation business, has gone international, too, with restaurant clients in China and New Zealand, as well as in cities like Houston, Minneapolis and San Diego.
Founder, Riot Fest; Partner, Concord Music Hall and Ruido Fest
Unbelievable as it may sound, Riot Fest celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year; even Ruido Fest, the alternative Latin festival which Mike Petryshyn co-founded, is logging its respectably institutional fifth year. Yet even with much younger music festivals now seemingly swarming every square foot of public space across the city, Riot Fest retains something akin to the youthful, anarchic energy of its early years—probably due to the influence of Petryshyn himself. That said, “Riot Mike,” as he’s known, lost his longtime partner and co-founder Sean McKeough late last year, “shaking the Riot Fest family to its core,” as he put it. He’s vowed “to honor and preserve Sean’s legacy in the company that he tirelessly helped to build.”
Dan Koretsky and Dan Osborn
Owners, Drag City
Founded in 1990, Drag City heads toward its thirtieth anniversary with the same founders and the same philosophy it’s had since the beginning. There are signs of belated evolution: the label—an ongoing champion of vinyl—ended its resistance to streaming platforms and signed a deal with Apple Music in 2017. Its publishing arm, Drag City Press, just released an ebook version of John Fahey’s 2003 memoir, “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.” In the past two years the label’s releases included albums by Ty Segall, CAVE, Bill Callahan and Circuit des Yeux; but its highest-profile release was a 2018 comedy album, “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” released just as John Mulaney became a household name.
Matt Rucins and Pat Grumley
General Managers, React Presents
After React underwent corporate housecleaning in early 2018, Matt Rucins and Pat Grumley abruptly found themselves co-GMs. Grumley, who began his career running his own small agency, had been at React since the beginning. Rucins had been talent buyer at Lincoln Hall until that venue was sold, when he took the sale as a prompt to seek something new. The two bring complementary experiences to the job—Rucins mainly in indie music, Grumley in electronica and hip-hop—but they had to spend their first year seeing through previous projects. Now that they’ve restructured their commitments—notably moving up the Spring Awakening festival so that they have two months instead of two weeks to prep for Mamby On the Beach—they’re ready to make their mark with what Rucins calls “React 2.0.” For the moment, the company’s brand remains musical events at unique locations—such as Montrose Beach and Lakefront Green.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.