Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Scene, Should Be Heard

Just before Labor Day, I got another new roommate via Craigslist. Things had worked out fairly well using this method so far, though my former fellow renters had abandoned me for greener pastures (Alaska, law school, and a sweet downtown condo, respectively), I’d managed to stay on in my cheap, spacious duplex through sheer will, plus a hell of a lot of emails back and forth. It only took me a few interactions with Gabi to determine that he’d be a good fit for the fourth and final room in the place, even if he did use the word “holla” a bit too liberally.

A month into our roommate relationship, I still feel pretty good about the choice, but there’s one issue I should have foreseen. Like many people from “the city”, whether natives or transplants, Gabi has the unfortunate habit of comparing everything anywhere to how things are in New York. If I hear one more sentence begun with “In New York we…” I think I might go crazy.

It might be endearing if he were from a foreign country; at least then there would be some major cultural differences that I could perhaps learn from. But no, New Yorkers just seem to feel that you need to know these things, because even if you don’t care, you should, because New York is about as real as it gets. (Can you imagine an Omaha native reporting on his or her city’s characteristics at every turn?)

My attempts to argue for Chicago over New York rarely hold muster for others, especially since I haven’t set foot in New York for at least two years and have little to offer in the way of straight comparison. And it certainly doesn’t help my case when my New York-centric friends spend most of their time here in an area not-so-fondly referred to as the “Viagra Triangle.” Realistically, I’d probably lose the debate on most counts, given that everyone seems to revere New York, and millions of people can’t be wrong (except when it comes to Fall Out Boy). But there is one area in which I think I could make a viable argument for Chicago: the music scene.

Having lived in the ‘Second City’ proper for over three years, I’ve come to know the music scene in Chicago quite well, and the wide variety of options and the depth of its history never fails to amaze me. The city may be most prominently associated with the blues, but the story goes far beyond the 12-bar tradition. Pick a genre and you’ll find it here with both local acts and nationally-known stars: rock, pop, jazz, house, country, folk, hip-hop…the list goes on, and so do the venues that support the various scenes. There’s a good chance you’ve seen the Metro, Riviera or Vic on your favorite rock band’s tour t-shirt, but how about smaller rooms like Schubas, the Hideout and the Empty Bottle? Or the venerable Old Town School of Folk Music, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year?

And that’s not even getting to the scores of legendary blues and jazz spots; each year, local organizations coordinate evening-long tours of the city’s most revered clubs, during which trolley-riding fans can hit as many establishments as they can handle for a flat fee. It almost seems wrong to visit institutions like the Green Mill and Kingston Mines in this “checklist” manner, but at least you can say you were there (and in the original location, too; in recent years, stalwarts like Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge and the famed Checkerboard Lounge have been forced to relocate, with Buddy Guy’s Legends under a constant threat to do the same). Besides, there’s a whole other undocumented world of music to experience, from years-old open mic sessions that feel more like family reunions to barely publicized avant-garde shows in unmarked basement spaces. Heck, just on the 15-minute walk from my place to my girlfriend’s, I once counted six different musical performances, and none at a place I would categorize as a music “venue”.

Really, it’s silly to attempt to wow anyone with sheer numbers, especially when I’m talking about competing with New York (though a recent studycompleted by the University of Chicago, purportedly the first of its kind to compare the relative health of the music industry in 11 major metropolitan areas, says that the numbers actually are pretty comparable). The argument for Chicago’s music scene relies more on anecdotal evidence, anyway. Not just from a suburban-kid-turned-urban-cheerleader like me, but from those who actually work within the industry.

Chicago band ‘The Handcuffs’, photo from

During my time here, I’ve spoken with a number of musicians who see Chicago as an ideal place to attempt a musical career. They note the strong, established communities for nearly every genre (even the notoriously fractious hip-hop scene has begun to come together, though a fair number of artists still seem ready to jump ship if they could), the strength of which was evidenced by the huge, varied crowd that showed up in July to protest the mayor’s proposed ordinance that would have forced club promoters to be licensed. Though there are any number of opportunities, the city is low-pressure enough that they feel they can experiment without constantly being under the microscope. Add to that a comparatively affordable housing market (for those with some means) and you’ve got a formula that can support up-and-coming musicians for a number of years.

In my greatest display of hyperbole ever, I wrote before last year’s Lollapalooza festival in Grant Park that the city was “quickly becoming the center of the music universe”. “Is that really true?” I can recall my brother asking me. Being that it was summer at the time, my answer was an unequivocal “yes”. Warm weather being as delightful as it is in Chicago, everyone comes out to play during the summer months, and that includes musicians, who have many opportunities at the city’s hundreds of festivals. From large-scale, city-run affairs celebrating blues, jazz, gospel, Celtic, Latin and world music, to equally revered traditions like Fitzgerald’s American Music Festival, the Old Town’s Folk & Roots Festival and the Hideout Block Party, to dozens of street celebrations featuring local and national acts, summer weekends are filled with music.

My friends and I often argue the relative merits of our respective home cities on a variety of criteria – sports teams, nightlife, attractive females, drinking traditions– but the quality of each place’s music scene has never come into play (it’s a good thing, too; any defense of my hometown, Boston, would have to include an explanation for Aerosmith). Maybe it’s because music from every part of the globe is so readily available, we no longer consider it to be important where it comes from; it’s not as if living in, say, Atlanta, precludes you from hearing Bay Area hyphy (though it could possibly affect when you hear it, depending on how many music blogs you frequent).

However, it’s long been a practice of critics to mention the origin of every new artist, believing that helps to put them in a context that the consumer can easily process. Because of the aforementioned global music culture, an artist’s birthplace may not necessarily dictate his or her sound as much as it once would have – many bands sound like they’re from Detroit without ever having set foot there. But it does still affect the way we judge a performer’s legitimacy.

If I found out The Watson Twins grew up in Los Angeles instead of moving there from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, I’d be more apt to dismiss their gospel-country-soul as derivative. At a recent concert I attended, I took the opening band far less seriously once I learned that the members hailed from Phoenix (a “hotbed of musical talent”, as I sarcastically referred to it). Somehow, it would’ve made a difference if they were from Brooklyn, or even Jersey.

From Chicago Blues Fest

When I think about possibly moving to other cities (Chicago is full of people who continually talk about leaving, but never do – though other cities may have more flash, the comfort and convenience here turns many would-be East or West-coasters into lifers), I wonder how much the music scene of a particular place might factor into my decision. Would it outweigh housing costs or job opportunities? Probably not. But if it comes down to a perfect climate with a limited array of options, or a chilly city with a regularly full slate (hello, Montreal), I’d take the latter, hands down.

Of course, it seems as though I’ll be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and if I want friends in other places to make the move here, or at least come visit more often, I want the music scene to present as strong an image as possible. It’s not enough that I think things are great, or even if the numbers back me up; what matters most is perception, and right or not, most people I know don’t think of the city as a music destination on par with places like New Orleans (even post-Katrina, during the summer Jazz Fest) and Austin. As for New York, well, I’m still working on Gabi. Want to know how it goes? Just keep an eye on Craigslist.