Dear Rahm: How to quell fears about your ties to Ticketmaster/Live Nation and Lollapalooza and fix relations with the Chicago music scene

February 24, 2011

Let’s hope we’ve got the guy wrong. Rahm Emanuel is, after all, a major Wilco fan. He was devoted early on to ballet, winning a scholarship to the Joffrey, so music and the arts obviously once were a driving force in his life. And his mother did for a time own “a Chicago rock ’n’ roll club,” a singularly odd fact included in many profiles—those words come directly from one in the New York Times—though it never is explained or examined beyond that one sentence (and this reporter’s efforts to dig deeper into this historical oddity have so far come to naught).

Yes, the mayor-elect accepted donations from the top two executives at Ticketmaster/Live Nation, the Death Star of the music industry, and his talent-agent brother Ari sits on that voracious mega-company’s board of directors. And, true, Rahm also took contributions from no few than 15 employees at Ari’s agency, which just happens to co-own Lollapalooza, an omnivorous corporate beast that, like Ticketmaster/Live Nation, wants to devour the Chicago music scene, leaving scraps or nothing at all for small local music businesses, and to heck with the grassroots music community, since that seems to be nothing but trouble.

Our next mayor could and should assuage fears that he’ll sell out the interests of independent music to the corporate concert bad boys who helped to fund him, and he also could and should begin to repair 22 years of damage to Chicago’s music scene inflicted by Richard M. Daley, whose approach ranged from malicious neglect at best to scorched-earth warfare at worst. He could make several immediate moves that would be great steps toward achieving the high-minded ideals of championing and fostering creativity in one of the best music cities in the world, as well as providing a purely practical bottom-line strategy of harnessing and maximizing that energy to generate much-needed revenue to help offset a staggering budget deficit, a la what Mayor Sam Adams is doing in Portland, or what we’ve seen for years in New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and Austin.

Here then, Rahm, are five concrete things you can do to get started.

1. Reverse Mayor Daley’s decision to turn Taste of Chicago over to the Park District, revive the plan to privatize the seven city music festivals, and accept the Celebrate Chicago bid from Jam Productions, AEG Worldwide, and the Illinois Restaurant Association.
 
Yes, this would mean that Chicagoans would have to pay to attend the concerts at some of these festivals. But the city could negotiate a deal assuring that at least some of the music remains free, and that the admission prices that are charged are reasonable: As outlined in Celebrate Chicago’s proposal, the cost very much is in line with Milwaukee’s Summerfest or many Midwestern state fairs, and competition would guarantee that the prices remain affordable (more on that in a moment). Plus, Chicagoans would get a lot more bang from their buck: The proven record of Chicago promoters Jam in presenting the best local rock shows, combined with the record of national promoters AEG in running worldwide tours by pop superstars, the cutting-edge Coachella Festival in California, and the world-class roots celebration of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival would transform Taste into an epic celebration of the best musical names as well as the finest food, while reviving the long moribund Blues Festival and the slightly better Jazz Festival and bringing both up to a new level of artistic excellence and commercial success.
 
2. Follow through on your pledge to ask the City Council for an independent negotiator—or better yet, a team of them, augmented by a panel representing all corners of the local music community (more on that in a moment, too)—and re-examine and possibly renegotiate the city’s long-term sweetheart deal with Lollapalooza.
 
Sure, this one might tick off your brother, since, as head of William Morris Endeavor, Ari owns 50 percent of Lollapalooza. But in this time of staggering budget woes, shouldn’t the numbers be examined in-depth to determine if the city really is earning all that it should from this giant festival, especially given the unprecedented clause in its contract exempting it from paying the amusement taxes that any other for-profit concert in Grant Park would pay? And wouldn’t it be a tremendous gesture of good will to the grassroots music community to pressure Lollapalooza to eliminate the harshest radius clauses anywhere in the concert industry, freeing acts that perform on its stages to also play independent clubs in Chicago, if they choose, and without having to ask Lollapalooza’s permission?
 
Besides showing concern for indie venues, the latter move would have the added benefit of making moot the antitrust investigation by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which, depending on its outcome, could forever taint or possibly even kill Lollapalooza. Nobody wants that. But many of the people most concerned about the Chicago music scene also don’t want a Lollapalooza that bullies or runs roughshod over the people who work to make the music happen here on the other 362 days a year.
 
3. Once again, stemming from your pledge to have an independent negotiator deal with the corporate concert bad boys, you must assure us that the Park District’s decision-making process for awarding a winning bid for a permanent eco-friendly concert venue on Northerly Island is beyond squeaky-clean, ultra-fair, and super-transparent, and that it includes numerous public hearings at every step along the way.
 
If the selection process is that open to the public, you play no role in it (given what you admit is at least the appearance of favoritism stemming from your brother’s ties to Ticketmaster/Live Nation and your campaign taking money from its leaders), and the music community has plenty of say, Chicago could be confident that it will wind up with the very best proposal for constructing and running an incredible venue on the former site of Meigs Field.
 
Let’s say, after all of that, that the winning bidder is Ticketmaster/Live Nation. The playing field at least will be level. If Jam has a hand in Taste of Chicago and the other festivals in Grant Park, Ticketmaster/Live Nation promotes music on Northerly Island, and C3 Presents and William Morris Endeavor continue to do their hopefully new and improved thing with Lollapalooza, Chicago will have three world-class entities competing to bring the biggest and best names in music to the same gorgeous stretch of the city’s lakefront, resulting not only in quantity and quality, but in competitive pricing as well, since each of the three would have to be mindful of vying with the others for the concertgoer’s hard-earned dollar. (“Hey, Lollapalooza is too expensive, and I’d rather go to the new Taste, anyway!” Etc.)
 
Oh, and clauses absolutely should be included in the contracts signed with all of these entities to assure a certain number of slots at these venues or festivals for local Chicago artists. Period.
 
4. As mayor, you will send a clear message to the arts community if you choose a person beyond reproach from any corner to lead the newly merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
 
Chicago needs a Lois Weisberg for the new millennium—someone who is passionately devoted to the arts, sensitive to their needs in all their myriad incarnations, but tough as nails when fighting for them in the political fray (including making sure they have a prominent place in the schools). The city needs a commissioner who cares about making connections, but who isn’t “connected” in the machine sense; someone who will be a true patron of the arts, not a dedicated fan of patronage, and someone who loves his or her job for reasons other than the paycheck. These people exist; in fact, the staggering number of them is what makes Chicago one of the most exciting cities in the world. And the way you find them brings us to the last but most important act on this list.
 
5. Create a Chicago Music Office, similar to what New Orleans and Austin have, to promote this city’s music scene for both artistic and commercial reasons, and build in genuine oversight by a blue-ribbon advisory panel with representatives from every sector of the music community.
 
The Chicago Music Commission and other activist groups for years have urged the creation of such an office to act as an effective liaison with the inscrutable Department of Business Affairs, the all-mighty Chicago Liquor Control Commission, the grumpy and overworked building, police, and fire departments, the possessive ward aldermen, and every other obstacle in a tone-deaf city government which, under the Daley administration, more often combined to stop the music than to work in any serious way to make sure that it is heard and safely enjoyed by all.
 
Such an office would help avoid destructive debacles like the nonsensical post-E2 assault on live music venues or the absurd and draconian promoters ordinance (and please make sure that one stays dead!). And rather than costing the city, it would pay for itself by nurturing successful new events such as the Pitchfork Music Festival, which has been a boon to the city’s West Side, and maintaining profitable and trouble-free operations at some of the best music clubs in the world, from Metro to the Green Mill, from Schubas to the Empty Bottle, from Martyrs to the Old Town School of Folk Music, and on, and on, and on.
 
An alternately apathetic and aggressive city government has had a hand in killing too many fine music venues, and you may have heard of some of them, Rahm: One was Lounge Ax, a club that was co-owned by the wife of your buddy and musical hero Jeff Tweedy, and one of the few great rock clubs in America owned by women in the '80s and '90s. (And gee, that would mean that Julia Adams and Sue Miller were following in the footsteps of your mother, if she really did own a rock club here!)
 
Chicago needs to maintain all of the indie music businesses now thriving here in a tough economy and against odds created by the city—not only the performance and dance clubs, but the recording studios, the independent record labels, and the mom-and-pop record and musical instrument stores. It should build on a fact that everyone but Mayor Daley seems to recognize: This city’s artistic infrastructure is a major reason why people come here to spend tourist dollars or stay to live, work, and pay taxes. Four years ago, the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago concluded that music in this city generates $1 billion annually and employs 53,000 people—and things only can get better in the future since, under the Daley administration, this was “a music city in hiding.”
 
What do you say we stop hiding the music, Rahm? Instead, let’s crank it up to “11.”