Mayor Emanuel and the music scene

May 16, 2011

Jeff Tweedy and Rahm Emanuel.

Overlooked in the many accolades to Richard M. Daley on his way out of office after an historic 22-year reign is his chronic mistreatment of the music scene, which ranged from malicious neglect at best to scorched-earth warfare at worst.

Among the major sins of the outgoing administration: the passage of the “anti-rave” ordinance; the attempted passage of the promoters ordinance; the long-term, tax-free, sweetheart deal accorded Lollapalooza, negotiated in part by Daley’s nephew, attorney and lobbyist Mark Vanecko; the award of a contract for musical and cultural events at Soldier Field to Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents (part of the grand scheme for hosting the Olympics, it has produced little since that dream died on the vine); the contract for the concert venue on Northerly Island awarded to Ticketmaster/Live Nation and extended for several years without competitive bidding; the destruction of Maxwell Street with no regard for its musical history; the gutting of the Department of Cultural Affairs and disregard for much of what Lois Weisberg had painstakingly created; the wanton political patronage at the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, which has reduced the big free city music festivals to stultifying mediocrity over the last decade and a half; the flip-flop on the plan to privatize those festivals, seemingly because his political-favorite companies didn’t bid on the project; the disdain for all-ages licenses, which locks a key segment of the live-music fan base out of the clubs, and most of all the “we have to look like we’re doing something” post-E2 crackdown on live music venues that had none of the problems of that troubled dance club, where tragedy could have been avoided if not for the city agencies’ selective, politically-motivated enforcement.

Things have to get better under Emanuel, right? They couldn’t possibly get worse… could they?

The evidence so far is inconclusive, with as many encouraging indicators as distressing warning signs. Let’s start on the positive tip.

  • In contrast to Daley’s lip service, Emanuel’s love of the arts seems genuine, from his mom’s ownership of a rock club and his own dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, to his more recent championing of a wide range of Chicago’s artistic offerings. Not only will we now have a mayor well-acquainted with the entire Wilco discography, we’ll have one who actually has been to Double Door, and that cannot be a bad thing.
  • Despite his close ties to corporate concert promoters C3 Presents and Ticketmaster/Live Nation, Emanuel turned to Jam Productions to stage his free inaugural concert in Grant Park, seemingly ending the long Daley freeze-out of the independent Chicago promoters in favor of the soulless, voracious giants.
  • Emanuel has spoken several times in recent interviews about creating an Uptown music district, centered around the wonderful Green Mill jazz club, the Riviera Theatre and the Aragon Ballroom (both key venues for Jam), and the Uptown Theatre (which Jam needs city help to renovate). Such a district could put Broadway in Chicago to shame.
  • The new mayor seems to know that local music is a cultural boon and a major financial asset—the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago concluded that music in this city generates $1 billion annually and employs 53,000 people—which indicates that he may be willing to create what this city long has needed: a Chicago Music Office with a cabinet member working as a booster, a facilitator, and a liaison between the myriad licensing and public safety departments and the music community, similar to the models of New Orleans, Nashville, Portland, Memphis, and Austin.
  • The appointment of Michelle Boone to head the newly merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and the resignation of former Special Events and festivals chief Megan McDonald, despite the appointment of her pal Nora Daley Conroy as chair of the Chicago Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee. By all accounts, Boone, a self-described “arts crusader,” is a tough, no-nonsense administrator well-positioned to clean out the numerous political hacks, get a handle on remaking the music festivals, and repair a lot of the damage to relations with the arts communities that Daley did on the way out.

On the other hand, there also are some negative indicators.

  • Emanuel took sizable campaign contributions from the two top executives at Ticketmaster/Live Nation, widely reviled CEO Michael Rapino and executive chairman and notorious “Poison Dwarf” Irving Azoff, at a time when the Death Star of the Music Industry is vying to make permanent its presence on Northerly Island.
  • The new mayor also took a total of $141,000 from 15 employees at William Morris Endeavor, the giant Hollywood talent agency run by his brother Ari. The company is equal partners in Lollapalooza with Texas promoters C3 Presents, and Ari also sits on the board of directors of Ticketmaster/Live Nation.
  • After the contributions mentioned above first were revealed by this blog, Rahm Emanuel pledged to ask the City Council to appoint a special, independent negotiator to handle any dealings with C3/William Morris/Lollapalooza and Ticketmaster/Live Nation—a promise he has reiterated in recent interviews. But he has not said—largely because he has not been asked—if he will re-examine the deal with Lollapalooza because of its unprecedented and seemingly illegally exemption from the city amusement tax, income that could be very handy in the face of pending city services cuts of $75 million.
  • Emanuel may like some decent music, but that free inaugural concert in Grant Park on Saturday was headlined by the sorry nostalgia act Chicago—an astounding missed opportunity in the city of Wilco, the Waco Brothers, Common, Kanye West, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Frankie Knuckles, and at least 1,000 other acts more relevant and just plain better than the creaky horn-drive schlockmeisters, who played to a pathetic crowd of 200 people in the rain, according to WGN-TV.

At this point, the reasons to be cheerful outnumber the causes to think this is the end of the world as we know it. But several key moves by the new mayor in the coming months will give us a much better picture of whether Chicago music finally will get the treatment it deserves from Chicago city government. These include:

  • Who is named to head the Park District, replacing Tim Mitchell, who happily sold out at every chance to the big corporate musical villains, and who will oversee the award of that contract for Northerly Island.
  • How, exactly, the Uptown Music District begins to take shape, and who is designated as the point person for that project.
  • What, if anything, is done to improve the city music festivals for 2012 and to put things back in order/assure good working relations between Cultural Affairs, Special Events, and the Tourism Fund, where the folks who were running free musical events at Millennium Park and the Cultural Center were bounced.
  • Whether the deal with Lollapalooza will come under city scrutiny for its finances, its questionable liquor license to a Daley crony with underage drinking complaints on his record, and its controversial radius clauses, still subject to an open investigation by the Illinois Attorney General.
  • And, perhaps most significantly, who, if anyone, is tapped as the new mayor’s go-to music advisor—because he needs one, and Chicago deserves one.