Chicago’s hipster alderman on the city vs. the music scene

August 15, 2011

As this blog recently noted in a post about the Chicago City Council starting to demand a review of Lollapalooza’s long-term, tax-free sweetheart deal, the 1st Ward’s newly elected representative, Proco Joe Moreno, has been dubbed “the hipster alderman,” thanks to profiles in Red Eye and the Onion’s A.V. Club.

The title isn’t one that the 39-year-old council member embraces—he prefers “contemporary”—but Moreno may nevertheless be the only elected official in America with a vinyl copy of the 1984 Minor Threat compilation prominently displayed in his office.

Growing up in a multicultural background in Moline—“My dad’s Mexican, my mom’s not”—Moreno is the father of a seven year-old daughter and has been living in Wicker Park for the last decade and a half.

He’s always eager to expound on his favorite bands (Yo La Tengo places high on the list), and you may well have found yourself rubbing shoulders with him at venues such as the Empty Bottle or Double Door at the end of a day that started with him fulfilling more typical aldermanic roles at committee meetings, daycare centers, and senior citizen homes.

The new mayor has vowed to take a more nurturing approach toward the local music scene than the Daley administration, and Rahm Emanuel often has emphasized that he’s a fan of Wilco and the Smashing Pumpkins. On the other hand, Emanuel's brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari, runs the firm that owns 50 percent of Lollapalooza, and sits on the board of directors of Ticketmaster/Live Nation, the Death Star of the concert industry.

Is there a chance for real change in the relations between the city and the music community? Or is Chicago destined for a music scene dominated by the big corporations? I sat with Moreno for a long interview about this issue; highlights of our conversation follow.

Q. Alderman, the reason I’ve been eager to talk to you is that you seem to understand, in a way that Mayor Emanuel may not, that the Chicago music scene basically survived 21 years of barely masked hostility bordering on open warfare with the Daley administration. Things may or may not get better now. From your perspective, where do we stand? In particular, do you think there’s a possibility that Chicago may finally get some sort of Music Office, similar to what New Orleans, Austin, Memphis, and even Portland have—part civic booster, and part liaison to help venues, promoters, artists, and music businesses deal with the harsh bureaucracy? Do you think we need that?

A. We do need it. I think in the past people have said—and this is not my opinion—“Well, we have a special events or cultural affairs office; those encompass anything creative.” That’s not the way to look at things, especially when it comes to music, because of the incredible diversity. I think there is a good argument to have a city Music Office and then have people with different specialties within that. My problem is, and I have said this on [WBEZ], I think Chicago is beyond “a scene.” It has an incredible wealth of diverse music; it’s not Athens, and it’s not Seattle. It’s very mature in a good way, where the music community flourishes within itself. My only fear about establishing that kind of office is that it sanitizes it. I would love to have this office really give support, hopefully financial support, for planning, but then get out of the way and let the Empty Bottles of the world and the other collaboratives drive the festivals or just go about their daily operations.

Q. The last thing Chicago needs is more events at the level of Taste of Chicago as it was run for the last decade by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

 A. Or you go to Myrtle Beach and you have this very stale thing with the city promoting music. We wouldn’t want that. But I think you agree with what I’ve been saying, that to have a music venue at all these days means you’re going to start out struggling. To have the city not “get” what you’re doing only makes things worse. Instead, they can really help in terms of saying, “I’m your liaison for your liquor license/occupancy/cabaret permit,” explaining and assisting with all those types of things instead of saying, “There are some punk-rock kids who want to run a club and they’re a pain in my ass; shut ’em down!”

Q. Right, and we’ve seen those kinds of initiatives under Daley, from the anti-rave ordinance, to the post-E2 safety crackdowns, to the more recent promoters ordinance. I spend a lot of time in clubs; I want them to be safe! But these big pushes by the city didn’t seem to be designed to ensure public safety; they seemed to be meant to shut down music, unless it was coming from a big corporate entity.

A. Unless you’re Live Nation.

Q. Yes, unless you’re Live Nation or Lollapalooza.

A. Those things you mentioned were typical government responses to an issue that shouldn’t need a response, where there already were laws on the books that could have been enforced. I shut down an illegal club on Milwaukee Avenue, where there was trouble and way too many people gathering at a restaurant that was being used as a club. They were not serving food; there was alcohol in there, there were thugs, fights, and girls being sexually assaulted. So we shut it down. One of the questions they asked me was, “Well, you’re supposed to be the music alderman.” I said, “Here’s the problem: On Milwaukee Avenue, I’ve got the Double Door, Subterranean, Debonair, the Crocodile, etc. These guys know how to do it. I don’t want them hurt because of what you’re doing. I don’t want someone saying, “Milwaukee Avenue is up for grabs; what the heck, shut them all down.” That’s a mini-E2-type situation that could have happened.

The problem is that the City Council as a whole doesn’t get the distinctions between the good, legal venues and the troublesome, illegal ones. They don’t get it. So, back to a Music Office, we definitely need some people who do get it. People who have been to these places, unlike employees in the business department for 25 years who are looking at the business licenses and fines who have never been to any of these places. I’m not saying you have to be an aficionado or a geek/fan about it. But they need to get it, and if they don’t get it, they have to want to learn it.

Q. That became crystal clear to me when I was on “Chicago Tonight” at the height of the controversy over the promoters ordinance and your predecessor, Ald. Manny Flores, was pushing that law to shut down illegal house parties without having any idea that it also would adversely affect legitimate, licensed clubs like the Empty Bottle, Schubas, and Metro.

A. Thankfully, that law was thwarted. But yeah, there needs to be embrace and support of the music scene, instead of an all-out assault on music venues. We need to push support, but balance it with the idea that we don’t want to control or in any way sanitize what there is. You said it best: We have a fantastic independent scene without Live Nation… And if we have a Music Office, there has to be an [Empty Bottle booker] Pete Toalson or a [Chicago Tourism Fund Music Director] Michael Orlove in there.

Q. Independent voices that “get it,” right. And, as I said, there are cities that do that right: Austin, New Orleans, Portland. And we have an Illinois Film Office; why not music?

A. Let’s do a local example. We had the Green Music Fest, where Yo La Tengo played. The Wicker Park Fest used to be on Damen right next to Wicker Park. The garden club complained, so we moved it. Then the Green Music Fest was way up on Ashland and Chicago, a terrible location, and everybody said, “Hey, we want to bring it back to Damen.” So I approached the garden club and the Wicker Park advisory council and the senior home and they all went, “This is crazy, it’s going to destroy the area!” For six months we had meetings between the promoters, the security company, and everyone else, and at the end, we had the head of the park group, who had completely been against it, saying, “This was fantastic; it was nicely controlled.” They didn’t understand. They thought before, “Oh, we’re going to have all of this loud, aggressive music.” Yo La Tengo? That’s not an aggressive crowd! You have to educate them.

Q. Right. This is the same crowd that’s patronizing all these two-star Michelin restaurants in your ward.

A. Everything they touch, they have incredible taste! But sometimes people have an idea in their heads: “Oh, my gosh, this is Woodstock ’99,” where things got burned down.

Q. The cultural deafness on the part of most of Chicago’s elected officials really has been shocking to me. They sort of know, “Chicago, home of the blues.” But they have no clue about house music or industrial music, punk rock or alternative-country; the record labels and the others sounds that started and continue to thrive here; the real meaning of Maxwell Street or the Chess Studio, or the way this city is viewed today by music fans around the world.

A. As said before, I think 90 percent of it is the understanding. I have talked about this with the new administration—that it’s not “cute” or something that is just “nice” that we have this music scene; we have a gem! You go to other cities and you don’t see the diversity or overlap in musicians. You don’t see the jazz with the hip-hop with the rock with the punk. You don’t see the overlap as much as you do here, and it’s because of the talented musicians, writers, aficionados, and experts on it.

Q. Plus the infrastructure of the record stores, the recording studios, the independent labels… all of the factors that were part of the economic impact study by the University of Chicago that dubbed this “a music city in hiding,” and one that simply does not appreciate the $84 million a year that these independent businesses generate.

A. I’m looking at this from the standpoint of a consumer and a fan as well as from the standpoint of an alderman. The more data I have about what’s really going on here, the better. That it’s not just Live Nation and Lollapalooza, anymore than Division Street is just Starbucks and Jimmy Johns, the national chains… It gives me fuel to make the case to the council. They need to be educated. They need to know what the asset is worth. It’s like the argument for Lollapalooza: “Well, we got $2.1 million last year for the parks.” Well, great; we got a lot of money for the parking meter deal, too. But did we get what the meters really were worth? It’s like, “I’ll give you $300,000 for your house.” That’s a lot of money… unless the house is worth $1 million!

Obviously, music is a huge priority for me, but I have to also educate the council on this. Those that are interested are interested in the money. One of the criticisms I’ve read is that a lot of this benefits the lakefront, but what about everywhere else? I have people in my ward having bake sales to raise money for playgrounds here.

Q. Well, the Pitchfork Music Festival certainly has benefited Ald. Walter Burnett in the 27th Ward.

A. Yeah, so you’d think other wards would be saying to music events, “Come on over here!” But back to this whole national versus local interest thing: There is a back-to-school fair here in a couple weeks. Last year we gave away 1,500 backpacks. You know who supports this when I reach out? The Empty Bottle. The Double Door. The Girls Rock! Camp. To get some of the national guys like Bank of America? Forget it. There was a local grocer who bent over backwards to provide food and snacks, but Bank of America only wants to provide a couple of volunteers.

Q. Who else on the council understands this? How do you finally build an awareness in city government about the importance of music in this city?

A. I think you build it around the fact that you’re not being taken advantage of, and that you’re squandering an asset… You build it around avoiding another parking meter deal. You stress the full impact of this asset. And you get the big nationals to fund it. Live Nation and Lollapalooza, you want to do business here? Fine. But part of that is that you’ll fund an economic impact study of what you’re doing and how it impacts local music businesses, and part of it maybe is that you fund this Music Office to support the music scene that brought you here in the first place. That’s the kind of thinking we need moving forward, and I think some council members are starting to realize that. And I hope that we can educate the rest of them.