Mayor Emanuel on the Uptown Music District: All talk, no action

No real progress, but the mayor takes credit for Chicago music anyway

May 16, 2013

In a must-see two-part report for WGN-TV on Tuesday and Wednesday plus a live call-in segment for CLTV, Randi Belisomo, one of the best broadcast reporters in town, dug deep into Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to create an Uptown Music District.

The mayor’s been talking about his vision for the area and for Chicago music since shortly after his election two years ago. But just as people having been boasting that “Uptown is coming up” for 25 years or more, nothing really has happened yet.

The lynchpin of any arts-based revitalization of Uptown is the restoration of the Uptown Theater, which is owned by Chicago-based concert promoters Jam Productions. They also own the neighboring Riviera Theater and do most of the major concert business at the nearby Aragon Ballroom. But restoring the Uptown is a $70 to $80 million job, far beyond Jam’s or any other Chicago concert business’s fiscal resources.

While Emanuel talks about the benefits that a renovated theater would bring in terms of attracting other businesses, and he suddenly turns into Richard M. Daley while waxing rhapsodic about planting flowers and creating pedestrian plazas to make the musical triangle of the Uptown/Riviera/Aragon a lot prettier, more inviting, and presumably free of homeless people, prostitutes, and drug dealers, he doesn’t say a word about exactly where the funds for any of these improvements will come from in a time of budgetary crisis.

 Hence the skepticism of the comments from me included by Belisomo in her report. Yet just as revealing as the mayor’s lack of specifics for turning Uptown around—or the fact that there were no concrete plans for fostering music in this city in his much-ballyhooed Cultural Plan—is Emanuel’s response to the question of why Chicago does not have a music office like those in other musical hotspots such as Seattle, Portland, Nashville, Memphis, and Austin. (Belisomo’s full interview with the mayor on music is online.)

Yes, Emanuel says, those cities have music offices. But:

They have offices; we have the largest music event, Lollapalooza, in the world. Number two, we have Pitchfork. Number three, we have Blues Fest. Number four, we have the Gospel Festival. They have offices, we have events, and I will take events over an office.

Number two, I did just create, Michelle Boone and I, two positions totally dedicated at the cultural office towards music. So nobody doubts Chicago’s commitment towards music. We are the city of festivals and a very vibrant music city. We have Common and Kanye West and Jennifer Hudson. Yes, other cities have offices. I’m not interested in having an office to have an office; I want to have these kinds of events.

We took the Gospel Festival and put it in Bronzeville, so that it’s part of the Bronzeville neighborhood. We have a mayor that really enjoys it and promotes it. We have Buddy Guy; we did a kickoff, a sendoff for him when he went to the Kennedy Center for an award, and we have the largest musical festival in the country with Lollapalooza. And we’re going to continue to do those things to promote our local artists, the festival scene, and other things that will keep Chicago as the premiere destination in the music world. But just saying I have an office…

We also are holding in the fall a music seminar in the city of Chicago. Austin does it [a music office]; it works for Austin. We do what we need to do in Chicago that’s the right thing for Chicago.

There are many problems with those comments, not the least of which is the visual image of Emanuel getting jiggy while listening to Kanye, Common, and Jennifer Hudson. But the key is that he sees Chicago as “the city of festivals,” and that he cites Lollapalooza and Pitchfork as the two things the music scene should be most proud of.

This blogger and other music critics and journalists have written often about how the 365-days-a-year small-business heart and soul of the Chicago music scene—the small clubs and independent concert promoters—have been hurt for almost half the year by these major festivals encroaching upon them by signing hundreds of acts to exclusive contracts that put them onstage at the festivals but nowhere else in town. If Chicago has festivals but fewer clubs, Chicago eventually will no longer have that vibrant music scene the mayor mentioned in passing.

What’s more, Lollapalooza is owned half by a company based in Austin, Texas, and half by a talent agency based in Hollywood, California—the one run by the mayor’s brother and major fundraiser Ari. And last year was the first year it paid the entertainment taxes that every other major musical event in this city always has paid by law.

For its part, the Pitchfork Music Festival is half owned by and named for a company that left Chicago for New York several years ago. And one of this year’s headliners is R. Kelly, another of those acts Chicago can brag about… or maybe not, given that whole child pornography mess. The mayor might have been smart not to mention him.

Chicago doesn’t need to have a Music Office just to have a Music Office. It needs to have a Music Office to work as the liaison between the real local music businesses—record stores and recording studios as well as clubs and promoters—and city government, to look out for their interests not only in the bureaucracy, but in the brutal competition with those giant out-of-town festivals and mega-corporate promoters that Emanuel favors but which are squeezing the little guy out of business.

Oh, we also should mention that the Park District just gave Live Nation, the company that counts brother Ari Emanuel on its board of directors, a long-term deal for a 30,000-seat concert venue on Northerly Island.

In any event, the mayor seems of two minds about the music office idea, saying both that we don’t need one, and also that he just created one. That office, if it exists, has yet to do anything beyond granting a short interview to the Chicago Tribune. And this is a situation not unlike the fabled Uptown Music District: Nothing is going on, there’s no real progress, but our mayor is happy to talk about and take credit for it anyway.