Smile Politely

Your band stays here

On Saturday at the Market, I was speaking to the members of a band — who are one letter away from having a fantastic name — about what comes next.

Here is the scenario: they are finishing up school here. They’ve been performing on campus and in downtown for a few years now. They’ve played shows regionally — in Chicago, Dekalb, Iowa City, and the like — to some success, and they are finishing up a new record as we speak. It all sounds pretty good, for the moment.

Most importantly, they are unattached. And by that I mean there are no girlfriends in the way. And by that I mean exactly what I stated.

So, what comes next if the band wants to stay together?

The impulse, it seems, is to move to a city. In our case, Chicago is the obvious choice. It has a world-class music scene: it’s filled with venues both big and small, a circle little enough to break into, but big enough to make serious waves if you are noticed, and an array of labels, PR firms, and most importantly, booking agencies. Did you know that Chicago is the center of the indie booking agency world? It is. Look here. And here. And here. Oh, and here, too. What about this one? Or this one. See?

So, what is the case for a band not just forming here in Champaign-Urbana, but staying here after college? And perhaps for the long haul, even?

In a word: opportunity.

We have an immense amount of venues, and good ones. I could list them, but you likely already know them. OK — fine: The Iron Post, Mike N’ Molly’s, Bentley’s, Cowboy Monkey, The Highdive, Canopy Club*, Independent Media Center, Red Herring, and Courtyard Café. Most of them — if not all of them — will even let you put on your own show without charging you room rent. How do you like them apples?

We also have major players in the national music scene working from here: Undertow Management, Polyvinyl Records, and Parasol Records are all here. Mark Rubel has recorded some of the finest artists in the business at Pogo Studios. So has Jon Pines at Private Studios. And let’s not forget that Matt Talbot will record your band if you want, too. Shit — you can even buy his studio!

Personally, I have been able to found and sustain a boutique booking agency that carries clients on myriad labels like Secretly Canadian, Kranky, Asthmatic Kitty, Misra, Absolutely Kosher, and more.

So, it’s not really a situation where there is no opportunity here. There is.

What this music scene is lacking right now is enough good bands to truly make this a scene, in the truest sense of the word. Off the top of my head, I can say safely that these bands are all tremendous players: New Ruins, Common Loon, Headlights, World’s First Flying Machine, Elsinore, Mordechai in the Mirror, Zach May and The Maps, and Hathaways.

There are more, too. But simply stated: it’s not enough and most of them won’t stay around.

What we need, more than anything, is for bands to not just form here, but to stay here. And I think there is every good reason for one to do so. Allow me to create a simple, and easy to read list for you to examine, analyze and respond:

  1. You can tour from anywhere, but you’ll need money to do it. Seriously, folks. You need to tour. I may devote a little more time to this in another column at some point, but getting your band on the road and into different cities is paramount to a band’s success. Staying in Champaign makes it easy to do just that. Beyond being geographically ideal, it’s also extremely cost effective. Which brings us to…
  2. Renting a house for both band and bed. In a city like Chicago, good luck trying to find a house that you can rehearse in and call home. It really doesn’t much exist in any neighborhood you’d generally want to stay in. So, you have to pay (higher) rent to both live and practice, which sucks because…
  3. You need a job where you can leave and come back at will, and often. I know of more than a few people that are making this work right now in Champaign. I used to, and I wasn’t miserable. Wait tables, wash dishes, work at Piccadilly, paint houses, do whatever. That will make it easy for you to hone your craft so you can…
  4. Perform regionally often, interspersed by well thought out and intelligently booked local shows. In a city like Chicago, you will be lucky to get an email back from Matt Rucins or Pete Toalson right away. Am I name dropping? Sure, but the reality is that they are simply too busy to take on many locals without damaging their ability to book national shows. In Champaign-Urbana…
  5. You can always book yourself a great show at a great venue, promote it diligently and to a very attentive listening population. It’s truly a case of being a big fish in a small pond, but that is an OK thing! Ask any of the members of Poster Children, or HUM, or Headlights, or Elsinore. They will tell you that…
  6. Being in a band in a town like Champaign is a refreshing change from trying to navigate a rat race while also trying to create art. The bottom line is that there are amenities in spades living in a city like this one. From things like the Market, to art house films, to music festivals (all kinds — for real, fucking Molly Hatchet is performing at another festival on September 19 in west Champaign = awesome), to great restaurants that are affordable (mostly), to Custard Cup, to Ward Gollings. It’s a good time to be here because…
  7. Your band is wanted. The community wants you to stay here. We want you to rent a house and tour and call Champaign-Urbana your own. Throw house parties. Record albums. Play shows. Tour. Tour again. You can do all of these things here, and you are welcome to be here now.

If it sounds a little desperate, it’s because we are hungry for a resurgence. If it seems like this is a conflict of interest because I am a promoter* and a slimy way of trying to convince your band to stay around so I can profit, it’s not — no matter what some people might think.

Believe me.

What this town needs more than anything is for your band to erase the idea of Chicago from your mind and commit to Champaign-Urbana.

I promise, we will take care of you.

*Full disclosure: Seth Fein is a promoter of live music in Champaign-Urbana. He founded and produces Pygmalion Music Festival, books for Canopy Club, consults for Krannert Center and Krannert Art Museum, and lends a piece of advice here and there to his wife, who currently books Courtyard Cafe. He genuinely loves Champaign-Urbana and its music scene.

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