Smile Politely

A Chicago Music Business Field Trip

This past weekend I took my Music Business students on a field trip to some places in Chicago. On Friday, we visited Thrill Jockey Records, then Touch & Go Records and finally Chicago Recording Company. On Saturday, we visited Electrical Audio Recording Studios, and then the Metro, a great venue in Chicago. I don’t know how much the students liked it, but I was completely in heaven the whole time.

Thrill Jockey is on the south side of Chicago in a vibrant neighborhood filled with Mexican restaurants, people walking everywhere, little kids being shepherded down the streets by teachers. A tiny grey door on a side street leads to a beautiful, warm, brick interior room with some desks and gorgeous Thrill Jockey posters up everywhere. Bettina Richards, the founder of Thrill Jockey was already entertaining 25 students when I walked in, telling them how the independent label works, why she believes in it and what types of artists she likes to sign.

Thrill Jockey doesn’t have a specific “sound”; the label signs anything Bettina loves, and she says she loves many different types of bands, from 8 Bold Souls, to Tortoise, to plain old rock music. Many years ago she worked at major labels, including a stint as an A&R person at Atlantic (she worked with Eleventh Dream Day), and she gave it all up to live in Chicago and run her own independent record label.

Bettina talked about how great it was to see young students interested in this type of music business, and how important it is for the sustainability of this special type of music — independent music. She also spoke about how friendly the independent rock labels are to each other. She talked about having lots of questions when Thrill Jockey started up. She would just research and call people from all over the industry to ask how they did things — “Who made this CD cover?”, etc. — and everyone would always tell her what she needed to know. Bettina spoke to the students for over an hour.

Next, we dashed to what Bettina had called “The Mighty Touch & Go” on the north side, and after Corey Rusk peeked his head in to say hello, Adam Reach took time out of his busy schedule to show us around the label and let us meet everyone who worked there. T&G is in another gorgeous brick building with glassed-in offices and cool rock posters everywhere. There are rooms full of the best CDs ever put out. In the warehouse, Adam pointed to a huge pile of boxes. “Returns,” he said sadly. “If we had this many returned records from stores a couple years ago, we would have been very upset. Nowadays, this is pretty normal.” It’s all due to file-sharing; people aren’t buying as many CDs anymore.

I have to admit that meeting all the people behind the making and selling of independent CDs made me never want to share another file again. These are real people, working passionately at their jobs because they love and believe in the music, and seeing their faces and pictures of their kids on their desks makes you realize that stealing music actually does hurt some people.

From here we raced over to the spaceship that is Chicago Recording Company and were offered free sodas and chocolate (the students were pretty incredulous about this). We were led around what we were told was the “Last Standing Recording Studio” in Chicago. You can tell why. There is an air of professionalism — and hipness — at CRC that makes you wish you were (still) a rock star. I wanted to drum up $1,500 so I could spend a day in one of those studios, even though I kind of hate recording.

The next day was Mr. Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios, the opposite of the CRC spaceship. Mr. Albini himself came downstairs and spoke to us for an hour and a half, and we grilled him on touring in Eastern Europe with Shellac, how to cross EU boundaries and how to speak to roving police with machine guns who are trying to halt your outside show on a barge somewhere in Eastern Europe when your show is on the same day as an election is taking place. We asked him what it was like to record Robert Plant and Jimmie Page (he got so lonely living in London and recording at Abbey Road for five months that he came across the movie Blues Brothers on TV and began bawling when he saw the Maxwell Street sign). We asked for stories from the Nirvana recording sessions (lots of prank calls), and asked him about running a recording studio. He showed us around his studios, the spaces where the band can live while recording, and then he explained a bit about sound and the acoustics of recording spaces. I was kind of in heaven during this part.

Last we visited the Metro in Chicago, the oldest individually-owned club in America now that CBGB’s is closed. Jenny Lizak, head of interns and many other things at Metro, led us around the club. (I asked her to let us on the stage so I could show everyone how bouncy it is; it’s really the best place I’ve ever played.) Then she talked about how much the Metro is loved by the community. Metro owner Joe Shanahan donates thousands of dollars to charities each year, and holds benefit shows and local shows at the Metro. They have a mission to help out the local community and they come back to that idea each day. They even have a sign outside asking their patrons to please be responsible and courteous to their neighbors. It’s great that a club is so loved by their community and feels such a responsibility to help out.

And that was the beginning of the weekend. The end culminated in running a three-hour party for The Preschooler who is now five years old. Twelve kids under the age of five screamed and jumped around our living room (filled with balloons) while 20 adults cowered in the corners of another room.

But that’s another story.

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