Friday, April 28, 2006

Towards an Elgin music revival

Right now, despite its enviable punk music heritage, Elgin's music scene is in hibernation. Elgin bands perform in Dundee, Dekalb, Chicago, Barrington, Arlington Heights--just about everywhere except Elgin! Exactly why, I can't tell you. But I think the Taliban atmosphere has something to do with it. Here's what John Emerson--good friend of all Elgin bands--had to say:
There weren't a lot of articles on the Third Floor. Back then, the Elgin punk scene was flourishing, but underground. Brian [Peterson] tried to avoid anything that would get any mainstream publicity because, no matter how "positive" the slant of the story, Elgin's blue-nosed puritans would have been horrified that there was something fun for kids to do in their town... that wasn't heavily chaperoned! ...and wasn't sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department, one of the high schools or a church! What is this world coming to?
Music is a crucial part of the creative urban fabric. A music scene generates all sorts of economic activity. A successful venue can encourage entrepreneurs to open other venues nearby. Pretty soon, you have an entertainment district. Restaurants or pizzerias open to take advantage of the fact that people want to eat before or after they go to a show. Corner stores open, because people tend to want to buy something before or after a show--potato chips perhaps or bottled water. These corner stores then become an amenity for people living in the downtown. Other shops open to take advantage of the traffic. More people move in. Recording studios open. Record stores open. Book stores carry CDs produced by local bands. Web developers build multimedia websites for the bands or other sites that use their music. Designers create logos, branding and design t-shirts.

How much economic activity can come from a music scene? WSM-AM 650 started broadcasting Grand Ole Opry in 1925. Now Nashville is home to the largest songwriting community in the world (20,000 people). Music Row in Nashville is home to hundreds of music publishers and record labels, and the neighboring Berry Hill district has hundreds of recording studios.

Of course Elgin isn't going to be Nashville, but it can create enough of a music industry that will provide economic opportunities, enhance the quality of life, revitalize downtown, and give people pride in E town. I've mentioned Bellingham, Washington before. There's no reason we can't be like Bellingham, with all its live music venues and recording studios.

Elgin bands have historically done very well, rising to national, even international prominence. Slapstick is widely considered one of the three greatest ska punk bands of all time. Ex-Slapstick band The Lawrence Arms is touring some 20 European cities right now. Every teenager in the country has at least heard of the Alkaline Trio, if they're not actually familiar with the music, which gets regular airtime on MTV. Alkaline Trio started when Matt Skiba met Dan Andriano (ex-Slapstick and St. Ed alumnus) at an Elgin concert. The Smoking Popes, of course, are luminaries in the punk rock firmament. And Colossal, Elgin's reigning band, has been hailed by every able-bodied punk critic in America and Canada.

The Academy Is, a Hoffman Estates band, got signed to Fallout Boy's label (Fallout Boy is a Wilmette band), and is now huge. They're bigger than the Strokes, something I can barely believe. The Academy Is used to play Clearwater with all the other Elgin-area bands. And in fact, most of them were there on Monday when Elgin-based dormLife headlined a show that included several area bands, booked by Elgin-based DECAL Productions. The Academy Is will resume their national tour in late May.

When their peers have met with success, and when they have such illustrious predecessors like Slapstick, you can't accuse our bands of harboring unrealistic hopes and dreams. They deserve our support. When they meet with success it gives us--especially our teens--something to be proud of. I can't tell you how many amazed responses I've gotten when I tell people how rich Elgin's music heritage actually is.

Elgin once had a thriving music scene, centered on the Third Floor. We held the pearl in our hands, and let it fall. As a result, the Fireside Bowl came to national prominence, while the Third Floor became an obscure legend. Let's not repeat that mistake. When we get somebody like Brian Peterson--who organized the Third Floor and the Fireside Bowl, we have to work to keep him. When I see what the Taliban clique is doing to David Shelton, it makes me cringe, because sooner or later, enough will be enough, and we'll lose him too.

Despite the fact that Elgin's music scene is in hibernation, I can think of at least two record labels based in Elgin, a company that arranges logistics for touring bands, a booking company and a company that provides lighting systems for concerts. Imagine how many music-related businesses there would be if there was a thriving music scene! And of course the restaurants would benefit; of course cafes would benefit; of course the downtown shops would benefit.

A music scene would be a huge plus for Elgin, and the only thing holding it back is the Taliban clique.


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