Chicago Made campaign aims to lure music innovators to Chicago

By Lyndsey McKenna

Chicago band Paper Thick Walls performed Wednesday at Thalia Hall as part of the first Chicago Made fall showcase.
Chicago band Paper Thick Walls performed Wednesday at Thalia Hall as part of the first Chicago Made fall showcase. Lyndsey McKenna/Medill

When Millennials think of places to pursue a career in music, cities such as Nashville, Seattle and Austin immediately come to mind. But a new campaign is seeking to put the Second City first in the minds of musicians and other artists.

The Chicago Made campaign is a collaborative effort between the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Choose Chicago, a nonprofit tourism board, and World Business Chicago, a nonprofit that focuses on job creation. The campaign’s goal is to portray the city as a hub of culture and innovation to attract creative types from the music, film and technology industries.

“We want more business investment in the city from outside Chicago, and we want people from everywhere to hire and license our talent,” said Dylan Rice, who is in charge of music within the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Everyone tends to point to L.A. and New York when looking at the music industry,” said Ardie Farhadieh, marketing and media manager for the Billions Corp., a booking agency based in Chicago. “Chicago has always been seen as second tier, and I think it’s great that the city is trying to put itself on the map.”

In that spirit, Chicago Made hosted its fall music showcase Wednesday at Thalia Hall in Pilsen. The event was the first Chicago Made event in the city.

The crowd was sparse as the first two acts, Paper Thick Walls, an orchestral indie pop group, and the O’My’s, a rock and soul group, took to the stage. The showcase was hosted by local artist Hologram Kizzie and also featured local musicians Psalm One and Alex Wiley.

“I heard there was a free show with all local artists, so I figured I’d check it out,” said Pilsen resident Kaitie Barfell, 23.

Caleb Hamernick, 19, a student at Columbia College Chicago, was invited to the showcase by a friend. “I think it’s really important to support the arts,” said Hamernick. “There’s already an arts scene that’s established here and it doesn’t really get publicized.”

But publicity is at the heart of Chicago Made’s mission. The program is part of the city’s Chicago Cultural Plan 2012, which aims to raise the city’s artistic profile across the globe.

The first Chicago Made music showcase actually took place in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest in March 2014.

South by Southwest, known as SXSW, is a collection of music, film and interactive festivals that has become internationally known in recent years. Chicago-area music venues, booking agencies, record labels and artists have been a staple at the event since its inception.

“We had been to SXSW and noticed there were amazing bands, filmmakers and creative types from Chicago down there, but there wasn’t a real unifying effort to elevate them,” said Rice. “We saw it as an opportunity to have a real Chicago-branded presence.”

The campaign had a booth at the Austin Convention Center at South by Southwest in March and also hosted a networking event. While in Austin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle T. Boone spoke at an official SXSW panel moderated by Groupon Inc. co-founder Brad Keywell.

The first SXSW Chicago Made music showcase featured Chicago acts Chance the Rapper, the Hood Internet and the Autumn Defense, a side project of Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone.

Chicago Made’s SXSW presence also aimed to boost cultural tourism to the Chicago area. Mayor Emanuel wants the city to host 55 million visitors annually by the year 2020. Currently about 40 million people visit Chicago each year. The city set a tourism record in 2007 with 46.3 million visitors.

Though increased tourism would boost Chicago’s cultural pedigree, the city is already a key player in the national music and touring industry. Lollapalooza, which takes place in the city’s Grant Park, is one of the country’s largest music festivals and drew upwards of 200,000 fans this summer. “Sound Opinions,” a nationally distributed public radio program on music, is produced by Chicago’s WBEZ. A number of record labels, including Bloodshot, Thrill Jockey, Drag City and Touch and Go are based in Chicago.

“There is already a huge creative industry here in the city,” said Farhadieh of Billions. “But luring in people from other parts of the world to Chicago as a creative hub is also a great thing.”

Chicago Made will again appear at South by Southwest in 2015, and Rice says the campaign is exploring additional ways to celebrate the city and its myriad cultural assets.