Thursday, June 19, 2014

Who Does? Independent Chicago.

Here are some reflections from Chris Darby about his company Independent Chicago:

May 19th, 2014 marked the 10th anniversary of the first show of my Chicago songwriter series. Like many ideas, it began as merely a whisper and grew dramatically from there. It wasn’t even called ‘Independent Chicago’ in the beginning. The first show consisted of six performers and three audience members. There was a small semblance of formality, but at the core, it was simply a gathering of friends playing songs and telling stories to each other.

The show was held at 1809 North Francisco, a three-bedroom apartment in Humboldt Park. I was renting the apartment at the time, with my band mate Philip. We had both been frustrated with the songwriter scene we had discovered after moving to Chicago. Many performers we met seemed to be actively working against each other, which seemed to us to be the exact opposite of what one would want to do to succeed. Our philosophy was that community was essential, and the stronger a music community was, the more that everyone would succeed individually, as well as together.

With this in mind, we held a show at our place, one evening in May, with a few like-minded musicians we had met at open mics. The goal was to enjoy each other’s music and company, without any thought of competition. Little did I know that this was to be the planting of a seed that grew into a massive tree, the roots and branches of which stretch further than I may even realize.

We called our apartment ‘Humboldt Studios’ and the series developed over the next three years, showcasing a wide variety of songwriting styles. By the time the last show was held, it was clear that the idea had outgrown the space.

On December 3rd, 2008, I held my first songwriter showcase in a public venue. The event took place at Phyllis’ Musical Inn, on Division Street, in the heart of Wicker Park. The emphasis was still community focused. The difference was that more people could attend. No RSVP needed.

The series continued to grow for two more years and in 2010, I put together a festival, showcasing 20 acts over three nights in July. I still didn’t have a formal name for the shows, and in some ways it felt like the end of the series. I was about to embark on a multi-month tour, and wasn’t sure if or when I would return to Chicago. I felt like I was saying goodbye to the city, and this community of songwriters.

As it turned out, I did end up returning to Chicago in 2011. I decided to develop the series in a bigger, more organized way. I created a name and put up a website. I bought a video camera to record songwriters playing around Chicago, to showcase on the website. And I began to think of the festival as a yearly event.

Over the course of the next year, a solid team of volunteers came together. We found a permanent home for the series at Jerry’s. This venue has been 100% onboard with the idea from the moment it was presented. I had presented showcases at a variety of locations around Chicago, but it was nice to finally have a single venue to work with. For the past three years, all of our festivals and individual showcases have been held exclusively at Jerry’s. We are so happy this has been the case.

(here are some highlights from last year's festival)

When this year’s festival comes to a close, I will have presented 85 nights of songwriters, both under the umbrella of Independent Chicago, and more loosely defined prior to that. In total, over 150 artists have rotated through the series, at 15 different locations. These numbers feel slightly overwhelming to me, but I think that’s ok.

This year is the final year for the Independent Chicago songwriter series. There are a couple of main reasons why I have chosen to bring it to an end this year. First and foremost, I have been spending less and less time in Chicago since 2012, and don’t have plans to reverse that trend at any point in the near future. Not being physically present in the city does not afford me the opportunity to seek out new songwriters to showcase in this series. If I were to keep it going, it would naturally become a clique of the same songwriters playing every showcase, and I have never wanted these events to present an image of exclusivity.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, when I first started bringing these events together, the goal was to encourage community amongst songwriters in Chicago. Ten years later, I can look around and see several other songwriter groups that have sprung up, and I feel a much stronger sense of musicians working together in this city than I did upon first encountering the music scene here. I have no idea how much, if any, that this particular series has influenced this change. But I feel good about this year being the last year, knowing there are so many new community minded avenues for songwriters in Chicago to explore.

There is one thing that I will take away from the way this series grew, from its tiny origins to what it is today. And I hope this will give you pause for thought as well. The thing I most wish to ask of you is this: if you look around and see a need for something, don’t wait for someone else to do it. Don’t tell yourself that it is beyond you, or that there is someone else who would be better at it. Be the change that you want to see in the world. It is very much within your power. It will be more work then you might possibly imagine. But difficult is not impossible. Be as dedicated, kind, and genuine as you can be, and you will accomplish much. Don’t worry if you don’t change the world overnight. If you can make your community better in even a very small way, it is worth it. 
Our 5th and final festival begins on Wednesday, June 25th, at 8 PM, and runs all the way through Sunday, June 29th. Jerry’s is located at 1938 W Division Street, in Chicago. The cost of admission is $8 per night, or you can purchase an all access bracelet, which grants you admission to all the nights of the festival, for just $15. 100% of the ticket sales go directly to the artists. 

If you can’t be in attendance in person, we will be running a webcast of the event as well. You can find that by following this link:

I hope to see you soon.

With love,
Chris Darby

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