Monday, February 1, 2010

Chicago's Indie Rock Music World

Here's another paper I wrote; this one in 1997.

Chicago’s Indie Rock Music World

Art worlds consist of artists, audiences, and support personnel (Becker). Artists produce the art, audiences consume the art, and support personnel bring artists and audiences together. In this paper I describe a system of nightclubs, college radio stations, and arts periodicals that served as support personnel for some Chicago musicians to produce and present a particular type of art form, “indie rock.”

Chicago’s indie rock music world of the early nineties was a place where support personnel in the form of nightclubs, college radio stations, and arts periodicals provided musicians with arenas to present their music as well as rationales for their existence. Nightclubs provided bands with spaces to present their art form, indie rock music. College radio stations broadcast bands’ music, giving them a performance outlet and an aesthetic rationale for creating indie music. Arts periodicals served as barometers for indie rockers to check on the progress of local bands and, in writing about indie rock, created and aesthetic frame for understanding the music.

Finally, in the Conclusion I argue that descriptive empirical ethnographies such as this are essential to our understandings of rock music worlds. They are the first step in the creation of theoretical constructs about generic rock worlds.

The Research

Data for this paper come from two years of participant observation fieldwork, from 1992 through 1994, I the world of unsigned Chicago indie rock bands. During this time I attended an average of two live rock shows per week, was a columnist for a Chicago-based indie rock fanzine, and a disc jockey at a college radio station.

The research began in June of 1992 with five weeks of observations with an unsigned band named Rustbucket. I attended Rustbucket’s rehearsals and live shows as well as spending time with band members in casual, non-band related activities. Through the members of Rustbucket I met other members of Chicago’s rock world, and through these other members I met still others.

By means of this snowball sampling technique I conducted forty-two interviews (Table 1). Two aspects of the world studied define it from others. One was the local unsigned status of the interviewed, a second was the self-definition of these people as “indie.” First, thirty-nine of the forty-two interviews were with individuals familiar with Chicago’s rock music world, and twenty-five were musicians in unsigned bands. All of the fieldwork was conducted in Chicago, and as a journalist and radio disc jockey I participated in Chicago’s rock world.



25 Musicians in Unsigned, Local Bands

5 Owners of Independent Recording Labels

3 Musicians in Major Label, Non-local Bands

2 Musicians in Major Label, Local Bands

2 Recording Engineers

1 Band Manager

1 Booking Agent

1 Musician in an Independent Label, Local Band

1 Nightclub Owner

1 Rock Music Journalist

The second defining aspect of the data stems from the results of snowball sampling. Because interviewees provided contacts for further people to interview, I collected a non-random sample of friends and associates. The term these friends and associates used to refer to themselves and their world was “indie.” They spoke of “indie bands,” “indie rock,” indie recording labels,” and an “indie scene,” assuming a general understanding of the term. For indie rockers, “indie” was short for “independent,” as in independent from the mainstream recording industry.

Chicago’s Indie Rock Music World


Chicago’s live indie rock world centered around twelve nightclubs that can be arranged in a hierarchy based on the percentage of bands they featured with major and independent label recording contracts (Table 2). The clubs were all located within the city limits, and they all presented live music at least four nights a week —- Wednesday through Saturday.



2 Upper-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (13%, n=8), Independent Label Bands (23%, n=14), Unsigned Bands (64%, n=39)

4 Mid-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (6%, n=3), Independent Label Bands (13%, n=6), Unsigned Bands (81%, n=38)

6 Entry-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (0%), Independent Label Bands (0%), Unsigned Bands (100%, n=47)

Chicago’s two upper-level indie clubs featured more major label bands than either the mid- or entry-level clubs. The upper-level clubs also featured more bands with independent label recording contracts. Mid-level clubs, on the other hand, featured some major label bands and some independent level bands, but the focus was clearly on unsigned bands. Finally, entry-level clubs featured unsigned bands exclusively.

In constructing their careers, Chicago’s indie musicians expected their bands to move from opening gigs on slow nights (i.e. Wednesday and Thursday) at entry-level clubs, to headlining weekend gigs at mid-level clubs, to opening gigs for major label bands on weekends at one of Chicago’s two upper-level clubs. Dan, of Rustbucket, in discussing why a particular gig was poorly attended, touched on the urgency with which musicians wanted to progress to better gigs within the club world.

"You wouldn’t want to play too many nights like that last show. There was nobody there. Two unknown bands on a Wednesday. Well, you’re never going to get many people to a show like that." (fieldnotes)

To become integrated into Chicago’s mid- and upper-level clubs was seen as the mark of a successful band. Said Terry, Dan’s bandmate in Rustbucket:

"I wanted to headline the Avalon [a mid-level club] on a weekend. I wanted to open for a band at the Metro [an upper-level club] on a Saturday. We’ve reached all of the goals we set out for. Thus, I consider this band a success." (fieldnotes)

Dan and Terry are describing what many musicians saw as the hierarchical structure of Chicago’s indie nightclubs, a structure that corresponded with the label affiliation of the clubs’ bookings. To move beyond opening for a major label band at an upper-level club was to move beyond playing the local network, to tour. And, in fact, this was the goal of most musicians: “The thing I want to do the most is go on a tour” (personal interview).

Nightclubs played different roles in Chicago’s indie world based on their position in the hierarchy. Entry-level clubs provided a number of services to both the rock world and the community at large. Mid-level clubs, on the other hand, were live rock clubs exclusively, featuring a mix of independent and unsigned bands. Upper-level clubs concentrated on the upper-echelon of nationally and internationally known rock bands, making it difficult for local unsigned bands to secure gigs. What follows is a discussion of exemplary clubs from the three hierarchical levels.

Entry-level Clubs. Entry-level clubs were multipurpose venues, functioning as both neighborhood bars and rock music clubs. Representative of such clubs was the Beat Kitchen, a three hundred person capacity club on Belmont Avenue. The Beat Kitchen was a long, rectangular club consisting of two rooms. The front room, which patrons entered from the street, was a bar and pub eatery. The back room, separated from the front by swinging doors, was the live music room. Because of the separation between the rooms, patrons could come to the Beat Kitchen without seeing or, when the doors were closed, without hearing the performing bands.
The Beat Kitchen featured live music, and sometimes theatrical productions and films, Monday through Saturday nights. Monday through Thursday patrons paid a cover charge of $2 or $3, and then only if they wanted to go into the back room. On slow nights they could lounge in the front room for no charge other than food and drink. On weekends, however, patrons paid a $7 or $8 cover charge to get into the club as a whole.

The life blood of entry-level clubs was their regular clientele, patrons who come without regard for the club’s entertainment. These clubs did not try to compete for live bands with higher level clubs. The manager of the Morseland, for instance, conceded that he sometimes booked bad bands because his club was not high enough on the competitive agenda of musicians.

"If a band plays once or twice a month in Wicker Park, why would they want to come up to Rogers Park to play the Morseland? Nobody would come up here ‘cause they know they could see them down there. So we’re at kind of a competitive disadvantage, and so we have some not so good bands sometimes." (fieldnotes)

The Morseland was at a disadvantage because of its location. It was too far away from Wicker Park, a neighborhood considered to be the center of Chicago’s indie scene, to draw a decent crowd. As a result, they booked a lot of non-rock (jazz, world music) bands and, as with many other entry level clubs, had “open mic” night on Wednesdays, where anyone wishing could get on stage and perform. Entry-level clubs, therefore, were not solely rock clubs. They were bars that catered to the diverse interests of local neighborhoods.

Mid-level Clubs. Mid-level clubs specialized in live rock music. The Avalon, a club located on Belmont Avenue east of the Beat Kitchen, was a representative mid-level club. It had a maximum capacity of 750 people, and was open from Wednesday through Saturday only.

Unlike entry-level clubs, the Avalon was strictly and obviously a rock music club. The sound system was exceptionally loud, the lighting was dim to none, and since there were but four or five tables in the entire club, most of the patrons were forced to stand or mill about. The Avalon did not serve food. “When you come here,” said Avalon owner Roger, “you’re in a rock and roll club. There’s no doubt about it” (personal interview).

The Avalon’s role in Chicago’s indie music scene was ambiguous. Twenty-five percent of the club’s bands were affiliated with independent recording labels, and they featured three unsigned bands a night, four nights a week, both as headliners and openers. For this reason indie rockers saw the Avalon as a club that took chances on unproven bands. One reason for the club’s ambiguity among indie rockers, however, was their inclination to book bands from outside the indie music genre. For instance, Wednesday nights at the Avalon were devoted to heavy metal bands.

Another aspect of the Avalon that hindered its credibility in the indie scene was the perceived substandard talent of many bands that performed there. Avalon’s bands were seen by some as
bands "that will exist for six months and then disappear. They’re not really committed musicians or anything. A lot of those are sort of goof off bands." (personal interview)

Roger defended his club by emphasizing its commitment to local unsigned talent. He admitted that some of the bands he booked were not very good, but this was because he booked as least sixteen bands a week. He felt the Avalon was an important part of the indie rock scene because he regularly booked unsigned bands to open for well known independent label bands, an act he felt supported unsigned bands on the road to mainstream industry success.

Roger’s perception of the importance of his club was echoed by indie rock musicians. When describing their goals or important moments in their careers, musicians often spoke first of opening for independent label bands and then headlining weekends at the Avalon. They felt that playing the Avalon (or any other mid-level clubs) on weekends was an early sign of success and integration in Chicago’s indie world.

Upper-level Clubs. The upper-level club most accessible to local unsigned bands was the Metro, an 1,100 person capacity club on Clark Street near Wrigley Field. The Metro’s accessibility was due mainly to their Wednesday night series when they featured three or four local unsigned bands. Because this was often the first time bands played the Metro, and because playing here on weekends was a priority, musicians felt Wednesday night shows important to getting the attention of the Metro’s talent buyer. Doing well on Wednesday night “is a way of showing the Metro that we are a band worth booking on future dates” (personal interview).

Lounge Ax, the other upper-level club, featured indie genre bands almost exclusively. Lounge Ax was located in Chicago’s Lincoln park neighborhood and held 250 people. Local unsigned bands had their best chance of opening a gig at Lounge Ax on Wednesday and Thursdays, with weekends reserved for more popular label affiliated bands. Unlike the relative ease with which bands seemed to get Wednesday gigs at the Metro, however, unsigned bands found it difficult to get booked at Lounge Ax.

"We’d like to play Lounge Ax, but that’s a whole political problem because it doesn’t seem like the owner is very into local talent. It’s a battle, but we’ll keep trying. I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it because we can easily play other venues." (personal interview)

This sentiment was echoed by a number of musicians in unsigned bands, bands that had played Wednesdays, and even opened on weekends, at the Metro. Because of the caliber of talent that Lounge Ax booked on a regular basis, however, it maintained its status on the upper-level of Chicago indie rock clubs.

College Radio

College radio stations played two roles in Chicago’s indie world. First, they maintained a rationale that justified indie rock as a music genre. Second, they gave unsigned bands their first opportunities to be heard by local indie rockers.

WNUR, Northwestern University’s radio station, was operated entirely by Northwestern University students, instructors, and staff. Along with the Rock Show, the station had a Jazz Show, the Continental Drift show (featuring world music), two hip-hop music shows (Street Beat and 6 Feet Unda), a blues show, a ska music show, a free form show (any style of recorded sounds could be heard during this show), a soul show, a classical music show, a folk music show, and acid jazz show, a heavy metal show, a punk rock show, and a reggae music show. The Rock Show, however, occupied more hours than any other show (nine hours per day, five days a week) and was on the air during the station’s prime hours of 2:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M.

Much of WNUR’s respect in the indie scene came from its structural status as a college radio station. In Manic Pop Thrill Rachel Felder writes about the structural position of college radio and its effect on programming.

"Financed by university funding instead of commercials, college radio works outside the commodity system--and so advertiser pressures—of American commercial radio and thus can take those playlist risks." (12)

Those “risks," for Chicago’s indie rockers, meant playing music that was not on the playlists of commercial radio stations. Since commercial stations played music which came almost exclusively from major recording labels, the risk that college radio stations took was playing unsigned and independent label recordings. A look at WNUR’s “Playlist” suggests that the station took such risks. On four different weekly Rock Show Playlists, from July 23 through September 24, 1993, only five of 160 songs (3 percent) came from major recording labels.

Another indicator of WNUR’s lack of commercial constraints was seen in the way music was picked for broadcast. Rather than having a prepared playlist, as commercial station often do, WNUR disc jockeys were in control of the music they played. The criteria for picking music was not commercial viability, but individual disc jockey taste.

College radio stations supported Chicago’s indie rock world in two ways. First they were indie rock aestheticians that literally defined “good” music for listeners.

"I started listening to WNUR. I discovered them. They would play a song, and I would listen and write it down and go out and buy like ten albums a week." (personal interview)

WNUR brought this musician into the scene by defining indie rock as “good” music. It helped create a rationale for him, and others, that legitimized indie rock as music worth pursuing as both a fan and a musician.

A second support service of college radio was providing entrée for unsigned indie bands to be heard over the airwaves. Rick, of the major label band Eleventh Dream Day, told how WNUR was playing his band’s music early in their career. "They were playing our demo at Northwestern. The people back there were really nice. We sort of got to be known a little bit." (personal interview)

WNUR played recordings by many local unsigned bands. Ten percent of the top forty most played songs on the four playlists mentioned earlier were unsigned Chicago bands. If, as mentioned, college radio provided a rationale for the legitimacy of indie rock, then unsigned bands whose music was broadcast on the stations were provided with a rationale for their very existence as indie rock bands.

Airplay. One WNUR show in particular served as entree for unsigned bands into Chicago’s indie rock world. The show was “Airplay,” it broadcast on Saturdays from 4-7 PM, and focused exclusively on local music. In addition to playing local compact discs, vinyl records, and demo tapes, Airplay broadcast local bands love from the station’s studio.

If local bands considered WNUR as a first outlet for their recorded music, then they considered Airplay to be an outlet for their music before they had recordings. Airplay’s importance to unsigned and unrecorded bands is evident in the promo packs sent to the show. Musicians created promo packs to promote their bands to specific other people, in this case the producer of Airplay, so that they might be invited to perform on the air.

The quality of promo packs received at WNUR varied greatly. Some were not more than a piece of notebook paper with a few scribbled lines mentioning the band’s name, the fact that they would like to play on the Airplay show, and a phone number or address where they could be reached. At the other extreme were promo packs that came in professional looking folders. On the cover of the folder was the band’s business card (including the name of the band, a contact phone number, and the name of the band’s manager). Inside the folder would be the band’s bio (a band biography) written on band letterhead stationary, a five-by-seven black and white photo of the band, a demo tape and a gift (T-shirts with bands’ names were most common).

Another indicator of Airplay’s importance in the eyes of Chicago’s indie rock community is how upset some musicians became when they found out that the overall sound at WNUR’s studio was relatively bad, and that it had no vocal monitors. The following story concerns a specific band during one Airplay show. The situation was repeated three times, with three different bands, in my tenure as producer of Airplay.

WNUR's live music room in 1993-94 lacked some of the basic equipment expected by rock musicians in a live music situation. The main piece of equipment it lacked was a vocal monitor, the result being that vocalists could not hear themselves over the din of the other instruments. Most musicians were disappointed when they found this out, but went ahead with their shows anyway. But on occasion, as in the following story, musicians got quite upset at not having vocal monitors.

The band Dick Justice played Airplay in May, 1994. Once the band loaded their equipment into the studio, we (myself and my assistant) set them up for broadcast. This consisted of putting microphones on each amplifier, two or three microphones around the drum set, and microphones for each of two vocalists. When everything was set up we did a sound check. Dick Justice played a couple songs prior to broadcast, allowing us to set the volume levels of the instruments and mix them together. We recorded the sound check on tape.

The members of Dick Justice were not happy when they found out that we did not have vocal monitors. How were the vocalists supposed to sing harmonies if they could not hear themselves? When they listened to the sound check tape, they were really unhappy. One member suggested that the band not play the show, he felt it would to them more harm than good to broadcast a bad sound. I convinced the band members that to break their commitment to Airplay was unprofessional, so they did their show. For the rest of the evening, however, two of Dick Justice’s three members did not speak to me, they spoke only to my assistant.

Dick Justice’s story highlights the importance that local bands gave the Airplay show. On the one hand the band was excited to play the show. They recognized that a lot of indie rockers, people from the community of which the wanted to be a part, would be listening. But they worried that the quality of the sound would turn off these very same people. So, because Dick Justice wanted to be successful within Chicago’s indie scene, and because they considered WNUR an important support mechanism for such success, they played Airplay without vocal monitors.


Three free arts periodicals were integral to Chicago’s indie rock world: The Reader, The Illinois Entertainer, and New City. These periodicals supported Chicago’s indie world in two ways. First, they provided show listings by which indie rockers kept track of local live gigs. By looking at current issues indie rockers saw exactly what bands were playing, on what dates, and in what clubs: “Our name is in The Reader almost every week. I like to look through The Reader and check up on bands” (personal interview). This statement highlights two features of the show listings in the periodicals. The first was just mentioned. Musicians “checked up” on bands by browsing the listings.

Show listings also gave musicians an opportunity to have their own bands’ names in the periodicals on a regular basis: “If anyone is into the music scene here I’m sure they’ve heard of us” (personal interview). If musicians’ bands’ names appeared consistently in the club advertisements, moving from one club level to the next at an appropriate pace, then their claims to success in the scene were legitimated.

A second way the periodicals supported Chicago’s indie rock world was through the “Classified Advertisements” section. Classified Ads served as a meeting ground for musicians looking to join already formed bands.

E-I decided I better try to get some people to play with. So I started going to band auditions.
M-Through The Reader?
E-Yea. Well, The Reader and The Entertainer. I think I found these guys in The Entertainer. (personal interview)

Eleven of the thirty-one musicians interviewed (35 percent) were either in bands that gained new members from, or became members of their current bands through Classified Advertisements.

Classified Ads in the periodicals were written, quite literally, in code. That is, in looking for the “right” kind of musician, bands placed advertisements consisting of indie rock genre conventions (Weinstein).

LEAD GUITAR PLAYER wanted (21-30 year old, city resident, w/car) for melodic indie-rock band. Ready to play out and record. Call [phone number].
BASSIST NEEDED TO complete band in vein of Jesus Lizard, Shorty, Shellac, Rodan. Don’t call unless you’ve heard of these bands. Mike [phone number].

Both of these Classified Ads provide the basic information needed for an interested musician to decide whether the band is right for him or her. That information includes: Age, location, necessity of transportation, general style of music, and band career stage (in the first); and musical influences and sarcastic humor/intelligence test (in the second).

Tail Spins. A periodical of a different sort that covered Chicago’s indie music scene was Tail Spins. Tail Spins fit Felder’s description of a “fanzine,” periodicals that
write about specific music for specific fans; they offer them a more focused option, an alternative, if you will, to Rolling Stone, which covers a broader musical spectrum to reach more readers. (14) The specific music for Tail Spins was indie rock, and it was written for and by indie rockers.

Tail Spins was run by one man, Brent, out of an apartment in the northern suburb of Evanston. It began as a promotional arm of the independent record label Happy Tails Records. Tail Spins was a more profitable venture than Happy Tails Records, however, so Brent folded the record label and put all of his resources into the fanzine. Within a year Tail Spins grew from promoting Happy Tails Records to a self-sufficient indie fanzine. Volunteers distributed it throughout the Chicagoland area where it was free, and it was increasingly distributed around the country, where it cost $1.00.

All of Tail Spins’ articles were written by volunteers, usually Brent’s friends, or friends of his friends. Most of the writers considered themselves part of Chicago’s indie scene, and many were in bands. This point was important to Tail Spins status as an indie fanzine. Its staff writers were not trained or professional journalists, they were indie rockers. They contributed interviews and articles about local indie bands and personalities, many of whom were their acquaintances. In this way, much like the snowball sampling conducted for this work, the writers and their topics for Tail Spins came from a self-selected group, many of whom identified themselves with Chicago’s indie scene.

Tail Spins, as with other fanzines, reviewed numerous recordings, most of which were on independent labels. The October/November 1994 issue of the fanzine contained 140 record reviews, 133 of which were on independent labels (95 percent). It was not just the percentage of independent label recordings reviewed that was important to Tail Spins’ indie status, it was the language the writers used in reviewing the recordings. As with Classified Advertisements in arts periodicals, Tail Spins reviews were written in code. The following is a review from the October/November 1994 issue.

Oblivion-Shop Thief
(Johann’s Face Records)
It occurred to me that nobody has thought of this before, . . .or at least not in this way. Oblivion is a goofy inventive alternative band that has this quite intensely fast tempo. It has got that catchy thing goin’ too. Every song is hooks galore with the unexpected blend of many para-song rifts that keep it interesting. Enjoyable loud. [address]

The main point of the review follows an indie rock convention of “catchiness,” it is a good record because of its catchy character. It is recommended in indie rock terms for indie rockers.
As with positive reviews, negatively reviewed recordings in Tail Spins were critiqued based upon indie rock conventions.

(Tim/Kerr Records)
This is backbone free music. Dreck like this should be squelched. (Reading the promotional info would clue you in to what shit this is.) Nice makeup, too. [address]

This review lets the indie rock reader know that this is not indie music. Therefore, it is simply thrown into the category bad music. The final statement about the make-up is also negative, for it assumes an indie rock convention that emphasizes a non-look over a look.


Sociology is concerned with the empirical world, with real people doing real things together. Sociological research, then, begins with empirical description. It provides us with a clear picture of the inhabitants of the world being studied: people, places, and things. Similarly, sociological theory should be applicable to real people doing real things together, it should be constructed from observations of real people.

This is an empirical paper. Although I think there are some interesting theoretical possibilities, I leave it up to the reader to discover them. I do not discuss the consequences of musicians’ behaviors, I do not explain why they behave the ways they do, I do not link the behaviors of indie rock musicians to the behaviors of actors in other sociological worlds. I describe the world I observed.

I do not compare the structure of Chicago’s indie rock support personnel to the support personnel of other rock worlds. This is the next step in the research process, operationalizing the findings and applying them to other worlds. What do the nightclub structures of other scenes look like? Do they have hierarchical orders similar to Chicago’s indie nightclubs? What role do radio stations and magazines play as support personnel in other rock worlds?

In answering these questions the picture of rock worlds, as generic sociological worlds, will become clear. The components that are common to all such worlds will be discovered. In the meantime, studies like mine need to be published in order to develop our data base of rock music worlds, to develop our understanding of how rock musicians and support personnel make music together.

Works Cited
Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California, 1982.

Fairchild, Charles. “’Alternative’ Music and the Politics of Cultural Autonomy: The Case of Fugazi and the D.C. Scene.” Popular Music and Society. Spring 1995: 17-36.

Felder, Rachel. Manic Pop Thrill. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1993.

Jipson, Arthur. “Why Athens? Investigations into the Site of an American Music Revolution.” Popular Music and Society. Fall 1994: 19-32.

Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Lexington Books, 1991.


  1. great article. I am uploading some Rustbucket videos onto youtube and thought I'd google Rustbucket to see what popped up.
    good read!


  2. Thanks for the comment. Do I know you?

  3. I was expecting more.

  4. they were indie rockers. They contributed interviews and articles about local indie bands and personalities, rock band