WEST TOWN

Of all the cities in the world, Chicago is by far one of the richest when it comes music.

This majestic town has seen the rise of timeless acts like Muddy Waters, has given birth to superstars like Kanye West and hosts a variety of concerts, musicals and music festivals all year-round. For the past ten years, Music Garage has helped facilitate the needs of Chicago’s expansive musical community.

Located at 345 N. Loomis St., this massive unobtrusive structure houses state of the art rehearsal spaces that cater to any serious musician’s respective budget. The inside of the building radiates with the passion and creativity that constantly passes through the building. The entrance itself is a small shop run by Vic Drums, one of the sponsors, and provides musicians with any of their percussion needs. Additional equipment and instruments can all be rented out at the front desk, which includes but is not limited to strings, earplugs, amplifiers, guitars and handheld recorders. Keeping true to their commitment of supporting Chicago music, bills and posters from any major venue and band are posted along the entrance and front desk.

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Recently, Music Garage initiated “Music Garage Presents,” their latest contribution to the Chicago music scene. These are shows put together by Music Garage staff that are meant to showcase some of the local talent that regularly rehearses in the space. These shows are meant to help give musicians a leg up in an extremely competitive marketplace with help from the experienced and knowledgeable staff at Music Garage, who sincerely love and appreciate the music being produced and performed in their space. The day that CUSP went in was the night of a free open mic, which Music Garage hosts on the last Monday of every month.

CUSP Magazine was fortunate enough to sit down Music Garage’s business development manager Tim Worley and CEO Joe Lardieri to discuss what has made Music Garage the spot to be for Chicago’s music scene.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Music Garage

CUSP Magazine: What do you feel the brand of Music Garage is?

Tim Worley: I think Music Garage’s brand is trying to highlight Chicago’s musical talent. We’re a very diverse city in terms of our population and musical styles. As a Columbia graduate, I know that everyone has different tastes and Music Garage does a really good job at trying to showcase that.

CM: What does Music Garage offer the musicians that come here?

TW:  You can rehearse just about anywhere in Chicago, but Music Garage has the best equipment and the best space. All our staff are musicians who are dedicated to not just highlighting music in Chicago, but also promoting good artists.

CM: What makes Music Garage unique from other studios?

TW: The people by far. Everyone here is very dedicated. From the interns to the staff and management, we are all musically inclined in one form or another. We’ve been on both sides in terms of playing and trying to make a name for ourselves, and the other side is supporting the other people who try to make a living off that.

CM: Why is Chicago important to the identity of Music Garage?

TW: It’s funny because I’m a North-sider, and growing up I never really heard or saw a lot of what Chicago is known for. I only really understood the rap and hip-hop element until I started to work here. There was actually a moment when I was an intern where I was setting up one of the rooms on a Monday, and I passed by one of our productions suits and heard this simple beat. By Thursday that beat had turned into a full-fledged song. I would set up rooms for all kinds of artists who played folk, rock, and indie, and I had no idea how great the other musical genres that are present here were. That is a lot of what Chicago is. A city full of hidden gems. It’s very serendipitous, you never know what you’re going to experience until you experience it.

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CM: What do you think about the current state of the Chicago music scene?  Not just local, but also the big time acts that are from here and come here to play.

TW: I think Chicago does a good job of supporting its local music scene, but it is also evolving right now. For years I used to love going to Schubas and Lincoln Hall, who recently got bought by Audiotree. I remember that there was this big fear that they were going to go corporate now that they had a big sponsor behind them. You don’t realize that most of these people already had big sponsors, and they’re still putting on great music. I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of or that it’s bad. I think it just shows how the music industry changes over time.

[Music Garage CEO Joe Lardieri enters the room]

Joe Lardieri: I think it takes on two flavors. Probably as robust and diverse of a music scene as there is anywhere else in the country. Whether it’s hip-hop, latino or any of the various ethnic trends that come in, there is just so much going on here. Ironically though, there’s not a great music business climate here. You have producers, sound engineers and great musicians, but if you think about it from the movers and shakers perspective, relative to the size, breadth and depth of the music scene, it doesn’t hold a candle to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville. That being said, some of the music produced here, especially in the hip-hop and indie genre, is absolutely second to none in the country. I think it’s an incredible hotbed of innovation and talent, but unfortunately as we say over and over again, when people start to achieve some success, they start thinking about which coast they’re going to go to.

CM: How is Music Garage contributing to the Chicago music scene?

TW: Our best thing that we have right now is “Music Garage Presents,” where we’ve taken this idea that we have the best artists coming to us on a daily basis and taking advantage of the relationships we’ve built with certain venues. We’re trying to get the artists we know that make great music to get showcased at some of the more independent venues and hopefully get them on the national stage with acts like R. Kelly or Smashing Pumpkins.

JL: We’ve built Music Garage Studios to a high standard, probably a little overbuilt relative to what’s out there in the market. We have always striven to give Chicago musicians not only the best rehearsal space in town, but to also do as much as we can to help them advance their careers. We do a newsletter every month, which for other places are usually sales and marketing pitches in disguise. What we do is try to center around information that can help artists moving forward. Over the years we developed very good relationships with artists who have come to the building many of whom have received national and international acclaim. Rise Against, Against Me, Krewella, Chance the Rapper and many more. It’s a great town with a lot of cool stuff happening in terms of music. We saw an opportunity to develop and did some showcases at venues around town to give people the opportunity to not only create their art and perfect their craft but also to literally give them a stage to display it. From a strict financial perspective, we don’t aspire to be the next Live Nation, but to be that nexus between the great art and music being created in Chicago and the venues for that art to be shared with the public. What we also do on a bi-weekly basis is called a “Featured Artist” segment, where we look at someone in the building and we feature them on our website and within the building. We love music and are all involved in the industry, but we also see the financial opportunity. We are, however, committed in that we will never sacrifice art for commerce.

CM: Walk me through a few things as to what an employee at Music Garage would do on a daily basis.

TW: It starts with our topnotch internship program. Any full-time staff member was once an intern, and that is our first line of defense.  When you walk in and see the TV monitors showing music videos, our interns made those playlists. If you want to rent a room at the front desk, our interns are the ones that handle that. Having interned at other places in the music industry, I can tell you that Music Garage puts them to shame. It really helps you take your first steps into the music industry and teaches you very basic stuff like office culture and customer service. Not everyone who walks in here knows how to answer a phone or run a POS system. The day starts with the interns coming in and looking at the schedule to see who’s coming in and what each client needs. They go to each of the rooms and set up the monitors and get it ready for the evening rush, and for the most part it starts with them and how they communicate with our clients. The second layer would be the monthly rooms, which Joe can elaborate a bit more on.  Even the interns that don’t get hired go on to do incredible things like work at Jam and Live Nation. We really prepare you by giving you the tools, and if you’re willing to put in the work you can do anything.

JL: The key is to find folks who are as passionate about music as we are and as committed to furthering the careers of the folks that are here. It’s the culture of the business rather than the products that sets businesses apart. If you think about the last person you stopped doing business with, it most likely had to do with the service rather than the product. I lay awake at night hoping that that never happens to us. Tim is spot on that it really begins with the interns providing that top notch customer service, but it is also a matter of embodying the ethos that we have here, which is that we’re about the musicians. We facilitate them doing well, and if we do a good job of that then the business will prosper. I want everyone who walks out of here to be better prepared for their next challenges and opportunities than when they walked in. I see that as part of my responsibility and commitment to my staff, but I also see it as the staff’s responsibility to each other. We try to give people an opportunity to expand their skill sets, so a lot of what happens here may be routine but it changes day to day if not hour to hour.

Joe Lardieri – “To us, everyone is an artist here. I don’t care if you’re scraping nickels together to pay for the cheapest room in the building or you have your tour bus and limo pull up in front. We treat everyone with the exact same degree of respect, because we do respect them and what they’re doing.”

CM: What does it take it take to be successful with Music Garage not just from the standpoint of your interns but also the artists?

JL: To be successful here in terms of the staff, first and foremost the needs of our customers come first. Every artist that comes in is just that. They’re artists, and sometimes they live up to all of those stereotypes both good and bad. We’re here to ensure that their rehearsal goes as flawlessly as possible and that there are no distractions, whether it be buzzing off an amp, someone screaming in the hallway or anything that would distract them from getting better at what they’re doing. Yeah, you need those hard skills to know what to do when there are technical problems, but the reality is that those skills are trainable and replicable. What isn’t replicable is attitude, so we very much take the approach of hiring for attitude and train for skill. We have a lot of acts that like to come back, and we will reserve the room that they like even if logistically it doesn’t make sense. Our take for the acts is you show up, you plug in and you perform.

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TW: If I may, I just want to share a piece of advice that Joe gave to me when I was an intern and it’s something I now pass down to my interns. This business is what you make of it. You get back what you put in. If you go to your internship or you go to your job and you’re just playing to play without making something of it, that’s what’s going to happen. If you come in with new ideas and ambition and you take risks, you can potentially get a lot back from that. That’s what happened to me, and it’s nice to work in an environment where that’s supported. It’s not an expectation, but it is encouraged. I think that’s the same attitude a lot of artists expect to find when they come here, because they know that Music Garage is more than just this building. It’s a family and a culture. We have open mics and these are a celebration.

JL: Ultimately there are plenty of places where you can go punch a card. This is not one of them. We have a fair tolerance for risk and recognize that this is a creative environment in a rapidly evolving industry. That’s always the case though, it was 100 years ago and it will be 100 years from now. Whether it be along demographic or generational lines, there’s just a million ways you can skew it. That makes it complex but also very exciting. My job is to ensure that any risk taking is bounded by a certain degree of prudence. We try to take the approach of what do our clients want and can we make money by doing that, as opposed to let’s take money, buy equipment and then convince our clients that that’s what they want.

CM: You guys have a lot of distinguished clients that come to Music Garage, how do their needs differ from other clients?

JL: There’s two aspects to it. There are the folks who were nobody and now they’re somebody, and there are the folks who were somebody when they came in here and are now closer to being nobody. That’s the nature of fame. That’s more along the lines of vagaries of taste rather than the quality of the music. For the first kind of folks, again, it is our commitment to provide them a space to make art. We take it upon ourselves to be an incubator for creativity. From a high-tech perspective, it is about creating the proper physical environment for them with the necessary feeds and speeds for them to be successful and also a good vibrant opportunity for them to network with other artists. Our goal in that respect is to facilitate all those things. After that it’s wherever their talent, drive and commitment takes them. We’re starting more initiatives like “Music Garage Presents” to create those opportunities organically. For folks who come in that are already famous, we never talk about them until they’ve left the building. Never acknowledge it in any way, shape or form.

TW: You can tell by our location that we’re a little out of the way, and people like that privacy. A lot of our artist aren’t going to be playing at the United Center or the Aragon, though we do get those acts as well. They’re coming here to perfect their craft. They don’t want CDs slipped under their door or people outside taking pictures, they didn’t come here for that. They came for the space that we provide. As an intern, you have to sign a nondisclosure agreement and as Joe said, you don’t talk about it.

JL: You’ve seen that wall downstairs. There’s a lot of people on it who do play big stages, and if anyone breaks that nondisclosure agreement its immediate grounds for dismissal. We respect the privacy and confidentiality of our artists and are completely nonjudgmental relative to their art. To us, everyone is an artist here. I don’t care if you’re scraping nickels together to pay for the cheapest room in the building or you have your tour bus and limo pull up in front. We treat everyone with the exact same degree of respect, because we do respect them and what they’re doing. It’s a brutally tough business. Making a living and performing is awful, 77 percent of streaming revenues went to 11 acts last year. That doesn’t leave a lot of slices of the pie left for anyone else, and it’s the nature of the business. What we try to do is to ensure that the last thing they’re worried about is anything but the rehearsal.

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CM: After being open for 10 years, what have been some of the high points of Music Garage?

JL: Every single day I walk in. I don’t say that to be glib. This is like any other job; there are days that suck, sometimes weeks. I’ll give you an example though. There is a band in town called Great Ocean Waters who started off rehearsing here in our hourly rooms. We got them into our very first showcase at the Elbow Room as the second act, and within three to four months they were headlining Double Door. You see things like that and it’s so cool. I see interns come in and watch them mature over the next four months. The embracing of the industry, the self-discovery, seeing bands do well and growing is something I take a lot of pride in. Without naming any names, I’ve seen interns come in and become employees who eventually move on to bigger and better things. It’s so satisfying to hear bands continue to talk about us and return to rehearse here years after they’ve achieved high levels of success. We know it’s not the building they miss, because there are certainly other places to rehearse and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s a tremendous feeling of validation.

CM: Why is it important to have a space like this in the heart of Chicago?

JL: I don’t need to go into chapter and verse of the segregation/polarization that occurs in this town, it’s already infamous. Not in this building though. We’re three blocks away from the North and South dividing lines, and about ten blocks west of the dividing line between East and West. We feel we are literally at the crossroads of the Chicago music scene in every way in terms of genre, demographics and creative inspiration. That’s what we feel is so unique about this building. We are a building for artists that are serious about producing great music no matter what genre they are. We feel that the diversification of our customer set matches up perfectly with our location.

CM: What has Music Garage given back to the community?

JL: We have a few nonprofits that rehearse here for free on a weekly basis. We have a lot of church groups that use the building for rehearsals and showcases, and we cut that down to the bone from a cost perspective. I just started a meetup group called Chicago Music Professionals where we will be holding monthly seminars/networking opportunities here for free. We certainly hope to see folks come out of those who want to do a session, but we do it for the artists to give them information that they will need to be successful in this business. We feel we definitely give back to the artist community alongside our other nonprofit work. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, any woman who rehearses in our hourly room will have their portion of the revenue dedicated to Brave Pink. We have a merchant’s program as well where the local business promote us and we promote them in return. We don’t make anything off that, but we don’t seek to do so because it’s part of our commitment to the community.

CM: How has the Chicago location done in comparison to the New York location?

JL: Well they’re different business models. New York is monthly only and with New York real estate being the way it is, there’s not a lot of empty space. We have very little turnover in our tenant base, maybe two rooms a year. From that perspective, New York is certainly a more stable cash flow. Here we have the hourly and the showcase, so it’s a bit more dynamic. We have done quite well, but the stability of New York really only comes from rent increases. Here we’ve seen significant growth, there has been a 50 percent increase in the hourly rooms since I took over two years ago. Monthly has held solid and showcase is up, so it’s a little bit of an apples to oranges comparison. What I can say is that the growth here is quite substantial. I contribute that to serving the needs of the Chicago marketplace better, and because we’re a word of mouth business. We continue to see the growth, so I see it as we’re continuing to serve the needs of the music community.

CM: What does the future hold for Music Garage?

JL: As any business, we’re always looking to grow, but I don’t just want to sell more T-shirts. “Music Garage Presents” is really where we’re focused. We think it’s the perfect crossroads between our visibility here in town and our relationships with the artist and the venues. It really helps artists like Great Ocean Waters take that next step. To us that’s exciting, which is why we’re also looking into artist development opportunities and musical education, but currently “Music Garage Presents” is a massive endeavor for us. We think there are a lot of adjacencies with it that will work out better for us, but at this point that will be our next thrust for the next 12-18 years.

CM: What are some places in Chicago that you think deserve to be highlighted a bit more?

JL: I do believe that this city can certainly do more for live music and focus more on the organic things that are going on here or around town like the artist collectives instead of underfunded formal city programs. There’s a nonprofit group here in town headed up by Mike Simmons called Intonations who do a lot of the music education for CPS. Great organization who I believe deserve more recognition. A city like Chicago with the expansive art and musical scene that it has should not be looking to NGOs for musical education at the elementary level.

TW: I’d have to say that Delilah’s on Lincoln and Diversey deserves a bit more attention. It’s a fun whiskey bar that plays punk rock on Mondays. Also places like Half Acre and Revolution deserve more attention, because they not only make great beer but they also sponsor a lot of music in Chicago. Most music venues are bars first and the bands are a means to an end. It just works out better for them to have great beer to go along with great music.

The interns and staff at Music Garage are constantly hustling to ensure that the needs of their clients are fully met. They don’t just do it because it’s their job or internship, they do it because they all love music. Tim and Joe both gave off an air of great pride and satisfaction when talking about Music Garage, and it could be seen in all the staff there. CUSP talked to a few musicians that call Music Garage their home, and most were incredibly grateful for not just the space to perfect their craft but for the opportunity to further it.   

 

Check out what’s happening at Music Garage by checking them out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Emiliano Vazquez-Parrales
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