Hyde Park musicians work to forge local music scene

By Michael Carter

When University students go looking for music, they tend to head north. While the number of local bands is on the rise, University musicians are struggling to create a local scene. They face a dearth of suitable venues, practice spaces and equipment. With recent efforts underway to establish a Recognized Student Organization (RSO), Hyde Park performers hope to address these problems and to promote themselves on campus.

“There are approximately 20 acts in Hyde Park right now, and maybe about 13 or 14 of those are currently playing shows around Hyde Park,” said Loren Wilson, a local musician and U of C graduate student who runs a Web site for Hyde Park musicians. “At one point in Hyde Park, around 1994-1996, there were over 30 acts who were playing around regularly, but the number of bands took a nosedive soon after.”

In the past few months, however, Wilson has noticed an upswing in local performances. “It seems like things are getting better right now, though, with several recent album releases and the great crowd reception at Blues ‘n’ Ribs,” he said.

These successes are accompanied by great difficulties for local musicians who struggle to find facilities for their bands on campus. “When I had a rock band last year, we tried to rehearse at the dorm practice rooms, but we would constantly get yelled at for being too loud,” Wilson said. “Most people don’t have big rehearsal space budgets, equipment vans, and the time to drive up to the North Side once or twice a week.”

According to Jeff Rufo, a local musician and U of C graduate student, many people do not have the opportunity to see Hyde Park bands perform. Rufo, who performs both as a solo artist and in the alternative country group JR Truckdriver, finds that most bands have shows on the North Side, where it is more difficult for students to atttend. “There are no real music clubs for nightly rock music in Hyde Park or Chicago in general,” Rufo said.

Wilson also cited a lack of local venues as an obstacle that local artists have to face. “Coffee shops and Hutch Commons are terrible places to see music and really awful venues to play,” Wilson said. “When the music scene was big, 95 percent of shows were in the basements of apartments, but they’d constantly get busted by Chicago police for being too loud.”

Wilson is leading the way, towards the creation of a U of C musicians RSO which he hopes will provide musicians with more resources. Wilson, who is eligible to head the organization as a faculty advisor, hopes that the creation of an RSO will allow musicians “to put together shows, upgrade equipment in current venues, work to find more suitable venues for live music, put out compilation CDs, find some rehearsal space, get a place on campus to sell releases by Hyde Park artists, and find a legitimate home for the HPmusic Web pages and mp3s.”

Creating an RSO is no simple task, though, and many never really get off the ground. “So many RSOs start up, have meetings, and die before they can get anything accomplished,” Wilson said. “I’m going to try as hard as I can to make sure this isn’t one of those stories, but we’re really going to need more students on our side to help us out.”

While facing obstacles finding performance space and a support base, many local musicians, including both Rufo and Wilson, have recorded albums. These solo albums are often cut as home recordings and then mastered on a computer, which, according to Rufo, produces work at the same quality as studio recordings. His latest solo album, If You Can’t Beat Them, Buy Them, was completely home cut.

“Especially with current technology, recording at home can make better albums than studios can, depending on the band’s needs,” Wilson said.

“It’s my strong belief that bands shouldn’t be judged by what kind of studio they record in or what kind of label they record for.”

A number of University alumni have been signed by national record labels. “Chris Holmes had a million-dollar deal with Atlantic for bands Sabalon Glitz, Yum-Yum, and Ashtar Command,” Wilson said. “Brian Liesegang’s had a stint with Nine Inch Nails and later worked with a major label with his project called Filter that sold a bunch of records. Both of those guys were undergrads at the U of C, and both graduated.”

However, reaching out to an audience in Hyde Park also poses a problem for musicians on campus now.

“People aren’t paying attention,” Wilson said. “I recently saw a show in Hyde Park where there were three people in the audience, and it wasn’t for lack of promotion; the first acts at Winter Band Benefit last year played to about 10 people, and it didn’t get better than around 30-40 people.”

In the end, local musicians will only be as successful as the community, especially University students, allow them to be. “The thing that will make a difference is having a bunch of people on campus who are excited about the music scene, and a bunch of people who are excited enough to form their own bands and start playing shows. I’m hoping that an RSO will get the ball rolling and get people interested; that’s really the goal,” Wilson said.