Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone double-teamed the city of Austin on Tuesday in what was essentially a daylong info-mercial for Chicago as a musical and cultural force.
There was an agenda, of course: Cater to the thousands of technology executives and entrepreneurs at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in an effort to lure their businesses to Chicago. Emanuel and Boone were on message all day: Chicago is a vibrant music/theater/arts city with a first-rate transit system, world-class architecture and restaurants, and a relatively moderate cost of living in which young innovators can prosper. The city set up an informational booth at the pricey trade show at the Austin Convention Center, and even brought its own soundtrack: a Chicago musical showcase Tuesday night that included Chance the Rapper, the production duo Hood Internet and rising singer-songwriter Bonzie.
Earlier in the day, Emanuel went on a whirlwind tour of some of the city's businesses with Charlie Jones, the cofounder of Austin-based Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents, as his guide.
In a way, Chicago would like to be more like Austin, Emanuel suggested. Austin brands itself as “The live music capital of the world,” and the city's cultural institutions are front and center as soon as a visitor lands at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“We don't have the buzz you guys have,” Emanuel said during a visit to the C3 offices. “But we're going to give you a run for your money.”
Groupon co-founder and Lightbank Managing Partner Brad Keywell, part of a Chicago contingent in Austin, was in lock-step with the mayor: “We feel that these are the people that are out front in technology. These are the decision makers. ... We want to make certain that when they come and they think about technology, and they think about invention, that Chicago is right there.”
But how to translate rhetoric into results that drive economic development and produce more jobs? Are large-scale cultural events like South by Southwest, which integrates film, technology and music over three weeks and infuses the Austin economy with tens of millions of dollars and untold promotion each year, the way to go in Chicago?
Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, the Merchandise Mart-based tech centered co-working space, said that's a distinct possibility. “South by Southwest is something that the mayor is hoping to replicate in Chicago, much beyond simply Lollapalooza, but including all of the other festivals and things we have going on.”
Outside the C3 offices, Boone said her energies are directed at breaking down barriers between previously independent city institutions -- profit and nonprofit, government and private -- to create new partnerships and building on the assets that each neighborhood has to offer. Rather than stage mega events like Lollapalooza, she aims to nurture “cultural hubs and cultural districts” that don't require citizens to always run downtown for an aesthetic experience. “I don't think we need a South by Southwest (type event in Chicago) right now,” she said.
Emanuel is exploring the idea of creating a music event that brings a significant audience to Chicago during the winter months, but nothing concrete has been set. He used his 90 minutes in the Austin Convention Center, with Keywell lobbing him softball questions, to list his accomplishments and to tout Chicago's attractiveness, accompanied by still photographs designed to underline the sales pitch. No audience questions were permitted. It was a day of highly orchestrated public relations. Whether the hundreds in the audience will buy it remains to be seen.
Also doing some selling was a less likely source: music iconoclast Neil Young. In leather jacket and fedora, he strolled the same stage that Emanuel had occupied 30 minutes earlier and commanded an audience at least double in size. He touted the virtues of a new digital music player, Pono, that he officially launched Monday with a crowd-funding campaign on the Kickstarter web site. Within a few hours, Young said, the campaign was well on its way to meeting its $800,000 goal.
Young, long a critic of what he considers the severely compromised fidelity of digital recording, says that Pono is designed “to give you what the artists gave. Pono plays back whatever the artist and producer decided to do.” More poetically, he described the sound as the difference between “having ice cubes thrown at you” and “water, a cool mist, washing over you.”
But Young did not actually demonstrate the Pono device or its sound quality. Instead he played a short film of a bunch of his high-powered musician friends (Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Beck, Eddie Vedder) touting its awe-inspiring superiority over any other music delivery system ever created (except vinyl records, apparently). Like Rahm Emanuel, Young suggested that when it comes to selling something at South by Southwest and its social-media dominated audience, one often needs only to tell rather than show.
Blue Sky reporter John Carpenter contributed to this report.