1 Eau Claire: Music City?

An international report outlines what it takes to be a music city. Local musicians tell us if we make the cut.

compiled by Thom Fountain

In our effort to look at the Chippewa Valley’s potential as a music destination, we turned to experts for guidance. Just this June, a comprehensive report titled "The Mastering of a Music City" was published by the international music association, IFPI, and Music Canada. The following criteria for what makes a city a “Music City” is outlined in that report and used with permission. Visit IFPI.org for the full report.

What makes a music city?

Many natural evolutions have made Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley into a great music destination. But to truly be top-notch, a whole host of factors must be examined and addressed. This is where we start:

Investment Goes Outward

adapted from The Mastering of a Music City report by the IFPI and Music Canada, June 2015


One of the first steps to building our music city is determining how close we are to being one. We looked at the Music City report for guidelines, then polled over 50 local musicians of all experience levels and genres to see how we were doing on a scale of 1-10.

Artists and Musicians 8.0

It might seem obvious, but a Music City needs people who make music. Musicians, singers, songwriters and producers are a necessary foundation. Many cities report that artists congregate “organically.” In other words, a strong gathering of artists cannot be manufactured, though implementing “musician-friendly” policies is important to attracting and retaining them. It doesn’t seem that surprising that when we ask musicians about musicians they say there’s a lot of musicians. But it does seem like there’s no shortage of bands and no major gaps in genre throughout the Chippewa Valley, which is the foundation of our success.

A Thriving Music Scene 7.9

A Music City is invariably built on a thriving live music scene. This means more than just having a large number of live performances. It means having a diversity of music offerings, as well as support for local and indigenous cultural expression, in addition to support for larger touring acts. Ideally, there is a balance between local artistic expression and international content. While the numbers are a good start, what makes a scene a scene is the community and the Chippewa Valley has plenty of that. “Musicians are supportive of each other,” said a local jazz player. “There’s a lot of encouragement as opposed to competition.”

Spaces and Places 4.9

Spaces and places for live music performance and other activities such as rehearsing, recording and music education are integral to the success of a Music City. The range of music venues should span informal to formal, indoor to outdoor, and all sizes in order to meet the needs of artists at every point of their career. Quality is important, though, as Mark Davyd, CEO of Music Venue Trust in the UK points out: “If a 16 year old goes into a venue with terrible sound and lighting, does it motivate them to make it a career? Not likely.” One of the lower scores in our survey was here, talking about venues. Musicians said the facilities were often outdated and paid poorly, though some said there were a few shining spots in the rough — especially the public spaces like Phoenix Park.

A Receptive and Engaged Audience 6.0

An informed and passionate audience is critical for a successful Music City. Ideally, audience support extends to local musicians as well as touring artists, and fans are willing to pay for performances by artists at all levels in their careers, and representing a diverse range of influences. Attention should be paid to growing an audience of younger music fans. Many of the musicians who responded seemed to yearn or the ‘good ol’ days’ when audiences were fuller and more engaged. We’re not sure if that’s seeing the past with rose-tinted glasses or a serious trend, but for the area’s music to thrive there has to be someone to play to.

Music-Related Businesses 3.5

A critical mass of music-related businesses and professionals is essential to the success of a Music City, but it is not uncommon to have gaps within this category and still succeed overall. Nashville proudly describes itself as a “self-sustaining music centre” where it “is entirely possible to write, produce, record, release and promote an album without looking outside the Nashville region.” In contrast, other cities have identified gaps in their inventory that they are working to address. While only three of the over 50 musicians who responded made their whole living through music endeavors, many bemoaned the fact that it was nearly impossible to in the Chippewa Valley. The area does support a number of music businesses, be it instrument makers or music stores or lessons, but the grind is real locally to make a living wage.

Multi-Level Government Support for Music 4.6

The most successful Music Cities benefit from cooperative efforts by all levels of government, with engaged and supportive political representatives. The best example of this is in Australia, where coordinated action at the federal, state and local levels supports and grows the music industry. The National Live Music Office, established in 2013, supports the development of local government policies pertaining to live music, live venues and audience development at the local level as well as advocating for additional improvements at the state level. Political support is particularly important. While there were no complaints of government interference making it hard to create or play music in the area, there were no particular examples of government help (with the notable exception of the Confluence Project, which was mainly applauded).

Broader City Infrastructure 5.9

Many Music Cities have explicitly recognized the importance of city infrastructure. A baseline level of transportation infrastructure, including public transit and parking near venues, is necessary to connect audiences with artists and venues, and thereby facilitate the growth of music scenes. Affordable housing is necessary to attract and retain artists, many of whom earn limited incomes.Musicians are people too and the music business isn’t always the most lucrative. Having a community with affordable housing, access to public transit, and other amenities can make it easier for musicians to give it a go without risking their livelihoods.

Music Education 7.7

Music education is present in successful Music Cities. Generally, it is understood to include formal music training in the education system, as well as specialized programs at colleges and universities. Not only do these programs help develop future musicians, but they develop appreciation for music at a young age, seeding future audiences. The many other benefits of learning and playing music are well documented and wide-ranging. These include enhancing children’s neural activity, language development, test scores, IQ and learning abilities. It’s no surprise that Eau Claire has great music education in our high schools and university, however it’s important to stress that education at younger ages to encourage growth, as well as offer continuing education for older musicians and hobbyists.

Music History 4.6

It is interesting to note that local music history and identity did not receive as high a ranking as might have been expected from the focus groups convened for this report. This is despite the fact that many Music Cities are steeped in music history. Liverpool, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and London spring to mind. For cities like this, music history is leveraged for economic and cultural gains. It is an asset that warrants protecting, celebrating and building upon. As Graham Henderson, President of Music Canada, notes, “A great Music City knows its music history – you need to know your own story.” Do you know who Sarge Boyd is? Besides the namesake of the Boyd Bandshell, he was also the bandleader for the municipal band for 46 years. While everyone seems well aware of Eau Claire’s recent successes and musical history, it’s important we keep those connections and roots deeper in the past as well.

2 Why Invest Now?

big gains can be enjoyed from smart public & private investment in our scene

by Thom Fountain

Eau Claire's State Theatre, packed with music fans.

In Melbourne, Australia, a 2012 census found that live music alone generated more than $1 billion in spending at small venues, concerts and festivals, supported 116,000 annual full-time equivalent jobs, and produced significant spin-off benefits to restaurants, hotels, transportation companies and other providers. In 2009-2010, an estimated 5.4 million people attended live music performances in the city. This puts music in the top ranks of the city’s economic drivers.

Music Tourism

For cities looking to generate economic benefits from live music, tourist spending is a key part of the equation. Not only does tourist spending represent “new” money to a city, but it also generates additional spending beyond music. When tourists travel to experience live music, whether a concert, music festival or a favorite band in a basement venue, they will spend significantly more on hotels, restaurant meals, bars and other local attractions. As Lutz Leichsenring of Clubcommission Berlin e.V. notes, “Tourists aren’t coming because there are hotels and hostels, but because there is content.”

City Brand Building

Music can play a powerful role in building a city’s brand. For a select group of cities with the strongest music scenes or deep music heritage, music is a big part of who they are. Think “Liverpool,” and most people think “The Beatles.” Think “Memphis,” and music icons like Elvis and Johnny Cash come to mind. Austin’s familiar tagline is “Live Music Capital of the World.” Nashville is simply, “Music City.” Music branding not only helps to draw music tourists, but it adds a “cool” factor to a city that can accelerate other benefits such as attracting and retaining investment and talent. It also forms an important part of a Music City’s self-identity.

Austin unveiled its “Live Music Capital of the World” tagline in 1991, and has reaped the benefits ever since. From the moment one lands at the city’s airport, the tagline is front and centre on promotional posters. The airport itself lives up to the brand promise by hosting 20-30 live music shows each week. The city interweaves music into its tourism outreach, and aggressively leverages the brand. Jennifer Houlihan, Executive Director, Austin Music People, remarks that for residents of the city, its music brand “is a big part of how people define Austin and how they define themselves.” She adds, “People took it to heart as something they could count on in their community. People here have a personal pride in Austin’s music positioning, even those not connected to the industry.”

Cultural Development and Artistic Growth

Beyond economic considerations, a successful Music City also creates the conditions to support artists in their career development. Access to the various supporting professionals, and the training to improve their craft and knowledge of the business enables more artist entrepreneurs to advance from hobby to career. In addition, more live performance opportunities, in high quality venues of the appropriate size for the stage of their career, and in front of engaged audiences, help artists hone their skills.

Attracting and Retaining Talent Outside the Industry

Music plays a role in attracting and retaining talent and investment in a city’s broader economy. Damian Cunningham, Director of Audience and Sector Development in Australia’s National Live Music Office, explains: “It is commonly understood that the life that the arts brings to a city causes people to move there and attracts industry. There is an enormous movement by local and state governments in Australia to enhance the vibrancy of their cities in order to hang onto youth, and attract entrepreneurs and businesses.”

Leveraging our music community for the greater economic good is nothing new to Eau Claire. Most recently (and most prominently), JAMF Software prides themselves on their commitment to the arts partly because they know it makes Eau Claire a more attractive place to bring in employees. Co-founder Zach Halmstad himself has a music background, playing piano in UWEC’s Jazz program. “A lot of people are surprised at the leap from studying music to starting a software company. I really honestly believe that we couldn’t have done this successfully if I hadn’t had that background in music. My piano teacher … taught me to always put emotion behind what I was playing, put myself in the shoes of the listener and see how they’d react. We’ve applied that same lesson to everything we do at JAMF.”

Strengthening the Social Fabric

Coincident with cultural benefits, vibrant music scenes offer social benefits. Music builds bridges between cultures and languages, connecting people within a city, a region and across borders.

David Grice, Managing Director of South Australia’s Musitec, an organization that works to foster the state’s music industry, describes the cultural power of Music Cities: “Music is an industry like no other because of the way it touches human beings. It’s an industry that engages people, that builds cultural expression and community, and adds so much energy to a city.”

Music can be a great connector between people of different cultures, ages, ethnicities, economic outlooks, and you name it. But let’s look at one cultural problem that persists in Eau Claire — the gap between the community and the university. Shows on campus and student musicians playing around town can bridge the cultural divide between the institution that sometimes culturally seems so far away from the city even though it’s right downtown.

3 Now, How Do We Make It Happen?


  1. Create a Music Commission or Advisory Board
  2. Work towards an official brand or motto around the city’s music community
  3. Encourage liquor laws that might allow wristbands/all ages shows
  4. Lobby for loading only times for parking spots in front of venues
  5. Consider historical designations for major music spots
  6. Consider a Music District or Cultural District
  7. Encourage reasonable “nuisance” laws that allow for reasonable house venues
  8. Conduct a needs assessment of local artists
  9. Create grant or loan programs to encourage musicians and music businesses
  10. Lobby for music to be recognized as a commercial industry with positive economic impacts


  1. Create opportunities for networking, mentoring, or relationship building between local musicians and businesses
  2. Encourage public and semi-public places to be engaged as venues for special events
  3. Give recommendations of local artists to friends and family out of the area

4 Music Scene Role Models

six awesome and successful music / community projects from festivals to venues to decision-making music commissions

by Eric Christenson

Mile of Music - Appleton, WI

Mile of Music

Appleton, Wisconsin

The process of putting together Appleton’s Mile of Music Festival – now in its third year – took forces from the city and its business community, and mashed them with forces in Appleton’s bubbling music scene to create a multi-day, all-day music festival smack dab in its downtown near the Fox River. Bars and venues all over College Aveue and beyond opened their doors and hosted bands from all over the Midwest – even those businesses that don’t necessarily regularly have live music. “The Mile” instantly became both a symbol for the festival and a way to brand Appleton’s downtown, in an effort to highlight many of the downtown businesses’ handcrafted, artisan vibe. While only in it’s third year, Mile of Music has already garnered quick and overwhelming support from Fox Valley locals, over 100 sponsors, and tourism grants from the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. And when this year’s festival kicks off Aug. 6, they will have about 800 live performances from 200 artists in 65 venues all in the downtown mile.


Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha stands out as an off-the-radar hotspot for music business because it’s home to Saddle Creek Records, an indie label that has released records by the likes of Bright Eyes and Cursive since its inception almost 25 years ago. In the mid-2000s, in a collaboration between the people behind Saddle Creek (Jason Kulbel, manager, and Robb Nansel, owner) and the city of Omaha, both parties invested in a $10.2 million, 56,000-square-foot arts complex called Slowdown. Slowdown houses Saddle Creek’s offices and warehouse, a huge music venue, a non-profit two-screen cinema, residential space, retail space, a bar, and a coffeehouse. Slowdown is smack down in a great spot in Omaha’s North Downtown, which the city and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce were anxious to redevelop, because it acts as the “front door” to Omaha’s downtown as visitors travel to the city from Eppley Airfield. The City offered the project $1.3 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) over 15 years and a deal on the land in hopes that Slowdown (which would be North Downtown’s first major redevelopment project) would act as a catalyst and start the kindling for future developers. When they announced the Slowdown project, companies looking to align themselves with the Saddle Creek Records brand (as well as the rapidly evolving Omaha brand) immediately contacted the Omaha Chamber. Slowdown opened in 2007, and now hosts music almost every night of the week and was named “2008 Club of the Year” by Esquire Magazine. The success of Slowdown is both bottom-up organic (as it functions kind of like a community arts space due to the independent nature of Saddle Creek) and top-down catalytic (because of the big investment from the city) in nature. Regardless, the project is a homerun for both the economic development of Omaha’s downtown and the music scene that spawned it. Fun fact: 60 percent of the shows at Slowdown have local bands on the bill.

The Seattle Music Commission

Seattle, Washington

Seattle is, of course, widely known for the prominent music that it churns out. It’s the home of grunge and many of the genre’s pioneers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. Tons and tons of well-known artists of all kinds got their start in Seattle. The music scene there has become such a hotbed that the City established the Seattle Music Commission, a committee with 21 members made up of local musicians, city representatives, label-owners, writers, music organization reps, business owners, and more. Seattle’s scene is so massive, it essentially has its own music economy, and having a decision-making commission that’s able to advise city officials regarding leadership and support in the music sector is hugely helpful in making sure the musicians and artists have a voice at that level. The Music Commission’s goal for 2020 is to make Seattle a place where audiences, business leaders, educators, and politicians will support the creative, economic and community value of the amazing music that’s being made there. But the idea of a music commission on the government level isn’t – and shouldn’t be – limited to giant metros with hugely established scenes like Seattle. Any community with a sturdy music scene could benefit from establishing a decision-making commission like this.

Music Makes Us & Ryman Lofts

Nashville, Tennessee

In a lot of ways, Nashville is America’s music epicenter. It calls itself “Music City.” It’s known to be filled with musicians trying to make it, and big stars that have already done so. Having that background is huge for the city, as it can now explore ways to bolster what it already has, maintain its status as a musical mecca in the central U.S., and grow from there. Nashville has a commission similar to Seattle’s called the Music City Music Council, and they worked with Mayor Karl Dean to launch Music Makes Us: The Nashville Music Education Project. The project takes advantage of the stunning resources in Nashville to make floor-to-ceiling improvements in Nashville Metro Public Schools’ music education curricula by adding new classes in songwriting and composition, world percussion, rock band, recording, and hip hop. Additionally, the Music City Music Council helped facilitate the Ryman Lofts, a low-income apartment complex that gives preference to renters pursuing careers in the arts. The complex is located just south of Nashville’s downtown on Rolling Mill Hill, which is being redeveloped into the city’s newest urban neighborhood, with an emphasis on sustainability. Would-be musicians can have access to all the tools and resources Nashville has to offer – and they don’t have to have their dreams squashed by high rent in the process.

Flint Local 432

Flint, Michigan

The once booming auto industry in Flint, Mich., crashed and burned in the 1980s. That collapse – along with people’s vast exodus to the suburbs and a number of failed economic development projects – transformed Flint’s downtown into somewhat of an inexpensive ghost town. Naturally, a shape-shifting DIY space called Flint Local 432 sprang up in an abandoned shoe store in 1994, headed up by Joel Rash. As the venue started gaining a little traction (with an annual attendance of about 15,000), a tight music scene developed around it. And soon after that, young entrepreneurs involved in the scene started a few businesses and in a matter of time, downtown Flint had a tattoo parlor, a barbershop, a T-shirt company, and a graphic design firm. With the success of the venue, the city took a renewed interest in revitalizing Flint’s downtown with street improvements, building renovations, art walks, and successful summer festivals. Everything was looking good until 2006, when Flint Local 432 closed down and left a void in the scene, as many core volunteers (including Rash) took full-time positions elsewhere. In 2010, Rash decided it was time to give Flint Local 432 another shot. He thought Flint Local 432 could be an arm of Red Ink Flint, a non-profit for which he served as director. With a helpful $200,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Flint Local 432 re-opened in 2012, and it throws around 150 music, art, and theater events annually. Now it also houses YES Flint, a youth-oriented entrepreneurial program where experts teach the basics of starting a micro-business, and an in-house business incubator space to help spark the next wave of businesses in the buzzing area.

35 Denton

Denton, Texas

A few years ago, Chris Flemmons of indie folk band The Baptist Generals got tired of seeing his friends leave this north Texas city to find cooler jobs and cooler opportunities elsewhere. Instead of joining them in their outward pursuits, Flemmons sought to just, you know, make Denton cooler by pulling together its expansive, genre-spanning music scene into a four-day, walkable music festival in downtown. In 2009, Flemmons gathered an army of volunteers, and the festival did pretty well: About 2,000 people came out. In 2010, they booked The Flaming Lips. All of sudden, they had hordes of fans: Their audience had increased ten-fold, resulting in a huge fiscal impact on the city. That year the festival grabbed as many volunteers as it could, and it still remains significantly volunteer-driven. It still routinely grabs around 10,000 people each year in Denton’s downtown, and many successful businesses have launched in Denton, citing the festival as the reason they chose to take root and stay there.

5 Asking an Expert

a chat with Michael Seman, whose life's work is studying music scenes all over the world

by Eric Christenson

CHRISTENSON: There probably isn’t 100% foolproof criteria for what a city needs in order for its music scene to start impacting economic development, just because music is generally a very qualitative thing and every city is different. But what are some general pieces that can help a music scene become a big player in that respect?

SEMAN: In terms of music scene catalyzing economic development, you definitely have to have a steady stream of musicians who are comfortable living in your city with ample, inexpensive space to practice, perform, and live. Often a university with thriving programs in music, art, and design attract this stream of musicians and broader scene participants. Employment opportunities for scene members once they graduate is also critical to keep them involved in the scene and the larger community. Keep in mind, the majority of musicians in music scenes are also educators, graphic designers, coders, librarians, IT professionals, etc. so they are employable across a number of industries and will be looking for work beyond retail. It is also important to understand that scene participants are pretty entrepreneurial, so proactively addressing your city’s start-up scene may help in terms of employment as well. There is no greater training for being in a start-up, high tech or otherwise, than being in a band… and it is not uncommon for scene members to be in both.

It is also important to find ways to retain successful musicians as residents because they often serve as mentors to younger bands. Encouraging music and art education programs (from classical music to hip hop and figure drawing to screenprinting) in local primary and secondary schools is a great way to develop future scene members as well as enrich your community. Some policy initiatives can also make it easier for musicians to play shows and help foster a scene. For example, parking variances that allow for temporary loading and unloading zones in front of venues for musicians can be helpful. Modifying ordinances or laws to allow for under-age concerts is also a crucial building block. I can’t stress this point enough — find a way to support an all-ages DIY venue. These venues develop the bands that will eventually be central to your scene while also affording young scene members a chance to learn the ropes when it comes to promotion, managing, recording, booking, live sound, and event management. All-ages DIY venues are responsible for many careers in private industry, non-profits, and city management and highly successful scenes in places like Seattle and Omaha can point to all-ages DIY venues as pivotal incubators that drove the development of their scenes. All-ages DIY venues now offer a host of programming, from concerts and poetry readings to after-school classes in entrepreneurship and screenprinting. Keep in mind there are now kids who are still in high school yet also successful mobile app developers. An all-ages DIY venue is a great way to positively engage the future engines of your city’s economy.

CHRISTENSON: You’ve said in the past that thriving music scenes can attract young, educated creatives, and that by harnessing that creative energy, it be huge for not only the music, but also the community itself. Why is that demographic so critical?

SEMAN: Much of the economic growth in the United States is now driven by the creation and manipulation of ideas — activities like pivoting or developing a new technology to disrupt an established business model… or producing a new way to visually embrace a new product on the market. Historically, manufacturing was key to how regions developed in the United States and firms formed near where natural resources were available and transportation access to their customers was easy — think Pittsburgh. That is no longer the case. Manufacturing isn’t completely dead, of course, but efficiencies in the processes and global economic shifts have limited the influence of this industrial sector on our country’s economy. It’s been a declining influence since after WWII.

The new firms that drive our economy rely on an educated, highly skilled workforce to succeed. Even much of manufacturing requires increasingly higher levels of skill and education. This new workforce is highly mobile and attracted to cities that are rich in amenities, one of which is a thriving music scene. This functions in two ways. A music scene can be a participatory amenity attractive to those who code, teach, design, etc. during the day and play, record, and strategize at night. Sometimes, things will go so well that those coders, teachers, and designers will be in a band that becomes their job during the day. There are also those who simply enjoy going out to see live music at night and value the progressive vibe it gives to a city where they live. For a macro-level view of this new geographic quest for talent, consider the plight of Gateway Computers who ultimately had to relocate from South Dakota to Southern California to attract management and engineers to staff its company. In today’s economy, an educated, highly skilled workforce is the most important resource for a firm… start-up or multinational corporation.

CHRISTENSON: In Eau Claire, we have several small to mid-size music venues, an active DIY house show scene, a big handful of major music festivals nearby, a university with a strong music program, the whole Bon Iver thing, and an ongoing downtown revitalization effort. It kinda feels as though the stage is set, but nobody’s really sure what to do next. I’d be interested to get your opinion on what needs to happen to really push the scene to the forefront and get the larger community involved.

SEMAN: It sounds like you are pushing pretty well in the right direction already! If you don’t have one, form a music council or committee that meets with your city council and chamber of commerce quarterly to discuss the health of the music scene and any issues that are currently facing which could be addressed in an official, collaborative capacity. This group should be comprised of representatives from ALL facets of your music scene regardless of age or genre — band members, engineers, venue owners, promoters, label representatives, symphony members, educators… everyone should have a voice. This concept is very successful in Seattle and Austin.

Again, find a way to establish a legitimate all-ages DIY venue. Your house show scene is crucial to the development of bands and the broader scene — as it is to places like Denton, Texas where I live. An established DIY venue will help pick up the slack during the inevitable ebbs and flows of the house shows. You don’t want the house show scene to die. Think of it this way — I love Phillip Glass, but he’s not going to play the house that hosts shows on the corner of my block, I’ll go see him in the local concert hall. The next Phillip Glass, however, probably will play my friend’s living room. A thriving scene needs both the major leagues in the form of venues and the minor leagues in the form of DIY spaces. Find a way to stabilize your all-ages DIY scene. It will pay off in the long run.

Continue to find ways to engage people like Justin Vernon and foster his participation in your scene and city. How can Eau Claire help him? Economic development offices do this all the time for businesses small and large. It’s time to address artists and bands in the same manner. In Denton, we’re fortunate to have Midlake who have released some great albums and have found success both nationally and internationally while continuing to live in the city. They often mentor younger bands and artists, helping them find their way to the next level, not to mention the fact that the band members individually and collectively have branched out to open a bar, a music education workshop, two studios, and by the end of the summer, two new restaurants. Is this any different than having a successful start-up in your city? It’s telling that in Austin, the city’s music liaison is housed in the city’s economic development department.

Go to a show! That’s what all of this is ultimately about. There is nothing greater than watching a band hit that perfect moment when they are in sync with themselves, the audience, and the grander lineage of all those that have come before them and will inevitably follow once their set is over. Live music is a celebration of life, support it and everything else will fall in-line in some way, shape, or form.

6 ‘That Intangible Aesthetic’

in the midst of Eaux Claires Festival prep, Justin Vernon stops to talk art, music, business, and crafting experiences in the heart of our city

interview by Nick Meyer

Demolition of downtown Eau Claire’s former Green Tree Inn. A group (including Vernon & Meyer) are working toward relaunching the property as a boutique hotel and bar.

Justin and I have been friends for roughly a dozen years. Back in the early days of Volume One, for a while I also handled booking and promotions for The Stone’s Throw, and he would play our stage at least once a month. This was during the heyday of his band DeYarmond Edison, as well as local notables such as Amateur Love, Easychair, and others – it was a formative time for Justin as well as a number of other local musicians who’ve gone on to considerable success. In those days and still, Justin and I have had many heated discussions about how to invest in a community and scene. Let’s just say the man has strong opinions, as do I. But one thing that’s constant is that Justin always demands more. More effort. More vision. More from the businesses and individuals that make up our town. And in this way, we always see eye-to-eye. In the midst of Eaux Claires festival prep, we stopped to take stock of the role music plays in the Eau Claire community.

“The creativity in our music and the quality of the people who've made it here during my lifetime are difficult to match. there's something going on here… and music is a strong part of that intangible aesthetic.”

Justin Vernon on Eau Claire’s vibe

NICK MEYER: When you look at what’s happening in the Eau Claire area right now, it feels like we’re seeing the birth of something. We’ve got massive cranes on the horizon putting up new downtown buildings around our rivers. We’ve got a big attitude shift in what people think is possible in this town. We’ve got this energy, especially in the summer, of community and recreation and the arts. And just a pride. And a lot of this has an element of music running throughout all of it and in many cases fueling it. What’s going on here, and what’s your take on what’s happening? And why is music so central to that vibe?

JUSTIN VERNON: I think you’re right in that music is a big part of all that. And that’s because of the people here. The creativity in our music and the quality of the people who’ve made it here during my lifetime are difficult to match. There’s something going on here – something in the water – like they say. And music is a strong part of that intangible aesthetic. Because we’re starving for it. You can see that in the fact that so many talented, passionate people play music here regardless of the fact that they’re not in a place like Los Angeles or New York City where there’s a better platform to launch a career. But the fact that we’re far away from NYC and LA is better for us. In those places it’s a rat race – a race to be rich and famous. Here, we do music only because we love it.

MEYER: How much of that comes from growing up here and how much of that is imported from elsewhere, or comes in once people go to college here or whatever? Growing up next door in Elk Mound, music was a very big part of the schools there, and of course we all know it’s huge at Eau Claire Memorial where you went to high school.

VERNON: For me growing up here, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wasn’t even allowed to have the illusion of growing up to be some kind of rock star. It’s just wasn’t possible. And ironically I got lucky and have gone on to win Grammys and stuff like that. But as I’ve said before it’s been very easy from my standpoint to recognize all that stuff is a construct of something else. Of somewhere else. That stuff isn’t what we’re about here. I say that not to devalue those things, but to say that giving to your community and trying to make the place you live better are obviously of higher value.

MEYER: And that’s something anybody can do. I’ve been thinking a lot about how there are different levels on which people can engage with making the place they live better. Some people can give money, some can just work really hard at whatever cool thing they do to share with others, some can open businesses …

VERNON: Well and it’s that group – the businesses – where we need some work. Despite all our creativity here we don’t often see it fully reflected in our business culture. Creativity in business here is a hugely under-seen thing. We allow too many chain restaurants, chain hotels, and chain stores to dominate our landscape, and it’s making our community weaker. Much of the money we spend in those places simply disappears. Everybody has a choice. Every business has its own opportunity. Will you make a bunch of money if you open up a fast food franchise in Eau Claire? Yes, you will. Because it’s easier for people to get to and because our TVs are taken over by fast food ads. But would it not be better for the economy of our town to have more burger restaurants that use local beef? Most importantly all the money stays in our community. It doesn’t get filtered through every layer of the corporation until there’s not much left. Why can’t we see that money stay around? And all that is the same for music businesses around here. If you don’t like going out to see live music in this town, in a way I don’t blame you. We don’t have enough good places to see music, we don’t have people who’ve cared enough about the venue experience and the way they sound. There’s a lack of creativity there and in many other local businesses, too. We have some talented engineers and some talented bar owners, but what we don’t have are some pure venues to elevate music to where it should be.

MEYER: Fair enough, but those can sometimes be hard things to do in a place this size. Like anything it’s a risk. I think the population here is gaining in its courage and entrepreneurial spirit, but there’s still a ways to go. But more important than anything is the regular population being there to back those people up and help make it all work when someone goes out on a limb with a new concept.

VERNON: Look at Zach Halmstad. He’s built his global company JAMF Software from right here in downtown Eau Claire. He’s a jazz piano player. He has a huge appreciation for music and our University. As liberal arts people, that appreciation for music helps us appreciate how the rest of a community works. He’s leading by example. I’m sure some business person around him told him it was an absolutely terrible idea to put such a big investment into little downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin with a many multi-million dollar building and a couple hundred employees. Did he listen? Absolutely not. He had a little courage and a little vision and he went ahead with it. Musicians have a way of thinking. They’re business leaders too.

MEYER: And that’s something we’re always talking about in Volume One. That working on your community’s approach to arts, music, and creativity isn’t just about having more musicians or music stores or concerts. It’s about attracting the kinds of workers, thinkers, and leaders who can take this place forward in ways that can dramatically benefit everyone. Jobs, tourism, economic development – that drum we’re always beating. Not to mention just the intrinsic value of a more culturally aware community.

VERNON: It’s interesting to watch music get written off as just “art” – that it has nothing to do with commerce or community building or even economics. Then look at the number of people that are coming to town not only for Eaux Claires but for all the festivals – there will be more than 20,000 people at Eaux Claires alone. What else besides a music festival brings in that many people? The tourism impact is huge. The spreading of the word on our vibe is huge. And all that stuff translates right on down to regular main street businesses.

MEYER: Meanwhile there are places in the world, some not much bigger than Eau Claire, building their entire identities and economies from music. There are real opportunities there. But we need to invest in the year-round infrastructure in addition to the huge summer festival bump.

VERNON: So talking about growing up here, what’s so good is that Eau Claire is the perfect sized town for a simple revolution like this. You can’t go into New York City and say, “OK, we’re going to get rid of all the Starbucks.” I think that would be pretty hard. But I was just in Berlin and you didn’t see any Starbucks or things like that. There’s this community in Berlin that knows and understands the power of local business. And it’s not just some hippy dippy thing. It’s a smart, sharp, German way of thinking. We have an opportunity to remain that way, or to even regain more of it back.

MEYER: So then what do you think are the steps to keep what we have, grow it, and build back what’s been lost?

VERNON: I think what you see is in that in your community, what you put in is what you get out. Our community and others have seen budget cuts to the public school program that laid the foundation for my entire career. You don’t have to love music or the arts, but to take it out of our culture takes out our spirituality. Well-rounded human beings, people that get the most out of life, at least have an appreciation for art and music. You don’t have to love music to understand that it’s commerce and should be supported. But the most important reason is because music and art can help keep us reminded of what’s important in day-to-day stuff. It’s so easy to forget what we’re doing and why. Art and music help us reflect on that. At the end of the day it’s important to remember just a general appreciation of the other person. An appreciation of the person standing across from you in the political aisle. An appreciation for people with different skin color than you. Appreciation with a capital A. Art and music help us do that.

7 Turning it Up

Idea Lounge will begin community conversation about amping up Valley’s music scene

by Tom Giffey

The original Idea Lounge, hosted by Volume One & Downtown Eau Claire Inc.

But what can be done to take our music scene – and the cultural and economic benefits it provides – to the next level? What investments, public and private, need to be made to expand venues, strengthen educational efforts, and foster audiences and experiences? How can we better share our story with the wider, music-loving world?

These questions and more will be addressed at an upcoming Music Capital of the North-themed Idea Lounge presented by Visit Eau Claire, the region’s tourism promotion entity, in collaboration with the City of Eau Claire’s Economic Develpment Office and Volume One. Planned for later this fall, the gathering will feature a broad coalition of music scene and community stakeholders, as well as members of the public – that means you! – in a freewheeling conversation about promoting and improving the musical ecosystem in the Valley.

Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, sees the Idea Lounge as a springboard toward a more concerted music-related branding effort for the region. “As a community, it is time to establish a research-based brand and stake our claim to being the Music Capital of the North, and explain why,” John said. For example, she said, hard data about the music and cultural arts scene could be used in a focused marketing campaign for the region.

Keep an eye on Volume One for more details as the Idea Lounge approaches.


7 A Final Word:
Exporting Eau Claire

investing in and sharing our music, words, & ideas

by Nickolas Butler

A few weeks ago I was riding through the streets of Lyon, France (home to a museum called Confluence at the nexus of the Saone and Rhone) sharing a cab with a Romanian woman named Maria who seemed to know more about the Eau Claire music scene than I do. Of course she was a fan of Bon Iver, of Justin Vernon. But then too, there was an encyclopedic knowledge of: Polica, Volcano Choir, GAYNGS, et al. And perhaps most exciting, we made plans for her to stay at my house for an Eaux Claires music festival sometime in the future (knock wood).

The experience I’m relating to you was repeated literally over a dozen times as I traveled throughout France and into northern Italy. It was something I experienced in The Netherlands and England: young people keenly aware of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, of the musical spirit that is erupting here and spreading not only across the American Middlewest, but across the world as well. Young people are excited about the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, and rather than spending their tourist dollars in New York or Los Angeles, they are considering an American walkabout that would take them here, to my hometown and yours. Moreover, these music fans are stoked about visiting a place they can’t even easily identify on a map of the U.S., they’re pumped about driving from New York City to Wisconsin; even though, in many cases, they don’t have driver’s licenses. Like Ray Kinsella’s magical baseball field in Iowa, they are drawn like pilgrims to a beautiful promise.

We live in a time and place where the prevailing wisdom advises us that the only viable business, the only valuable commodities we have here in Wisconsin are silica sand mines, steel fabrication, welding, and other 19th and 20h century heavy industries. The politicians tell us that college isn’t important, that primary school teachers aren’t valuable; they cut art and music classes with impunity. There is talk of destroying the Wisconsin Idea, annihilating tenure, silencing public radio and television. All of which seems rather anti-business to me. It seems like the vision of someone who knows nothing about making money, which is of course totally predicated on investment, and in some ways, faith. Investment and prayer seemed oddly linked to me somehow.

but I'm here to tell you that the 21st century passion that we should be embracing, investing in, is exactly what is incubating in Eau Claire right now…

But I’m here to tell you that the 21st century passion that we should be embracing, investing in, is exactly what is incubating in Eau Claire right now, and that is music, words, ideas, creative and intellectual properties that never dissipate, never pollute our beautiful place on earth, never fluctuate with the markets, never leave for foreign shores, and have the remarkable, universal power to unite us, to attract new citizens, new friends, new tourists. Ask yourself: When was the last time you wanted to tour a silica sand mine? A foundry? Never.

It is difficult to understand completely how much Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is acting as a global music (and arts) leader without first leaving Eau Claire. It is a perspective I had not been afforded until a few years ago, a perspective I am deeply grateful for. Perspective, is everything, really. The silica sand mine you drive past on the highway surely looks hideous, an abomination. Now, fly over top of it from 3,000 feet, as an angel might, and prepare to wipe your eyes. But I am here to testify that the world is watching this community. They listen to Eau Claire, from across continents and oceans. They’re listening to what we sing and say. They’re dancing and clapping their hands. They know the words to our songs. They’re buying airplane tickets; studying maps. Perspective – imagine the scene at the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival when 25,000 people descend on a field in west-central Wisconsin. That’s business. That’s the birth of a small city of musical, artistic acolytes.

Let us keep making music. Let us invest in this place that invested in us, that created us. Let us make our public schools the finest in the state, the nation. Let us celebrate our teachers, all of them, often. Let us build our own Confluence Center, at the braiding of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Let us invite the world to our community, and show them why we are so proud of this place, our neighbors, our friends, our artists.

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