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Chicago’s alive with the Soundtrack of Music

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Chicago’s alive with the Soundtrack of Music

The WISCH LIST

March 26, 2011

Travel the country, and you’ll discover that Chicago is known for many things.

It’s known, of course, for its food (hot dogs, pizza and fine dining). It’s known, of course, for its architecture (Sears Tower, Willis Tower … whatever). It’s known, of course, for its sports teams (Da Bears, Da Bulls, Duh Cubs …). And it’s known, of course, for its corruption (Dillinger, Capone and, now, Blagojevich).

But Chicago also used to be known for its music.

These days, it isn’t as much. However, if a couple of Windy City music buffs named Casey Meehan (who you don’t know) and Rahm Emanuel (who you certainly do) have their way, it will be once again.

Early this month, during an interview on Chicago’s WXRT-FM, mayor-elect Emanuel brought up the idea of creating a music district in the city’s Uptown neighborhood.

“You have the Riv [Riviera Theatre], you have the Aragon [Ballroom],” Emanuel said, ticking off two of the legendary venues at the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence avenues. “We have a downtown theater district. Should there be an Uptown music district, given our history with labels as well as the club scene, which is truly, truly unique around the country?”

Once upon a time, Chicago’s Uptown was a Mecca for big-name musical acts, playing host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. In more recent years, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and others have appeared at venues in the neighborhood. And, these days, despite Uptown being quite edgy (read: pretty dangerous), the area still hosts high-profile shows.

“There are many longstanding institutions in the neighborhood that could serve as anchors for a music district – from the Green Mill, to the Aragon to the Rivieria to the Uptown,” Emanuel spokesman Ben LaBolt recently said, echoing his boss’ ideas (get used to that).

However, Uptown – even if it becomes Chicago’s designated music district – is hardly the only area of the city where concertgoers flock to hear live music. On any given night, shows are being held all across Chicago. And that’s where Casey Meehan enters the picture.

Meehan, a 32-year-old musician, moved from New Orleans to Chicago in 2001 and became connected with other local performers. In the years since, though, he has come to believe that something big is lacking in Chicago’s rock scene. It’s not the music – “Chicago’s is as good as any city’s out there,” Meehan said – but rather it’s the recognition.

“I felt like something massive needed to change,” Meehan said. “And it wasn’t about making a better record. It’s about finding ways to build an audience.”

To that end, Meehan launched an online record label named Rock Proper, which offers free album downloads and radio streaming at rockproper.com. The site drew big traffic, Meehan said, but on more of a widespread scale and didn’t attract as many local ears as he had hoped for.

So, this year, to better promote rising artists in Chicago – and connect fans to them – Meehan has launched chicagomixtape.com, a free subscription music service. On Monday or Tuesday of each week, subscribers receive an e-mail compilation of free high-quality MP3s of music from local artists who are performing in the city that week, as well as concert information.

For you, that means you can have fresh music for your iPod each week, as well as plenty of details and time to plan a visit to Chicago to check out a show during the coming weekend.

“I just really want Chicago to be a vibrant, connected music scene,” Meehan said. “There’s a lot here that falls under the radar.”

Less, though, when Chicagoans are working to put things on the map.