Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Live music critical to Iowa's future

It's such a tiny splash of cash that it isn't even a hint of a ripple in the state's $5 billion oceanic budget. And chances are, until now, you didn't even know it had happened.

And yet, this fiscal year sees a significant first for the state. In the last session, the legislature passed a $50,000 grant program to stimulate a "live music economy" in two chosen Iowa communities.

Granted, the bucks will almost certainly be blown on a couple of the big music festivals in the urban areas, where they will hardly make a dent. And granted, there is no guarantee the grant program will continue, let alone grow.

Yet it is something - the first bill I can recall exclusively designed to promote musical performance in Iowa.

If Iowa's can spent millions to beg wealthy, out-of-state industries to build a plant in Iowa, spending a little on music seems like a fair investment.

The fact is that more than twice as many young professionals (age 25-39, college-educated) are moving out of Iowa as moving in. Will a couple of new factories or corporate offices along the interstate change that?

Economic opportunity is a big part of the problem, to be sure. But so is image. Let's face it - Iowa's image, fair or otherwise, is of cold, boring, traditional midwestern flatland. It's going to take work and time to change that.

Can't change the weather, or the topography. But we can make things to do. Live music may be the most important, and the easiest, to accomplish.

It's out there, already. I'll bet there are 25+ bands in the Storm Lake area alone, just itching to be heart. Off the top of our heads, there's alternative, punk, hard rock, classic rock, country, blues, jazz, folk, classical, a cappella, Christian, madrigal, salsa, big band... right here.

I was struck recently by a quote from a jazz concert promoter in the "ArtScene" newspaper:

"There's no money in playing music in Iowa! You do it because you love it."

It's all too true. There are few venues for bands these days, and many of those go mostly with cheaper, simpler DJs. A band is lucky to get gas money, a round of free beers and on an exceptional night, enough to make a payment to the music store. If you are a new young group trying to get started, you may have a hard time even getting a corner to play for tips.

The funky little bars and community celebrations are all that's really keeping this kind of music alive in Iowa.

Several places bring in a band once in a while in Storm Lake, none very regularly. We have more chances to enjoy live music than most - the Spectacular, Fair, Threshermen, Rock and Remember, Relay for Life have made music an important part of their programs. BVU's Edgefest has brought some adrenaline to the local live music scene, There is certainly room for more.

Live music, lots of it and all kinds of it, makes a community more interesting. It makes it a place that's living and breathing, a place that has things to do.

It isn't just about young people, either. The crowds at the vast majority of music events in Storm Lake this past year have ranged from diapers to Depends, and everything in between.

This is why I think the chamber deserves a lot of support when it discusses the possibility of staging an outdoor music venue that can be set up in the Great Lawn of the AWAYSIS destination park. Building a park is great, but the rubber meets the road in how we will use it. A stream of art shows, speakers, street performers, recreation contests - and of course music - can make that green space more than grass.

Can you imagine a RAGBRAI without the music? Of course not. So why not let music be as synonymous with Iowa?

Northwest Iowa from the late 1950s into the '70s was a real hotbed for original live music. Most of those venues along with a legendary recording studio are gone, but a fresh batch of talent is out here, to be sure.

Of course, from the Iowa region there are a handful of bands with the notoriety to make a living of music. The Nadas, Tonic Sol Fa, the remnants of Head East, country singer Shannon Brown, guitarist Eric Hovey, the Blue Band, Slipknot, Brother Trucker and a few others do it, but it takes ranging over an area of several states to make a go of it, except for perhaps a couple of established symphony orchestras and university groups.

There are a few young bands around here - Tantrum 2 Blind, City Beautiful, Damon Dotson, Salamagundi and others, just a break or two away. A boost in Iowa's musical presence could help them over the hump, and bring others in their footsteps.

Is the Iowa Legislature's fifty grand going to make Iowa a music hotspot? Pshaw - hardly. And it is likely that not a cent at least for this year will ever end up in any of the hands of anyone who entertains us here in rural Iowa.

But it is a start, a brand new direction for state government.

Here's a thought. Instead of blowing it on some urban festival, why not invest $50,000 through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the energetic Anita Walker, to create a statewide web site and hire interns to build the ultimate music resource.

It could list and offer a publicity photo for every band of every kind in the state, updating every few months. A place for a young musician to land a tryout.

It would be a place for bands to find interested venues so they could make a buck; for the bar owner to find a band for the weekend, or a community to hook up with musicians to help celebrate an event. Sound clips, original lyrics and mp3 files could help inspire more young people to take up music, with the hopes of getting somewhere with it - right here in Iowa.

Thank you, legislators, for taking a first step. But as it is, only two cities will weakly benefit. Create something like this, and strike a chord with every musician and music lover in Iowa.