Meet Chicago’s New Music Relationship Factory

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Fort Knox Studios and 2112: Meet Chicago’s New Music Relationship Factory

It’s Monday at the 2112 Music Incubator in Chicago’s Fort Knox Studios, and the place is absolutely packed.

2112 director Scott Fetters and I survey the wide-open landscape of desks, couches, and coffee tables from an airy staircase in the center of the room.  He points out a few of today’s guests: a couple Music Dealers reps, Disturbed’s manager, some guys from radio stations WGN and XRT, the executive team of tech startup Nusiki.  Everyone’s doing work or chatting animatedly, and business cards are flying between pockets.  There will be an event later with industry polymath Martin Atkins, entitled “Under the Influence IV: How To Make Your Show An Event,” and most everyone is planning to stay for it.

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2112 director Scott Fetters, Fort Knox Studios co-founders Dan Mahoney and Kent Nielsen, and Nielsen’s dog/unofficial Fort Knox mascot Stig

This is what 2112 and Fort Knox Studios are becoming for the burgeoning Chicago music industry: a central hub where musicians and the businesses that support them can congregate and make magic happen.

“It’s about providing this comprehensive ecosystem where businesses in 2112 can interact with nearly a thousand artists that would be working in Fort Knox rehearsal space,” says Fetters.

Fort Knox’s co-founders, Dan Mahoney and Kent Nielsen, have been working on the space for four years now.  The former factory they purchased still looks like a factory from the outside, a vestige of Chicago’s industrial past in a neighborhood overlooked by a rusty water tower.  But step inside and you find a hotbed of creative activity.  All of Knox’s 90-plus rehearsal rooms (available hourly or monthly) are sold out with a waiting list sixty bands long.  There are studios both for recording and for tour prep, the latter of which has been used by acts like Jennifer Hudson and Devo.  And the place continues to grow—construction workers mill about, constantly working on further development of the studio’s 160,000 square footage.

In terms of catering to Chicago’s musicians, Fort Knox is already hitting the mark.  Jon Nadel, the bassist for local band AudioBakery, has nothing but praise for the rehearsal space his group rents at the complex.  “The staff has been extremely accommodating—they greet us by name and make us feel at home,” he says.  “Fort Knox has an amazing guitar tech and amp tech on staff…it’s the best creative space in the city.”

But Mahoney and Nielsen wanted to make Fort Knox more than just a hub for Chicago’s artists and bands.  They realized that although Chicago has a bevy of music-related businesses and a strong tech startup culture, many of the companies are run by DIY entrepreneurs from coffee shops and spare bedrooms.  There wasn’t a single place for this support network to come together, à la Nashville’s Music Row.  “You have a lot of people doing great things, but it’s spread out throughout the city and people don’t realize everything that’s going on here,” says Fetters.

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The outside of Fort Knox belies the bursting of creativity within its walls.

“I mean, you’re working from Starbucks with your iPhone and MacBook, that’s $2000 in equipment, and someone could be working right next to you,” adds Nielsen.  “But what is working from Starbucks doing for you?  We realized that the music industry, the film industry, all these industries, they run on relationships.  What we needed to do was build a relationship factory.”

To solve the problem, Nielsen and Mahoney conceptualized 2112, a startup incubator based on similar tech ventures, and brought in Fetters to direct it.  It’s named after Rush’s prog rock epic, but it represents the antithesis of the song’s dystopian dictatorship.  Here, a steady stream of music is always pumping over the PA system and collaboration is key—both between 2112 and its tenants and between the tenants themselves.

The incubator is a social enterprise that can offer some funding to entrepreneurs who apply for grants, and it provides other resources such as mentorship, panels, and events for its members and Fort Knox artists.  But most important to 2112’s potential is the simple reduction of space between members of the Chicago music industry.  With booking agents, lawyers, merch companies, and dozens of other businesses all under the same roof and several hundred of the city’s best musicians, the exchange of ideas becomes much easier and everyone involved gains access to a wealth of resources.

Several months into its development, 2112 has made strong progress towards its founders’ vision.  Nielsen notes that the events it hosts have been particularly popular as fountains of institutional knowledge— “instead of spending three years banging your head against a wall trying to figure something out, you figure out the answers in a couple of hours,” he says.  And an additional 10,000 square feet will be added before the end of the year, according to Fetters.

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A sampling of the events 2112 provides in a normal work week.

Though 2112 is by no means running at full capacity yet—this Monday is exceptionally busy—the buzz is slowly spreading and both its executives and its tenants are optimistic about the future.  Matt Fredrickson, who runs his dynamic music startup Volcanoes for Hire out of the incubator, says the mentorship and networking opportunities he’s had there are “kind of ridiculous,” and he expects that as more people discover what Fort Knox and 2112 have to offer, they will explode with growth.  “In my opinion, they’ve reached a point there where they’ve created a system with enough gravity to continue to pull bodies in from all over the creative business sector,” he says.

And from the crowd of artists and industry workers gathered at 2112, the hype seems to be real.  I walk around the bustling atrium and find myself in conversation with musicians, videographers, event coordinators, marketers, and countless other creative entrepreneurs.  One of them, Hamon Kim of King Lizzy Music Group, takes in the scene like a kid in a toy store.  “You bring all this together, something’s ready to pop,” he tells me.

It’s not just LA, New York, and Nashville’s world anymore.  The Chicago music industry is ready to pop, and on their current trajectories, Fort Knox and 2112 could create that explosion.

For more, visit www.2112inc.com and www.fortknoxstudios.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zach Blumenfeld is a freelance music journalist from Chicago. He will vigorously defend his city’s music scene against any coastal detractors, though that’s probably just his Midwestern inferiority complex acting up.  He’s an alumnus of Vanderbilt University, where he hosted a live performance/interview radio show for three years, and now he spends his nights reviewing concerts for Chicago publication Gapers Block.  You can follow him on Twitter @zachblumy

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