The miraculous hard work of blooming where planted: Tending the garden of Iowa music

Annie and Iris Savage feat. Warren Hanlin

Friday, May 7 — Sanctuary Pub, 8 p.m.

The Savage Hearts set + community jam

Sunday, May 9 — Wildwood BBQ & Saloon, 5 p.m.

Tonight, it feels like New York in Elray’s. Maybe it’s the absence of live music for so long? Or maybe it’s the unexpected blend of looping pedal, expansive jazz bass lines and heartfelt covers converging into what is Blake Shaw’s new pandemic-constructed solo show? Certainly, there is something magical about the great sound system and staff that Elray’s has put together, the rainy night that has brought just a few of us ardent fans out and perhaps most of all, the surprise of finding this in Iowa.

Nevertheless, it’s happening, and I am greatly relieved.

I’m relieved as a lifetime artist who for a myriad of reasons finds herself returning to this town that taught me how to perform, pushed me back out and keeps pulling me back in. It’s been some time since someone blew my mind musically and I am feeling the thing that we humans get from experiencing great live music. And for the rest of my life, I will never take it for granted again.

OK, full disclosure: This piece has its origins as a Facebook post.

The post reads, “Artists and Musicians: does it matter where you live? And now in the pandemic…does it still matter where you live?”

There are some answers and some non-answers. And then there are the patterns in responses. I have been pondering this question for years: Is there a way to make a living as an artist in a place that is not an industry town? Was there, is there now—and if so, how? The answer is in the lives of the people who have tried to do it. I am going to explore a few of their stories here and share what I have also learned in my own effort to be a lifetime artist.

One of the most ambitious and experienced musicians to ever come through Iowa City is songwriter and guitar player Nikki Lunden. She moved back from the LA music industry a few years ago. Nikki will forever be remembered as the lead singer of the Trollies and the host of the thriving blues jam over at the Yacht Club in the early 2000s. Participants (and there were many) could go, sign up for a slot with a band and walk away with a burned CD of the performance at the end of the night. Instant guerilla demo session.

She made a life in LA performing, hosting open mics and honing her work. She moved back to Iowa before the pandemic. As someone who has figured some things out and gone the distance, I asked her if a person can make a living strictly as a performer playing live music in Iowa City.

She said succinctly, “I never did.”

Neither did I, for the record. Not compared to walking out with $250 a night in the Front Range of Colorado just by being competent and showing up. What’s Lunden going to do next in Iowa City? Her dream is to use her 30-some years of experience to run a home studio. That’s a sustainable way for her to “make a living as an artist in Iowa.” And I think of a grrl like that making demos and sharing all of that hard-fought-for knowledge and man, that’s the stuff (along with the Englert offerings and the awe-inspiring mini-festival scene) that makes a place the greatest small city for the arts right there.

Annie Savage — Jason Smith/Little Village

But what about post-pandemic? What about living here and marketing yourself somewhere else?

“Plenty of Tiktok people and Soundcloud rappers are getting famous overnight with mixes without having to build a local fan base or other traditional avenues to stardom,” noted former Iowa City resident and Berklee College of Music grad Thomas Welander. “I’d say that eradicates the location theory for 21st century digital culture.”

In short, Welander believes the opportunity for greatness is in the hands of the artist: “It does NOT matter where you live, so long as you remain in high demand.”

“Remain in high demand.”

In a town with an already small population and a club industry that struggles to make the strategic move from selling booze in sports bars to being established musical tastemakers (that could weaponize the college population, by the way), high demand is going to be tricky. Out of the gate you are going to have to reach beyond this town to make a career as an artist. You will need to zig where others zag. Offer a service that many of that small population can find value in. Welander is right: Go beyond. It’s a nice town. Live here, and shoot your promo into the greater artistic spaces.

Speaking of tastemakers and the downtown club scene, can we all pause and give a collective, “Long Live the Mill” here? Thank you, Mill. You friggin’ did it. You gave a place to Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey, the Burlington Street Bluegrass Band and every benefit the college and community could come up with. You had some weird gender politics (many women in your wait staff could have been on your stage instead). You partied too hard, but who’s counting? You did a whole lot more good than bad. You grew with the times, and there is no doubt you had great taste in music—were there every damn night at the helm with the stage open—and you housed the best conversations in town, hands down.

You gave me my start. I won’t lie. Thank you, Mill. I honestly don’t know if I would have been a performer without your stage, and you are making me cry a little over here.

Another one of those, “could have done anything with music and chooses to live here” types, Warren Hanlin, makes a great point.

“Professional musicians come in different categories … in a bigger city it’s possible for the right players to find work with touring acts that pick up local players who can sight read effortlessly.”

He reiterates that in the ’60s and ’70s there was “enough to go around” in many smaller music scenes. Are we—post-pandemic—headed into another era altogether? One where an artist can utilize technology as the great geographical equalizer?

Actually, maybe. Cedar Rapids studio owner and bassist with chops in myriad genres Richard Wagor said succinctly, “Location matters less than it used to.”

Blake Shaw is doing the thing. Or he’s making the kind of effort that is rare, at least. (If he can’t do it, it’s on Iowa City, not him.) He has something to offer musically that is profound, and he’s a firebrand educator. He’s gigging more nights than not. Then he’s teaching preschool kids music every morning. And then teaching lessons at night. And then co-writing grants to work in ICCSD.

He’s got time in clubs and he’s got a master’s degree in music, so he is a rare person who can take any orchestra, studio or club gig that comes up. He plays everything from his solo show (you want to see it) to his own jazz trio to playing bass with my bluegrass band, the Savage Hearts. He spends an inordinate amount of time in the car. And he’s fearless. In other words, he says yes and he’s beyond competent. So, score Iowa City one point and go out and support him, because he may not be here forever.

As for me, I came back to Iowa after making a career as a performer in Colorado and beyond because, frankly, I love Iowa City.

In my formative years, Iowa City was a patient and steady hand. Fresh out of music school on the East Coast, I found myself a mere spectator. I needed to not be in the audience. I needed to be on stage. I needed to know a lot more than how to play my instrument. I had to learn how to run a sound check, write a set list, utilize mic proximity, get a wild band of fellow artists to take the stage with relative lucidity, arrange my own breaks, write my own songs, when to push forward, when to pull back, how to stay loose when my brain was on fire—and I wanted it to be perfect.

There is a lot to learn as a working musician, and Iowa City was a great place for me to learn how to do these things. There was and there is a lot of beautiful support here for young artists.

And then, with those skills in tow, I had to leave the Midwest. I had to get into the middle of the scene, go where people had much more experience, get my ass handed to me in the studio, feel the deep anxiety and then humility of playing alongside my idols. Get paid. Actually get paid. Find out that we are often at our artistic best when we collaborate.

And then about four years ago, I just came back. I had to know: Can I do this in Iowa? I wanted closure of some kind. I wanted to play an active role in my community. For me, the other side of the performance coin has always been teaching music. Not as a side hustle; as a moral imperative. As a way to give back what was once freely given to me. And for some reason, I was hired to teach orchestra at the new high school in the Iowa City Community School District.

So, here I am. Largely in the classroom, with a performance career that relies on touring during the summer and teaching the camps and festivals that still exist as the pandemic fades. With three kids who are happy and healthy and more than enough money to make it all work in the end. It took everything I had. It still does. You can find me over at the Wildwood on the second and fourth Sunday with the Savage Hearts, where we all show up and play a set followed by a community blues and bluegrass jam. We chose the Wildwood because Pete McCarthy is booking killer music over there and John Svec is on boards. It’s a tastemaker room. We’d love to see you with your stringed instrument of choice in the jam. All are welcome. If we build it, will you come? We sure hope so.

Ultimately, all I know is that to make it as an artist is the same as most jobs: Wake up. Work hard. Don’t drink too much. Be a nice human. Try to be honest. Be on time. Reciprocate.

It’s not easy. It will take everything you have, in fact.

Now more than ever. As local musician and arts activist Katie Roche reminds us, “arts and culture is the second-most [pandemic] affected industry, just behind the hospitality industry, an industry whose success is connected to a vibrant arts and cultural sector.”

“If spaces aren’t able to operate at capacity, venues might not be able to pay full fees to artists. Patrons should keep this in mind … limited capacity is actually a kind of gentle way to enter back into performance and being an audience member. We’re all going to be a little awkward as we get our legs under us socializing again,” Roche said. “We just have to remember that we’re in it together.”

Together. Together, we make Iowa City a destination point for artists across the Midwest and beyond. There is a lot we can do together. As a community, here are some bullet points we might consider in this new age of post-pandemic art making.

  • Give back to your artist community.
  • Diversify our offerings to include the real population of people who live here.
  • Support the festivals, the theaters, the city performances. These are paying artists actual money.
  • Learn more about how to use technology to bolster your career and offer your services.
  • Supply and demand. It applies to all industries. Harness it to your vision and you will make money.
  • Tend to your own health and sanity.
  • Support others in the way you desire to be supported.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

We can continue to build this great community of arts here in Iowa City and in our chosen community. Together we are stronger, smarter and more fabulous. Does it matter where you live? It might. But remember, in the words of local musician and music educator Craig “Pappy” Klocke, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Total world domination through vibrating boxes, friends. Keep the faith.

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