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Event to focus on local music scene, how it drives the economy

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    Eau Claire native and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon performs Aug. 12 at the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. Vernon and Eaux Claires have played a major role in growing the local economy, experts say.

    Staff photo by Dan Reiland
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Attracting and retaining talented, savvy individuals is important when it comes to growing a city’s economy, and a strong music scene can help do that. 

“You have to look at music scenes in … a dual vision sort of way,” said Michael Seman, director of creative industries, research and policy at the University of Colorado Denver College of Arts and Media. 

Not only is the music scene made up of musicians, graphic artists, venue owners, managers and fans, but those same people are also technology professionals, teachers, lawyers, nonprofit administrators, real estate agents and entrepreneurs, Seman said. 

“These are people who are multitalented, and if you address it in the correct way, it’s a win-win for the city,” he said. 

Seman, who has a background in public policy and economic development and is a musician himself, will focus on how music can drive the economy in his upcoming address as part of Eau Claire’s Music City Series on Friday at The Lakely, 516 Galloway St. The public event, which is co-sponsored by Visit Eau Claire, is coinciding with the Wisconsin Economic Development Association’s convention. 

The event, from 2 to 5 p.m., will feature a keynote address by Seman and two panels focused on the importance of music education in developing a music economy and where we are and what’s next for Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley. 

Panelists include educators, musicians, city officials and business owners, said Visit Eau Claire executive director Linda John. 

The education-focused panel, moderated by Leader-Telegram reporter Julian Emerson, includes Bruce Hering, a former band teacher in the Eau Claire school district; Joe Luginbill, program director at Strengthening Families and former North High School musician; Kyle Frenette, artist manager at Middle West, which manages Grammy Award-winning band Bon Iver; Sarah Olson, Delong Middle School music teacher; Mark Blaskey of Eau Claire Jazz Inc.; and Laura Dunbar, a UW-Eau Claire music professor. 

The panel focused on Eau Claire’s music econony will be moderated by Seman and feature Zach Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software and part-owner of The Lismore hotel; Randy Linton, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire; Eau Claire City Council president Kerry Kincaid; Kyle Culver of the Eau Claire-based band the Millenium; Ben Richgruber, executive director at Eau Claire Regional Arts Council and Frenette. 

The panels will be followed by an “idea lounge,” where attendees can offer input. 

EC’s music scene

A thriving music scene, Seman said, is much like having picturesque mountains and beaches. It’s an amenity that draws people to live and work in the area.

“I can’t tell you how many people who play in bands have started their own restaurants, started their own IT and consulting companies, started their own design companies,” Seman said. “Again, these are the people that are driving your economy, and these are the companies that you want to be starting.”

With multiple festivals, successful natives, great programming and a strong educational system, Eau Claire’s music scene has a lot going for it already, Seman said.

Keeping Bon Iver frontman and Eau Claire native Justin Vernon in the area and supporting his ventures, including the Eaux Claries Music & Arts Festival and the Oxbow Hotel, is “definitely a great thing that reflects on Eau Claire,” he said. 

The Confluence Project, a multi-use performing arts venue that breaks ground today, is also a competitive move for the area. 

“Bands talk to each other,” Seman said. “Once the word gets out and the buzz gets out that, ‘Oh man, we had a blast in Eau Claire. Check this place out,’ … that’s going to attract other bands that normally may not consider Eau Claire as a stop, so that’s pretty forward thinking.”

John noted a few of the same factors when it comes to Eau Claire’s music economy. 

“We have a very rich history of music,” she said, starting with UW-Eau Claire and local high school music programs. 

It’s hard to talk about the local music scene without bringing up Vernon and his success as well, she said.  

John previously estimated that Eaux Claires 2016, which Vernon co-curated, generated about $7 million in visitor spending. Additionally, the value of worldwide media coverage about the festival is close to $500,000.

“When he’s on ‘The Tonight Show’ performing, that puts Eau Claire in the spotlight, and that’s a great thing for us,” she said.

Retaining youth

One thing Seman noted is that Eau Claire, and a lot of other communities, could do more to reach the under-21 crowd, since that is a large portion of the music scene that can’t attend or perform at many local venues. 

Do-it-yourself, all-ages venues, which Seman will be talking about on Friday, are a good way to attract youth.

These type of clubs, such as the Flint Local 432 in Michigan, are alcohol-free and provide a stage and space for shows. Many are nonprofits and offer recording and educational space to teach design, production, and other skills, Seman said.

“It provides them a safe space, a place to grow with their friends, and they feel very attached to that, and they’re very loyal,” he said. 

That attachment and loyalty helps keep talented teens here and makes local options, such as UW-Eau Claire, more appealing. 

“And then when they start to transition into being 21, after playing this club and just really loving the city because of this club … they might start thinking, ‘Man, why do I even have to leave Eau Claire?’ ” which can lead to retention, new businesses and continued economic growth, Seman said. 

“That’s all pieces of the puzzle,” he said. 

There are multiple pieces of the music economy puzzle, John said, which is why she hopes this to be a continued series and discussion in Eau Claire. 

“We identified about a year ago that a role that Visit Eau Claire could take related to identifying opportunities to continue to grow in this music culture is to facilitate some conversations around that topic in our community,” she said. 

Visit Eau Claire is planning to host similar events in 2017, including one with Jamie Duffy, executive director of Youth on Record in Denver, John said. 

Youth on Record puts professional musicians into schools and youth treatment centers to teach for-credit music classes and provide technical training and positive mentorship. 

Duffy was supposed to attend this time, but had a family emergency, John said. 

Contact: 715-833-9214,, @EmilyMiels on Twitter


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