By Melissa Meinzer
As any plugged-in music fan will tell you, the music scene here is rockin’ and rollin’ — no help needed. On any night, you can find local, regional, and national acts in everything from gritty little rooms to stadiums. Now, a trio of new or reworked events aim to shine a light on the city’s lively musical happenings, leveraging connections within the community and bringing the music to a wider audience.
About a year and a half ago, planning began on what would become the Saint Louis Music Initiative. Featuring the revamped Music at the Intersection festival and St. Louis Music Week, both debuting in September 2020, and 2021’s Midwest Music Summit, the initiative can be thought of as connective tissue for the city’s thriving and ascendant music economy.
“Our city has a roster of artists that are on the rise,” says Sean Smothers, director of strategic partnerships for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. “The number of folks I was starting to see kind of come into their own was just phenomenal. You saw Tonina [Saputo] getting name-checked by the president!” he says, referring to Barack Obama’s year-end tweet about his favorite music of 2018. The city’s contributions to the global conversations on jazz, the blues, Americana, and hip-hop are legendary.
— Tonina (@iamtonina) December 28, 2018
Smothers reflected on his admiration for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a marquee event that grew from just a few hundred people in Louis Armstrong Park to an international destination. Festival founder George Wein hit upon a stroke of genius in developing the backbone of that festival. “Wein made an overt effort to make sure culture was embedded in the festival in the right way,” says Smothers. “Really, the success of that festival came from not being able to really separate the New Orleans part from the music and heritage part.”
That baked-in culture piece, alongside recognition of the city’s deep well of talent, informed the formation of Saint Louis Music Week, the reimagined Music at the Intersection, and (in 2021) the Midwest Music Summit. St. Louis is known for a tradition of exchange and collaboration, even more so than a specific genre.
“It’s tough to really put your arms around and draw out a single St. Louis sound,” Smothers says. “It’s everybody’s sound. We happen to be right at the geographic center of all these music hubs. We’ve had all these great people pass through our city and leave a piece and take a piece. We’ve also had artists from other places land here to share a new take. That intersection is worth celebrating by lifting up what we have and growing infrastructure for our music economy.”
The whole initiative is in three parts, Smothers explains. St. Louis Music Week, September 4–13, is focused on marketing — illuminating what’s already going on across the city’s vibrant collection of venues. Think of it a bit like Restaurant Week, with artists and venues signing up for no-cost promotion and fans following on social media.
Music at the Intersection, September 11–13, is a place-making event with eight stages hosting more than 60 bands, including local, regional, and national acts. The Intersection name isn’t new; its previous iteration ended about three years ago with a series of shows with local artists in Grand Center Arts District. This new, three-day concept adds the opportunity for music lovers to navigate their own cross-genre music experience.
With one ticket, festival-goers can access shows at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, The Big Top, The Sheldon, The Grandel, Jazz St. Louis, The Stage at KDHX, The Dark Room, Strauss Park, and more. The outdoor venues are also free. (Stay tuned for the artist announcement; at press time, the roster wasn’t yet made public.)
The Midwest Music Summit aims to join artists with publishers, producers, studios, national representation, and each other. Fostering these connections through panels, workshops, exhibitions, and classes will lead to opportunities and relationships. Behind the scenes, partners in the initiative are undertaking a three-year partnership with Sound Diplomacy, an international organization specializing in understanding a city’s unique music economy. This collaborative work will help St. Louis gain a clear picture of the role the music industry plays in our city (economic output, job creation, tourism interest) as well as ways to grow and protect it. The data and insights from the work undertaken by Sound Diplomacy will be made available to the public upon completion.
The effort is uniquely inclusive and grassroots. “We have 100-plus volunteers on seven committees who are helping to inform every aspect of this initiative,” says Smothers. “We don’t consider this initiative as belonging to Kranzberg Arts Foundation. We are helping continue the conversation, but we see this as belonging to the music community and to our city. We see ourselves as the organization that’s helped ‘build the box.’ But a multitude of organizations are coming forward to put their unique stamp on it.”
That includes bookers from venues across town who are informing the programming for all three events, and marketing directors from a variety of organizations and firms that are pitching in, too. “Instead of viewing this as something that would be competitive, they’re viewing it as something that will lift the tide for all boats,” Smothers says. “It’s a true collaboration.”
For serious music geeks and casual fans alike, the events offer a glimpse at a thrumming ecosystem — one they either live in or don’t know enough about. Either way, the trio of events offers a new lens for considering music in the city and a chance to see work that might otherwise escape their notice.
“We’re really cultivating an experience here,” Smothers says. “This is a choose-your-own-adventure music opportunity. There’s no one genre of music we’re focusing on. Any genre you want to pick, St. Louis has had a significant impact.”