Fort Wayne's music scene: Where are we now?

Three years ago, the Middle Waves Music Festival in downtown Fort Wayne became northeast Indiana's first destination music festival, drawing crowds from across the country to the banks of the St. Marys River to hear local and national acts.

To many, the advent and ongoing success of this volunteer-driven festival symbolizes more than two days of concerts, culture, and general good vibes. It's a sign that Fort Wayne's music scene has "arrived" in some ways. Not that it's reached its full potential, but that it's reaching a critical mass—a living, breathing, and dynamic community of people with a common interest who are making things happen.
 
So where is Fort Wayne's music scene now, and how did we get here?

With Middle Waves heading into its third year this weekend, it's a question that many people across northeast Indiana are starting to ask.

Middle Waves is a two-day festival.

A few months ago, Phil Schurger started a conversation about Fort Wayne's music scene on Facebook and received a flurry of responses from people around town.

A local jazz artist and professor, Schurger has spent time playing in cities like Chicago and New York, but has made his home in Fort Wayne. In his travels, he's seen that the most robust music scenes in the country have a few things in common: the right type and combination of venues and a supportive community of patrons.

He says Fort Wayne has made great strides with respect to the latter, particularly thanks to venues like the Brass Rail, which have created an environment where music junkies can meet and hang out together.


Phil Schurger believes the success of the local music scene depends in part on culture. 
"The greatest asset that we have as a music scene (locally) is probably the Brass Rail,” Schurger says. "When people start playing, people listen.”

In his opinion, what Fort Wayne needs to keep its music scene growing is three to four more venues like the Brass Rail that cater to what he refers to as “different aesthetics and listening environments.”

There need to be spaces for music fans of all types to find their crowd and explore new bands in their favorite genres.

Music fans crowd the Brass Rail for a show.

Speaking of diversity, Schurger also believes there’s room for more than one type of musician in the local music scene. Right now, one stereotype of being a musician is that it means you're playing on stage in a local band or playing with groups like the Philharmonic. But that's not all that musicians can be.

"There are so many ways to make a living as a musician; the experience is different for everyone," Schurger says, noting how musicians are compensated in different ways, too. 

To allow more types of musicians to thrive in Fort Wayne, he believes a sea change is in order, regarding the perceived culture of the city. With regional projects like riverfront development underway, he thinks local leaders are overlooking a vital aspect of Fort Wayne's future: how to make new spaces come alive with music and creative culture. 
 
"We're spending millions of dollars to re-invent our city, when what we really need is a cultural paradigm shift," Schurger wrote on Facebook. "That shift can be led by musicians and artists if they create a place for that, and have a vision and a positive attitude, with an understanding of what they're building in the long term. Don't get me wrong, all of the riverfront projects and such are great. I'm all for it. But, if the culture doesn't change, then it doesn't matter much."

Thousands of people across the Midwest attend Middle Waves.

Schurger would like to see Fort Wayne define itself as a "Music City," and there's a roadmap to help city leaders do it.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the term “Music City," which was once exclusively used for Nashville, now describes "communities that have—or are encouraging—the development of a vibrant music economy" around the world.

A report called The Mastering of a Music City provides a comprehensive framework of strategies and best practices to help local leaders, businesses, community groups, and the creative sector tap into the power of music in their towns.

"It is a roadmap for municipalities of all sizes to reach their Music City goals, offering useful insights about how to build a stronger and more lively music community," the website says.

In many ways, Fort Wayne is already poised to take its music scene to the next level. As home to the nationally renowned music suppler Sweetwater Sound, the city hosts some of the biggest names in the industry for performances and lectures. Sweetwater even has programs that attract budding musicians and students from around the country to grow their skills here, too.

Sweetwater offers students the chance to use world-class equipment and recording studios.

Now it's a matter of creating an environment that makes these musicians want to stay and engage, Schurger says.

"We need venues to take people to who come here from the coasts that are cool places to hang, that we can celebrate and be excited about," he wrote on Facebook.

Step into the Brass Rail at 1121 Broadway, and you'll see what he means. The snug, old-school dive bar is plastered with the posters of performers, many of which are local and touring metal, rock, and punk bands.

The bar celebrates original music, the artists who make it, and the fans who can't get enough of it, which makes sense when you meet the owner, Corey Rader.

The Brass Rail has a small stage that stays busy with live performances.

Rader and a friend bought the Brass Rail and started using it to host their favorite bands about 10 years ago in 2007. 

"My friend and I owned two houses downtown that were needed for the third base line of the TinCaps’ stadium,” he says. “So, we had a little money in our pockets and needed places to live, so we went looking around the bar that we liked to frequent. The house I was looking at to buy just so happened to be owned by the same man who owned The Brass Rail. Next thing you know, we were in the bar business.” Corey Rader, right, owns the Brass Rail.

Over the past decade of booking shows, Rader has made a few observations about the city's music scene, which he thinks bode well for its potential. 

“So many new and old places in town are playing original music now that these bands get to be in front of a lot of different audiences and hopefully get their names out there,” he says. 

Still, some challenges remain for musicians trying to make a name for themselves in Fort Wayne, and they relate to the financial payoff, among other things.  

"I remember when I was a dishwasher in high school, and I spent $50 or more on month on CD's, “ Rader says. “Now with streaming music services, all bands have to make all of their money from live performances, so obviously ticket prices have to go up, and as an audience, we just have to budget for that if we want to keep these artists in their profession.” 

Along with the Brass Rail, one new place many music fans are attending live shows is the restored Clyde Theatre at 1808 Bluffton Rd.

Concert goers line up outside the Clyde Theatre before a show.


Rick Kinney, a musician-turned-businessman, owns the mid-size venue, which is filling a gap in Fort Wayne's performance spaces between dive bars and larger, more traditional venues like the Embassy Theatre or the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

Since the Clyde opened earlier this year, it has booked shows almost every week with a lineup scheduled into February 2019, drawing music fans to Quimby Village just south of downtown Fort Wayne.

But as Kinney enjoys the success of the Clyde, he's also reminded of the local music scene he grew up with in Fort Wayne. He speaks with a sense of nostalgia about the days of his youth when the city had several small and underground all-ages venues like 7 Passengers, Club 13, The Loft, The Back Door, and record store Subterranean--which had a cult following, Kinney says. 

“These venues were really small low budget rooms with a vibe,” he explains. “There were a ton of young artists that were emerging and some old school bands that were pretty well established.” 

The Clyde Theatre is a mid-size, standing-room-only venue.

These intimate, music-driven venues were outlets for up-and-coming artists, too, because they provided an opportunity for youth to showcase their talent in a setting other than the party scene. Kinney believes that as these places closed and as artists started performing online instead, the city's music scene lost an element of connectivity.

“The only way you gained respect as a musician (back in the day) was to put together a really amazing live show and/or record, then get out there and perform," he says. "No YouTube phenomenon. No overproduced studio albums. You just had to practice and play solid live shows.”

As Fort Wayne's music scene grows, Kinney hopes that additions like the Clyde will help the local music culture reconnect. He believes the fate of the city's music scene will largely depend on venues of all types collaborating to maintain and expand people's interest in live shows.

“There is a way for all of us to work together, not against each other,” he says. “There are only so many entertainment dollars to go around this city/region, so we need to be careful that we are not over saturating the market. We have been trying a lot of different things at the Clyde in order to understand what works for us and what doesn’t.”
 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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