Sweetwater is creating a hub for music talent in Fort Wayne, just ask these bands

Growing up in Oklahoma, Tim Burgess developed a strong interest in music.

That's what initially attracted him to work for Sweetwater, one of the nation’s top online retailers of music instruments and pro-audio gear based in Fort Wayne, and Burgess is not alone.

He landed a position as a Sales Engineer at Sweetwater, which claims that it often hires musicians for these roles as part of its “secret sauce” to success. Having musicians help fellow artists purchase equipment adds a level of understanding to the buying process that Sweetwater’s Founder Chuck Surack was missing from the retail side of the industry himself, inspiring him to build the company out of his VW bus in the late 1970s

While Sweetwater’s practice of hiring musicians has long benefitted its brand internationally, it also has an impact closer to home in Fort Wayne: Infusing the city with music talent who works together by day and plays together by night.

Just ask Burgess, who met his now bandmates at a coworker's house party in the spring of 2019. Together, they formed the Alt/Fusion band FUA, with Burgess behind the mic as the lead vocalist.

Another Sweetwater employee, Live Production Engineer Krystal Davis, estimates that more than half of the company's employees are musicians themselves.

“Those who don't actively play music love it equally, and just want to be around it in any way that they can,” she says.

While she is the lone Sweetwater employee and lead vocalist in her “rock-oriented” band, Our Name is Taken, she says her employer's environment makes it conducive to collaboration. Having graduated from the University of Saint Francis’ Music Technology program, this was an important aspect of the company's culture for her.

“There's a lot of cross-pollination,” she says. “People don’t feel confined to one band, but playing and jamming with a bunch of different people in different groups. It's a really cool environment to be a part of.”

Sweetwater’s sprawling campus on U.S.-30, which contains a public cafeteria, arcade, mini-golf course, gym, hair salon, and more has become a hub for talent citywide, inspiring connections and collaborations that enrich Fort Wayne’s music scene, as a whole.

According to Davis, many bands grow out of professional relationships forged at work. Soon after Burgess and his bandmates started playing together, he says they were picking up momentum around town, getting offers to play at multiple local bars and venues before COVID-19 began.

“We caught people's attention in ways that I don't think any of us were anticipating,” Burgess says.

Tim Burgess' band FUA recently completed their first recording project.
After doing a small show in the side room at O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub, FUA received invitations to play at the Brass Rail and the Muse, as well. But those shows were canceled after Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-home order in March due to the pandemic.

As a result, Burgess and his co-workers moved their Sweetwater day-jobs online to work remotely, and they began to get innovative with their music, too, utilizing tools, like livestreams, as alternative venues.

“We decided we would shoot a little concert in our practice space in one of our band member’s living rooms,” Burgess says. “It actually wound up working really, really well. We managed to get close to 1,500 views within two or three days.”

Along with the increased likelihood of making a chance-encounter with other musicians and forming a band as an employee, another benefit of having a concentration of artists in one place is that when crisis strikes, other musicians are around to empathize and innovate. In the case of FUA, they pivoted during COVID-19 and flexed their creative muscles in ways they hadn't prior to the pandemic. 

“With live shows being a no-go, our focus quickly shifted to recording,” Burgess says. “It was our first recording project as a band, as well as our first opportunity to do critical listening to our own music. An insane amount of cohesion between the original six members came out of that. It allowed us to take what we felt to be good material and refine it—polishing and tweaking. Through the course of it all, we added to the band a Trumpet (Ryan Clapper; Middle Names) and an auxiliary percussionist (Julio Jiminez), as well. We're all excited to see where the new collective writing process takes us.” 

Adapting to the changing circumstances can take many forms, and it’s a trend happening among musicians across the nation

Davis has found value in streaming's ability to bolster Fort Wayne's creative community, even during a shutdown.

"This medium allows so many to 'participate' and support their favorite acts from the comfort and safety of their homes," she says. "It has also opened up wider possibilities for financially supporting these groups by providing avenues for electronic tipping, such as Venmo, PayPal, Zelle, and many others."

While the future of live music may be unclear, Sweetwater GearFest Executive Director Bob Bailey believes artists will find a way to come back with a vengeance. 

“The music scene will come back,” he says. “It’s not dead, it’s just on pause because none of us will ever stop doing this.”

Bailey himself is one of those musicians hungry to keep making music. Having performed professionally since age 16, he lends his vocals and guitar skills to the nine-piece horn band, Sweetwater All Stars, playing with Surack himself on the sax. In all, seven of the nine All Stars are employed at Sweetwater, which Bailey says shapes the group’s dynamic. 

"Seeing the members on a regular basis helps foster our relationships,” he says. “I’ve been in bands that were strictly professional relationships. We didn't hang out after the show or go to parties or birthday celebrations. We did the gig and went our separate ways. The All Stars are all great people, and we are really good friends as well as bandmates, and because you see them around the campus regularly, you are more involved in their day-to-day lives.” 

COVID-19 or not, Bailey and his band aren’t slowing down anytime soon either.

“I will be singing and playing guitar for as long as people show up and allow me to do it,” he says.

While the pandemic put a damper on the All-Stars’s 2020 performance plans, they’ve recently been reunited with a show at the Club Room at the Clyde Theatre, which Sweetwater also owns, Bailey notes.

The Club Room at the Clyde Theatre is located at 1806 Bluffton Rd.

He feels that the Club Room’s recent expansion and stringent social distancing and masking practices make it safe for indoor performances this fall and winter. The venue has been hosting weekly events, showcasing local talent. 

“They were able to really spread the tables out,” Bailey explains. “They also chose to err on the side of caution by having fewer people in the building and spreading them out more. The Club Room is big enough that we can set a nine-piece band without being right next to each other. So, it was quite wonderful to come back and make music again.”

The Sweetwater All Stars, 9-piece band, are a musical powerhouse

Bailey says playing together in-person was a welcome change in 2020. He worked on some personal projects at home at the onset of the pandemic, but he missed the collaborative aspect of his band’s in-person events. In his words, live performances are on a “different level” than online-only events. There’s something to be said for feeding off the energy of fellow performers, and that’s what keeps him going. 

It’s a part of what has always inspired him to make music in his spare time, regardless of where he’s working or how much money his talents bring in.

“I don't think any of us ever really thought, ‘Man, I’m gonna get rich (as a musician),” he says. “It was always because you had this bug in your soul, and the only way to satisfy it is to make music. We all have that shared connection, so it’s pretty amazing.”

Davis says that after a rather quiet spring, her band recently played an outdoor show at Freimann Square on the Arts United campus. Similarly, back in August, they performed live, albeit socially distanced, as part of Taste of the Arts virtual festival. Davis says it felt good to have an outlet after being cooped up for several months, while feeling safe and acting responsibly. After all, being a musician who can no longer perform with others is certainly an artistic challenge.  

“The whole goal of what we do is just to share our love of music and our gifts with each other, and in whatever capacity that means,” she says. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.