What does Sweetwater's expansion mean for Fort Wayne's music scene?

In early October, the Fort Wayne-based online music retailer Sweetwater announced plans to nearly double the size of its 1,300-employee workforce. 

During the next five years, it will add 1,009 new jobs across most of its departments, and if these new hires follow current patterns, then about half of them will be moving to Fort Wayne from other states and countries.

In fact, Sweetwater currently has employees from 48 states and seven countries, says Director of Recruiting Jordan Applegate. So in the hiring process, part of his job is to sell Fort Wayne as much as it is to sell Sweetwater.

“Just like our model for sales and connecting with our customers is very relationship-based, so is our recruiting strategy,” Applegate explains. “We sit down with each candidate give them the Fort Wayne talk, where we highlight things in Fort Wayne we think are important for them to explore.”

Since Sweetwater is largely staffed by people who are interested in music, Applegate says Fort Wayne’s music scene is a key point of interest among its prospective employees. With the company's growth, that scene is about to get bigger, more inclusive, and more well known, and progress is already underway. 

For the last few years, Sweetwater has been hiring classes of 12-15 individuals every six weeks to beef up its sales department, Applegate says.

When prospective employees first arrive in Fort Wayne, the company gives them a tour of the city’s music scene, taking them to shows at local venues and bars, and showing them all of the events and equipment that they have on campus.

“We really believe that there is more live music going on in the city of Fort Wayne than any other city our size,” Applegate says.

In October, Reader’s Digest even called Fort Wayne the “Music City of the Midwest.” But that’s not always the first impression people have about Fort Wayne before they visit.

“A lot of individuals from larger cities are a little leery about what Fort Wayne as a community has to offer when we first connect with them," Applegate says. "Then, after they visit, the feedback we get is, ‘Wow, everything that I found out while I was actually there is not what Google told me.’”

Sweetwater’s owners, Chuck and Lisa Surack, are driving momentum in the city's music scene, too. They recently became partners in redeveloping the historic Clyde Theatre, which opened on the city’s south side in May. Since then, the mid-size, standing-room-only venue has been hosting local, regional, and national acts almost every week—and playing an important role in Sweetwater’s recruiting efforts, Applegate notes.

“The Clyde has opened up the door for individuals from music meccas to really show that we now have a club level venue,” he says. “That is pretty exciting to individuals coming from other markets.”

One such individual is Peter McMahon, Sweetwater’s Senior Vice President of Customer Experience, who was recruited by Applegate to join Sweetwater's team in August. 

After leaving his former position as a National Director with Nordstrom in Seattle, McMahon made the move to Fort Wayne with his wife and two boys. He says that while he misses the mountains, he was excited to hear about Fort Wayne’s 100-mile trail system, its regional lakes, and its family values—not to mention its price tag.

“You definitely get more value for your money out here,” he says.

He thinks Fort Wayne is getting a “reputation for music,” too, and Sweetwater is a big part of that.

The company offers free Live at Lunch performances in its Crescendo Cafe with local and traveling musicians. It often hosts world-famous musicians looking for new gear, as well.

“ZZ Top was here (recently), and his car from the 1980s music videos is in our hallway,” McMahon says. “The atmosphere is constantly abuzz with different music experiences and things happening.”

Once Sweetwater hires new employees, it enrolls them in classes at Sweetwater University, which offers 300 classes taught by 100 instructors, ranging from music vendors to Surack himself.

During this time, Sweetwater employees Missy Lyons and Nicholas Weaver also teach a session about life in Fort Wayne for transplants and their families. Applegate says that including spouses and families in the conversation is a critical part of talent retention.

“It makes sense to connect everyone in the family to a network where they can feel comfortable and involved in the community, as well,” he explains. “We’ve seen that if the move doesn’t make sense for family and spouse, long-term employment will fluctuate.”

So Lyons and Weaver answer new residents’ questions about everything from what the local weather is like to where the most popular hangouts are.

Lyons has been running the course for the last six years, and she says her job has gotten more difficult over the years as Fort Wayne has grown.

“Everything is changing,” she says. “I’m always Facebook stalking, trying to find out what’s new, what’s open, what’s closed, and what’s coming next.” 

She says that while bars like the Brass Rail remain beloved staples in the Fort Wayne music scene, new spaces like regional wineries, Flashback Live, Mitchell's Sports Bar, and the Clyde Theatre are becoming popular hangouts, too.

Events, like TRONIC Thursday electronic dance nights at O’Sullivans hosted by Fort Underground Coalition, are popular, as well, Lyons says.

She often tells new hires that the beauty of Fort Wayne is simple: If they want to see something happen here, they can make it happen.

“If you see a hole in the music scene—if you see a hole in this club or this organization—then you have the opportunity to make a change here,” she says. “The exciting part about Fort Wayne is not what it is, it’s what it’s becoming, and you get to be part of that growth and get in at the ground level. Make a splash in the music scene now, so in 10 years, you’re the rock star. It’s not overly saturated like Nashville or Austin.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the host of the TRONIC Thursday electronic dance night events. The correct host is Fort Underground Coalition.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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