Welcome to Music and Malt, a series that examines the intersections where music and beer meet in Chicago.
by Rebecca Suzan
I've discovered a lot about Chicago since relocating here from New York City 9 months ago, but locals' reaction to the nickname "Second City" has been the most telling. The epithet places their city squarely within the long shadow cast by the Big Apple, but Chicagoans don't bristle at the comparison - they lean into it. I spoke with native Illinoisan JP Pfäfflin, social media manager for Dovetail Brewery and former publicist for Bloodshot Records, and learned that the craft beer and music scenes in Chicago epitomize the "bigger isn't always better" ethos.
RS: Is there a natural connection between music and beer?
JPP: The connection between music and beer is a David and Goliath story. Walking into Best Buy and seeing an endcap of Justin Timberlake CDs is the same as walking into a convenience store and seeing an endcap of Busch Lite. You've got the major music labels [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group] and the major brewing companies [AB InBev, Molson Coors, Heineken International] and they've got the money to get those placements for their products. There are 5,000 independent brewers in the US - higher than before Prohibition - so there's even more limited cooler and tap space for those brands. It was the same with the artists at Bloodshot [Records]. The label is well-respected and well-recognized, but it was difficult going up against the major labels and getting radio play.
RS: How did you come to work for Bloodshot?
JPP: I answered a Craigslist ad and got the job. I was the music director for the student radio station at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and I was involved in programming music and bringing bands to campus. I wanted to move to Chicago to be involved in the music scene, and I found an ad for a junior publicist at an unnamed Chicago label, which turned out to be Bloodshot.
RS: What was the best part about being a publicist at the label?
JPP: Landing an article or a placement, like iTunes featured artist, for my bands. I championed the artists so they could make a livelihood from their art. If I succeeded, maybe the band would sell a few more records and they could take a week off.
RS: Did your time at Bloodshot prepare you in any way for working in the craft beer industry?
JPP: At Dovetail, I'm still championing independent artists, but now they happen to be alchemists instead of musicians. When I was doing publicity for Bloodshot, I made sure the voices I carried to the public were those of the artists, just like the voices I carry to public on behalf of the brewery are the voices of Hagen and Bill [co-founders and master brewers of Dovetail].
RS: How did you transition from the label to Dovetail?
JPP: At Bloodshot I booked showcases for bands at events like SXSW and CMJ, and those events usually had beer sponsors. I became interested in what beer companies were doing, and eventually I was hired by Ray Daniels, the founder of Cicerone. Cicerone is a program that certifies professionals in beer sales and service, and our offices are across the street from Dovetail. One day, I saw fermenters coming into the Dovetail space and I came over to check it out. I learned that Bill and Hagen were making traditional, continental European styles of beer using historical brewing methods, and I volunteered to pour on the brewery's opening day. I've been working here ever since.
RS: Does Dovetail have any connections to the Chicago music scene?
JPP: We've had CHIRP volunteers DJ in our barrel room and our taproom for special events. We also throw a couple of parties each year where we invite local bands to play, like our upcoming Mayfestiversary that we co-host with Begyle where we close down the street and set up stage. Working at Dovetail, you're supporting local and independent voices, whether it's the bands we bring in or the beer we put out. It's intimate, coming directly from the makers to the audience.
RS: You won't get that intimacy picking up the Justin Timberlake CD from Best Buy or the case of Busch Lite at the convenience store.
JPP: Exactly. In a taproom, you can get to know the beer and you can get to know the people who make the beer. It's the same with music when musicians play small venues. If you go see Justin Timberlake play at a football stadium you're not going to leave feeling like you know him, but you might if you saw him play a venue like Schubas.
RS: Do you see a lot of live music in Chicago?
JPP: Not as much anymore, but I used to go to shows 3 or 4 times a week. I saw Arcade Fire at The Empty Bottle in one of their first Chicago shows. I had no idea who they were and I had not seen a band like that, ever. I've seen Calexico a few times, and there was one show they played at Metro that was a wonderfully transformative experience.
RS: Was that the best show you've ever seen?
JPP: The best show was in Madison, WI at O'Cayz Corral. The venue has since burned down, but, before I worked for the label, I saw a Bloodshot band called Waco Brothers there. It was one of those incredible shows where everyone is into it. The band played past closing. They turned the lights on, but the band kept playing. Someone pulled the plug on the PA system, and the band still kept playing. They ended the show with "Death of Country of Music" and everyone was singing along.
RS: Has anything changed in the Chicago music and craft beer scenes since you started out?
JPP: The way local music is discovered has changed. For a long time, indie radio stations were getting pushed off the dial, and it became more difficult to discover local music. The Reader used to be 5 sections thick. That was my bible; I used to pull out the music section to find shows. Now people use social media to get into the local scene. It's the same way with breweries. People use social media to keep track of what beers are being released and traded.
It's clear that Chicago's fiercely independent music and beer scenes prize artistry and passion, elevating this "second city" to a significant cultural hub. I'm happy to call Chicago my new home, and I'm excited to continue exploring the intersections where music and beer collide.
Below you'll find a playlist inspired by my conversation with JP.