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Welcome to Music and Malt, a series that examines the intersections where music and beer meet in Chicago.
by Rebecca Suzan
In Chicago, music and beer are the cornerstones of a perfect summertime party. Fortunately, both were on hand to celebrate the 4th anniversary of Beermiscuous, Chicago’s craft beer café. I sat down with Andrew Hilsberg, Events Director at Beermiscuous, and Calvin Fredrickson, Account Manager at Spiteful Brewing and singer/guitarist for sewingneedle, at the celebration to talk about the artistry that goes into making and selling both beer and music.
RS: Andrew, how did you become involved with Beermiscuous?
AH: My entry into the beer world was marketing. I had worked in marketing in the music business and in print media. A couple months before it opened, I read a story on DNA Info about Beermiscuous, and I reached out to the owner. He hired me to start email newsletters, run social media, and make industry connections. I have an understanding of consumers, how to differentiate a brand, and how to get people to take notice and take action. I’ve always been at the intersection of commerce and culture, and I’m very fortunate that it’s been in music and beer. It becomes a lifestyle, not a job.
RS: I like that. It’s giving me hope that there are people out there doing things they love while I toil away at my day gig.
CF: Not every day is roses. There are tough days. There are some days you eat dirt. Not everybody wants to see you all the time, and some days you’re just not firing on all cylinders. Those days are discouraging, but most days are positive. I try to remember I’m lucky to do this. Very few people get this chance.
AH: You know, Calvin works for an amazing company, but there are challenges. For a long time, they were a very small operation, and if Calvin was good at his job [selling beer], they might’ve not been able supply customers. On my end, I worked for a major record label and I worked with great artists, but I also had to turn people onto artists I didn't always believe in.
CF: Did you have to work Chumbawumba?
AH: I did not have to work Chumbawumba! Fortunately, we had a great roster overall.
RS: You were at Elektra?
AH: I worked 2 years at Atlantic Records and 8 years at Elektra.
CF: You must have been invested at Elektra to spend 8 years there?
AH: Yeah, I thought I’d be there for 20 years. The major label experience was interesting. We had big bands - Metallica was probably our biggest - we had Missy Elliot, but we also had acts on the indie/alternative side - Bjork, Moby, Stereolab, Old 97s. Old 97s were on Bloodshot, and then they got a deal with Elektra. That’s one of the parallels [with beer] – smaller breweries getting bought out. Smaller companies are not only able to put together amazing music or beer, but they’re able to develop a fervor and fanbase. MillerCoors can release the coolest new style of beer, but it’s not going to have the same cachet as if Spiteful had delivered it. Conglomerates can’t create hipness and excitement. It’s the same thing with the record labels. Major labels buy up smaller indie labels and ultimately fail because the cultures are so different.
RS: Calvin, is the dream to get [sewingneedle] on a major label?
CF: That’s so far from the realm of possibility, and so far from my day-to-day thoughts. Our tapes are put out by Already Dead Records and Tapes in Kalamazoo. Our vinyl was released through Aerial Ballet Records, a label run by our bassist. We self-fund everything we do, so when it came to the vinyl, we paid for the mixing, mastering, and production ourselves. We have complete creative control over what we do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but that does limit us. We don't have the reach - the press contacts or venue relationships - that we would have through a booking agent. Now if Elektra came calling…is Elektra still in existence?
AH: They were an imprint under Atlantic which is now pulling it out as its own label and moving bands over. They just announced it. There will be 60 people on staff and they’ll have bands like Panic! at the Disco.
CF: [sings] “I chimed in with a…”
AH: [laughs] Yeah, they’re doing well, but in thinking about your grass roots effort, I see such a parallel there with beer. With SoundCloud you can find likeminded bands and chart your own path. You’re not going to be Jay-Z and Beyoncé, but you may be able to make a living. Some people say there are too many breweries, but I’m not sure that’s the case yet. As long as breweries don't want to be in 20 states, and they have an amazing taproom in the neighborhood, they can make a living and be happy. They don't have to be Anheuser-Busch. They don’t even have to be Founders or Bells. That’s what’s so exciting about the craft beer world right now. They don’t need to be the biggest to make a living from it.
CF: Spiteful and sewingneedle have a lot of parallels in that way, too. Spiteful, for most of its existence, was self-distributed, which means we could only make a certain amount of beer. Once you make over that amount you can no longer legally self-distribute. We did that for much of the brewery’s existence.
AH: Did you do orders and deliveries?
CF: Yeah, and packaging. The mistakes you make self-distributing can’t be learned from a book. Like with a large retail chain in the area; if you piss off Binny’s or Meijer, that could make or break your business. You have to learn how to provide value to your retail partners, and you learn how to do that quickly when you’re self-distributed because you’re seeing these people weekly. You get to know the receivers, and that’s just as important to me as getting to work with the beer buyers. If you want your beer to be successful, appreciated, and understood, be respectful of everyone. It’s the same way with music. The sound guy or the bartender at a venue, they’re just as important as the booker or the owner of the venue. I see other bands disrespecting employees or being crass or unresponsive. There’s an etiquette you learn in a professional environment that you can parlay into a passion project. At Spiteful, I’ve learned how to professionally represent our brand, and I’ve applied that thought process to music, too. There are bands that are Romantically devil-may-care – “Oh, we’re just drunk! Whatever!” I’m not attracted to that. I want nothing to do with that.
Calvin Fredrickson (L) and Andrew Hilsberg (R) talk with CHIRP at Beermiscuous's 4th Anniversary celebration
AH: I was responsible for our relationships with independent retailers when I worked in the music industry. They looked at me warily because they knew Best Buy and Target were the ones that were going to get something special [from the labels]. But there was a guy with an awesome store in Birmingham, Alabama who created a coalition of like-minded stores so they could go to the labels to get some advertising dollars. He’d never have gotten it alone, but when he said, “Hey, I’ve got 60 stores [representing the indie market] across the country, can you send some CDs?” they had collective power. I see that [at Beermiscuous] on the bar and retail side. We do an event every year with Bitter Pops and Bottles and Cans. We’re all bottle shops within 2 miles of each other, so we’re all competitors, but we partner together to keep people mindful to buy their beer from us instead of Binny’s. I’m always blown away how the breweries work together, too. They’re competing for shelf space and for taps at bars, but it’s still very friendly among employees. That’s what got me most excited about working in the beer industry. It brought back memories of working with those independent music retailers that were selling better-quality stuff.
CF: Bratty people makes themselves known in any industry. Bottle shops talk. Often times the quality of beer reflects the quality of the personality [making it]. If you’re a jerk to work with, you’re probably not applying any kind of care to your beer. There needs to be an appeal to the package so people pick it off the shelf, but the liquid is what’s most important. Major labels excel at that – they can package a terrible product in exceptional way. Independent artists like to slam bigger players in the music world, but a lot of that comes from jealousy. Instead of being bitter, find a way to package and present yourself. It’s the same with beer. A lot of brewers bash other brewers or brewing trends. We’re called Spiteful because we talk smack about what we don’t like, but it’s a cheeky thing. Once people come into our taproom, they see we’re low key and unpretentious. We wanted our taproom to be a place where all of our neighbors feel welcome. People who aren’t necessarily beer nerds or who are new to beer can have a Spiteful Lager, which is super easy drinking. Then we have the barrel-aged stout for the person who wants something special. Offering a wide array makes you sustainable. Breweries focusing on a niche may not be long for this world. In the same way, bands that have one shtick may have similar, short life spans. I hope our band is tapping into something that will be relatable 20 years from now.
RS: In both scenes, is there pressure to be innovative?
CF: Yes, but also there is an expectation to do what you’re known for and to do it well. That's a question that a lot of brewers and bands ask themselves – do we play the hits? Do we cater to what the majority of fan base knows and wants from us? It was tough getting people into sewingneedle’s new record. They wanted to hear the older material they already knew. At Spiteful, we’re known for bigger stouts and hoppy beers, but we’ve recently expanded to German-style lagers and English-style beers. We just made a beer for my band’s album, User Error. In a way, I was pitching Spiteful beer to our listeners. For instance, we had the beer on tap at Schubas for the album release show. It’s an English-style beer, called an ESB (extra special bitter). It was fun because there are some sweet and salty moments to the record and an ESB has a hoppy bitter component as well as some malty, light sweetness. It’s been awesome to watch people who usually drink Spiteful’s pale ale or IPA try new styles. It’s like playing a new song no one’s heard before at a show.
AH: On [Beermiscuous’s] end, you’ve got a place that is both a bar and a store with the most local beer of any bar in Chicago. That idea was our owner’s concept from the beginning. It was important to us to stand out, to do something more than just being a normal corner bar. We put out a field guide to all the taprooms in Chicago, and people ask, “Why would you send people to other bars?” If you want to get the full breadth of all of Spiteful’s beers, we want you to go there and try a flight or two, but if you want to try beers from 5 different Chicago breweries, you come to Beermiscious. The name of bar comes from a quote the owner read: “Today's beer drinker is promiscuous”. They like to drink around. In the old days, if you had a father who drank beer, it was Miller Light or Michelob, and he had 24 in the fridge, but today that rarely happens. People come in and as ask, “What’s new?” That’s how we’ve adapted.
CF: Beermiscuous is a great bar partner to Spiteful, and we’re always looking to offer something special to our partners. [Holds up his glass] I’m drinking our “God Damn Chocolate Fudge Pidgeon Porter.” This is a beer that not all of our accounts can get it. My job as a sales guy is to offer something of value to nurture these relationships. Sometimes it’s challenging. I might not have a specialty to offer, but these relationships last a long time when you've got a mutual understanding. We were flattered when Beermiscuous asked us to be part of their guide book. We’re happy to be part of that relationship.
AH: We are, too. Partnership is important, and it’s a fine line. Some places probably only ask for the specialty beers, but we want to make sure to carry the flagship beers because we recognize the importance of that. We’re appreciative when we get something cool like the chocolate porter, but we sell their lager and their double-IPA, too. It’s all lovey-dovey.
CF: Yeah, we’re holding hands under the table right now.
AH: [laughs] Talking about maintaining professional relationships reminds me of when I worked as a New York-area marketing coordinator for the record label. I covered all of the boroughs, Jersey, and Connecticut. If a band was coming, especially the newer bands, they might play a Manhattan show, but they might also play Asbury Park, Long Island, or Danbury. The thing that always struck me was that there would be bands where no one knew but, they treated everybody well – every assistant from the label and everyone at the venue. If those bands didn’t connect with audiences, if they didn’t make it big, you’d be so sad. Then you’d have someone like [Third Eye Blind lead singer] Stephan Jenkins who was just a dick to everyone he encountered, but he had a multi-platinum record. At the label you’d be frustrated because you had bands like Old 97s who we couldn’t get on the radio. We dropped Spoon before we even released their album because “there wasn’t a hit single”. We dropped Moby right before he released “Play”, which turned out up in every TV commercial across the world. We dropped Nada Surf after their second record because they didn't have a hit on that record like they did on their first. I just saw Nada Surf at Metro doing a 15-year Anniversary show, and the fact that these guys had a career even after getting dropped, without having big radio hits, is very fulfilling.
RS: Do you still see a lot of live music? What’s the best show you’ve ever seen?
AH: When I interned at Sony Music in 1991, I worked in the office of an executive who was on one of the top projects for the label. That project was a little band called Pearl Jam. Their album was released in August 1991. That July, they played a show at The Wetlands, a club that held about 400 people. The energy of that band! Picture young Eddie Vedder climbing up amps. After that show, I went back to college with their CD and put their poster up on my wall. At the time, a band like Pearl Jam took 9 months to explode, so to get the credit for being the first to know about the band before anyone else was such a thrill.
CF: My best show was this local band called Paper Mice. They’re a 3-piece band in the post-punk tradition. Very atonal, crazy time signatures. They are an amazing live act, very engaging. They were playing at the University of Chicago. It was an all-ages, free show in a big room, on the floor, in the round, which is all the rage these days.
RS: Is “in the round” really all the rage?
CF: Yeah, places like Thalia Hall and Sleeping Village are doing shows in the round and it’s great to see. By the time I went to the Paper Mice show, I had already seen them a bunch, but I came all the way down from Humboldt Park, and to see them in the round was invigorating. I was on the floor, close to the drummer, slapping my legs, stomping my feet. It was intoxicating. It was a dry show, so no one was drinking, but I have never been more invigorated by a band playing live.
RS: Do you see a natural connection between music and beer?
AH: Absolutely. The best times of my life have been listening to live music, drinking a beer and hanging with friends. It could be at a concert, in my friend’s living room, or working at the bar, putting on a playlist and talking with our regulars. I can’t imagine either one without the other.
CF: They’re both artforms. The beer that Spiteful makes is so much more than the malt, the hops, the time, the temperature. It represents something so much bigger. One person may hate our IPA and another might love it. A lot of people dislike my band because it’s not their thing. My mom would rather I sing operatic music or sacred texts like I used to in choir, but I don’t. I like the cathartic stuff. I like the sugar and salt, the dissonance and the happy resolves. That’s what speaks to me, and that’s why I play it, but it can be a narrow audience. Not all beers are for all people, and that’s intentional. There is latitude with both beer and music to be as specific or as wide-reaching as you want.
AH: Today’s brewers are rock stars. People will chase after what brewers are doing because of that artistry and innovation. What’s a bit different on the music side is the access. As a beer consumer, I get access to the beers and the brewers that I love. We can go see bands, but we don't really get the chance to know them. Some share more than others on social media, but, in general, they live more private lives. Brewers are getting out and doing events at bars and stores and going to festivals. There’s nothing better than talking to the head brewer and hearing their story and their passion.
You can find a Spotify playlist inspired by my conversation with Andrew and Calvin below.
Catch sewingneedle on tour this August/September, and stop by Spiteful’s Bowmanville taproom. Hit up Beermiscuous at 2812 N. Lincoln Ave or their new location in the northern ‘burbs, which is coming this fall.
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