Inside Ignition Music, Steve Martin flips on the radio, leans back in his chair and listens to a soulful songbird who serenades him through stereo speakers.
“I think people are connecting to the organic, authentic nature of music,” he says, eyeing a pile of CDs stacked next to him. “People are starting to see that the synthesizers, pyrotechnics on stage and autotuned computer voices aren’t what music is about.”
A music maven among friends, Martin opened the record store in early February on Washington Street in downtown Goshen. His hope was to create a space where people can hear original music by emerging artists. This stems from his belief that Elkhart County is in the early stages of an arts revival.
THE ‘360 EXPERIENCE’
One of the first signs of this reawakening that Martin picked up on was last summer when folk duet Whitehorse put on a free show for a First Friday event in Goshen. Singers Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland set up on Washington Street, and at first the audience was small.
“Instead of people milling up, listening to a song or two and going on, I watched a crowd slowly build until there were 300 or 400 people just mesmerized by what was going on on stage,” Martin recalled.
Whitehorse returned to Goshen in March to play Ignition Music’s first in-house concert, but Martin learned early on that it’s not easy for acts to travel from coast to coast. At an Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, Tenn., Martin met with tour managers and bands.
“They all told us the same thing,” Martin said. “The economics of touring are terrible because the record labels can’t front all of the costs of promoting, booking and covering traveling expenses of these bands. They said the ideal venue would be less than 200 seats, a music venue, not a bar and where this is working you have radio, retail and venue working together.”
This is what Jason Samuel calls the “360 experience.” Samuel is the general manager at Goshen College’s radio station, 91.1 The Globe.
“For there to be success in this kind of a scene for these kinds of artists that aren’t necessarily pop or mainstream, you need three things to happen, in my opinion,” Samuel said. “You need to have a place to play, and not just any old room. It’s got to have a good sound system and a good vibe. You need some sort of retail support, and then you need to have radio support. That’s your base.”
After those three elements comes the audience, the “lifeblood of the music scene,” Samuel said.
Martin books shows at his store every two to three weeks. He said there are dozens of talented musicians in Elkhart County, and one day, he hopes to have them open for nationally touring acts at his record store.
Larger venues, like the Lerner Theatre in downtown Elkhart, report continued success in drawing big-name acts.
Lerner general manager David Smith is optimistic about the venue’s future. He said the theater’s opening, the growing popularity of the Elkhart Jazz Festival and downtown redevelopment have all contributed to the area’s blossoming music scene. Country legend Willie Nelson played a sold-out show at the theater in April, and icon Merle Haggard will perform in August.
“We’ve seen a nice increase in the caliber of musical artists over the past year, and I expect that number to grow,” Smith said.
The Lerner, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, works with promoters to bring artists to the theater. The venue also works closely with theater company Premier Arts to produce between five and seven musicals each year.
There seems to be a growing appreciation for entertainment, Smith said.
“In our economy, the disposable income of individuals has diminished, so opportunities to get out for an evening, to experience arts and entertainment, those have become more valuable than they have in the past,” he said.
Smith said he hopes the downtown areas in Elkhart and Goshen will attract more music acts in the future. Smaller places, he noted, like Harrison Landing in Elkhart as well as Constant Spring and the Electric Brew in Goshen, also have a role to play in giving artists a place to perform.
The lineup for Goshen College’s Performing Arts Series is increasingly impressive, music center executive director Brian Wiebe said. In the past, the series has attracted an eclectic mix of performers including Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Bela Fleck and Ricky Skaggs.
“Everyone knows that live music is very special, but it is increasingly challenging to support live music when it’s so easy to listen to music on iPods,” Wiebe said. “Fortunately, our community values going to concerts, and this seems to be growing. Probably 90 percent of our Performing Arts Series concerts this past decade have been sold out performances.”
The series will embark on its 16th season this fall with 12-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris, The English Concert, the Del McCoury Band and five other acts.
“I think it’s been remarkable what has happened in the last decade, but what’s to come in the next 10 years is even more exciting,” Wiebe said.
Goshen Theater manager Nathan Butler said music lovers are beginning to realize that they don’t have to hit the road to see a decent live concert.
“People are in the habit of going to Grand Rapids, Chicago and Indianapolis, but we’re working hard to put really quality entertainment in downtown Goshen,” he said.
Butler is hearing the same thing from concert promoters. The proof is in his inbox.
“I’ve been swamped with emails,” he said. “I’ve been contacted by promoters as far away as Florida. The word is getting out. There have been phenomenal musicians here for years, but now there is a critical mass of people who are beginning to look at the business side of this in the eye, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s gaining momentum.”
Like Butler, Samuel has a positive outlook for the area’s music scene.
“I think you’re always planning and hoping for things in the future,” Samuel said. “But what is most important to me is that whatever this community decides to do with and for local music, that it’s done with excellence in a mutually beneficial way that is a positive experience for the artist, for those in attendance and for the people who are coordinating everything.”