Our first Guest List for March 2021 was curated by Donnie Biggins of Harmonica Dunn productions. Since 2012, Harmonica Dunn has worked to change the venue-artist relationship to increase artist revenue and create a positive experience for artists and fans alike. During pre-COVID times, the company booked over 600 concerts a year in the Chicago metro area, including Tonic Room in Chicago and FITZGERALDS in Berwyn. The pandemic hasn’t stopped Donnie from promoting live music. He continues to put on both virtual and socially-distanced live shows. For this week, Donnie curated 90 minutes of music from some of the funk and jam-oriented artists he has worked with over his career.
Photo: Sarah Elizabeth Larson
We’ve done a little bit of a departure to showcase some of the range of talent he’s involved with at a regional and national level, while still highlighting some of our home-grown, Chicago-based artists. Along with the this week’s playlist we did a quick Q & A with Donnie to learn about his beginnings as a promoter within Chicago’s music scene, how he’s been handling living and working in the pandemic over the last year and his plans for 2021.
Tell us about your beginnings, what got you interested in music?
“Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents always listened to music. I dreamt of being in some type of rock ’n roll group throughout my childhood. I didn’t start playing or writing music until I was 17 years old. When I left for college you could say I became obsessed with songwriting and learning how to perform. That early influence largely coming from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson and Jeff Tweedy.”
How did you get started with putting together and promoting shows?
“I got into the Chicago music scene by booking my band, The Shams Band. This was in 2009. We quickly became friends with a lot of musicians with a similar goal of playing all the clubs. We formed a collective called the Chicago Roots Collective. Ten bands that got together once a month to plan successful concerts together. Chicago Roots Collective hosted a monthly concert at Lincoln Hall when it first opened. From there, I took on a venue contact role within the collective which lead to a job offer from House Call Entertainment at Subterranean and Beat Kitchen. I left House Call in 2012 to start my own company, Harmonica Dunn and took over the calendar for Tonic Room full-time.”
What are some of the things you look for in a local band when putting a bill together?
“If a band is first starting out, I look for a live video or a quality recording. I also do not want to book a band that will “play anytime, anywhere.” Desperation isn’t something I am trying to work with. Instead, I prefer to work with a band that is organized, has a goal in mind and wants to put on an incredible show.”
How have you been holding up since the pandemic hit?
“I haven’t stopped working on Music promotion since the pandemic hit. At first I started by moving everything to digital promotion on my channels. Making sure I was still promoting art. Then I started booking FITZGERALDS Community Truck Concerts, which was bringing live music to our neighboring communities. Also at FITZGERALDS, we built an outdoor stage and was able to start promoting music at the end of June. I booked over 200 concerts at FITZGERALDS from June – November. It felt great to still work, work safely, pay musicians and promote art.”
It’s amazing you’ve been able to continue to put together and promote shows over the last year.
Are you also doing live-streaming and virtual events?
“HARMONICA DUNN will continue curating live stream events. My new Music Curator, Zoey Victoria, will be handling the bookings. I am very excited about this new chapter for Harmonica Dunn as we expand our team throughout Chicagoland.”
How have organizations like CIVL (Chicago Independent Venue League) and NIVA (National Independent Venues Association) helped in the past year?
“CIVL & NIVA have done an incredible job keeping all venue owners and employees in the loop on what we need to do in order to apply for grants, and to stay alive. The community that has been built internally is incredible and I am very grateful for all the hard work our leaders have put in since March 2020. “”
What do you have planned for 2021?
“FITZGERALDS patio will be reopening soon with live music six days a week. Saturdays & Sundays are almost like a Festival every weekend. 3 different concerts to enjoy on the patio….I (also) HAVE BIG NEWS COMING.”
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