Selling the Soul | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

Selling the Soul 

Roni Jackson, Cheri Pettiford/Decent Exposure

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In the past few years a handful of contemporary R & B singers have hit a nerve with the mainstream audience by combining the songwriting, organic instrumentation, and relatively understated singing style of 70s soul with modern R & B's adaptation of hip-hop production techniques. The success of D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and their ilk has inspired a raft of new "natural soul" or "neo-soul" artists--some talented, some not--and the cash involved, natch, has inspired major labels to sign 'em up.

Promoters have been slower to jump on the bandwagon: no major package tours or festivals yet. In Chicago, where D'Angelo can sell out two nights at the Arie Crown Theater, Jam Productions and House of Blues have booked individual artists and fans with scantier resources have put on shows at smaller venues like HotHouse and the Funky Buddha Lounge. But this summer's weekly "Neo Soul Explosion" series at Navy Pier's Skyline Stage is by far the most coherent effort by anyone local to promote the burgeoning movement--and it was conceived not by any of the city's established presenters but by a two-woman marketing team whose main purpose is to provide visibility to their corporate clients.

Cheri Pettiford and Roni Jackson, who run Cornerstone Marketing Strategies out of Pettiford's home, have secured more than $200,000 in corporate funds to help pay for 13 impressive bookings that range from major-label recruits like Rahsaan Patterson, Bilal, Jaguar Wright, and Dave Hollister to up-and-coming underground artists like Fertile Ground, Julie Dexter, and Urban Ave 31. The shows take place every Wednesday before the Navy Pier fireworks; the series started June 5, with Patterson, and runs through September 4. This week's headliner is a local, Kevin Chandler. For a complete schedule, visit www.neosoulexplosion.com.

"I'm glad they're doing something, because there was nothing for artists of that nature," says Duane Powell, the soul and acid-jazz buyer for Dr. Wax in Hyde Park--arguably the most influential store in the city for the underground soul scene and a minor sponsor of the series. In the last few years Powell has put on shows by Dexter, Fertile Ground, and N'Dambi. "When I did shows it was always difficult to find a venue. At the same time, it seems like they're people who saw a market and decided to capitalize on it without really knowing what it's about."

Jackson and Pettiford say they're big fans of the music, and that they hope to foster its growth. But there's no question they see their fellow aficionados as a lucrative demographic. The women met while working at Windy 100, the light-rock station at 100.3 FM, where as advertising account executives they thought up marketing schemes for ad clients and other companies to bring in extra revenue: to get people to join AAA, for instance, they arranged a cheap Monday-night movie and set up an information table for the motor club at the theater. After several years they decided to strike out on their own. "We were generating all of these hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Pettiford. "Why couldn't we do it for ourselves?"

"We would look at these checks coming in, thinking, 'Something about this isn't right,'" adds Jackson. "From concept to implementation through execution we would do these programs that were well funded by companies and sponsors. I thought, 'Well, if I came up with this on my own, why can't I do it on my own?'"

The "Neo Soul Explosion" series, designed specifically to attract upwardly mobile African-Americans between the ages of 20 and 54, was the first thing they came up with as Cornerstone. "We brainstormed it and it became our baby," says Jackson. "We put together a proposal. We sold a concept; that's what we do. Once they buy the concept then we implement it." In this case, "they" means Western Union and Sears DieHard, the two primary sponsors. Cornerstone presented a list of potential artists in their proposal, but none of the performers were even contacted until company reps had signed the contracts, promising the money needed to reserve the 1,500-seat Skyline Stage.

Booking proved to be a bigger challenge than they expected. In some cases they've had to go head-to-head with more experienced and better-funded promoters. (Jackson declined to name any of the acts they fought for.) They had to learn the ropes quickly. "I called up one booking agent," says Jackson. "I was like, 'Hi, this is Roni Jackson, I want to talk to you about booking your artist.' He cursed me out and hung up on me. We changed our approach to something more aggressive: 'This is what I got, this is the time, are you available?'" The acts they succeeded in confirming run the gamut of what's considered neo-soul: Hollister's overwrought come-ons are straight out of the 90s slow-jam tradition, but Baltimore's fiercely independent Fertile Ground favors a spiritual and jazz-influenced sound that recalls the early-70s work of Doug and Jean Carn.

Jackson and Pettiford say they need to average about 600 paid admissions per show to break even--their modest goal for their first year in business. Events with Patterson and Dexter suffered from the unusually cool weather, but the Bilal show, held on a balmier night, drew 800 fans. The pair hopes to repeat the series in Chicago and launch it in two other cities next year.

Skeptics in the neo-soul community think the bubble could burst before then. Powell says he doesn't see the movement getting any bigger than it is right now; he doesn't think Dexter or Fertile Ground, for instance, will ever catch on with a mainstream audience. And he's not sure the underground crowd will move over to the Skyline Stage--the same way some indie rockers won't see an old Fireside favorite at Metro. "The Chicago crowd is fickle," he says, "especially if they don't think someone authentic is doing it." Rick Wojcik, owner of Dusty Groove, another retail specialist, adds that the audience for artists other than the megastars of the genre is limited and selective. "It's underground," he says, "but it's underground like polo."

Probably more significant, at the moment only a few of the acts in the series get played on the radio. "When we position this on the radio we say that this is a great place to be after work," admits Pettiford. "We're not necessarily selling the artists, because most people who listen to the radio don't know who these artists are. It's a thing to do, and if people come then it can get into the mainstream."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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