Interview: Governor Hickenlooper on why (and how) he wants to support Colorado music

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Colorado Governor John Hicknlooper has long been invested in the culture of the state. As Denver's Mayor, Hickenlooper was a common sight at things like art gallery openings and concerts, and his roots in the community include co-founding Wynkoop Brewing Company in LoDo.

He has spent the past three and a quarter years as governor, which is both his most visible role to date and also the one that has him representing the broadest population. When Mayor Hickenlooper spoke effusively about local bands and their importance to the city, he was likely to meet with the approval of the majority of his constituents. Governor Hickenlooper must address the concerns of a much wider group, one that includes plenty of people who would rather there was no overlap between rock 'n' roll and their elected officials.

Yet Hickenlooper continues to stand behind things like The Fray and Red Rocks as integral parts of Colorado's identity. He has gone so far in recent years as to repeatedly claim that Denver has more live music venues than Austin or Nashville. The statistic raised our eyebrows, both because it seemed surprising and because it's not something every governor would go out of his way to talk about. So we asked him to tell us the origin of that figure, how he sees his role in supporting the arts and to describe a few of his favorite Colorado concerts.

Kiernan Maletsky: You have been talking about how there are more live-music venues in Denver than in Austin or Nashville, and we thought that was a surprising statistic, so we started to look into it a little bit. How did you get started talking about that?

John Hickenlooper: The first time was about five or six years ago, when Ryan Tedder first moved back from Los Angeles with OneRepublic. He came back to Denver, and I met him through Isaac Slade. I can't remember where we went, but we were watching some other band and he introduced me to Ryan Tedder. And Ryan or Isaac, one of them, mentioned how many more live-music venues Denver had than when they grew up in Colorado. And then somebody else mentioned that there are more live-music venues in Denver than there are in Austin, which I was very skeptical of.

I was mayor, so I had somebody in the Office of Cultural Affairs go and do a rough survey. It was 10 percent more, or whatever it was, I can't remember. But we had more live-music venues.

So then I started talking about it. And we did kind of a rough, real eyeball one on Nashville and it looked roughly the same. Some day I'd like to get the money and do -- or maybe some journalist will do -- the real, detailed analysis and prove it one way or the other.

I figured that alt-weeklies were not actually a bad place to start, so I called Chase Hoffberger at the Austin Chronicle, who manages their concert calendar, and asked him to count the places for which he felt like he could say, "These are all the venues that I, someone who writes about music for a living, will frequent in an effort to see original music, be it local or via a touring act."

Then Jon Solomon here at Westword did the same thing. Chase in Austin came back with 82 live music venues, and Jon came back with 84, conservatively.

I love that. Our numbers weren't that high. I'm glad to hear that there are more and more live-music venues. That's a healthy sign for our community.

Sure thing, yes. One of the problems with this is that it's a highly subjective measure, and what you decide counts as a live-music venue can be a different thing. The Austin Tourism Department will tell you they have something like 270 live music venues.

To me, because it's a subjective measure, the more interesting thing about you talking about this is why a governor of a state would see it as a valuable thing to be communicating to all kinds of groups: business groups, cultural groups, everything else, that live music is healthy in the city. Why do you see that as an important thing to communicate to people from all walks of life?

I talk all the time, not just about how many live-music venues we have, but the quality of music. So I talk about how the Lumineers moved out here from Brooklyn. They couldn't hear themselves think in Brooklyn. They came out here and suddenly things came together very powerfully. I talk about the Fray growing up here, OneRepublic growing up out here, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Nathaniel Rateliff, all these bands. I think these guys are just remarkably talented.

And I think that having that talent and having the music venues makes your city very attractive to the young kids who really help drive an economy, the kids who write code for the Internet or write software programming, those guys are oftentimes the geeks in school, the nerds, like I was -- a little bit on the sideline of the mainstream. They're not going on dates with cheerleaders and stuff, and they want to be in places that have lots of artists and musicians and just a thriving cultural community.

Definitely. So as a governor, what do you see your role as in supporting live music or just the music community in general?

I try to go to concerts whenever I can, just because I love music. That's not part of my role, but I think my role is to celebrate. When Ryan Tedder was on the cover of Billboard last week, I sent that all over the place.

It also helps people to live here, especially young people, but everybody, if they believe in their city and believe in their state. If people think that Colorado is a beacon for artists and creative people who are really talented, I think they're going to be a little happier during the day, and I think they're going to be a little more successful at their job, no matter what their job is.

It's pretty hard to measure anything like that. But having happier cities and happier states are not bad things.

In your capacity as governor, very narrowly, I guess what I'm hearing you say is that a lot of your role is to sort of be a champion in whatever way you see the opportunity. Is that correct?

Well, yeah, but [we also] try to make sure that there's a cultural economy. Metro Denver has the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which raises roughly, I think, $45 million per year for the Art Museum, the Museum of Nature & Science, but also 280 little, teeny cultural businesses all over the metropolitan area.

And we do the Main Street program all over the state, which also supports a lot of cultural organizations. We're one of the only places that can measure the economic impact of your cultural community. And it is significant. Look at Denver: A couple billion dollars a year, I think, now, [in] payroll, paid admissions, how much comes in, how much money gets spent. And that's a direct impact.

See also: Behind the Denver Music Summit

You were talking a little bit about the government's role in general in supporting a music community through these organizations and cultural assessments and things like that. Is there anything you'd like to add in terms of what the government's role is?

I mean, really, we don't put money into it or support it. Taxpayers don't want their money spent more than a very, very slender amount on actual buying art or paying for concerts. But I do think government has an appropriate role in celebrating art and what it means to the community and celebrating creativity and talent.

It's amazing how many of the dot-com folks and these businesses that are run by innovation are just attracted to the artistic community. Innovation comes in many forms. Some of it is in trumpet solos, and some of it's on canvas.

You talked in the beginning of this conversation about your passion for live music. I was hoping you could tell me about one of your more memorable live-music experiences in Colorado.

Oh, you know, there are millions. We went to see the Avett Brothers three years ago at Red Rocks. We'd heard their first widely released CD and loved it, and when we heard them live, it was almost like we'd never heard the music before. It was so different and so much better. Some bands, when they perform live, it's just mind-blowing. And they were that kind of band.

I took my son to see Imagine Dragons whenever they were here -- two weeks ago, three weeks ago. They're a pop band, they're on the radio everywhere, but they have a killer performance.

When I got inaugurated in 2010, OneRepublic donated their time and played for the inauguration. And my stepfather, who is 86, came out. He usually goes to bed at eight o'clock, but he stayed for the entire concert. It was awesome. It was at the Ogden, and it was just crazy. Did you ever see Ryan Tedder do his acoustic Christmas show?

No, but I'm familiar with it.

The sound crew donates their time, the hall donates the space, everything is donated, and last year they used the money to fund relief. The year before they did it for poverty and childhood hunger. I love when music goes outside the normal boundaries of music and becomes part of life, which happens all the time in Colorado.

Indeed it does. Is there anything else you want to add about the value of live music in Colorado, to you or to the state?

It's not just live music: performance. Even though it's evanescent -- it's only there for that moment -- performance art, I think, has the potential to inspire people to go beyond themselves.

I'll tell you about one of my favorite live-music performances ever. After the floods, I got some family [together], and we all went and stayed at this park for Christmas. And on Christmas Eve in Lyons, they do a sort of bluegrass Christmas service. It was just unbelievable. Seeing all these musicians come together -- the harmonies were breathtaking. But it's part of the resilience of the community, coming back after the floods. Music does work wonders.

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